Dark forces no match for power of the Gospel, sacraments

| Father Robert Barron | August 1, 2012 | 1 Comment
Fr. Barron

Fr. Robert Barron

In the sixth chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, we find the account of Jesus sending out the Twelve, two by two, on mission. The first thing he gave them, Mark tells us, was “authority over unclean spirits.” The first pastoral act they performed was to “drive out many demons.”

When I was coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, it was common, even in seminaries, to dismiss such talk as primitive superstition or perhaps to modernize it and make it a literary device, using symbolic language evocative of the struggle with evil in the abstract.

But the problem with that approach is that it just does not do justice to the Bible. The biblical authors knew all about “evil” in both its personal and institutional expressions, but they also knew about a level of spiritual dysfunction that lies underneath both of those more ordinary dimensions. They knew about the world of fallen or morally compromised spirits. Jesus indeed battled sin in individual hearts as well as the sin that dwelled in institutional structures, but he also struggled with a dark power more fundamental and more dangerous than those.

Acting secretly

What — or better, who — is this threatening spiritual force? It is a devil, a fallen or morally compromised angel. Imagine a truly wicked person who is also very smart, very talented and very enterprising. Now raise that person to a far higher pitch of ontological perfection, and you will have some idea of what a devil is like.

Very rarely, devils intervene in human affairs in vividly frightening and dramatic ways. But typically, devils act more indirectly and clandestinely, through temptation, influence and suggestion.

One of the most terrifying religious paintings in the world is in the Cathedral of Orvieto in Italy. It is a depiction of the Antichrist by the great early renaissance painter Luca Signorelli. The artist shows the devil whispering into the ear of the Antichrist and also working his arm through the vesture of his victim in such a way that it appears to be the Antichrist’s own arm, thereby beautifully symbolizing how the dark power acts precisely with us and through us.

What are his usual effects? We can answer that question quite well by examining the names the Bible gives to this figure. He is often called “diabolos” in the Greek of the New Testament, a word derived from “dia-balein” — to throw apart, to scatter. God is a great gathering force, for by his very nature he is love; but the devil’s work is to sunder, to set one against the other. Whenever communities, families, nations and churches are divided, we sniff out the diabolic.

The other great New Testament name for the devil is “ho Satanas,” which means “the accuser.” Perform a little experiment: Gauge how often in the course of the day you accuse another person of something or find yourself accused. It’s easy enough to notice how often dysfunctional families and societies finally collapse into an orgy of mutual blaming. That’s satanic work.

Another great biblical name for the devil is “the father of lies.” Because God is Truth, truthfulness — about oneself, about others, about the way things really are — is the key to smooth human relations. But how often we suffer because of untruth!

Perhaps many years ago, someone told you a lie about yourself, and you’ve been wounded by it ever since. Perhaps you’ve deliberately lied about another person and thereby ruined his character and reputation. Consider how many wars and genocides have been predicated upon pervasive misperceptions and fabrications.

Finally, the author of the first letter of John refers to the devil as “the murderer from the beginning.” God is life and thus the fosterer of human life. The devil — like an unhappy person who likes nothing better than to spread unhappiness around him — is the enemy of human flourishing, the killer of life.

Does anyone really think that the massive slaughters that took place in the 20th century — the piling up of tens of millions of corpses — can be adequately explained through political or psychological categories?

Triumph over darkness

An extraordinarily important aspect of the good news of Christianity is that Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has won victory over these dark forces. St. Paul said we battle, not simply flesh and blood, but spiritual powers and principalities. But then he reminded us that nothing — neither height nor depth, nor any other power — could finally separate us from the love of Christ.

Jesus has entrusted to his church the means to apply this victory, the weapons, if you will, to win the spiritual warfare. These are the sacraments (especially the Eucharist and confession), the Mass, the Bible, personal prayer, the rosary, etc.

One of the tragedies of our time is that so many Catholics have dropped those weapons. Allow me to focus a bit more attention on confession by switching from a military to a medical analogy. An open wound — untreated and unbandaged — will rapidly become infected by germs and bacteria. Think of a pattern of serious sin as a sort of open wound in the spiritual order. Untreated, which is to say, un-confessed, it becomes a point of entry for less than savory spiritual powers.

Jesus sent out the Twelve to battle dark spirits. He still empowers his church to do the same. Don’t be reluctant to use the weapons — and the healing balms — that he has given us.

Father Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

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Category: Commentary, Spotlight, Word on Fire

  • Rich

    Thank you, Father, for your erudite pastoral care.  Your ministry is part of the “spiritual cartography” and the “moral geometry” that I have vitally needed and found through EWTN and its sister station in the Twin Cities, St Michael Broadcasting.  You are able to point out the spiritual food and oxygen that I and so many others have so desperately needed in our lives as we struggle with a world replete with spiritual junk food and permeated by morally carcinogenic smog, as we seek true love — both giving and receiving — in a world where ‘love’ is too often an ocean a thousand miles wide but only six inches deep.
        Thank you for your ministry.