As a kid, I slept with the rosary under my pillow to protect me from Satan, who supposedly could enter my mind or body during times of slumber or spiritual doubt. I hated to be alone, especially after watching William Friedkin’s film The Exorcist. I lived in fear that the Devil would possess me, inhabit my body, control me like a rag doll, and terrorize me until I died painfully and without dignity.
Somewhere along the line — maybe in CCD (Catholic Sunday School), maybe from friends — I learned that the Devil was the most powerful force on the planet. He read my darkest thoughts and knew my doubts. The Bible warned me: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the Devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). I didn’t need proof of his existence or his power. Satan had slipped into my young brain and was reinforced with stories and Bible quotes before I was even capable of skepticism.
It seems silly now, I know, but the fear that I had felt of the Prince of Darkness kept me in check — and kept my faith strong throughout my childhood and teenage years.
The Devil has always been important to the Roman Catholic Church. The earliest Hebrews may not have personified evil, but as Jewish monotheism developed, it became necessary to explain the existence of evil in a world created by a good and loving God. Lucifer, the fallen angel, reinforced the idea of a perfect deity while also terrorizing the psyches of believers. The Church, of course, has always offered protection against demons for those who are faithful.
As a Catholic neophyte, I learned that priests had the metaphysical powers to change ordinary bread into the actual body of Christ and wine into his blood. If they could change foodstuffs into a living being, it followed that they could also alter the animate. They could cast evil spirits out of people and buildings. Today we know that priests are not alchemists, sorcerers, or magicians, and yet, through the rites and rituals of Catholicism, they perform the same basic magical functions. Although the Scientific Revolution changed the way the Church viewed the material world, vestiges of the practice of alchemy still exist in Sunday Mass and in the rituals of exorcism and believers who participate in these rites. Their belief continually invests priests with these “powers.”
For me — and for many — the myth of the Devil was a powerful tool that could produce psychosomatic symptoms and intense fear. Bad behavior was attributed to the influence of Satan, as was any doubt or questioning of faith. Doubt, I was taught, was a device of Satan. The nagging, ever-present anxiety I felt could, at times, make me sick to my stomach.
Priests told me that God was good and all-powerful, but the Devil, I grew to understand, was proof that God was neither. God had created the evil that he could not defeat. Yet if an omnipotent deity did not exist, then neither did his demon. This was indeed an awakening for me: the realization that God and the Devil were just two sides of the same coin.
I lost my faith in God and his fallen angel, but the latter was much harder to lose. Fear is a potent motivator and a stubborn tenant.
I no longer sleep with a rosary under my pillow, and I don’t give men in vestments the power to change bread into body, to cleanse me of sin, or to cast out evil spirits. My demons are my own creation, and the job of exorcising them can only ever be mine.
Image via The Pug Father.