The Devil is not a symbol, but a being, says Matthew Walther

Partly because I revere the history of that noble order of priests deliciously described by an unsympathetic observer as “Inflexible in nothing but in their fidelity to the Church … arguing, instructing, consoling, stealing away the hearts of the young, animating the courage of the timid, holding up the crucifix before the eyes of the dying”, and partly because I know many young Jesuits who do not live up to the tediously familiar stereotypes, I almost never go in for jokes at the expense of the Society of Jesus. Still, it was hard to stifle a chuckle when Fr Arturo Sosa Abascal, the society’s superior general, seemed to write off the Devil as a symbol “meant to express evil” earlier this month in the course of a rambling discourse which touched on the possibility of women’s ordination.

He can’t really mean it, I thought, and sure enough, a spokesman later told this magazine that Fr Sosa “professes and teaches what the Church professes and teaches”, which reminded me of Queen Elizabeth’s evasive little squib about what happens at the Consecration (“And what his words did make it / That I believe and take it”).

Exactly what the Church does profess and teach is worth reminding ourselves of now and again. The Devil is not a symbol but a being, as plainly shown throughout Sacred Scripture, where we see him in conversation with Our Lord Himself.

An angel who was once called Lucifer, he was, in the memorable words of the old Baltimore Catechism, “cast out of heaven because through pride he rebelled against God” and he “tempts us because he hates goodness, and does not wish us to enjoy the happiness which he himself has lost”.

I spent my teenage years wilfully separated from the Church. Firm belief in God, Christ and the efficacy of the sacraments were arrived at in my case only with difficulty. Not so my acceptance of the literal existence of the Evil One who prowls about the world seeking the ruin of souls. I am afraid I must treat you to a fairly mild horror story.

Here we must pass from the realm of Scripture and sacred doctrine to that of impressions and shadows. When I was seven years old my family moved to an old farmhouse typical of the kind one sees driving on country roads in the rural Midwest. It was very large, with numerous bedrooms, painted a hideously emetic shade of green, and flanked by three dilapidated barns and corn as far as one could see in all four directions. Not long ago the house featured in a nightmare of mine, which is illustrative of how I and my brothers and sister always felt about the place, though I do not recall any of us saying much about it at the time. My mother insisted that we should never enter the basement.

Why were we all afraid of the house? I can only say that I was almost never in my room at night regardless of the season without feeling cold and out of sorts, as if there was something sapping away at me.

I recall one night that I was sitting up with a book on sharks in which I read that they were virtually immortal because they had no natural predators and were immune to disease; something about this nonplussed me and suddenly I felt an extraordinary sense of foreboding, followed closely by mortal terror. It was as if something very close to me was feeding on my dread, luxuriating in it, gluttonously devouring my innocence. I sat there for more hours than I can say praying the Our Father (I had never heard the St Michael prayer) and begging God to spare from from whatever it was. I told Him that if He did so I would become a priest.

Eventually I worked up the courage to bolt out of bed and run downstairs as fast as I could to my parents’ bedroom, where I opened the door and promptly announced my vocation. I think it must have been obvious to them that I was frightened, for my father very kindly said that when he had been my age he had thought of becoming a priest and that it was a wonderful thing to want to be. Let us pray that the Almighty takes an obliging view of the ability of the very young to enter into agreements about their future.

I cannot be certain whether I am conflating the details of the above incident with another in which I saw one of my toys – Luke Skywalker, of all things – move across the floor of its own accord. I do not remember precisely when this happened, but I am as certain that it did as I am of the existence of my legs, just as I recall any number of other evenings I spent shivering with a vague sense of unease, drawing the blankets close and arguing with myself about whether our Saviour had ever really lived before finding my way down the noisy staircase to my parents’ room again. I do not think that I was fleeing a symbol. I still loathe sharks.

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent for The Week and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow

This article first appeared in the June 16 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here