The drama of this Gospel story hinges on Jesus’ encounter with Satan, demons, and unclean spirits. In our own time and place, these “evil spiritual realities” are largely relegated to Hollywood and to children’s fantasy literature such as the Narnia Chronicles, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. We are products of the Enlightenment, so-called, a culture not schooled in the discernment of good and evil. And yet, you can hardly turn a page of the Bible without encountering the battleground of spiritual forces. Saint Paul writes, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but… against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”[i]
The early experience of monasticism in the Egyptian desert gives repeated accounts of the monks being in constant battle between good and evil, and it is we who are being fought over. The fourth-century monk, Evagrius Ponticus, gave the warning: “Stay watchful of gluttony and desire,” he warned, “and the demons of irritation and fear as well. The noonday demon of laziness and sleep will come after lunch each day, and the demon of pride will sneak up only when you have vanquished the other demons.”[ii]
Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth century founder of the Jesuits, wrote considerably about good and evil spirits. Ignatius gives us two words that can help us sort life’s experiences: “consolation” and “desolation.”
- “Consolation,” he says, is our response to life’s circumstances “through which the soul becomes inflamed with the love of its Creator and Lord.” Ignatius says that “consolation” leads to an increase of “hope, faith, and love, and interior joy and quieting peace.”
- “Desolation,” Ignatius says, is the experience of agitation and temptation, without hope or love, where we feel slothful, tepid, sad, and separated from our Creator and Lord.
I find these two words – “consolation” and “desolation” – helpful words to keep in our soul’s vocabulary. And then to ask ourselves, as we navigate the day, from where is this coming: this impulse, this attraction or repulsion, this flirtation, this attachment, this unspeakable lure coming from? And to where is it leading? Between the forces of good and evil, it is we who are being fought over.
Where we can get in touch with the good and evil lures which are intended to co-opt our lives is the online marketing and news reports: the incessant, salaciously subtle, often invisible, repetitive, tracking, alluring tugs to hijack our attention, our desire, our resources, our integrity. It’s that kind of compromising power that Jesus, Saint Paul, the early monks were flagging about our interminable encounter with Satan, demons, and unclean spirits.. Our need, even more today, is to know our own vulnerabilities and to seek the power, protection, and light that Jesus promises us.
[i] Ephesians 6:12.
[ii] Evagrius Ponticus (c. 345-399).
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