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Catholic Spiritual Direction

Which saints suffered from temptations and evil thoughts?

October 1, 2012 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Saints, Temptations

Dear Father John, lately I have been experiencing an issue in relation to certain lines in certain prayers. I know that I heard a song Catherine with Demonsblaspheme against the Holy Spirit. It was not something I expected when I heard the song. This was a while ago but now I have thoughts about God the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and Mary. This happens even in church or while praying the Rosary. I ask God to not let these thoughts enter my mind, but they still do. In your article you state: “…it is worth mentioning that many saints experienced violent and intense temptations to blasphemy towards the end of their lives, when they were well advanced in the spiritual life.” Which saints had bad thoughts or temptations?

I don’t know enough about your particular situation to give specific advice about how you may be able to deal with this issue. But I can give some general advice – which may also be of use to other readers.


Tactical Resistance

When evil thoughts knock at the door of your mind, refuse to let them in. You may not be able to keep them from knocking, but by saying a short prayer (“Lord Jesus, have mercy on me… Lord Jesus, I love you… Sacred Heart of Jesus, I trust in you…”) or praying a favorite line of Scripture (“Let it be done to me according to your word” [Luke 1:38], “Trust in Him at all times” [Psalm 62:8], “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” [Psalm 27:1]), you may be able to resist letting them in. If they continue to clamor, continue to resist them: make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament; go to confession; open your Bible and read the Word for fifteen minutes; do a work of mercy for someone; refocus on the task at hand…

Taking Captives

St. Paul explains that he “takes every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). When God permits us to be barraged by evil thoughts, we can follow St. Paul’s example. Even if we feel ourselves weak, we can still put up some resistance, which will eventually repel the spiritual attack: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). And if our resistance takes the form of turning our thoughts to God, not just gritting our teeth and trying to exert massive self-control, then God will surely come to our rescue if we persevere: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8). Sometimes the battle rages for long periods; God permits that in order to help us grow in virtue, self-knowledge, humility, and wisdom. Sometimes we must make strong, courageous decisions to resist the evil attacks, as St. Benedict did when he threw himself into a thorn bush in order to quench the fire of lustful temptations.

Being Responsible

On the other hand, if we are partially responsible for the origin of the evil thoughts, then we need to take the ax to the root and chop away. If we are filling our minds with worldly images and messages, or flirting with evil influences in what we listen to or how we spend our time, we are opening the door to evil thoughts. In a sense, we become their accomplices; we put ourselves in the path of sin. In this case, we can’t expect God to remove the evil thoughts unless we repent and remove ourselves from the evil influences.

If we make a decent effort to resist, and the evil thoughts keep coming back and trying to invade our minds and hearts, we can trust that God knows what he is doing. He may be giving us a season of battle for our own sake, or for the sake of the Mystical Body of Christ, or both. We can continue to trust in him, and beg for the grace to persevere in our struggle to be faithful: “But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).

Less Ordinary Issues

In certain cases, these types of thoughts may also be related to a disorder, called Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). That type of disorder can also be exacerbated by spiritual attacks. We don’t have the space to go into the nature of this disorder here. If responsibly and determinedly utilizing the normal means to resist evil thoughts (like the means mentioned above) do not, over time, give you more strength and interior peace, there may a treatable disorder involved. But before going for a diagnosis, I would recommend meeting with a spiritual director to talk about the whole picture of your spiritual life. (Here is a short article, written from a Christian perspective, which can serve as a very brief introduction to OCD.)

Saints Are People Too

As regards to the saints who struggled against blasphemous thoughts, St. Thérèse of Lisieux describes such struggles in her autobiography. St. Anthony Mary Claret had such struggles too. St. Ignatius of Loyola describes how in times of spiritual desolation thoughts against Jesus or the other Persons of the Blessed Trinity assailed him. Detailed descriptions of these kinds of interior struggles are offered by the desert fathers, like St. Moses the Black and St. Anthony of the Desert.

The struggle against unwelcome evil thoughts can bring intense psychological and emotional pain. In such times of interior battle, the comfort of Christ-centered friendships can be a soothing balm and a secure refuge. I would like to invite our readers to comment on this post, and maybe share some of their experiences. And I promise to pray that the Holy Spirit will enlighten, strengthen, and guide you in this season of your spiritual journey.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published four other titles: "Seeking First the Kingdom", "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions", "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", "Inside the Passion"--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation".

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  • http://www.marythedefender.wordpress.com MariaGo

    These are great suggestions for the struggle over evil thoughts! I’ve been struggling on and off for a few years. It was
    particularly virulent after my second conversion. Praying instead of exerting self-control… Now I understand my mistake in how I have been handling them… Sometimes I pray but sometimes exert effort to force them out… which only makes them worse. (Just typing here is making me a bit paranoid about them)

    This was one of the reasons I fell away after my first conversion. They can be horrible! I was just praying in the chapel one afternoon and BAM! I had no idea where they came from. I felt I was going crazy but could not tell anyone because I felt so wretchedly sinful… Once, the Holy Spirit enlightened me that I wasn’t being tempted so they couldn’t be sins…but they were so evil I felt certain they were. I wish someone had given me the advice here back then… All I had was searching EWTN’s Q&A bin…and confession but the priest only told me that they weren’t sins. Which was a relief! But my prayer life still deteriorated…

    • LizEst

      No, these thoughts are not sins, Mary. A few more suggestions:
      1. There was a saint (can’t remember the name) who, when tempted like this and tempted to give up on prayer and good works, said to the devil – “I didn’t start this because of you and I’m not going to finish this because of you.”
      2. Someone I know has said that they sometimes have to be rebuking a lot around their place saying to the devil – “I rebuke you in the name of Jesus Christ.”
      3. (A priest I know recommends this as well. It’s like a mini-exorcism) Recite the embolism prayer we use at Mass after the Our Father. It’s like a mini-exorcism: “Deliver us Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

      • http://www.marythedefender.wordpress.com MariaGo

        Thank you! Those are great ideas too! I should try that embolism prayer! I can get anxious easily. Just a quick question…could these can count as part of our cross right? So we can offer up these struggles?

        • LizEst

          Absolutely, Mary. They do count as part of our cross. And, we always do well to offer these struggles up. Fair warning, as soon as the devil sees you profiting from offering them up…they may stop. Don’t worry, he’ll find something else to vex you with…just offer that up, too. Prayers for you!

          • http://www.marythedefender.wordpress.com MariaGo

            :)) Thanks! Prayers for you too!

  • stan

    I have gotten much help battling impure thoughts, with the intersection of saint Monica, Mother of st. Agustin.

    • Cecilia

      If I could recommend two very powerful prayers in this type of temptation as a minor deliverance/spiritual warfare, i.e., the Our Father and St. Michael the Archangel prayer or chaplet in addition to Our Lady’s Rosary. In fact there is a rosary to God the Father that I have found very helpful. If it helps you, many saints were assailed in this area during times of prayer. Also, temptation is not a sin as you probably know. Temptation is like the first shot, so to speak, of the enemy’s gun. He is looking to see where your weak point in your armor or in your “castle” is so he can get a foot hold in your life. So call in reinforcements (prayers, confession, penance) to shore up the area of attack and you will be able to resist. It helps me to remember that the enemy loves to be a pest and disturb us. He attacks the mind (Ephesians 6…helmet) So mentally reduce him to a fly and swat him!

      • LizEst

        St. Michael the Archangel – great fighter of evil! Wonderful suggestion. I hope many more people will report what works for them. When fighting evil, just like any battle, it’s good to have an array of spiritual weaponry. Of course, Christ is the pre-eminent weapon.

  • Maggie Goff

    I pray to St. John Vianney for this, as he suffered terribly from it: http://www.catholicpreaching.com/st-john-vianneys-greatest-temptation-the-anchor-april-23-2010/

    • LizEst

      Great link. Thanks for posting that. Learned a lot!

  • Brad

    Hi ladies, if I could add to your conversation, it’s best practice to not address the demons directly. The absolutely most prudent route is to say to the Lord, instead, “May you rebuke them”, which keeps the soul safer and at the same time does not usurp, even innocently, the Lord’s prerogative. Please see Zech 3:2 and Jude 1:9, especially if you can read the commentaries using the bible dot cc website.

    Otherwise I’d like to add that I once heard that St. Catherine (which of the Italian ones, I do not know, but I think it was the Sienese) would sometimes have to endure overwhelming thoughts of lust when looking up at a big crucifix! What a trial that clearly God allowed for her sanctification.

    St. Teresa of Avila also kept written upon her prie-dieu Psalm 143:2, I assume because she was being assailed with foolish pride and all the vices while she was trying to pray and practice the virtues. I relate. Praise God and Hail Mary.

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      On target

  • Matt

    I, too, struggle with these thoughts. One thing that worked was understanding that the devil (or who/whatever was originating these thoughts) didn’t actually do them to get me to give into the temptation — which I would never, ever do. Rather, it was harassment, pure and simple. An attempt to knock me off balance in my prayer life. Realizing that these temptations did not come from within me, and that I was never in any danger of giving into them, really helped.

  • http://www.facebook.com/raymond.gilbert.792 Raymond Gilbert

    By the intercession of Blessed Virgin Mary I have seen a great deal of improvement. I have also recently picked up the practice of the chaplet of Five Wounds in an attempt to combat these thoughts, and make a daily petition in my Rosary to become a Saint.

  • Lisa

    Never try to withstand temptation alone! Start praying at once. When I’m harassed I say a short prayer ‘Jesus come to my assistance!’. Also, praying for ways to avoid temptation is a good idea. It seems so obvious, but for me it wasn’t. A short prayer is good to help you refocus, and being brief is good especially when you need to pray it 20 times or more a day!

  • Bernadette

    I have experienced that when you are being consistently tempted and/or are under a spiritual desolation that it is best to quickly tell your spiritual director, if you have one, or your priest in confession or otherwise. Do not keep it under wraps. These temptations and/or spiritual desolations will disappear once you do this. It has helped me tremendously and I intend to not wait but ‘tell’ right away. An event like this was recorded in the Story of a Soul – St. Therese of Lisieux – who told the story of once repelling strong temptation and spiritual desolation by telling her spiritual confessor and her superior…a double whammy on the ‘evil one.’ Once she did this, they completely disappeared and she was at peace again. The temptation/desolation was no longer under the cover of darkness but brought to light!

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      This is wise counsel and reflects the same advice from St. Ignatius’ 13th rule of discernment.

    • LizEst

      Definitely works…very effective.

  • Bob G

    Another approach to these temptations as our good retired Bishop Herman in St Louis sometimes teaches is that if the temptation is demonic we can bind it and tell it to leave us in Jesus name by His Blood and his Cross, etc. Sometimes the more direct approach helps me if the fleeing to God in time of temptation is’nt enough and the tremptation contineus to stick to my mind somehow. I have other temptations I struggle with more but that is what the bishop told me in confession and it helps.

  • Bob G

    And as St Ignatius says share the temptations with a spiritual director or confessor. The demons like us to keep our temptations secret so they can continue to work on our mind, just like an adulteror wants the tempted to not tell her husband or a daughter her father. Many things lose power when brought into the light.

  • Ramanie

    Dear Fr John,
    I suffer from depression and OCD and I find it difficult to keep my thoughts in prayer. I keep on repeating the prayers in the rosary thinking I have not concentrated. I am scared because this makes me want to give up my prayers. What can I do to let it not Happen? Please help me.. May God bless you Father John.

    • LizEst

      While waiting for Fr. John to answer, first of all, I recommend you find a spiritual director to help you, if you don’t already have one. If you don’t have one, at least talk to a priest about this as this OCD stuff can be a form of scruples, which is a particular cross.

      God certainly hears your prayers. He knows your heart and your intentions and the effort it takes for you to pray. Remember, “the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (Romans 8:26).

      Believe it or not, the same thing happens to other people, even those that don’t have OCD or depression. And, it happens at Mass, too. The priest can’t stop the Mass and start all over every time someone isn’t concentrating …even if that someone is the priest himself.

      With the rosary, just try to move on to the next bead, even if you don’t remember that you prayed the Hail Mary or the Our Father. Easier said than done, you say? I know the feeling! Just keep going because it’s the devil’s trick to wear you out so much with all the effort that you eventually give up any prayer at all. So, “resist [the devil], solid in your faith” (1 Peter 5:9a). Remember God knows the intentions of your heart. Sometimes, people don’t remember because God has lifted them to another state of prayer. So, move on to the next bead and try to concentrate on that one. Sometimes, you might not be able to finish the rosary. That’s OK. The thing you don’t want to do is stop praying all together . This is where a spiritual director or a priest can help you. Just be sure to take their advice.

      • Ramanie

        Dear LizEst Thank you. I will do what you have advised me. Thank you and God Bless you.

    • judeen

       this is a attack , dont worry .. give it to God as a suffering for souls.. then instead of praying long prayers.. just praise the Lord.. put on songs of praise and sing with them.. send up all your love for God …  . using the attack as a prayer its self for souls , should stop it.. dont worry , that is not of God..  have this happen alot to me… use to worrry about it.. fight it fret… so on …. dont . trust Jesus..

      • Ramanie

        Dear Judeen,
        Thank you. may God Bless you.

  • joan

    What does Father John mean when he says God may give a season of battle for the sake of the Mystical Body of Christ?

    As Bob G mentioned, I was also told by my director (a priest) to speak the name Jesus Christ, invoke the Blood of Jesus as my protection, along with other things. I understood these to be like protective shields and I have found them to be helpful, along with the traditional St. Michael prayer and the use of holy water. I did not think he was telling me to go off and wage some battle on my own. It was more like he was putting weapons in my hand in case I had to defend myself.

    Regarding temptations/evil thoughts: I once experienced a sustained eight hour assault of tempting and impure thoughts. Later in the day my spiritual director called (which he did not usually do) saying he “knew in his spirit” something was wrong but didn’t know what. After a five minute conversation with him the problem disappeared and has not returned in over two years. Thank God!

    I also sometimes experience aversion to going to confession. I sense a visceral disgust, have an irrational distrust of the confessor (regardless of who it may be), and confusion about what to confess. When I have followed through with confession, I have received a helpful confirmation or suggestion from the confessor, or I have experienced great consolation during the following mass. Other confessions for me are not like this. I have begun to wonder if the discouragement always precede a confession that will be especially beneficial.

    • Becky Ward

      The understanding I get is that this might be a form of intercession. Sometimes we suffer to increase our own degree of virtue. If we are strong enough (Thanks to His grace) God may allow us to suffer for others…sometimes we can even know this is happening.
      Sometimes we are allowed certain ‘battles’ against sin because God is going to send people to us for us to minister to and we will need this ‘lived understanding of the problem’ in order to be the most helpful. For instance, I have a friend who was abused by her father when she was young. Now she works in a pregnancy center and can honestly tell the women who come in, who have also been abused…..”I know what you’re going through.”
      Everything that happens to us….be it wonderful consolations…..or contemplation…..or suffering, is used for the good of the whole body of Christ.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IBQCQNWLDYC6EWS4YBBJ42WQ5I emperor

    When tempted i say “My Jesus mercy Mary help”, has worked wonders for me.

  • Tykemcl

    I am a man with same-sex attraction. I accept the teachings of the Church and live 100% a chaste life. My sexual temptations are with me 24-7. I don’t do anything to bring them on. I call them the wild dogs of impurity. When one set is worn out then they are replaced by a fresh group. I feel I carry a cement block with me and I am exhausted.
    As difficult as this is, I wouldn’t change places with anyone. This cross is sanctifying me. I feel as if I am in a dark hole. It is in this dark place I find Him.
    However I am human and sometimes I am so overwhelmed by this cross. I am sure many saints shared my struggle. How did deal with their sexual temptations. St. Benedict was the extreme example. There must have been others that had to carry this cross all of their lives.

    • LizEst

      God bless you Tykemcl.  Yes, I am sure there have been many saints that have shared your struggle, probably many unknown.  This would be a great topic for a post.  I will pray for you.  Will you pray for me as well?  Thank you.

    • judeen

      dear Tykemcl….. the spirit you fight is just the spirit of lust… in a certain form…  I have prayed over some one who had a form of this spirit.. and I got it.. .wow… glad I was married.. the man was diebetic and having sugar fits alot from it…( he was married ) he was healed.and from his sugar fits and went to confession to keep it away.. I work with many with this problem in prison also…   I am sure you prayed hard.. I sure did when it came on me…   I fought it.. lust… and the thought of adultry… bind up the spirit of lust and cravings.  and prayed for purity.. but as I went through it realized the simple things that I did and others did that brought forth impurity.. to small jokes.. and tv shows..  simple things.. now that it is gone . now I can feel lust before a person tells a dirty joke.  it is diserment of spirits I got from it … also other spiritual; gifts powerful and strong connected to purity … something this world needs… our trials, if we keep fighting them , God gives us spiritual gifts to over come them and help others to overcome them also.  like a person in AA or drugs annonimous… they are the only people who can really help and understand the addictted.  God is calling you to a great job, if you can over come this trial…   God bless you .. I  already pray for you and all those in this sittuation..  and I do understand

  • Lea S.

    Wow, this post is so relevant to spiritual struggles I have had…I’ve always remembered that anecdote from the life of St. Catherine of Siena, where she struggled a long time with horrible temptations and afterwards asked God where He was during that time.  She heard a voice saying, “I was in your heart…”  While dealing with some temptations of my own I made up a short prayer, “St. Catherine of Siena, please come to my aid.”  Seriously, it has worked, ridiculously well.  When I pray it instantly the harmful thoughts will disappear.  It’s similar to when you suddenly forget about something as you’re thinking about it.  I guess Catherine is an incredibly powerful saint!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QJPSTEVMQAO3LALLJEHDGQTXOI Teresa

    I have experienced something simular but it is on the realm of PTSd and trauma experienced. everytime I try to close my eyes in prayer I think or rather the devil puts the thought in my mind that I am going to be attacked, hit asulted. This puts me to great sadness and so often I cant even close my eyes to pray anymore. What should I do?

    • LizEst

      Teresa – PTSD is a very real thing.  If this happens when you close your eyes in prayer, try not to close your eyes.  Focus on the beauty that God has created in nature, on the picture of a saint, the Sacred Heart, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the wounds of Christ, etc. 

      One saint you may want to look into is St. Dymphna.  She is the saint of mental and nervous disorders and is a very powerful intercessor with many cures worked through her intercessory prayers on behalf of those suffering.  Here is a link to the National Shrine of St. Dymphna:  https://www.natlshrinestdymphna.org/history.php 

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/QJPSTEVMQAO3LALLJEHDGQTXOI Teresa

        Thank you. My spiritual director just told me the same thing. I do have a prayer card of St Dymphna. I will check out the website. too.

  • Trish

    Thanks Father, I just gave your link to someone to whom your answer is relevant and helpful.
    God bless, Trish

  • Pingback: Saints that struggled with lust - Christian Forums

  • Maurice

    Hi Father and all readers, im a little behind on any discussions already in this comment log. But if i may add my own experiance and add some facts ive learnt along the way. Brother’s and sister’s, i shamefully state i have a deep demonic past, even unto a time of following of satanism. Therefore ill begin explaining some helpful and comforting facts. Let me begin with a qoute from Saint Padre pio: “If we could see all the evil spirits in the world, we wouldnt be able to see the sun” words to that affect anyway. The devil cannot do a thing without God permitting it. Dont get ill feelings towards God because of this but try your best to pray and endure. There cannot be a sin commited without our full consent. Dont swear or fight fire with fire with the devil, thats what he wants. Always stay in a state of grace by regular confession and even if not able to make confession illicit an act of contrition untill you get to confession. Dont fear, God is protecting us He loves us, He allows these thoughts to be inflicted on us for our strengthening and for our purification, testing us and/or any other reason of His that is for the greater good. God is not evil and anything in, of, from or anything at all to do with him is not evil. HERE ARE SOME OF THE POWERS OF THE DEVIL: 1. Put thoughts in our minds, and he knows our thought process so he can put them in such a way to make us think there ours. 2. Manipulate our feelings, yes he can make us feel a certain way that make us think the thoughts are ours because of the feelings at the time. 3. He can do many multiple things around us to achieve an objective or paticular result. E.g. set up situations and manipulate people around us and things around us in a paticular way in the objective that it may cause us to sin. Or say something goes wrong, he will put blasphemous thoughts and/or other evil thoughts in our mind right after, or as it happens to make us think that they were ours. And many other powers he has but there irrelevant at this time. Dont think upon the devil and his works to much. Focus on God. His in control, the Almighty, Immortal, Invincible king who loves us. The devil is very angry we are no longer in his clutchs on the path to hell and are now on the path to heaven. Fasting will help also, and PRAYER!!!!!!!! When you dont feel like praying (i call it the invisible brick wall) and you start yawning, remember the devil has the power to make us feel tired and cause us to yawn , BUT HE CAN NOT STOP US FROM PRAYING. We have to push through it and endure to the end as Father mentioned. Its all appart of the very real battle to get to heaven. Im from australia otherwise i would give my contact details for anyone who needs help with facts or comforting. But my e mail is Mr_MmM@live.com and i stress importantly always consort to a priest for serious needs and help concerning the devil. Stay close to God and far from sin. I am only well knowledgable and a past with a wide domain and shamefully once a personal relationship with the evil deciever. Hope ive helped. Please pray for me. God bless