The Catholic media have recently picked up on a theme that Pope Francis has mentioned on several occasions. It is about the devil. This has been rightly attributed to Francis' upbringing as a Jesuit: in the Spiritual Exercises (SE), St. Ignatius of Loyola refers to it as “the evil spirit”, “the evil one”, “the enemy”, or “the enemy of our human nature”. It would be quite impossible to discuss this spiritual teaching of St. Ignatius in detail in a short blog entry; nevertheless, I shall try to highlight several main ideas.
As some of you are aware, the SE are divided up into four stages, or “weeks” as St. Ignatius calls them. There is one major section in the SE where he discusses the evil spirit in some detail, and it is called “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits”, which is divided up into rules that are suitable for “the First Week” (SE 313–327) and “the Second Week” (SE 328–336), respectively. Here, I shall focus on his discussion on the evil spirit from the Rules for the First Week. While discussing these Rules, spiritual consolation and desolation will inevitably come up, and I would recommend you to my brother Jesuit's excellent blog entry on this very topic.
In order to talk about the evil spirit, we have to acknowledge that the evil spirit actually exists. St. Ignatius' usage of the term “the enemy of our human nature” is helpful: by human nature, St. Ignatius is referring to what we human beings are meant to be: we are “...created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord” (SE 23). The enemy of this nature of ours, by definition, wants to prevent this from happening. In short, we are created to love God with all our being, the Lord wants this to happen, but the evil spirit does not want it. When “the evil spirit” or other synonyms are mentioned, some may immediately associate them with sin. Surely, the most concrete way of turning away from God is committing a sin? St. Ignatius' explanation is a nuanced one: this is certainly the case for some people, especially those whose “spiritual foundation” is as firm as quick sand; they are already in quite a shaky situation to begin with. In such a case, the evil spirit will propose vices and sinful behaviours as wonderful experiences, so to keep these people in sin (SE 314).
Having said that, this may not be the case for others, particularly for those who sincerely desire to live a life that is pleasing to God; they will not be easily shaken by this tactic, as they are much more immune to deliberately sinful behaviours. So the evil spirit tries another method: by stirring up anxiety, sadness, and twisted reasonings to prevent these people from advancing in their spiritual lives (SE 315).
This is different from the evil spirit suggesting that we should engage in sinful behaviours because they are enjoyable; this is the evil spirit trying to discourage us in a subtle fashion from progressing, and it does not necessarily involve sin. A decrease in our desire to pray, and the subsequent formation of excuses to justify such a decision is an example of the “soft skills” of the evil spirit. The goal is to get us off-track from spiritual progression, and there are different ways to do it, depending on where we are at in our spiritual journey. This is a point worth reiterating: while we should rightly be avoiding occasions of sin, this is certainly not the entire picture in our journey towards God. The evil spirit can lead us astray just the same without it. Therefore, this is also a wake-up call for us to be more attentive to our inner spiritual movements.
St. Ignatius uses three examples to illustrate these “soft skills” of the evil spirit. The first is the tactics of a bully. “He is a weakling before a show of strength, and a tyrant if he has his will.” (SE 325) Ignatius also compares its ways to the tactics of a false lover: “...he wants his words and solicitations kept secret. He is greatly displeased if his evil suggestions and depraved intentions are revealed” (SE 326). In both cases, the evil spirit has tremendous power to “own” us if we either cower away in fear or keep silent; on the other hand, if its tactics are revealed into the open, then it is of no use. Once it is confronted by the light of truth, the evil spirit loses its power. The third example is the evil spirit being tactical as a military leader who wishes to conquer and plunder (SE 327). It will patiently and meticulously survey such a place to find its weakest point; once this is discovered, it attacks this spot with a fury.
With that in mind, what to do? To go with the three analogies given by St. Ignatius, honesty and transparency are crucial. If we find ourselves quietly fearful or uncertain in our spiritual lives, then we need to confront it by first “naming” it. If not, we continue to be “owned” by the evil spirit; we wouldn't know what obstacles we are facing, or what is making us fearful. Of course, this is not meant to be a self-help program: we don't confront it by ourselves. We need to talk to either our confessor, spiritual director, or a trusted friend who is experienced in these matters, to expose the sinister tactics. A general rule of thumb is that the more we don't want to talk about it, the more we should talk about it. Humility also comes into play here: the realizing and admitting that we are not doing well, and that we need help. We are dead wrong if we think that the gospel of self-sufficiency still applies in our spiritual life; the evil spirit would certainly want us to believe that.
As for the evil spirit as a military tactician, we can adopt the enemy's tactics: we need to find our weakest point as well. This is a matter of self-awareness. While it is easy to understand this concept on an intellectual plane, its actual realization is much more difficult. We may be unwilling to confront our own weaknesses; sometimes our weakness is what we consider our strength. A prayerful and faithful Examination of Consciousness (the Examen prayer) is a good start. Seeking help from others also applies here. Once these weaknesses are identified, we need to turn to Lord. The Ignatian concept of “asking for the grace” is helpful here: ask the Lord to help us with specific graces, so that we may defend ourselves better against this enemy of our human nature, that we may better praise, reverence, and serve our Creator and Lord.