Dear Fr. John, I recently ran across a confusing statement from an ex-satanist, who claims that demons can encourage people to pray as a way of deceiving them. The author of the book I read wrote that demons will sometimes get people to pray all kinds of devotional prayers (rosary, chaplets, etc…) for many very specific intentions (almost treating the prayers like superstitions or magic invocations) in order to distract them from a real life of virtue or a real, dynamic personal relationship with God. Since the author is an ex-satanist, I think she may know what she is talking about. But I find it confusing to think that demons would actually inspire people to pray in order to deceive them and gradually lead them away from God. Doesn’t that seem like a contradiction? How could demons inspire people to pray in the name of Jesus, when the demons hate Jesus?
This is a more complicated question than you might imagine. I do not know which author or book you are referring to, so I can’t comment directly on those affirmations. But I do want to comment on the deeper issue that you raise, about surprising ways in which we can experience temptation.
The Devil’s Bottom Line
The bottom line is that the ancient enemy of our soul, the devil and his fellow fallen angels, hate God and hate humans. They want to distance humans from God and keep them away from God. This is how they express their hatred, because this is how they can do the most damage to God’s beloved children. Consequently, it’s fair to assert that demons don’t want us to grow in our intimacy with God.
The Long Road Away from Home
In some cases, however, people are already living a close relationship with God. These people will be very resistant to direct temptations to mortal sin, or even to venial sins. So what do the enemies of our souls do then? They have to weaken and distract us, or confuse us, so that we become vulnerable to more subtle temptations. Through those subtle attacks, our relationship with God can be weakened almost imperceptibly. This is the path by which we fall back into the capital sins, but in a spiritualized form. We give in, for instance, to self-centered indulgences of spiritual pride or spiritual gluttony that seem pious and holy on the outside, but are actually feeding our selfishness on the inside by making us look down on other people who appear to have less piety.
Let’s take a concrete example. A husband and father who spends hours after work praying in the Church while his family is starving for his attention and presence and spiritual leadership is on a dubious path. His prayer in itself certainly isn’t evil, and it may be sincere and well-intentioned. But the quantity of time he is dedicating to prayer is impeding him from a duty that obviously qualifies as God’s will for his life.
Take another example – a fervent Catholic who becomes obsessed with private revelations (which are full of good religious sentiments), to the point where he finds himself criticizing bishops, maybe even disobeying them, and maybe even rejecting official Church doctrine or discipline. Many heretics in the history of the Church have started out like that. They were pious and prayerful, but spiritual pride and spiritual vanity crept in subtly, vitiating their virtue and leading them down a path that God didn’t want for them. As Jesus himself put it: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
Doing the Father’s Will
In other words, not everyone who says a lot of prayers (the Pharisees did that), are necessarily in a real communion of life, a friendship, with Jesus. That also involves living in accordance with God’s will.
So it’s not that demons want us to pray. It’s just that in the context of spiritual warfare, they are always looking for ways to lead us off the path of humble obedience to God’s will and selfless, humble communion with God and neighbor. This is why it’s so important to utilize all the means available to us for spiritual growth, and not just choose what we like. If you want a good review of those means, I highly recommend Daniel Burke’s book, Navigating the Spiritual Life. You will also find our online, do-it-yourself Catholic retreats useful. They are available at www.RCSpirituality.org.
I hope this helped clarify things, at least a little bit.
Art: Saint Augustine Disputing with the Heretics, Vergós Group, around 1470/1475-1486, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.