Meditations on Satan: Part 3

Note: This essay comes from a larger work that narrates experiences I had while I lived alone in a midwestern farmhouse. During that time, I also worked as a caregiver for disabled adults who live at a group home I call Tappan. (Tappan is the name of the house’s street.)  In the next few pages, you’ll read about Silas the Barber.  He is an autistic, semi-violent resident of Tappan, who tried to shave himself, in the bathtub, after irritation and fatigue had diverted my attention elsewhere.  Among other things, Silas tried to shave his head, and he ended up looking as if he had hacked at himself with a cheese grater.

Part III. Attraction

Rooftop

During the mornings in the middle of fall, sparrows came to my roof. They pecked the gutters for insects, and the sound of them was like rain. I worked the morning shifts at Tappan.  It was Indian summer, and everything reached with light.

On a Wednesday, just after dawn, I stepped out of the house. I moved to the side before I realized why.  It was a black snake with yellow speckles. It dangled, head first, from the drainage pipe that descended from the roof I like to sit on. The first part of the snake sprawled two feet away from the pipe, so that its head nearly touched the doormat. I stood five feet away, in the side yard.  The snake flicked its tongue in a fashion that was slower than I expected. I tried to breathe normally.  The creature was non-venomous–probably a king snake.  Over the past few weeks, I had taught myself to recognize a variety of locals. I leaned forward, and rested my hands on my knees.  The snake directed itself backward, until it vanished, up the drainage pipe.   

I checked the grass, if only because one snake reminded me that there were others. The roof burst with sparrows.  They rose and scattered before I could even collect what I was seeing. This is what I had hoped for when I’d rented the house:  this astonishment.  Emerson says that no one expected the days to be gods. No one expected any of this.

Over the next few weeks, I sat on my roof at least once a day–motionless, trying to read. I couldn’t concentrate for more than a paragraph at a time, because snakes generally don’t make noise, and I didn’t want that thing to come up the drainage pipe and get too close without my knowing. But I did want it to approach.  I can’t explain why.  According to Carl, I could take a light and a bucket into the basement and bring up snakes like water from a well.  But that was different; it was too direct. Out here, there was space and sunlight.  And I could always go inside, and shut the door.

Dr. Peck died a-tremble. He said once that “evil is so extremely reluctant to be studied.” But we have tried for literal ages, and at length; this essay was supposed to be twenty pages long.

C.S. Lewis says the Devil’s danger is that we either believe he doesn’t exist, or we spend too much time in dark fascination with his powers and his presence. While I sat on that roof, I briefly considered putting birdseed on the shingles.  Occult master, Aleister Crowley, spoke of summoning demons, and said, “it does encourage one–it is useless to deny it–to be knocked down by a demon of whose existence one was not really quite sure.” Crowley was a showman–more of a devil himself.  But I was the one sitting vigil for a snake.  I had considered even attracting a snake–with sparrows, no less.  And a snake isn’t a devil; certainly not. But insofar as this essay is a hunt for Satan, I’ve wondered at what I’m doing, and what I’ve done. 

Wilderness

At the start of his ministry, Jesus stood at the edge of the wilderness, as if it were the first of many seas. The beginning miracle of his adulthood was not his own–not in the way of the others.  The miracle is that the Spirit drove him, the way it had ridden and wrestled so many prophets. It pushed him to both isolation and temptation–which shows, for one, that the Devil’s worst assaults occurred away from humans, and not through them.  Satan, here, was not a human element.

Jesus entered the wilderness, and the heat settled on his back. From the shadows, the Devil called to him with liquid thoughts.  The wilderness sand stretched like a dynasty.  “Have you considered,” said the Father, “my Son?” And this idea, while spooky, is also important–because if possession is a seizure, its other side is offering and provocation. That is, it’s an attempt to summon.

Fascination

On December 27, 1993, TIME Magazine reported that 49 percent of Americans “believe in the existence of fallen “angels or devils.’” In May 2001, a Gallup poll found that 12 percent of Americans aren’t sure that the Devil exists; 20 percent believe that he doesn’t; and 68 percent believe that he does. In that same year, the Barna Research Group found that Latter-Day Saints are the most likely to believe in Satan as a living persona, with 59 percent of the denomination deciding he is real.  Surprisingly enough, Roman Catholics are at the bottom of the list, with only 17 percent of the denomination believing.

In 1984 the British Board of Film Classification banned showings of The Exorcist, on account of the fact that some audience members went into hysterics. The government didn’t lift the ban until 1999.  When the movie first entered theaters in 1973, Rev. Billy Graham called it evil. Janitors complained about the amount of vomit they had to mop after showings. One person even attacked the screen. A cinema manager in Berkeley, California, claimed he had two or three audience members pass out each day. Most of them were men.

Four centuries earlier, a book known as the Theatrum Diabolorum compiled essays on Satan, where a Reverend Hocker declared that 2,665, 866,746,664 devils exist. These demons included the laziness devil, the courtier’s devil, the wedlock devil, and the pantaloon devil. Two centuries before that, King Charles IV of France built the Bastille as a prison for enemies of the faith–that is, for those where were aligned with the Devil. And in 1826, the last of Europe’s inquisitions ended in Spain, where the church burned a Jew and hanged a Quaker.

None of these ebbs and flows of hysteria is in danger of attracting the Devil with goodness. Short of Peck’s clients, certain saints, Paul, and Jesus, I’ve heard of few people who are.  But this list does show that there has been plenty of belief on which the Devil could possibly feed. And it seems to me that, goodness aside, faith in the Devil must be something that would attract him–if attraction is indeed possible.  Ignatius believed in Satan.  Justin Martyr believed in Satan. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Lactantius, Augustine, Chrysostom, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, Ambrose, Cassian and Leo the Great are all Church Fathers who show belief in Satan, even if you give only a cursory look at their writings. Aquinas believed in demons, including their ability to sire monstrous children with humans.  Luther threw things at the Devil, and even enjoyed a legend where he engaged in a debate with a strange monk, until he realized the monk had bird talons for hands. Calvin believed in the Devil.  Edwards believed in the Devil.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed in the Devil. Billy Graham, N.T. Wright, and Marcus Borg believe in at least some form of Satan.  Rowan Williams probably does.  As with his remarks about all manner of international tragedies, Pat Robertson created utter slander in the name of the Devil. Cardinal Jacques Martin writes a memoir in which Pope John Paul II exorcised the Devil in 1982.  And according to The Ratzinger Report, Pope Benedict XVI declares that “Whatever the less discerning theologians may say, the devil. . . is a puzzling but real, personal and not merely symbolic presence.”  Apparently some of those “less-discerning theologians” may be Rick Warren and Jim Wallis. I can find nothing that suggests  that they believe in the Devil–although I have come across a few conservative websites that suggest they are the Devil.

This list is important, because it shows the inexplicable urge to believe in the Devil–to call out to his presence, even in spite of our better selves. This happens even to the point where if we can’t find the Devil, we will paint his likeness in someone else.  God knows that such a scare tactic offers the power to rally a cause’s troops. During the Reformation and the Counterreformation, clergy would perform fraudulent exorcisms as a way of showing their own faction’s power.

If the Devil has ever used a human, we have certainly endeavored to return the favor. We have, in other words, attempted to possess him.  Of this, there is no doubt.   But still, for the purposes for this essay, it bears noting that the factions’ exorcisms were fake. Louden and Louviers, France, were infamous for such charades. And the artifice of all this means, at first blush, that the mere belief in the Devil is not enough to make him appear. It make sense, of course, that he wouldn’t offer himself for use as a religious man’s prop. But perhaps more significant is the fact that he wouldn’t approach the crowds of onlookers who quailed from his power. I don’t think he did, anyway.  At least not in the fashion that anyone expected.

Serpent

Sometimes, during my two years in the farmhouse, I would cross the cow pastures to Nellie’s house, where she would show me her poetry books and feed me more food than I had ever seen, even on Christmas. Before she noticed the snake in its diamond sweater–decades before–she found a snake sunning itself on her driveway.  She doesn’t remember what kind.  “Long,” she told me.  She had just moved to the country from Chicago. Her husband was at work at the hospital.  So she got into her avocado Park Avenue, adjusted her mirrors and backed over the snake four times.  “I hated them,” she said.  “Hate.” 

She told me how, in Africa, Albert Schweitzer used to cut a hole in his chicken coop. A snake would infiltrate the coop, eat the eggs, and lie there, “like a rosary” (wrote Schweitzer), too stuffed to get out the hole it had entered. Schweitzer would then cut off the head.

Albert Schweitzer loved animals probably as much as he loved humanity itself. A friend once brushed an ant off Schweitzer’s collar, and Schweitzer said, “That’s my ant!” Still, he seems to have killed snakes with comparatively little thought–or worse yet, with thoughtful creativity.

William Sloan Coffin once said that “if you hate evil more than you love good, then you simply become a damn good hater.” I don’t think this problem especially afflicted Schweitzer; snakes are a danger in Africa.  However, it might be the very thing that had driven my neighbor to flatten her visitor. Part of the hatred probably came from fear.  And if this is true for snakes, it definitely resonates with how we react to greater threats.  As far as Satan is concerned, fear of the Devil comes from a lack of faith in God. We don’t trust grace to keep us safe.  And we’ve seen how this doubt in God has granted Satan the advantage a few times before.  The term “God fearing” originally meant “God obeying.”  So it’s not hard to decide what “Satan-fearing” can mean.

Sociologist, Paul Carus, claims that the witch trials started in the era of Constantine. This began the string of monstrosities we committed in effort to fend off the Monster himself. In fact, the Inquisitor manual, The Hammer of Witches, claims that the highest blasphemy is to reject the idea of Devil worship. I’ve read an account of witch hunters who used a rope to raise a pregnant woman to the ceiling, and drop her to the floor. They did this over and over, for the better part of a day.  As late as 1808, when the French invaded Toledo, they opened a dungeon, and found a device that looked like a statue of Mary. The wardens would bring heretics to the statue, move them to confess, and then encourage them to embrace the Virgin in repentance.  An engineer had spring-loaded the statue.  The penitent would throw himself on Mary’s mercy, and her hidden blades would impale him. I can think of few things more Satanic than this.    

If fear of Satan can produce hell on Earth, the solution, for some, has been to disavow the Devil altogether. Friedrich Schleiermacher declares that Satan is “untenable. . . unessential to the Christian belief in God.”  Theologian, Daniel Schenkel, says the Devil simply amounts to a collection of everything bad. And this feels incredibly sane.  In fact, it brings relief.  The trouble is that this stance also brings a large part of the Gospels into question.  We end up declaring that Jesus is real, while the Devil is not. Not as a persona, anyway.  And I don’t know how far it is to go from here to the idea that Satan is simply the dark side of humanity.  And once we get to this point, we start to make evil only as large as humanity. This is a problem that I’ve mentioned before, but it has special relevance here:  It gives us the illusion that because evil comes from us, we can be evil’s master. 

During World War II, the American magazine, The Christian Century, became a forum for theological debate over whether the United States should enter the conflict. There were many who believed that economic pressure and diplomatic stances would be enough to appeal to Germany’s better nature. It was finally Reinhold Niebuhr who declared that this faith in human goodness–this faith in our mastery of evil–was what caused us to wait until the conflict had become a cataclysm. Now, war had become the only way to stop war’s own momentum.  We had no choice but to render evil for evil.  In short, we had condemned ourselves to unavoidable sin.  We had gotten here by underestimating the potential for evil in the Germans. And we had started it all by underestimating the potential for evil that dwelled in the people who codified the treaty at Versailles.  In short, we had flattered both ourselves and our brethren. And if evil appealed to our fear during the Inquisition, here it preyed on our pride.

Fear and pride are traditionally the Devil’s twin knives. The modus operandi points to him.  Furthermore, it seems that if anything would attract him, it would indeed be these things. And still, I can’t rightly tell you if this characterization of the Devil comes from a study of Satan himself or from a study of evil in general. I admit there is a difference; the latter phenomenon, for one, is much easier to prove.  In even the deepest abysses of human history, we have never–as far as I know–encountered something non-human: in spite of the urban myth, the birds still sing at Auschwitz.  Perhaps this is because God is still at Auschwitz.  But we must leave this for another conversation. 

What we know at the moment is that if we attract the Devil at all, we invite a subtle approach–the same way that if oppression is a form of possession, it is sly in how human it appears. Again, I reach an inconclusive conclusion.  I cannot prove that we can inadvertently attract the Devil.  Even concerning fear, even concerning pride, I can only show that they might conjure a kind of devilishness. This is somewhat comforting. But God knows that this devilishness is vicious enough; we can do a convincing imitation of Darkness. And maybe Satan himself knows that if he does exist, that an imitation–even an accidental imitation–would lavishly serve him. This way, he stays hidden.  He doesn’t disclose himself as the enemy.  And yet he still manages to get people to act as the enemy of God. With this concealment, he matches another trait that the Bible assigns him.  That is to say, he lies. 

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