From Soul of Christ
These last couple of petitions of the Anima Christi prayer remind us of the vigilance we need on our journey to transformation in Christ. This petition acknowledges our powerlessness to live the fullness of the Christian life on our own. We plead for Christ’s protection from the devil, from the terrible evils of our day, from our own tendencies to sin, and from whatever can lead us into sin.
From the malignant enemy…
Today, people often think about the devil from one of two popular mindsets, neither of which is helpful in the spiritual life:
- The materialistic denial or dismissal of the devil’s very existence and power is spiritually dangerous because it deters vigilance and makes it easier for the devil to act without being recognized. The horrific evils present in our world today challenge materialism’s denial of all that is spiritual. In The Screwtape Letters – the fictional account of a junior devil being taught the “art” of temptation by a senior devil – C. S. Lewis compellingly describes how the devil studies our weaknesses to exploit us precisely in those areas where we are prone to fall.
- An exaggerated, superstitious regard for the power of the devil narrows one’s approach to life into attitudes of fear and defensiveness. A view of the world that sees the devil everywhere denies God’s omnipotence and the goodness of God’s creation. This weakening of faith can foster rigidity, isolation, a judgmental attitude, and a lack of tolerance that can lead to treating others without respect or compassion.
Neither denial of the devil’s existence nor exaggerating the devil’s power is spiritually helpful. Instead, the church encourages vigilance, frequent prayer, and faith. “Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour,” (1 Peter 5:8).
As vigilant as we must be against the devil, we must also be vigilant against our own sinful tendencies, and anything or anyone that would lead us into sin. Self-knowledge is critical so that we can be vigilant. For example, to which of the seven capital sins are we most prone? We become our own enemy when we put ourselves into occasions where it would be easy to sin, or into situations in which we have sinned before. Other people can lead us into sin by their acts of violence, bad example, or persuasion to act against gospel values.
Yet, since everyone is loved into being by God, even when someone’s words or actions become an occasion of sin or suffering for us, the person is not truly our enemy. On the contrary, sometimes he or she is one of the very people we are called to evangelize, with a firmness of purpose, an uncompromising witness, and a tireless, patient response. While Jesus gives us the example of taking a stand against injustice and always giving primacy to God, he also asks us to love our enemies and to do good to those who harm us. Jesus called no one his enemy while he was on Earth. He calls us to live in an attitude of forgiveness that transforms enemies into brothers and sisters.
Many of the saints, such as Stephen, Thomas More, Rita, and Maria Goretti, give us inspiring and challenging examples of how, with the grace of God, we can combat evil and yet forgive evildoers. Saint Cristóbal Magallanes was a priest in Mexico during the violent persecution of the government against the Roman Catholic Church. Father Cristóbal resisted the unjust oppression for decades; he continued his priestly ministry despite threats and persecution and even started several seminaries, which the government closed down. He also preached against armed rebellion. Finally, he was arrested while on the way to celebrate Mass. Executed four days later, in his last moments he not only proclaimed his innocence, but also forgave those responsible for his death. Father Cristóbal spent his last breath asking God to use his death to bring about peace for his country.
How does the Lord defend us against “the enemy” all around us – the devil, the temptations of the world, and the inconstancy of our own hearts? By loving us.
The sheltering love of the Lord is often referred to in the psalms, (see Psalm 27, 91, 103, etc.). The Lord’s saving sacrifice of love – made present to us anew each day in the Eucharistic Celebration – is more powerful than any evil or temptation.
Our own weakness is what makes us most vulnerable to sin, to temptation, to the devil. God’s love is our best defense. When we know and trust that we are embraced by his love, we are freed from our ego’s demands, from the power of the devil’s temptations, from the seduction of the worldly, selfish, materialistic, and overindulgent. Love frees us to make our own choices and to become our best selves, unconstrained by fear, hatred, neediness, envy, loneliness, etc.
Jesus became defenseless for us. He took on all the consequences of evil for love of us. In his death on the cross, Christ robbed evil of its ultimate power and brought the power of his resurrection into even the most destructive of situations.
It is a divine paradox: the defenseless posture of Jesus on the cross makes his loving embrace of us unassailable. This paradox – that in weakness God reveals his power – is magnified in the Eucharist. In the humility of the Eucharist, we behold how Jesus becomes weak – a frail wafer of bread – to give us strength. Personally witnessing the humility of Jesus in the Eucharist can comfort and strengthen us when we feel weak or tempted.
In moments of temptation or spiritual darkness, we may feel God has abandoned us. This is exactly what the devil wants. Discouragement weakens our resolve, and the devil will try to take advantage of that weakness. If instead we take refuge in Christ’s love, we open ourselves to the grace to remain faithful amid temptation.