Editor’s Note: if you missed part 1 of Joe’s reflections on evil, you can read it by clicking here.
Teaching high school sophomores some basic points of morality can be challenging. Especially when it requires some self-reflection on their part. “Are humans evil?” I ask them. “Of course not,” they say. Still I persist: “but there is evil in the world, right?” “Well, I guess…” they reply.
Unless I ask about Hitler. Then discussing evil gets exciting. “He’s evil all right!” one pipes up. “Oh, he’s definitely in hell!” another vehemently adds. It’s just then that I pull one of the old teacher questions out of the bag of tricks, I ask them: if we all know Hitler’s so evil, how did he win over the hearts of these otherwise good-natured, non-evil people? How did he convince them to cooperate in such evil?
In the first part of these reflections on evil I suggested that evil has a way of lurking in the shadows. What at first appears to be no thing may, in fact, be something. It was similar to the quip C.S. Lewis once famously offered, the devil (a suitable stand in for evil), he said, succeeds in two ways. First, by convincing us that he’s more powerful than he actually is. And second, by convincing us that he doesn’t exist.
I find the second suggestion chillingly provocative.
At the close of that last piece I mentioned a moment in the first Letter of Peter where we read about an evil that is on the prowl, ready to devour us at any turn. In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius echoes Peter’s take on evil. For Ignatius, evil takes the form of a spirit, what he calls the “enemy of human nature.” Ignatius writes that the evil spirit, “roaming about, looks in turn at all our virtues… and where he finds us weakest and most in need for our eternal salvation, there he attacks us and aims at taking us” [Sp. Ex. §327].
I think Ignatius and St. Pete are onto something. I’m not at my best when I’m worn down, tired, and my guard is down. When my patience is threadbare it seems to me like the character flaws and limitations of others stand out all the more. It’s like they’re crying out for someone – anyone! – to point them out. Over the years I’ve learned that this critical tendency is one way the evil spirit attacks me. It whispers in my heart: “find the bad – and dwell on it.”
By drawing my attention elsewhere (like to the faults of others), I am conveniently able to avoid allowing that same revealing light to make visible my own wounds and darkness. I’d rather throw someone else to the proverbial lion than expose myself by carefully scrutinizing what’s going on within me. I’d sooner close the interrogation circle around bumbling Peter than recognize that the Peter in the painting is me.
When I take Peter’s advice, when I’m watchful and attentive, I catch myself going down that road and am able to say, “Whoa, Nelly.” It’s just then that I am ready to hear the good spirit say, “so, how are you doing these days, Joe? …no, really, how are you doing?”
So what does all this say about evil?
It says to me that evil is that strangely familiar force that makes us feel at home in the darkness. It’s not easy to face the shadows and sins in our lives. We avoid doing it, because there’s a risk. Like cleaning out spoiled leftovers in the fridge, we dread what rottenness we may find in the darkness of our hearts. So we avoid it, preferring soothing self-delusion to the possible shame and despair that comes – at first – with facing our darkness.
But here’s what’s absolutely important to remember. We don’t face our shadows by wallowing in the dark, reveling in our prison of mistakes like the self-absorbed Narcissus. No, we face our shadows by turning our gaze upwards, asking that light to dispel them. We lift our heads to remember that we are created in goodness, and designed for goodness.
When we step into the light, we step more fully into ourselves.
If we are brave enough to do this, we should be ready for some pushback from the evil one. When we try to pursue goodness, Ignatius writes: “it is the way of the evil spirit to bite, sadden and put up obstacles, disquieting with false reasons, that one may not go on” [Sp. Exx. §315].
I remember reading those words of Ignatius and feeling like he had read my journals – “how did he know what my experience was so clearly?” I asked. I think the simple, and true, answer is that he knew because we are not alone in the temptations we undergo. No, in this we are all just alike and can see ourselves in our neighbor’s experience.
We feel disquieted and out-of-sorts when we let our shortcomings drag us down more than they should. And when we let the day-to-day challenges of work steal our patience and obscure life’s big picture. We feel bitten and saddened when annoyances at home make us forget to “lead with love.” And we’ll be forever frustrated when we avoid a hard truth that might open up ourselves or a loved one. We feel “not quite ourselves” when we revel in the self-serving shadows, convinced that there’s no danger lurking there. Or we remain discouraged when we wallow in the shadows of self-doubt, convinced that there’s no good to be found there.
That’s when evil wins. That’s where we feed the lion. Rather than going away because he has been resisted, he comes back for more. After all, don’t we all return to the place were we know there is ample food to be found?
Maybe, after all this talk of evil, you’re feeling a little heavy, a little spiritually unsettled. A little, well, “not yourself.” I just want to encourage you, if you’re feeling it right now, not to fear this unsettledness.
I say not to fear it because it can lead you back to your true self, back to what God created you for – for goodness. For where there is sin and despair, strength and consolation abound all the more – if we would only step into the light. The Good Spirit, writes Ignatius, “gives courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations and quiet,” support that one might go on in goodness [Sp. Ex. §315].
Some of the best advice I got to combat the evil spirit, who is always on the prowl?
Find the good – and praise it.