Today is the Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael — or, as it was once called, Michaelmas. (Head on over to the eponymous Carrots for Michaelmas for ideas to celebrate this feast!) It’s a day that has assumed ever-increasing significance for me as a Christian disciple, wife and mother.
Throughout my adolescence and first few years of adulthood, I was oblivious to, if not in outright denial of, spiritual warfare. Oh, sure, I had an acute conscience, I believed in right and wrong, and, as I strove to choose the right, I often experienced inertia, anxiety, doubt, despair and all manner of interior struggle — but I still had a vague sense that my spiritual difficulties stemmed solely from my own concupiscence and sinfulness.
Actually, I probably didn’t even think in terms that close to the truth (after all, my spiritual difficulties did and do stem largely from my own fallen nature!). Had you asked me at the time why I struggled interiorly, I would have either balked entirely or confidently spouted psychobabble about past “traumas” (Spoiler: I’ve really never suffered any!).*
To the extent that I thought various forces, factors and personalities outside of myself affected my spiritual welfare, I generally assumed they were rooting for my good. I believed — more or less sincerely — in God, in the communion of saints and in guardian angels. I was less alive to those realities than I was as a small child — when I had a very vivid, sacramental imagination and often fell asleep contemplating in my mind’s eye what it meant for an angel to “light, guard, rule and guide” — but I still accepted them as realities.
About demons, however, I had unconsciously adopted a scientific rationalistic approach. In effect, because they’re non-empirical, I didn’t believe in them. Yes, I knew the Church taught that “Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and … his action may cause grave injuries — of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature — to each man and to society” (CCC 395), but, as far as I was concerned, that was outmoded and medieval, the stuff of “scary movies.”
Again, had you asked, I would have said I believed the devil existed — but I assumed he was more or less bound to hell and inactive in the world. The evil that I could so plainly observe in the world around me was perpetrated solely by man, who seemed to need no help to commit it as he did to overcome it.
It came as quite a shock to me, then, when I met, first, my brother’s now-wife and, then, the Oilman, and discovered that they both had (and have) a healthy fear of the devil’s permitted power to wreak havoc in the here and now. To borrow a phrase from the Oilman, it “rattled” me.
While I didn’t (and still don’t!) want to delve into the topic too deeply, I prayed for the grace to assent to Church teaching on it and the Lord mercifully granted it to me.
In the years since, it has become easier and easier for me to give that assent because, sadly, the particular times in which we live seem to have emboldened our spiritual enemies. In their boldness, they’ve been more overt. In Oklahoma City, for example, the subject garnered much media attention two years ago when self-proclaimed Satanists secured the Oklahoma City Civic Center stage to sell a “Black Mass” as a public event — and the Church here rightly responded with shock, grief and a robust physical — and, shrewdly, legal — defense of all consecrated Eucharistic hosts in the Archdiocese.
Also as a part of the Church’s response to that event, at the request of Archbishop Paul Coakley, Catholics across the Archdiocese began to pray the prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel at the end of every Mass — and, in our parish, we still do. You can’t pray to Saint Michael on a regular basis and not find yourself slowly becoming more aware of spiritual warfare:
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
Whatever the optics, whatever the communications considerations (and I know there were many, including a desire not to give free publicity to a sacrilegious event!), I’ve increasingly come to appreciate the wisdom of Archbishop Coakley and so many others in Oklahoma who took the threat very seriously, even as they acknowledged that the Satanists themselves possibly (probably!) didn’t even really believe in what they were doing and were merely trying to be provocative. They were wise because the threat was and is real.
To take a threat seriously, though, is different than to be paranoid. Indeed, it is only by taking a threat seriously that we can prepare for it and thereby overcome paranoia. In this case, we have every reason in heaven and on earth to be hopeful and confident.
Scott Hahn summarizes well in The Lamb’s Supper:
Two thirds of the angels are on our side, fighting constantly, even while we sleep. Saint Michael the Archangel, heaven’s fiercest warrior, is our untiring and unbeatable ally. All the saints in heaven constantly call to almighty God for our vindication. And — most encouraging of all — in the end we win! John (in Revelation) sees the battle from the perspective of eternity, so he can reveal the ending as vividly as he describes the casualties. The battles rage so fiercely that rivers run red with blood and corpses lie rotting in heaps in the streets. Yet the victors enter a city whose streams flow with living water and whose sun never sets.
Hear Father (Lorenzo) Scupoli (in The Spiritual Combat) again: ‘if the fury of your enemies is great, and their numbers overwhelming, the love which God holds for you is infinitely greater. The angel who protects you and the saints who intercede for you are more numerous.’
We don’t need to be in denial of the power of the devil (as I was) in order not to be afraid of him. To quote in full the passage from the Catechism that I cited above (CCC 395):
Although Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and although his action may cause grave injuries — of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature — to each man and to society, the action is permitted by divine providence which with strength and gentleness guides human and cosmic history. It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but ‘we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him.’
So, no, we don’t need to be afraid; we just need to not be a casualty in the battle.
The great news is that an awareness of spiritual warfare makes it easier to overcome temptations — even temptations to non-sinful mental states like anxiety or depression** — because, all of a sudden, we don’t have to fight them by ourselves or with only the weapons of medicine, psychology and other human helps. We can pray to our guardian angel, to Saint Michael and to Our Lady (“the woman” of Gen 3:15 and Rev 12:1). Above all, we wield the Cross and the holy name of Jesus!
As we approached today’s feast day, I was anxious about many things. The anxiety peaked in two sleepless nights agonizing over my failures as a mother. Disturbances small and large — from smoke detectors screaming false alarms to babies crying for their then-out-of-town daddy — wore on my nerves. In a state of total exhaustion, I rose today truly expecting the day to be miserable. Instead, it was glorious in every possible way.
Chalk another victory up to Saint Michael.
UPDATE: Picture and links added (obviously)!
*This in no way implies that I do not believe that past trauma is at the root of certain interior struggles for certain people; on the contrary, I believe it often is. It just wasn’t for me for the simple reason that I’ve really never suffered any major trauma.
**This is not to diminish the material aspects of anxiety and depression nor to imply that they can be “prayed away.” It’s merely yet another reminder that man is both body and soul and cannot be reduced to one or the other. The interplay of spiritual and physical factors in our overall health is obviously complicated. Certainly, sickness and death are evidence of our fallen natures but not in a straightforward way as though our sins cause our ailments or as though the Lord punishes sins with sickness. Suffering has a privileged, penitential dimension, but it is still prudent to seek relief from it when it becomes unbearable. When we are unwell, we are wise to seek the help of the relevant experts — priests, doctors, counselors. While I have suffered from anxiety attacks and mild postpartum depression and so am interested to explore these subjects, I am not one of those experts and do not claim to be.