Get behind me…

When you read the lives of the saints, especially in some older books, you can get the impression that they lived in a different world. Many of them describe physical encounters with Satan within which they would, literally, get beaten up by him. Satan, it seemed, was forever lurking under a bed, in a basement, in a stairwell, or in some dark corner, just waiting to pounce on them and beat them up. They had to be careful not to venture naively into dark places; though, conversely, there were times when they readied themselves and went deliberately, to the desert, to openly do battle with him.

And, in that fight, they had a great weapon, simple one-line mantras: “Get behind me, Satan!” “Satan, leave this room!” “Satan, leave me alone!” That brought guaranteed results. He left them in peace for a while, though they emerged somewhat scraped and bruised from the encounter.

Such language sounds pretty esoteric and even superstitious to us. Not many of us have ever had Satan pop up from under our beds or from some dark place and begin to beat us up. Or have we?

Who or what is Satan? Believers today are split as to whether or not they believe that Satan is an actual person or simply a symbol for a venomous power that can overwhelm you, strip you of moral strength, and leave you precisely with the feeling of having been beaten up. Either way, whether we believe that Satan is an actual person or simply a symbol for malevolence, temptation, and lack of moral strength, the encounters that the saints describe happen to us too in our rational, agnostic lives just as surely as they happened to pious believers in former times.

Satan, scripture tells us, is the prince of jealousy, bitterness, paranoia, obsession, and lies. Few things in life torment us and beat us up as badly as these. They lurk in every dark corner, come out from under our beds at night, generally threaten us, darken our days, dampen our joys, and make us anxious as to what might lie around the corner. We just word things differently.

We speak of being “obsessed”, while the saints speak of being “possessed”. It’s just a difference of words.

Satan, however we choose to conceive of that power, is harassing us all the time and we, like the saints of old, need to learn the mantra: “Get behind me, Satan!”

Where are we harassed and beaten up by Satan? Here are some, everyday, examples:

Every time our minds and hearts begin bitterly replaying, like cassette tapes, old conversations, old wounds, old rejections, and old injustices, so that everything inside of us wants to scream: “This isn’t fair!” “How dare he say that!” “How can she do that, after all I did for her!” “I hate those people!” “Why do I always get cheated?”, we are being tormented by Satan and need to say: “Get behind me, Satan!” There will be no joy, goodness, or moral strength in our lives until those obsessions leave us alone.

Every time we feel a deep emptiness inside and our world feels flat and empty of meaning because we are obsessed with someone or something we can’t have, we need to pray: “Get behind me, Satan!” Heartaches, especially over frustrated love, might well speak of romance, but they also bespeak satan in that they drain the joy out of life and deaden all of our manageable loves. Satan doesn’t come at us like a demon with a pitchfork, standing before fire and smoke, he torments us in a frustrated, pathologically-restless, romantic fantasy that has us in near-suicidal depression and comes upon us in dark stairwells, at parties, and right within our own beds.

Every time we feel pangs of jealousy (not necessarily overtly directed against someone else’s good fortune) but in the disappointment that we feel because our bodies, marriages, careers, and even our morals haven’t turned out as perfectly as we’d have liked, whenever we find it hard to be grateful for our own lives, we are being beaten up by Satan and need to say: “Get behind me, Satan!”

Indeed, any time we have trouble falling asleep at night because some memory, some disappointment, some lost love, some wrong-turn taken, or some obsession won’t let go and give us enough calm to sleep, Satan is harassing us, right in own beds, and we need, like the saints of old, to say: “Get behind me, Satan!”

Satan is alive and well, still tormenting us in our beds, in basement rooms, in dark stairwells, and in broad daylight as we travel to work. We call his presence: obsessions, heartaches, restlessness, jealousy, emptiness, fear, paranoia, old hurts, insomnia, chaos, and other names. Like the saints of old, we need at times when we feel strong enough to wrestle with him openly in the desert, but we need too, whenever our fears and obsessions begin to beat us up, to say the ancient prayer: “Get behind me, Satan!

– Ronald Rolheiser

the real devil

The devil’s secret is camouflage. The devil’s job is to look very moral! It has to look like you are defending some great purpose or cause, like making the world safe for democ racy or keeping the bad people off the streets. Then you can do many evils without any guilt, without any shame or self-doubt, but actually with a sense of high-minded virtue. Thomas Aquinas writes that evil must disguise itself as good and, until Christians start understanding that, their capac ity for “discernment of spirits” (1 Corinthians 12:10) remains very minimal. They are easily duped and always misled by such devils.

– Richard Rohr

Freedom is found under the dark tree

I sweep. I spread a blanket in the sun. I cut grass behind the cabin. Soon I will bring the blanket in again and make the bed. The sun is overclouded. Perhaps there will be rain. A bell rings in the monastery. A tractor growls in the valley. Soon I will cut bread, eat supper, say psalms, sit in the back room as the sun sets, as the birds sing outside the window, as silence descends on the valley, as night descends. As night descends on a nation intent upon ruin, upon destruction, blind, deaf to protest, crafty, powerful, unintelligent. It is necessary to be alone, to be not part of this, to be in the exile of silence, to be, in a manner of speaking, a political prisoner. No matter where in the world he may be, no matter what may be his power of protest, or his means of expression, the poet finds himself ultimately where I am. Alone, silent, with the obligation of being very careful not to say what he does not mean, not to let himself be persuaded to say merely what another wants him to say, not to say what his own past work has led others to expect him to say.
The poet has to be free from everyone else, and first of all from himself, because it is through this “self” that he is captured by others. Freedom is found under the dark tree that springs up in the center of the night and of silence, the paradise tree, the axis mundi, which is also the Cross.
– Thomas Merton, May 1965

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truth

We Believe, finally, the truth cannot be preserved except by destruction of the enemy for, since we have identified him with error, to destroy him is to destroy error. The adversary, of course, has exactly the same thoughts about us and exactly the same basic policy by which he defends the “truth.” He has identified us with dishonesty, insincerity, and untruth. He believes that, if we are destroyed, nothing will be left but truth. – Thomas Merton

a Lenten prayer – Henri Nouwen

The Lenten season begins. It is a time to be with you, Lord, in a special way, a time to pray, to fast, and thus to follow you on your way to Jerusalem, to Golgotha, and to the final victory over death.

I am still so divided. I truly want to follow you, but I also want to follow my own desires and lend an ear to the voices that speak about prestige, success, pleasure, power, and influence. Help me to become deaf to these voices and more attentive to your voice, which calls me to choose the narrow road to life.

I know that Lent is going to be a very hard time for me. The choice for your way has to be made every moment of my life. I have to choose thoughts that are your thoughts, words that are your words, and actions that are your actions. There are not times or places without choices. And I know how deeply I resist choosing you.

Please, Lord, be with me at every moment and in every place. Give me the strength and the courage to live this season faithfully, so that, when Easter comes, I will be able to taste with joy the new life that you have prepared for me. Amen.

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Photo: Grindstone, Maine – September 2019