For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)
Years ago, when I was Protestant I had two spiritual experiences — one evil, one holy — that pushed me toward the Catholic Church. Before I tell the stories, I should emphasize that I am not the type of person who spiritualizes everything. I tend to be practical in my analysis of situations and likely even go too far in de-spiritualizing events. I don’t hear heavenly voices, and I don’t have visions. But these two events were so profound that even a naturally skeptical person like me couldn’t downplay or deny their spiritual aspects.
The Face of Evil
The first experience happened while I was in college praying in front of an abortion clinic with a few dozen other pro-lifers. Some pro-abortion college students came to counter-protest our prayer vigil. This was in the early 1990s, at the height of clinic blockades and pro-life activism, so there was a sizable police presence there to keep things under control.
Once the clinic closed for the day, most people left, including the police. A few Catholic friends and I decided to stay a bit longer and keep praying. Some of the pro-abortion students also stayed. Not surprisingly, the pro-aborts taunted us with crude and juvenile remarks. But after about 10 to 20 minutes, the mood seemed to shift as darkness fell. Their chants, which had been the standard fare “Not the Church, Not the State, Women Must Decide Their Fate” and other such nonsense, became more antagonistic, then downright evil. They spewed all types of blasphemies against Our Lord and Our Lady (their attacks on Our Lady were curious to me as a Protestant at the time, since I viewed her as mostly unimportant to my Christian faith). Their blasphemies made it clear that this was no longer a conflict simply over abortion; it was a conflict between good and evil.
Most of us knelt in prayer as the pro-aborts began to circle us and in a lower voice chanted, “Kill the Christians, kill the Christians” and “Bring back the lions.” The other (Catholic) pro-lifers continued to pray their rosaries. But I started to get spooked and even a bit frightened for our physical safety. I looked up into the eyes of one of the pro-aborts; what I saw was blackness and evil. There was no question in my mind that this person was possessed. I don’t mean figuratively, but literally possessed by a demon. I believe that all the pro-aborts there that night were.
I quickly looked away and glanced at the other pro-lifers. One, a young lady from our college group was on her knees praying her rosary. A pro-abort young man approached her, then stood over her and began yelling disgusting and blasphemous things at her. Yet she completely ignored him with a peaceful look on her face as she prayed. I asked myself: What was it that gave this young woman the ability to face evil so peacefully? I couldn’t help but think it was somehow related to the simple plastic beads in her hands. The image of this encounter sticks with me to this day. (The fact that the young woman eventually became my wife might have admittedly given it more staying power.)
It was on this night that I realized that evil is real, and it is personal. Evil is not just an abstract concept, but a personal force actively working against our good. As St. Peter wrote, “[y]our adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). I also came to another realization that night: I had no ability to resist that evil. Not only did I not have any personal power against evil (no one does), but I didn’t have within my spiritual tradition any significant tools for combating evil on this scale. But the Catholics did. They had no more personal power than me, but they were better equipped than I was. Through the rosary, and through their regular reception of the sacraments, they were far more prepared to face evil.
My Lord and My God!
The second spiritual experience happened a few months later. At this point, I had intellectually accepted the teachings of the Church but had not yet been received into the Church. I decided to go on a Catholic retreat, which, unbeknownst to me, was to include Eucharistic adoration. I had not only never attended adoration before, but didn’t even know what it was. As we entered the church the second night, I was under the understanding that we were going to have some praise and worship. Instead, after a few songs, a priest entered and exposed the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance. Intellectually, I had no idea what was going on. But, like a flash, I understood: this is my Lord! This is my God! Like St. Thomas, I was given a revelation, and it was abundantly clear that the Eucharist was truly the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
If my experience at the abortion clinic was a direct contact with evil, then this experience of adoration was a direct contact with Good. I knew then, at a level beyond the intellect, that God exists and that He is All-Goodness. Taken together with my experience of evil months before, I also realized that there was a terrible battle going on, both in the world and in my soul, between good and evil. And I was woefully unprepared. My Protestant upbringing, while pointing out the importance of Jesus and the Sacred Scriptures, did not have the spiritual depth needed for engaging “against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places,” as St. Paul describes our enemies. I needed serious spiritual weaponry, the kind found in the Catholic Church. I needed the Sacraments, I needed the deep spiritual tradition of the saints, and I needed the sacramentals like the rosary.
Put On the Armor of God
I tell these stories because they have been a constant reminder to me — a natural skeptic — that we are engaged at all times in a spiritual battle. If we look at the current battles both inside and outside the Church as primarily political or earthly battles, then we have already lost. The sexual abuse scandal that has plagued the Church for decades is fought not with charters or other legalities. The rampant heresy among the hierarchy, clergy, and laity isn’t overcome with new catechetical programs. These problems are fought primarily with prayer, fasting, and contending with dark forces directly. What we see is only the tip of the evil iceberg. Even if we cut down that tip, we’ll still crash into the greater, hidden part of the iceberg.
Widespread liturgical abuse, rampant homosexuality in the priesthood, corrupt bishops, epidemic heterodoxy throughout the Church — all these things have spiritual origins, and all of them require spiritual solutions. This isn’t an excuse to sit on the sidelines and “just” pray, and it’s not a way of negating personal responsibility on the part of wrongdoers. It is to remind us that without prayer, the rosary, voluntary mortification, and the sacraments, our fight is futile and already lost. If you are a Catholic concerned about the direction of the Church, then be sure to spend at least an hour a day in prayer. And use the “equipment” the Church supplies us: the rosary, sacramentals, and especially regular reception of the Sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion. Then you can engage in battle fully equipped against your enemies.
Our battle is not against flesh and blood; it is against dark spiritual forces. Until we recognize our real enemies and face them head-on, we will never see the renewal of the Church we all so ardently desire.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications. He is the author of eight books, including Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission and How We Can Reclaim It.