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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Questions and Answers

I . . . wonder about evil. It would be easy to say the devil made me do it!

Outline of the Answer
• Evil as Something Harmful
• Evil as the Refusal to Serve God’s Will
• Why Did God Make Hell?
• Demonic Influence or Mental Illness?
• The Unconscious
• Vulnerability to Evil through
Psychological Defenses

• Hatred and the Desire for Revenge
• What Can You Do?
• Three Final Points

 
To begin to answer your question, let’s recognize that the word evil essentially has two meanings.

 
Evil as Something Harmful

In its most general sense, evil refers to something that is harmful or destructive. This meaning focuses on the effects of something, not its origin. Hence, we read in Job, “We accept good things from God, and should we not accept evil?” (Job 2:10). The meaning here is that God can subject us to unpleasant trials, if He wants; as Job himself discovered, however, God does “evil” things not to be arrogant or mean but to serve the greater good—which, from our limited perspective, we cannot easily see.

 
Evil as the Refusal to Serve God’s Will

The second, more specific—and common—meaning of evil refers to the refusal to serve God’s will. This is what caused the fall of Lucifer, the angel of light, who is now called Satan, or “the devil.” When he fell, many other angels followed him. Together, all these fallen angels, now called demons, with Satan as their commander, epitomize evil. Unwilling to submit to God’s authority, evil makes self-interest, at the expense of others, into its own god.

  

In its extreme, this self-interest can be spoken of as wickedness—that is, something harmful for its own sake, so as to exhibit cruel power. But it is just as true, for example, to speak of those who follow lifestyles defiant of chastity as being evil, for even though they may not have a conscious desire to harm other individuals, they still do psychological and spiritual damage, and, in it all, they defy the will of God.

  

 
Why Did God Make Hell?

Why did God create hell? Why does God allow people to go to hell? Some people get stuck on such questions and, lacking any real theological wisdom, they decide for themselves that God is “mean” and arbitrary and that they want nothing to do with Him.

The true answer to these questions, though, is something of a surprise.

Consider that when God created all things, He gave all creatures free will so that they could participate in love. In other words, those who cannot refuse to love aren’t really capable of love—they’re just robots. Real love, after all, is an act of will. Without having free will, we could not love. So, in order to give all of His creation the capacity to love, God gave all of His creation free will.

So, there was Lucifer, an angel with free will. And somehow he decided that he did not want to serve God but rather wanted to serve himself. Maybe—just like many individuals in the world today—he thought something like, “I resent the idea of worshiping this God who created me. I want to be free to wield my power for myself. I want to do what I want to do.”

Now, God, in the fullness of His love, did not get mad. Instead, He must have said something like, “All right. If you want to be your own king, I will give you a place that you can have all for yourself in the company of those who choose to follow you.” So, God created hell and gave it to Satan with the understanding that anyone who wants to reject love for the sake of self-interest is free to go to hell. 

The astonishing thing about this transaction is that the creation of hell is an act of God’s mercy, not an act of punishment. Because it is absolutely too horrific to contemplate any place entirely separated from God, [1] Satan received from God a place—hell—that still exists within God’s love. The flames of hell are the flames of God’s love that torment only those who have rejected love. So if you say, “I don’t want anything to do with a god who would want anyone to suffer in hell,” you really don’t understand anything about God’s love. God does not want anyone to go to hell. Still, many persons, in their free will, reject God’s love and send themselves to hell anyway.

Furthermore, not being entirely excluded from creation, Satan and his demons have the power of influence over souls in this world. It’s perfectly fair—Satan has the free will to tempt us to join him in hell, and we have the free will to accept his seduction or, through faith and love, empowered by the sacraments, to reject it. We even have the power, given by Christ Himself to His priests, to cast out demons from all creatures.

 
Demonic Influence or Mental Illness?

Many persons today—even priests—propagate the false idea that when Jesus cast out demons He was really curing a mental illness. But the truth is, Jesus knew the difference between a demon and a psychological or medical problem. How could the LORD Himself not know His own creation?

Moreover, our failing to recognize this difference between a demon and a mental illness has led to many tragic mistakes.

In the times before modern science, it was believed that all mental illness was the result of demonic possession, and the mentally ill were often treated like animals simply because no one knew what to do with them. Physicians lacked the medical knowledge of psychology, and they lacked the faith to cast out demons, so they were essentially helpless.

In contrast, modern science sees everything as a matter of brain chemistry, even to the point of ignoring the psychology of the unconscious. Most modern physicians disavow all belief in demons and wouldn’t recognize one even if he spit in their faces.

But, in all truth, there are demons and there is mental illness, and it would do us well to understand the difference between them.

To understand this difference, it is important first to understand the unconscious.

 
The Unconscious

A brilliant French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, has explained the technical aspects of the Jacques Lacanunconscious better than anyone. Lacan emphasized the relation of language to unconscious functioning. Language, being metaphoric and symbolic, is one step—one large step—removed from “reality,” and in the gap  between the symbolic and the real is all the deception, lies, and fraud of human social existence.

As humans, we cannot communicate directly mind-to-mind or soul-to-soul. We have to rely on symbolic communication; that is, language. Language, however, cannot express the fullness of reality; thus much of our experience goes unspoken. No matter how much we say, and no matter how eloquently we may say it, some aspect of our reality fails to get communicated. Although it might seem, on the surface, that our lives are structured simply by conscious thought and speech, we are actually more influenced by that gap between the real and the symbolic—or, in other words, by what is “missing” from our lives simply because we must filter all our raw experience (the real) through our social dependence on the imperfection of language (the symbolic).

Therefore, the unconscious is a side-effect, so to speak, of our separation from raw reality because our use of language fails to adequately express our reality. Lacan saw clearly that, because separation and lack lead to desire, the unconscious is primarily governed by “the desire of the Other”—that is, by the social world (the “Other”) around us that is lost in its incomplete expression of reality. Desire, then, could be described as the unspoken—and hidden—aspect of our speaking lives.

Hence the unconscious holds the deepest—and often, the most frightening and ugly—truths about ourselves. Thus many persons fear the unconscious—some persons are afraid of even the idea of having an unconscious—because they fear truth itself.

  

It’s similar to the time at the beginning of modern medical science when some doctors refused to believe that bacteria caused infections. Not being able to see with their own eyes any evidence of the so-called “germs” a few other doctors were claiming to be the cause infection, these men derisively dismissed the whole concept of bacterial infection—and the need for sterile surgical environments.

  

Nevertheless, despite the many misconceptions of the unconscious, let us be clear about what the unconscious is not.

The unconscious is not, as Sigmund Freud believed, rooted in repressed “infantile sexuality.” Instead, the unconscious has its basis in our social use of language.

The unconscious is not something alien to ourselves.

The unconscious is not, in itself, sinful.

The unconscious is not, in itself, evil.

Because of our unconscious functioning, however, we are vulnerable to being influenced by evil.

 
Vulnerability to Evil through Psychological Defenses

You are vulnerable to the influence of the devil and other demons in proportion to the extent that you are influenced by unconscious psychological defenses. That’s a powerful statement, so let’s explain it. 

Your psychological defenses, like the psychological defenses of all of us, were created in your childhood to protect your pride and ego in the face of assaults [2] from the world. Unless these defenses are altered through deep personal scrutiny or psychotherapy, however, they will continue on into your adulthood, like sealed time capsules within your unconscious mind, where they cause you, no matter how old you may be, to act with the selfish desperation of a frightened and angry child.

  

For some individuals, defensive functioning becomes the predominant aspect of their being; thus they lack “well-being” and are said to suffer from mental “illness.” It’s an illness that must be cured not with medications but by deciphering the psychological meaning of those defenses.

  

Now, when you act with the selfish desperation of a frightened and angry child, you are acting with a raw self-interest that is very similar to the demonic refusal to serve God. In this desperate state of mind you are thinking only of yourself; you aren’t thinking clearly, and you certainly aren’t thinking about God, and so you are vulnerable to falling under the influence of demons (UID).[3]

  

Note that many defenses are created specifically because of the intense emotional pain of family dysfunction and hypocrisy. Quite commonly, when a child is hurt and angry because of the failures of his or her father, these defenses often seek the unconscious satisfaction of undermining all paternal authority—including the Church and, ultimately, God Himself.

  

 
Hatred and the Desire for Revenge

The easiest opening that evil can follow into your heart is the path opened by your psychological defenses in the desire to get revenge for injuries inflicted on you. If the injury came from God (as a rebuke or a spiritual lesson), you will resent God; that resentment will breed anger, hatred, and a desire for revenge which will open the door to the influence of demons, in spite of the opportunity for purification God is giving you. If the injury came from others, you will resent them; that resentment will breed anger, hatred, and a desire for revenge which will open the door to the influence of demons; moreover, you will want to get revenge on those who hurt you, and you will use the justification that “The devil made me do it!”—and most likely, because of spiritual blindness, you will be angry with God as well.

Because this anger and desire for revenge is not a feeling or emotion, and is often unconscious, rather than conscious, especially in regard to childhood traumas, some persons might even say that because they live such pious lives they are certain that they don’t hate anyone and don’t want revenge on anyone. But unconsciously they are filled with anger—and any of those behaviors that “the devil made me do” are the evidence of UID, right along with all those sins that keep getting repeated despite repeated confessions.

  

So, do you need an exorcism? Well, maybe not. You can do quite a bit to “exorcise” yourself simply by creating an environment within your “house” that is boring to evil. It’s like when a neighbor always comes to your house and helps himself to the soda or beer in your refrigerator. You can put an end to the mooching just by not keeping soda or beer in the fridge. 

Therefore, in regard to evil, don’t keep hatred [4] in your house. That is, purge from your house anything that breeds on the desire to hurt or “get even with” others, such as social rudeness and cursing; competitive sports; political arguing; and violent TV, movies, and video games. Even though meanness, hostility, and triumph are accepted hook, line, and sinker by our secular culture, they are just breeding grounds for strife and hatred.[5]

  

 
What Can You Do?

Endeavor, therefore, to realize that if you carry in your heart all sorts of bitterness about past injuries and injustices, then, when new trials afflict you, all that unconscious bitterness in your heart will gush forth in anger and revenge—along with envy, rivalry, pride, and on and on—and you will fall right into all the snares of self-sabotage, disobedience, and sin that the devil has laid out for you.

On the other hand, if you decide to purge your house of revenge, then follow it up with the following:

Believe that God desires your salvation;

Participate in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Confession.

Pray constantly for the grace and the desire to live a holy life, and pray for the salvation of others, especially for those who hurt you;

Respect yourself and your body;

Live a chaste lifestyle;

Detach yourself from the worldly need to defend your pride and trust completely in God to protect you;

Practice forgiveness;

Face everything with patience and humility.

If you do all these things, then you truly will be serving God from the depths of your heart, and, like an alcoholic convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol who finally accepted treatment in a rehabilitation program and became clean and sober, you will no longer be Under the Influence of Demons.

  

Do not let the sun go down on your wrath; do not give the devil a chance to work on you.

  

—Ephesians 4:27

 
Three Final Points

1.

Not everyone who is mentally ill is under the influence of demons.

2.

Not everyone who is under the influence of (or even possessed by) demons is mentally ill.

3.

Some individuals are both mentally ill and under the influence of (or even possessed by) demons.

 

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Notes

1. See, for example, Saint Catherine of Genoa, Treatise on Purgatory, Ch. IV: “The punishment of the damned is not, it is true, infinite in degree, for the all-lovely goodness of God shines even into hell. He who dies in mortal sin merits infinite woe for an infinite duration; but the mercy of God has made the time only infinite, and mitigated the intensity of the pain. In justice, He might have inflicted much greater punishment than He has done.”

2. We are all constantly being “assaulted” by others around us in their desires to get from us what will most benefit their self-interests. And so the unconscious motive to satisfy others will often conflict with our basic need for self-preservation. Moreover, in addition to these social demands, the physical world around us often assaults us through accidents and natural disasters. Therefore we all must deal with constant emotional conflict or internal or external “assaults” on our well-being.
     Common ways of protecting ourselves emotionally were called mechanisms by Sigmund Freud. When seen in pathological settings, these mechanisms can technically be called defense mechanisms; when seen in everyday life, they can be more properly called dynamic mechanisms. Modern psychiatry, however, uses the term defense mechanism in both pathological and everyday settings.
     In contrast, Catholic theology teaches us to lay down our weapons of self-protection and to trust entirely in God: Our help is in the name of the LORD, Who made heaven and earth (Psalm 124:8).

3. As I use the term, “under the influence of demons” can refer to a range of experiences from ordinary temptation to obsession, oppression, infestation, and possession.
     Temptation is simply an inclination to do something harmful to oneself or to another.
     Obsession is an intense fixation on particular thoughts or ideas that are troubling to the person being affected.
     Oppression refers to physical blows or infirmities caused by demons.
     Infestation refers to demonic activity in a particular location.
     Possession refers to demonic control of a person’s body.
     Note that temptations are a general part of ordinary human psychology, and that the term obsessions is not limited to the literature of exorcism but is also used in psychiatric terminology. Thus it can be problematic to judge where psychology ends and demonic influence begins. For example, a psychologist must wonder whether a person is obsessed with particular thoughts because of psychological defenses created in response to a childhood trauma or whether the obsessions have a demonic origin—or whether they may be both.
     Consequently, this nebulous distinction between the psychological and the demonic illustrates the close connection between trauma and evil.

4. Keep in mind that the “door” to evil influence is opened as much by self-hatred as by hatred for others.

5. Lust, too, is a powerful attraction for demons. In fact all sinful passions that the Church fathers have warned against open a person to demonic influence. Just keep in mind that anger, which is not technically a passion (unlike wrath, which is anger inflamed with defiant infuriation) is the psychological basis for all the sinful passions. Why? Well, the desire to harm or defile any aspect of God’s creation is a desire to harm God—and the desire to harm God is what sin is all about.

 

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