The Pride of Lucifer and His Acolytes
God, in His infinite power, created multitudes of angels, an impressive, incalculable number. One day during an exorcism Father Candido Amantini — a Passionist priest and my great teacher — asked a demon: “How many are you?” The demon responded: “We are so many that if we were visible we would obscure the sun.” The demon on that occasion gave information that we have no reason to disbelieve because it is confirmed in the Bible.
A great number of the angels fell because they rebelled against God. We recall that before admitting the angels to paradise, God subjected them to a trial of obedience and humility, of which we know the nature but not the specifics. The sin of the fallen angels was one of pride and disobedience. Satan, the most beautiful of all the angels, being aware of his extreme intelligence, rebelled at the idea of being subjected to someone. He forgot that he was a creature made by God. Many angels followed him in his folly.
The original sins of the angels are the same as those who implicitly or explicitly adhere to Satanism. Angels and men who follow Satan base their existence on three principles and practical rules of life: you can do what you wish, that is, without subjugation to God’s laws; you obey no one; and you are the god of yourself.
What happened between the angels is narrated in the twelfth chapter of the book of Revelation: there was a great war between the angels who remained faithful to God and those who rebelled against Him — in brief, a war between the angels and the demons. In this passage, the Bible tells us that Michael the Archangel was at the head of the angels and that the dragon guided the angels who rebelled (and were defeated). The result was that “there was no longer any place for them in heaven” (Rev. 12:8).
Can the Devil Read Our Thoughts?
We have now arrived at the specific action of the devil, and we begin with the first question: Can the devil know our thoughts; is he able to understand what we are thinking at a certain moment in our life? The response is simple: absolutely not. Theology is agreed on this question. Only God — who is omniscient, who intimately possesses the secrets of created reality, that of men and angels, and that of uncreated reality, which is His own essence — knows in depth the thoughts of each man. Although a spiritual creature, the demon does not understand what is in our mind and in our heart; he can only surmise it through observing our behavior. It is not a complicated operation for him, having an extremely fine intelligence. If a young person smokes marijuana, for example, the demon can deduce that in the future he will also use stronger drugs. In a word: from what we read, see, say, and experience, and from the companions we choose, even from our glances — from all this he can discern where he will tempt us and at which particular moment. And that is what he does.
This brings to mind a passage from the first letter of St. Peter: “Brothers and sisters, be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (cf. 1 Pet. 5:8–9). My interpretation of this passage, on which various scholars are agreed, sounds like this: “Brothers and sisters, be vigilant. The devil wanders around each one of you, searching where to devour.” That word where is important: the devil looks in each person precisely for his weak point and “works” on it, creating his next sinful occasion. It will be the targeted person himself, who in his liberty, will commit the sin, after having been well “cooked” by Satan’s temptation.
The most frequent weak points in man are, from time to time, always the same: pride, money, and lust. And, let us note well, there are no age limits for sinning. When I hear confessions, I often say to my penitents, somewhat jokingly, that their temptations will end only five minutes after they have exhaled their last breath. Therefore, we must not presume or hope that at an advanced age we shall be exempt from sin. A vice that is cultivated in youth will not lessen in old age without some work and intervention. Let us consider lust: when I hear confessions, it’s not uncommon for the elderly to confess to looking at pornography more often then the youth. The will to struggle against sin must be cultivated even to the end of our days.
Does the Devil Fear Man?
We proceed to the second question: Who must be afraid, us or the devil? The letter of James says textually: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). The demon keeps his distance from the one who nurtures his faith, who frequents the sacraments, and who wishes to live devoutly. Why? Simply put, the devil hates God and is in terror of Him and anything that even has the odor of sanctity. If we think about it, we can recall periods of our existence in which we have intensified our interior life and felt stronger in resisting temptations. On the other hand, we must avoid becoming arrogant and must always remember that the demon does not ever cease to tempt us, even to the end of our days.
I should also mention that sacred places, in particular those where a strong Marian devotion exists, have a similar effect. For these Satan has an invincible aversion: Loreto, Lourdes, Fátima, just to cite a few that are well known. Many liberations occur in these places.
Satan fears the sons of God, those seeking to conform their lives to Jesus. The devil is aware that he is stronger and more intelligent than we are, but he also knows that we are not alone in the struggle against him. One example suffices: toward the sunset of his life, Don Bosco, one of the greatest saints of the nineteenth century, liberated a girl from possession simply by entering the chapel dressed in sacred vestments to celebrate Mass. The devil is in fear of the saints and their sanctity.
Where Does the Evil One Dwell in the Human Body?
To put it as simply as possible, demons influence our body or one part of it without locating themselves in that particular organ or limb. When the possessed person falls into a trance and the Evil Spirit takes “control” in some way — inducing in him uncontrolled movements or making him speak or curse — it is as if the demon wraps around the entire body of the possessed, causing him to lose control of himself. Sometimes it can seem as if the spirit is localized in the throat, in the stomach, in the intestine, or in the head, where pains and spasms are manifested. In reality, the demon is not there in a specific part of the body but only influencing a specific organ within that moment.
If this is the way things are, do diabolical possessions and other spiritual evils exclude the presence of the Holy Spirit? We cannot reason in a human way with spirits. The represented space within the human body is not empty or refillable the way that a glass can be refilled by and emptied of water. In the case of the demon and the Holy Spirit, the two rival entities can live together — obviously in conflict — in the same person. On the other hand, we know that diverse saints were possessed by bad spirits, even if evidently they were filled with the Holy Spirit. How does one explain this if the demon does not occupy physical space? Certainly, the Holy Spirit can chase away the demon, but He does it within the boundaries of our own free will, thus permitting us to make our own choices. The Gospel of Mark says: “This kind [of demon] cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29).
Who ought to pray and fast? Everyone — the person struck by the spiritual evil and those close to him. For the first, it is a trial of extraordinary faith, a response to a very particular call to sanctity. For the others, it is an appeal to demonstrate Christian charity concretely. Indeed, the prayers of close family members are very efficacious; their collaboration can be very helpful in creating a positive climate in the house. To these persons I add the exorcist, the pastor, friends, and whoever lends a hand in the liberation of the obsessed.
What Does the Devil Look Like?
Among the most recurring questions, and in my opinion the most amusing, is: How does the devil appear or what does he look like? He is a pure spirit; he does not have corporeal substance; therefore, he is not representative to us in a fully comprehensible form. It is the same for him as for the angels: if they wish to appear to men, they must assume characteristics accessible to us. The Bible is filled with visions of angels as men. In the book of Tobias, for example, the Archangel Raphael accompanies the young Tobias on his mission by assuming the form of a youth.
Returning to the appearance of the devil: one can say that, in his essence, he is much uglier than we can even vaguely imagine. His horrific appearance is a direct consequence of his distancing himself from God and of his explicit and irrevocable choice of rebellion. This we can infer from logical reasoning: if God is infinitely beautiful, whoever decides to distance himself from God must be the exact opposite. Naturally, this is only one type of theological augmentation that we find based on revelation and from the support of our natural reason when it is illuminated by faith.
And if, stretching the discourse, we wished somehow to give the demon an image? We begin, necessarily, by setting aside the figures derived from traditional depictions of the devil with horns, a tail, the wings of a bat, talons, and inflamed eyes. Being a pure spirit, evidently he cannot embody these characteristics. If these images can help us to fear his actions toward us — and we have good reason to — then we should welcome them; on the other hand, we risk making the devil appear like an ancient relic, a frill of times past, and the stuff of simpletons. There is a great danger in over-relying on these images, and they can be of service to the devil!
The devil, being very shrewd, can also assume innocuous forms. The case of St. Pio of Pietrelcina is exemplary. At times, the devil showed himself to him as a ferocious dog, at other times as Jesus or as our Lady, at still other times as his confessor or as the father guardian of his convent, who commanded him to do something. But after verifying the order he received with his superior, he understood that he had had a vision of the devil. There were even a few times when the devil appeared as a beautiful, naked girl.
Finally the demon could present himself with unpleasant odors, such as sulfur or animal excrement (it happens at times when one is blessing a house), or, to persons particularly sensitive, with odious noises, such as a clearly perceived rustling of the wind, or harassing tactile sensations.
What Does the Church Say of Wandering Souls?
Let us now confront another topic. Someone attests to seeing and perceiving “spirits.” Are they only imaginings? Does it involve “wandering souls”? Regarding this we must be very prudent and discerning. The “presences,” spirits or ghosts, are seen in particular literature and in the vast exorcistical caseload. What can be said about these things?
There are, above all, the certitudes of our Faith. The first is that we have only one life, and we play it out here; at the end, we shall be judged to be worthy to rise to life in God or to be unworthy, distancing ourselves from Him eternally.
The second certitude of our Faith is that a form of communication exists between the dead and us: it is the principle of the Mystical Body, of the Church that communicates to her interiority, to her inner self. Specifically, there is a spiritual exchange between the souls of the dead in paradise and in purgatory and those of us still on our earthly pilgrimage that is manifested through the prayers of intercession. In particular, the souls in purgatory who are experiencing purification have the capacity to offer their suffering in extraordinary reparation for us; they, in turn, greatly enjoy the benefits of our prayers. Excluded are the souls of the damned; being in hell they do not enjoy (and do not desire) our prayers.
Returning to the wandering spirits: in my view, if immediately after death we go to paradise, to hell, or to purgatory, it is doubtful that wandering souls exist. In the old ritual of exorcism, one was put on guard against “presumed” possessions or spiritual disturbances caused by the damned soul of a deceased. It is, instead, the devil who is disguised like this. It happened to me, for example, that during an exorcism a spirit claimed to be one of these wandering spirits. A deeper verification revealed that he was a demon. But other exorcists are convinced of the contrary: according to them, the presence of such wandering spirits is a fact. Since it concerns a problem that is still unresolved, theologians will have to study it deeply through Scripture, the Magisterium of the Church, and the experience of mystics and seers.
Art for this post on facts about the devil: Temptation on the Mount, Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-1311, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons; Cover of An Exorcist Explains the Demonic used with permission.
Read more about recognizing the devil HERE.