Saints

How 17 Saints Fought the Devil and Lived to Tell the Tale

Dr. Paul Thigpen talks about his new book, "Saints Who Battled Satan"

France, Paris, Snake symbolising temptation.

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Scripture, Church teaching and the writings of Church fathers and doctors affirm the existence of the Devil and other demons. So do the lives of the saints, and a new book by Dr. Paul Thigpen, called Saints Who Battled Satan, focuses on 17 of them — holy men and women whose battles with the demonic provide lessons and encouragement for Christians today.

Thigpen, editor of TAN Books, has published more than 40 books and hundreds of journal and magazine articles. A graduate of Yale University, he earned his PhD from Emory University and served on the faculty of several universities and colleges. Formerly an ordained Protestant pastor, Thigpen entered the Catholic Church in 1993. He recently spoke to Aleteia about Saints Who Battled Satan, which is a follow up to his recent book, Manual for Spiritual Warfare

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Zoe Romanowsky: Many saints have wrestled with the devil or dealt with the evil one in some way. How did you choose which saints’ stories to highlight?

Paul Thigpen: It wasn’t easy! But several factors entered into the decision. First, to emphasize the universality of spiritual combat, I wanted to include saints from a variety of cultures and historical periods. The saints I chose hailed from two dozen nations in Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and South America. They represent every century since the time of Our Lord, except for the current (and infant) 21st century.

A second factor was my concern to have stories and quotes that illustrate the principles laid out in [my previous book] Manual for Spiritual Warfare. I wanted readers to encounter real men and women who experienced both the ordinary and the extraordinary activity of the Devil, so they could see more clearly how he tempts and taunts and provokes us. I also wanted readers to see how the saints have employed spiritual weapons such as prayer, Scripture, the sacraments and sacramentals; how their virtues have served as their spiritual armor and how they have called on the assistance of their Commander, Jesus Christ, and their comrades in battle: the saints who had gone before them, especially Our Lady; the angels and their fellow Christians on earth.

A final factor in selection was, of course, the availability of biographical information relevant to spiritual warfare. For each of the saints, I needed access to texts that provided enough information for an entire chapter. Even so, because there were some great brief anecdotes and quotes from other saints that were too good to leave out, I added additional sections for these.

What are a couple of the most common ways Satan tempts or accosts us?

We typically can discern that a thought comes to us from outside ourselves when it comes by way of our senses: We see (perhaps read) it or hear it. But demons have no bodies, so they can communicate thoughts directly into our minds, bypassing the senses. This is a kind of stealth strategy, because if we aren’t discerning, we may assume that the thoughts they insinuate into our minds are actually our own thoughts, so we “own” them.

Satan typically tries to influence us through deception; accusation; doubts (especially about God or his love for us); provocation (to pride, anger, lust, despair, and more) and enticement (to desire what is forbidden, or to desire what is in itself good, but would be obtained by illicit means).

Is there a saint that stands out as having an unusual or innovative way of dealing with Satan?

I recall how one day the Devil sought to tempt St. Benedict to lust. The evil spirit brought to his remembrance an attractive woman he once knew, and the memory began to enflame his heart. Benedict was almost overcome by the passion. Just in time, he saw a nearby thicket full of nettles and briars. So he stripped off his habit and threw himself naked into the midst of those sharp, stinging thorns. He rolled around in them until his body was scratched all over — and the temptation was gone.

Are there certain saints we should turn to for certain kinds of temptations or problems, and can give you provide a couple of examples? 

Catholic tradition encourages us to appeal for assistance to saints who fought battles similar to ours. So when tempted to lust, I would choose St. Benedict; when provoked to anger, I would call on St. Jerome; when struggling with vainglory, St. Ignatius Loyola; discouragement, St. Teresa of Ávila; despair, St. (Padre) Pio; and so on.

If you could put a “spiritual toolkit” together and send it to people so they can combat and keep Satan away, what would be in it?

Well, I guess that’s precisely what I intended when I wrote a Manual for Spiritual Warfare. It provides an overview of the Church’s teaching about how we engage in spiritual combat, and it offers some “aids in battle” from the Church’s tradition: relevant magisterial teaching, scriptural texts, words and anecdotes from the lives of the saints, prayers, devotions and hymns.

What virtues are the most important in keeping evil at bay, and how do use them, in practical ways, to protect ourselves?

Since ancient times, a number of wise Christian spiritual advisors have counseled that humility is foundational for the virtues; it’s the soil in which all the other virtues grow. So I would emphasize that one above all others.

As a practical example of how humility can protect us from the snares of the Devil, consider the story told among the ancient fathers and mothers of the desert about a humble monk who was once in his cell praying. The Devil appeared to him disguised as an angel of light to tempt him to pride. He announced: “I am the angel Gabriel, and I have been sent to you!” But the humble monk was not deceived. He replied simply: “Better check and see: You must have been sent to someone else. I’m not worthy that an angel should be sent to me.” And so the Devil vanished — vanquished by the monk’s humility.

Why does Satan seem to “bug” some people more than others?

One pattern I noticed in the saints’ lives is this: If the Devil fears that someone will be doing great damage to his infernal kingdom, he goes after that person furiously. When St. Anthony demonstrated his resolve to live as a holy hermit in the desert, when St. Catherine consecrated herself to Christ as a child, when St. (Padre) Pio first entered the Capuchin religious order, that’s when the Enemy of their souls did his worst to stop them. He knew that if he could stymie such men and women, he could compromise the great works God had given them to do.

I think we should take comfort in that knowledge. If the Devil is fiercely opposing us, perhaps it means that God has great plans to use us. On the other hand, we should keep in mind the warning of St. John Vianney: “The greatest of all evils is not to be tempted, because then there are grounds for believing that the Devil looks upon us as his property.”

How can we know what comes from Satan and what doesn’t? How do we prevent ourselves from getting paranoid and overly focused on the evil one?

Scripture speaks of our ongoing battles with the world, the flesh and the Devil (see James 4:1–7). It’s true that at times our struggles with the flesh and the world may not be directly provoked by the Devil’s interference. Still, he takes advantage of those struggles and seeks to establish a stronger presence in our lives through them. So we need to pay close attention to his movements.

I think that if we can establish a habit of recognizing the source of our thoughts, the better part of the battle will be won. That kind of discernment is cultivated through the usual spiritual disciplines recommended to us by the Church: frequent prayer, Mass attendance and Eucharistic Adoration; regular reception of the sacraments (specially the Eucharist and Reconciliation); Scripture study (and even memorization) and wise counsel from trusted advisors.

Another pattern I noticed in the lives of the saints is their notable refusal to become paranoid about the Enemy. They were able to maintain confidence and courage because they were convinced, as St. John tells us, that greater is the God who is within us than the Evil One who is in the world (see 1 John 4:4). Though they took the Devil seriously, they also showed a kind of holy contempt for him, because they knew he is ultimately a defeated foe.

For this reason, despite sometimes intense, physically violent combat, some of the saints had playful nicknames for the evil spirit that tormented them. St. Catherine called him “the pickpocket” (because he tried to steal souls). St. Pio called him the “ogre.” St. Gemma Galgani called him “chiappino” (“burglar”). St. John Vianney called him “grappin” (“wrestler”). “Oh, the grappin and myself?” he once joked. “We are almost buddies!”

What do you think is the best way to convince someone that Satan exists and is operative?

When speaking with secular people, I would have them consider first the accumulated evidence of confirming testimony. Throughout history, people of vastly different cultures around the globe have affirmed the reality of evil spirits — even when they have disagreed about most other spiritual realities. Many of our contemporaries as well, who by any reasonable standard are intelligent and in their right mind, have testified to having encounters with demonic powers. It’s a kind of universal witness.

No doubt, some types of mental and physical illness have been wrongly attributed to demons, today as in the past. Nor can we deny that superstitions and legends about evil spirits abound. But these misguided ideas about the Devil don’t in themselves prove that he doesn’t exist, just as age-old beliefs about a flat earth don’t prove that our planet doesn’t exist.

Skeptics may demand “scientific” evidence. But what kind of relevant evidence would scientists be capable of measuring? The natural sciences measure time, matter, energy, and motion; the social sciences analyze human behavior. Demons have no physical bodies, and they aren’t human. We can’t put them in test tubes or subject them to psychoanalysis.

The most, then, that scientists can do is observe the effects of demons on the physical world or on human behavior. But the prevailing mentality among scientists will press them to seek other explanations for such phenomena, even when these explanations are utterly inadequate.

When speaking with Catholics, I would appeal to the numerous passages in the Bible that testify to the existence of the Devil and his evil allies. The Gospel accounts in particular record that Jesus Christ himself conversed with Satan. Our Lord’s debate with the Devil in the wilderness was not simply some inner dialogue with himself about temptation.

Christ referred to demons on a number of occasions, and casting evil spirits out of those who were possessed was a striking and indispensable aspect of his mission. Of course, some interpreters have claimed that when Christ cast out evil spirits, he was simply healing a physical or mental disorder misunderstood as demonic possession. But we need only reply that on at least one occasion, at Christ’s command, the demons left their human host to take possession of animals instead. You can’t cast a medical disorder out of a man into a pig.

The reality of demonic powers has been a constant doctrine of the Catholic Church ever since it was founded by Christ through his apostles. They and their successors spoke and wrote about Satan repeatedly. Through the centuries, the great teachers of the Church have consistently affirmed that he is real.

Satan’s existence has also been affirmed in authoritative declarations by popes and Church councils. He’s referred to in the liturgy of the Church. And as this book demonstrates, throughout the centuries numerous saints, whose moral integrity and mental health could hardly be debated, have testified to personal battles with demonic assailants.

In light of all this, to deny the existence of evil spirits seems to me to be an act of blind faith or wishful thinking in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

saints who battled

Zoe Romanowsky is lifestyle editor and video content producer at Aleteia.