Lenten Thoughts

Our Fathers in Faith, without exception, believed that Satan is real and is to be overcome

Modern western Christians often like to persuade themselves that there is no real and personal Devil, but wishful thinking of that kind wouldn’t wash with our Church Fathers and doesn’t square with Gospel accounts of the Gadarene swine or of Jesus’s own temptations in the wilderness. C.S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters insists that nothing suits the Devil’s purpose better than our refusal to belief in him. Our denial makes his self-imposed task of dismantling creation so much easier!

Nevertheless, a relativist, allegorical interpretation of the most fundamental propositions of our Faith has great allure. It’s literally awful to think of the existence of a malign force in the world; far more comfortable to believe that all evil arises from what we might call natural causes: our own selfishness, for example, and our greed for physical possessions and power over others. These motivations are grim enough — nobody denies them — but are they sufficient to explain why bad things happen too often to good people? If we take allegory too far, are we not in danger turning our Faith into a charming and cozy myth?

A friend recently copied to me a letter from the distinguished protestant writer Vishal Mangalwadi to the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, in which he warned the government that certain populist Hindu practices are diabolical and therefore exceedingly dangerous. It is fascinating for a Westerner to read correspondence between an Indian Christian and a Hindu about matters that seem utterly alien to us, yet uncannily remind us of so much in St. Paul’s letters to the churches.

Here’s a meditation for Lent. Is the discipline of Lent just about self-restraint and generosity to others? Is it just a spiritual get-fit-quick course? Or are we contending with dark and malicious powers? The worry for those of us who hope for a naturalistic explanation of evil is that our founders and leaders in the Faith, without exception, believed that Satan was real, and was to be overcome at all costs.

Despite constraint on space, I cannot resist quoting this wonderful hymn in full. It was written in about 700 by St. Andrew of Crete and translated into English by John Mason Neale:

Christian, dost thou see them
On the holy ground,
How the troops of Midian
Prowl and prowl around?
Christian, up and smite them,
Counting gain but loss;
Smite them by the merit
Of the holy cross.

Christian, dost thou feel them,
How they work within,
Striving, tempting, luring,
Goading into sin?
Christian, never tremble,
Never be downcast;
Smite them by the virtue
of the Lenten fast.

Christian, dost thou hear them,
How they speak thee fair?
“Always fast and vigil,
Always watch and prayer?”
Christian, answer boldly,
“While I breathe I pray”;
Peace shall follow battle,
Night shall end in day.

“Well I know thy trouble,
O my servant true,
Thou art very weary;
I was weary too.
But that toil shall make thee
Some day all mine own,
And the end of sorrow
Shall be near my throne.”

The melody it’s usually sung to is literally monotonous for the first three lines of each stanza, but at the words “Christian, up and smite them!” it soars stirringly. You can easily find sung versions on YouTube and you’ll be impressed.

 

David Daintree was President of Campion College (Australia’s only Catholic liberal arts college) from 2008 to 2012. In 2013 he founded and is now Director of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, under the patronage of the Archbishop of Hobart.

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