A pronounced feature of the countryside surrounding the beautiful city of Cali, Columbia is a set of three crosses perched atop the mountains to the east. But no one can recall who put them up there, or when.
The locals call them simply “Las Tres Cruces” (the Three Crosses). They believe, somewhat superstitiously, that the crosses above the city help to keep the devil out. The running joke, of course, is that the devil got there first and now the crosses only serve to keep him in!
I learned about Las Tres Cruces some years ago while visiting a priest friend who was working there as a missionary. The humorous story serves as a fair analogy for what happens to those who approach matters of the spirit without a strong, tested faith. It is only authentic faith that keeps the devil at bay. This is a fact that is confirmed every time Jesus exorcises a demon in the Gospels.
Inevitably, as we hear in the Gospels, someone’s strong faith is the key to the liberation. Whether it is the Syro-Phoenician woman petitioning on behalf of her daughter (Mt 15:21-28), the man asking Jesus to free his demonized son (Mt 17:14-17), or the possessed man who runs to Jesus and throws himself at His feet begging for healing (Mk 5:1-20), faith brings the power of God into a desperate situation.
According to a recent Catholic News Agency article, the International Association of Exorcists, a group of 400 Catholic leaders and priests, has reported a dramatic increase in demonic activity in recent years. This is a bit disturbing. Do we really need to wait for demons to get into us or our loved ones before we marshal the resources of our Christian faith to deal with them? The answer to this question is an unequivocal no. We can – and should – play the prevention game. An ounce of prevention will make sure that we never have to deal with the devil or his minions, up close and personal, as they say.
Let’s consider five faith strategies, courtesy of a priest who I happen to know very well. They are in the form of common spiritual practices and wisdom, designed to keep the devil at bay. And by the way, there is no copyright or trademark restriction on these items. Anyone can employ them, anytime the need arises, free of charge!
One: Stay away from anything remotely occult
Under the rubric of “Those who play with fire get burned,” one hardly needs to explain this most basic point of spiritual wisdom: keep away from the devil “and all his works and all his empty promises.” That wording is taken from our Baptismal Promises, which we renew each year during the Easter Season. The wisdom is both logical and spiritually precise, yet it is too often ignored by those who seek “contact” with spiritual forces not of God. Padre Pio used to say that the devil is like a rabid dog on a strong chain. As long as you stay outside the radius of the chain the dog can’t bite you.
The occult malfeasance of our faithless generation is simply astonishing. From the New Agers and Wicca, to psychic phenomena and the Harry Potter occult indoctrination tour de force (see the best critique of these works here), to a culture-wide fascination with vampires, werewolves, occult-themed video games and the seductive marketing of witchcraft, we live in constant exposure to this kind of toxic spiritual radiation. There are many fascinating resources to warn us about occult influences (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, here, especially 2115-2117), but avoiding direct contact with demonic forces is really only a matter of basic common sense.
Two: Do not foolishly challenge the devil
Christian tradition identifies Lucifer as an angel, and a very powerful one at that. Many of the Fathers of the Church thought that he was the supreme angel of the highest rank that fell. He was the mightiest Seraph and he became the ringleader of the Great Apostasy against God. Whatever his original status among the angels, he is an extremely powerful spiritual being – and extremely nasty (or so it says in Revelation 12).
It is pure stupidity and sheer folly to challenge him. Do not point a crooked finger in his direction and say, “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!” (Oh wait, that was the Wicked Witch of the West, but you get my drift.) Do not say you are going to beat him at his own game or outwit him, or show him that you can do something to spite him. (I have actually known people who did just that. The result of such hubris is never pretty.)
Lucifer is not a humble creature. To use a common human analogy, he has “thin skin” – a fragile (but enormous) ego that chafes at being challenged by his spiritual inferiors. He will take your challenge at face value and not overlook the slight to his dignity.
The best way to deal with him is to stay behind the shield of the Church’s ancient faith and do what Christians are supposed to do without penalty: reject him, categorically and continuously. He can do nothing about that. Repudiation is a powerful disinfectant to his ability to infiltrate your life. Behind that shield you will remain safe from his wiles.
Three: Live an authentic life of faith and a fervent prayer life
Living an authentic life of faith and having a fervent prayer life is like an apple that keeps the devil away. It’s the easiest item to recommend because it does not require you to do anything more than you should already be doing to nurture your relationship with God. Being faithful to prayer and to your basic Christian duty is a powerful means of keeping the devil at bay. He cannot get at you when you are about the things of God.
Where exactly is the Evil One supposed to enter into the life of a serious disciple who pursues spiritual growth and wholeheartedly desires to follow God’s Will? The Psalmist noted long ago that the Lord “guards the souls of his saints; he sets them free from the wicked” (Ps 97:10).
Many of us know the stories of the devil throwing St. John Vianney out of bed and giving Padre Pio a beating during the small hours of the night. It is a bit scary. But this is the treatment that the devil metes out to those who are literally destroying his kingdom by their holiness. It is to be considered an exception to the rule. It only happens because God allows saints to participate more deeply in the mystery of the Cross. When you become that holy, you too will understand that the devil is a sore loser! He will never tolerate the contagious power of authentic holiness. But until you get there, just content yourself with living your day-to-day fidelity to Christ. Being a soldier of Christ should protect your soul from the devil like a spiritual suit of Kevlar.
Four: Address all personal ‘wounded-ness’
In my years of working and praying with people I’ve noticed that unaddressed human ‘wounded-ness’ can sometimes also be troublesome in more ways than one. Inner wounds, such as serious trauma or abuse of some sort, can be an entranceway for the devil.
But wounded-ness can also include the cumulative wounding effect of prolonged, unrepentant, sinful lifestyles. These wounds in the soul are, by definition, vulnerabilities (from the Latin term vulnera meaning “wounds”) to spiritual influences. The longer they remain unaddressed by the one who bears them the more susceptible that person becomes to demonic influence.
There is a simple, though not easy, answer to problems of this sort. We must put time and effort into the healing process, whatever that may involve. Quite often it is as simple as a single sacramental confession that penetrates bone and marrow with Christ’s healing grace. For others it entails a commitment to professional counseling. For many, however, it is simply a matter of recuperating a healthy lifestyle. Taking the spiritual life much more seriously while surrendering that wounded-ness to the Lord for healing works wonders.
So closing all doors to the Evil One is as effective as avoiding him (see #1), rejecting him (#2), and putting on armor against him (#3). But if you need healing of any sort, start today.
Five: Deepen your humility
The Christ-like St. Francis of Assisi was once assaulted by serious and prolonged temptations of the flesh. He sought every spiritual remedy possible including increased prayer, fasting, and even throwing himself into snow to calm the passions. Nothing worked to get the devil away from him. Finally, he realized that the one force the devil could not withstand is a holy man full of humility. So Francis called on his companion, the simple lay brother he affectionately called Brother Donkey. He asked the brother to pray for him during the time of temptation. The instant Brother Donkey began to pray for Francis, the devil fled the scene.
Humility is a powerful force against the primordial sin of the devil: Pride. The devil is so repulsed by a humble soul that he refuses even to stay in the vicinity of that person. And that is the essential point, isn’t it? Humility vanquishes the devil. Those who nurture this ‘virtue of the saints’ are those who remain largely immune to the devil’s machinations. (The exception of course are those who are massively holy; again, see #3 above).
The cultivation of this most foundational virtue is a lifelong task. There are, however, many excellent guides from Church tradition and other holy sources to teach those who are interested in growing in humility (including a recent article, here.) And do you ever wonder why the Virgin Mary is the Evil One’s most hated enemy? It is because of her extreme and perfect humility.
The Spiritual Protection of Authentic Faith
Our fight against the spiritual powers of evil is never over, but it does not have to be overwhelming either. St. Paul was a master at countering the tactics of the devil and recommended a defensive game of faith and spiritual protection in Ephesians 6, such as what is described above. It’s worth a good read. In fact, it’s worth many good reads over the course of our spiritual lives.
Just remember there is no secret trick to it. Keeping the devil at bay doesn’t require amulets, incantations, formulas or crystals. All that one really needs is the strong armor of faith.