By Adam Blai
There are many personal journeys to God, but they all pass through Jesus. The Christian life starts with Baptism—being made into an adopted child of God—then develops over the course of a person’s life into the ministry appointed by God for that person. The gifts to perform that ministry are given at Baptism and further activated at Confirmation. The depth of a person’s spirituality and how close their relationship to God grows is dependent on God’s grace and that person’s cooperation with that grace.
We see three main places where this Christian spiritual life is mapped out: the Bible, the Church Fathers (St. Anthony of the Desert, Evagrius Ponticus, and others), and the Carmelite saints (St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Ávila, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux). Usually, people first wrestle with the “sins of the flesh,” meaning the basic drives of the body to pleasure. Then they wrestle with the mind, with the memories and the imaginations that arise from the passions of the body. Once the passions are extinguished the person goes into the desert (figuratively or sometimes literally) to face the devil personally, no longer through veils.
It is usually not a problem to meet the needs of the body; the problems come when we are enslaved by our needs and go from urge to urge without applying reason. When we do this, we are more like an animal than a human being. The first stage of the Christian spiritual life is to wrestle with the tendency to thoughtlessly pursue every urge without considering the consequences to us or others. We must first make this process conscious so we can consider it. This is why we fast. By fasting in some reasonable way, we force that urge into view and we see to what extent we are unconsciously letting it control us. The point is not to suffer, but to teach us that we are not brute animals helpless to selfishly respond to every urge of the body. This cannot be learned intellectually; it must be learned though the experience of mindfully waking up to what we are actually doing and why.
This process of wrestling with the yoke that might otherwise dominate our lives helps us in a number of ways. We realize that we will not die if we don’t obey the body immediately in all things—that we are not babies anymore. By forcing the choice to act into reason by denying it, we gain the time to reflect on the consequences. We can look at the consequences for ourselves, for our future, and for others. The other thing that happens with most urges is that they weaken in a short time if denied, and as they fade our minds becomes stronger and the urges become weaker. Of course, physical appetite is just one place to practice this; the general insights and spiritual strength is then applied to more subtle drives. This process of exercising the will and driving our choices into the light of reason then reveals the next level: where the urge is coming from.
It is good and necessary to eat. It is when an urge becomes corrupted or blown out of proportion that it is a problem. Most of us eat far more than we need to. Why is that? The urge to eat has become corrupted by advertising, or by a certain experience, or by dealing with emotional pain by eating. Over time the natural urge may get larger and larger, and more deformed. The extremes of this are the eating disorders and obesity.
There are four places an urge can come from: its natural source (eat to live), memory (recalling a great food and now wanting to have it again), imagination (thinking of some new food experience), and demons. Something goes from a natural need to a passion or obsession when we allow our memory or imagination to become dominated by it. By either focusing on a particular fantasy or constantly being reminded of related fantasies, we can allow a passion to dominate us more and more. We can see this in many areas: eating problems, excessive drinking, use of pornography, sex addiction, gambling, and others. The key sign is that the passion is dominating the person without any effective rational thought or choice involved; they feel enslaved by their desires and cannot seem to make healthy choices related to them.
In order for morality to develop, the person must first learn that they are a rational being that can make choices about their actions. By stopping the cycle of blindly obeying every urge, the person not only becomes aware of themselves, but they also buy time in the midst of the urge to see where it is coming from.
This is the second stage of the spiritual life: identifying and removing the underlying disordered passions that drive bad behavior. Most disordered passions are natural urges that have been corrupted or inflamed beyond their usual nature. Wrestling with passions leads to insights about them—intellectual consideration usually does not. Jesus alludes to this when he points out that we must go deeper than the prohibitions of the Ten Commandments: it is not just resisting a sin but quenching the desire to sin that is important (Mt 5:28: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”).
Once the passions are identified and made conscious, they tend to lose most of their power. By making ourselves aware of disordered passions, we bring them into the light and are empowered to make choices about them. We will never be completely free of urges, but they are often greatly diminished and so much easier to address and control.
In the end it is clear that what is important in all of these cases, in this whole topic, is our relationship with God. It isn’t really about what prayers we use, or if we understand the particular ways demons operate. It is about repentance, learning about God, and engaging in a personal relationship with Him. For the Catholic that means participating in the sacramental life, regular sincere prayer, and the spiritual life we have discussed here. Not everyone is called to make that whole journey; we all make it to varying degrees in different areas of our lives and struggles.
Adam Blai is a Peritus of religious demonology and exorcism for the Pittsburgh diocese. He has been an auxiliary member of the International Association of Exorcists in Rome for a number of years. Blai is the author of Hauntings, Possessions, and Exorcisms, a field guide to defense against the demonic.