How the Devil Made Me Keep My Faith

Recollections from a demon-filled Catholic childhood.

As a kid, I slept with the rosary under my pillow to protect me from Satan, who supposedly could enter my mind or body during times of slumber or spiritual doubt. I hated to be alone, especially after watching William Friedkin’s film The Exorcist. I lived in fear that the Devil would possess me, inhabit my body, control me like a rag doll, and terrorize me until I died painfully and without dignity.

Somewhere along the line — maybe in CCD (Catholic Sunday School), maybe from friends — I learned that the Devil was the most powerful force on the planet. He read my darkest thoughts and knew my doubts. The Bible warned me: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the Devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). I didn’t need proof of his existence or his power. Satan had slipped into my young brain and was reinforced with stories and Bible quotes before I was even capable of skepticism.

It seems silly now, I know, but the fear that I had felt of the Prince of Darkness kept me in check — and kept my faith strong throughout my childhood and teenage years.

The Devil has always been important to the Roman Catholic Church. The earliest Hebrews may not have personified evil, but as Jewish monotheism developed, it became necessary to explain the existence of evil in a world created by a good and loving God. Lucifer, the fallen angel, reinforced the idea of a perfect deity while also terrorizing the psyches of believers. The Church, of course, has always offered protection against demons for those who are faithful.

As a Catholic neophyte, I learned that priests had the metaphysical powers to change ordinary bread into the actual body of Christ and wine into his blood. If they could change foodstuffs into a living being, it followed that they could also alter the animate. They could cast evil spirits out of people and buildings. Today we know that priests are not alchemists, sorcerers, or magicians, and yet, through the rites and rituals of Catholicism, they perform the same basic magical functions. Although the Scientific Revolution changed the way the Church viewed the material world, vestiges of the practice of alchemy still exist in Sunday Mass and in the rituals of exorcism and believers who participate in these rites. Their belief continually invests priests with these “powers.”

For me — and for many — the myth of the Devil was a powerful tool that could produce psychosomatic symptoms and intense fear. Bad behavior was attributed to the influence of Satan, as was any doubt or questioning of faith. Doubt, I was taught, was a device of Satan. The nagging, ever-present anxiety I felt could, at times, make me sick to my stomach.

Priests told me that God was good and all-powerful, but the Devil, I grew to understand, was proof that God was neither. God had created the evil that he could not defeat. Yet if an omnipotent deity did not exist, then neither did his demon. This was indeed an awakening for me: the realization that God and the Devil were just two sides of the same coin.

I lost my faith in God and his fallen angel, but the latter was much harder to lose. Fear is a potent motivator and a stubborn tenant.

I no longer sleep with a rosary under my pillow, and I don’t give men in vestments the power to change bread into body, to cleanse me of sin, or to cast out evil spirits. My demons are my own creation, and the job of exorcising them can only ever be mine.

Image via The Pug Father.

Deborah Mitchell
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  • bdlaacmm

    How sad your story made me! Such a shame that you lacked the right teachers at the time you needed them most. All of those “problems” you listed were experienced and dealt with ages before we were born. How incredible that each new generation can come up with the same old tired objections to the Faith and somehow imagine that they’re the first people to ever to think of them, and be so ignorant of the answers found (and re-found, and found yet again) so many times throughout the years.

    I hope you haven’t tossed out that rosary! The day may come when you’ll be reaching for it in your need.

    • LanceThruster

      “Theologian: An uncommon individual who, though possessing finite abilities, has been called by God himself who, though possessing infinite abilities, requires the assistance of the former in explaining Himself to the rest of us.”

      [Translation: if God existed, theologians would be out of work.] ~ “Rev” Donald Morgan

      • Martin Hughes

        I don’t know what the ‘right teachers’ would have said and I find the insistence that all objections have been answered before, with no indication of what the answers are, rather disturbing in itself. It may be that the religious teachings are the ‘tired’ element.
        However, it seems to me that many people feel that their struggles are against something that is somehow too strong for them, for others around them and for solution by scientific methods, that too much has gone wrong in the past to be corrected, at least by normal means, in the present. I think we have to take this aspect of the human condition seriously and perhaps recognise the role of demonological language and imagery in framing it. However again, this imagery is very hard to rationalise. There is no sense at all in God’s tolerating the existence of another being who exists in misery, with no no significant free will and option but to continue attempts to make life miserable for others, repeatedly failing and succeeding only when tormenting evildoers on behalf of the very God he’s supposed to be against.

        • LanceThruster

          “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
          Then he is not omnipotent.
          Is he able, but not willing?
          Then he is malevolent.
          Is he both able and willing?
          Then whence cometh evil?
          Is he neither able nor willing?
          Then why call him God?”

          ~ Epicurus

          • Martin Hughes

            Epi wouldn’t have considered himself an atheist – he just thought that the gods could not be concerned with us. They are completely happy and could not let themselves become distressed. There are variations on this thought in other important sources, as with Aristotle’s extremely detached creator, the Unmoved Mover, who is distinctly unmoved in the emotional sense, even in the Bible with Habakkuk’s ‘Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil’. Some of these variations let in sub-divine beings who may be friendly, malevolent or a bit in between – an ‘angels and demons’ version of polytheism which has quite a strong presence in Christianity. I think Deborah is pointing out that if God is everywhere and always in charge, rather than detached and ‘unmoved’, there isn’t much room for demons.
            It’s nice to meet you here, LT. I’ve valued your contributions elsewhere to discussion of the religion-related Palestine problem.

          • LanceThruster

            I consider myself both an atheist and agnostic – i.e. without a belief in any god or gods and seeing no indication/proof either way. My biggest issue is with claims of ‘revealed knowledge.’ While there certainly might be ‘something’ that I am wholly unaware of or is beyond my comprehension, the supposed ‘communications’ of this being to its creations are in my opinion, totally without merit.

            About the most I can say about the problem of evil in regards to god is the comic who said, “Sure I believe in God, it’s just that my God is a capricious prick.”

        • bdlaacmm

          ” I find the insistence that all objections have been answered before,
          with no indication of what the answers are, rather disturbing in itself.”

          Golly, how much do you expect in a short blog post?

          • Martin Hughes

            Well – not to use too many words – if someone says, in reply to an argument ‘Everyone knows you’re wrong’, and no more, then that’s a way of not listening – not much different from ‘talk to the hand’. Just a hint of a counter-argument makes a difference – what about ‘Human sins would be less forgivable if they were in not in great part the fault of demons: so it’s for our good that demons exist, miserable and futile wastes of eternity that they are’?

          • LanceThruster

            “The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.” – Joseph Conrad

  • Kyle S.

    I don’t remember Satan ever making much of an impression on me in the midst my Catholic education. Then again, neither did God–the only time I ever prayed was when I didn’t do my homework and needed a snow day to bail me out. I wonder whether I was a born skeptic or if my religious instruction was too clinical to capture my imagination the way, say, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did.

  • jbland

    I like this idea of the “Devil” when discussing “God” with those that think they believe in a god. When asked if I believe in “God” by someone who says they do, I like to respond, “No, I don’t believe in God. Do you believe in the Devil?” That usually throws them off and gets them thinking, which is kind of the point of this whole topic from my perspective.