Discerning the Diabolical Spirit

September 28, 2010 by  
Filed under Patrick's Blog

The Diabolical Spirit
By Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P. (RIP)


Normally diabolical influence on the individual Christian is restricted to simple temptation, although it is not likely that the majority of temptations proceed from the immediate and direct intervention of the devil. At other times, with God’s permission, the devil may concentrate his power on an individual by means of diabolical obsession or diabolical possession.


Diabolical Obsession. Obsession occurs whenever the devil torments a person from without and in a manner that is so intense that there can be no doubt about his presence and his action. In simple temptation the diabolical action is not so evident; absolutely speaking, it could be due to other causes. But in true and authentic obsession, the presence and activity of Satan are so clear and unequivocal that neither the soul nor the director can have the least doubt of it. The soul is aware of its own vital activity and government of its faculties, but it is at the same time clearly aware of the external activity of Satan, who tries to exert violence on the individual.


Obsession can affect the interior faculties, especially the imagination, or the external senses in various manners and degrees. The attack on the imagination differs from ordinary temptation only by reason of its violence and duration. Although it is difficult to determine exactly where simple temptation ends and true obsession begins, we can say that when the disturbance of the soul is so profound and the tendency to evil is so violent that the only possible explanation lies in some external force (even when there is nothing evident externally), it is certainly a case of diabolical obsession. It can take many different forms.


Sometimes it is manifested as a fixed idea that absorbs all the energies of the soul; at other times the images and representations are so vivid that the subject feels that he or she is dealing with concrete reality. Again, it may refer to one’s duties and obligations, toward which one feels an almost insuperable repugnance, or it may be manifested by a vehement desire for something one is obliged to avoid.


This seizure has repercussions in the emotional life because of the intimate relation between the emotions and the cognitive faculties. The soul, even in spite of itself, finds itself filled with obsessive images that arouse doubt, resentment, anger, antipathy, hatred, despair, or dangerous tenderness and an inclination to sensuality. The best remedy against such assaults is prayer, accompanied by true humility, self-disdain, confidence in God, the protection of Mary, the use of the sacramentals, and obedience to one’s director, from whom none of these things should be hidden.


Bodily obsession is usually more spectacular, but in reality it is less dangerous than internal obsession, although the two normally occur together. External obsession can affect any of the external senses, and there are numerous examples of this in the lives of the saints. The eye is filled with diabolical apparitions. Sometimes they are very pleasant, as when Satan transforms himself into an angel of light to deceive the soul and fill it with sentiments of vanity, self complacence, etc. By these and similar effects the soul will recognize the presence of the enemy. At other times Satan may appear in horrible and frightening forms in order to terrify the servants of God and to withdraw them from the practice of virtue, as one can discover in the lives of numerous saints. Or the devil may present himself in a voluptuous, form in order to tempt souls to evil.


Other senses besides sight are also affected. The ear is tormented with frightful sounds and shouts, with blasphemy and obscenities, or with voluptuous songs and music to arouse sensuality. The sense of smell sometimes perceives the most pleasant odors or an unbearable stench. The sense of taste is affected in various ways. Sometimes the devil arouses feelings of gluttony by producing a sensation of the most delicious food or most exquisite liquors the individual has never actually tasted. But usually he arouses a most bitter taste in the food that is taken, or he mixes repulsive objects with the food so that it would be dangerous or impossible to swallow or to digest.


Finally, the sense of touch, which is diffused throughout the whole body, can be subjected in countless ways to the influence of the devil. Sometimes there are terrible blows upon the body; at other times there are sensations of voluptuous embraces or caresses; or God may permit that his servant be tested by extreme experiences of sensuality, without any consent on the part of the one who suffers these things. Obsession may be due to any one of the following causes:


1. The permission of God, who wishes thereby to test the virtue of a soul and to increase its merits. In this sense it is equivalent to a passive trial or a mystical night of the soul.


2. The envy and pride of the devil, who cannot bear the sight of a soul that is trying to sanctify itself and to glorify God to the best of its ability, thereby leading a great number of other souls to salvation or perfection.


3. The natural predisposition of t
he person obsessed, which gives the devil an occasion to attack the individual at his weakest point. This reason is of no value in regard to external obsession, which has; nothing to do with the temperament or natural predispositions of the obsessed, but it is valid for internal obsession, which finds a fertile soil in a melancholy temperament or in one inclined to scruples, anxiety, or sadness. Nevertheless, however violent the obsession, it never deprives the subject of liberty, and with the grace of God he or she can always overcome it and even derive benefit from it. It is only for this reason that God permits it.



One needs much discretion and perspicacity to distinguish true obsession from the various kinds of nervous illnesses and mental unbalances that are very similar to it. It would be foolish to deny the reality of diabolical action in the world, especially sine it is expressly mentioned in the sources of revelation and has been proved countless times by the experiences of many saints. In modem times there has been a tendency to exaggerate the purely natural causes of all phenomena, and perhaps the greatest victory of the devil is that he has succeeded in destroying the belief in his terrible power. On the other hand, many apparently diabolical phenomena are due to natural causes, and it is a fundamental principle advocated by the Church that one may not attribute to the preternatural order anything that can probably be explained by purely natural causes.
The director will proceed prudently by bearing in mind the following observations and guidelines:


1. Obsession usually occurs only in souls that are far advanced in virtue. As regards ordinary souls, the devil is content to persecute them with simple temptations. Therefore, the director should first investigate the type of soul with which he is dealing, and in this way he will be able to conjecture as to the diabolical or purely natural origin of the apparent obsession.


2. It is important to investigate carefully whether one is dealing with a soul that is normal, balanced, of sound judgment, and an enemy of any kind of exaggeration or sentimentality; or whether, on the contrary, one is dealing with a disquieted, unbalanced, weak spirit, with a history of hysteria, tormented by scruples, or depressed by reason of an inferiority complex. This rule is of exceptional importance, and very often it is the decisive rule for making a judgment. It will be very difficult to differentiate between the manifestations of diabolical influence and those that follow from a nervous disorder, but-it is possible to do so.


The director should not yield to the temptation of oversimplifying the matter by attributing everything to one cause or the other. He should give to the patient the moral counsels and rules that pertain to his office as a director of souls and then refer the individual to a trustworthy psychiatrist, who can treat the other manifestations that proceed from a mental disorder.


3. The authentic manifestations of true diabolical obsession will be sufficiently clear if they are revealed by visible signs such as the moving of an object by an invisible hand, the marks of bruises or wounds that proceed from an invisible attack. These effects cannot be attributed to any purely natural cause, and when the person who suffers them gives all the signs of equanimity, self-possession, sincerity, and true virtue, the director can be certain that he is dealing with a case of obsession. We have already said that the devil does not usually obsess the ordinary soul; nevertheless, God sometimes permits diabolical obsession in these souls or even in hardened sinners, as a salutary expiation for their sins or to give them a vivid idea of the horrors of hell and the necessity of abandoning sin to be freed from the slavery of the devil. But ordinarily only souls of advanced virtue suffer the obsessive attacks of the devil.


4. Once it has been proved that one is dealing with a case of diabolical obsession, the director should proceed with the greatest possible patience and tenderness. The tormented soul needs the assistance and advice of someone to whom it can give its complete confidence and one who will in turn speak to the soul in the name of God. The director’s principal concern should be to encourage the soul and make it understand that the attacks of hell are futile so long as the soul places all its confidence in God and does not lose its interior serenity. He will remind the soul that God is with it and will help it conquer: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31).


Also, at the side of the suffering soul is Mary, our tender Mother, as well as the guardian angel, whose power is greater than that of the devil. The director will advise the soul never to lose its tranquillity, to hold the devil in utter disdain, to fortify himself or herself with the sign of the cross and with other sacramentals, especially holy water, which has great efficacy against the attacks of the devil. Above all, he will warn the soul never to do anything that the devil suggests, even if it appears good and reasonable. He will demand a detailed account of everything that happens and will never permit the soul to conceal anything, however difficult and painful it may be to reveal it. Finally, he will try to make the soul understand that God can use the devil as an instrument for purifying the soul and that the best way of cooperating with the divine plan is to abandon oneself entirely to God’s holy will, ready to accept anything that God may decree, and asking’ the grace of never yielding to the violence of the temptations.


5. In more serious and persistent cases, the exorcisms prescribed in the Roman Ritual are used, or other formulas approved by the Church are put into effect. But the director will always do this in private and even without advising the penitent that he is going to exorcise him or her, especially if he fears that this knowledge would cause a great disturbance to the soul. For a solemn exorcism it is necessary to obtain express permission from the local ordinary and to follow the prescribed precautions.


Diabolical Possession. Diabolical possession is a phenomenon in which the devil invades the body of a living person and move
s the faculties and organs as if he were manipulating a body of his own. The devil truly resides within the body of the unfortunate victim, and he operates in it and treats it as his own property. Those who suffer this despotic invasion are said to be possessed.



However it may be manifested, the presence of the devil is restricted exclusively to the body. The soul remains free, even if the exercise of conscious life is suspended. Only God has the privilege of penetrating into the essence of the soul. Nevertheless, the primary purpose of the violence of the devil is to disturb the soul and to draw it to sin. But the soul always remains master of itself, and if it is faithful to the grace of God, it will find an inviolable sanctuary in its free will.


Two periods can be distinguished in diabolical possession: the period of crisis and the period of calm. The periods of crisis are manifested by the violent onslaught of evil, and its very violence prevents it from being continual or even very prolonged. It is the moment in which the devil openly reveals himself by acts, words, convulsions, seizures of anger or impiety, obscenity, or blasphemy. In the majority of cases, the victims lose consciousness of what is happening to them during this seizure, as happens in the great crises of certain mental disorders.


When they regain consciousness they have no recollection of what they have said or done or, rather, of what the devil has said or done in them. Sometimes they perceive something of the diabolical spirit at the beginning of the seizure when he begins to use their faculties or organs. In certain cases the spirit of the possessed remains free and conscious during the crisis and witnesses with astonishment and horror the despotic usurpation of its body by the devil.


In the periods of calm there is nothing to manifest the presence of the devil in the body of the possessed. One would think that the devil had gone. Nevertheless, his presence is often manifested by some strange chronic illness that exceeds the categories of pathological disorders known to medical science and resists every form of therapeutic remedy. Moreover, diabolical possession is not always continuous, and the devil may leave for a time and then return later to continue his possession. The devil can come and go as he pleases, so long as he has God’s permission to take possession of the person.


Lest we expose ourselves to derision, it is necessary to be extremely cautious and prudent in making pronouncements concerning diabolical possession. There are countless nervous disorders presenting external symptoms very similar to those of possession, and there are also some poor unbalanced souls or perverse spirits that have a remarkable facility for simulating the horrors of possession.


Fortunately, the Church has given us wise rules for discerning fraud and for making judgments that are certain. The first thing to be recognized is that authentic cases of possession are very rare, and it is much better to make a mistake on the side of incredulity than to be too anxious to admit diabolical possession. The extreme agitation of the victim, the blasphemies that are uttered, the horror manifested for holy things-none of these are of themselves sufficient proof. These symptoms give nothing more than a conjecture of the possibility of diabolical possession, but they are never infallible signs because they could proceed from malice or from some natural cause.


Remedies for Possession. The Roman Ritual, after recommending prudence and discretion before making a judgment, indicates certain signs that allow for a diagnosis to ascertain the authenticity of diabolical possession: speaking in a, strange and unknown language or understanding perfectly one who speaks in an unknown language; perceiving hidden or distant things; manifesting strength beyond one’s age and condition. There are other similar symptoms, and the more numerous they are the greater proof they offer of a true diabolical possession.


Ordinarily, possession occurs only in sinners and precisely as a punishment for sin. There are exceptions, however, when diabolical possession is used by God as a means of purification.


Whatever will weaken the power of the devil over a person can be utilized as a remedy against diabolical possession, but the Roman Ritual specifies certain principal remedies:


Sacramental confession. Since the usual purpose of diabolical possession is punishment for sin, it is necessary above all to remove the cause of possession by a humble and sincere confession, It will have a special efficacy if it is a general confession of. one’s whole life, because of the humiliation and renewal of soul it presupposes.


Holy Communion. The Roman Ritual recommends frequent Communion under the direction and advice of a priest. Holy Communion, however, should not be given to a possessed person except in moments of calm, and one must also take great care to avoid any danger of irreverence or profanation, as the Ritual prescribes.


Fasting and prayer. A certain type of devil cannot be cast out except through fasting and prayer (Matt. 17:20). Humble, and persevering prayer, accompanied by fasting and mortification,, obtains from heaven the grace of a cure. This particular remedy should, never be omitted, even when all the others are used.


The sacramentals. Objects blessed by the prayers of the ,Church have a special power against the devil. Holy water has particular efficacy, as has been verified on countless occasions.


The cross. The Ritual prescribes that the exorcist should have a crucifix in his hand or before his eyes. It has been verified many times that the devil will flee merely at the sight of a crucifix. The sign of the cross has always been used by Christians as a safeguard against the devil, and the Church makes special use of it in the rite of exorcism.


Relics of the saints. The Roman Ritual also recommends the use of relics in the rite of exorcism. The most precious and venerated of all relics, and those that inspire the greatest horror in the demons, are the particles of the true Cross because they remind the demons of the definitive victory that Christ won over them on Calvary.


The holy names of Jesus and Mary. The name of Jesus has a sovereign power to put the devil to flight. He himself promised in the Gospel: “They will use my name to expel demons” (Mark 16:17). The apostles used the Holy Name in this respect: ” ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I command you, come out of her!” Then and there the spirit left her” (Acts 16:18).


The name of Mary is also terrifying to the devils. The examples of its salutary efficacy are innumerable and fully justify the practice of Christian piety that sees in the invocation of the name of Mary a powerful remedy against the attacks of the devil.


In addition to these remedies, which any Christian can use against the power of the devil, the Church has instituted other official means whose use is reserved to her ministers. These are the various exorcisms.


In private any priest may use the rite of exorcism, but for solemn exorcism it is necessary to verify with certainty the reality of diabolical possession and then obtain the express permission of the bishop for the exorcism.


In addition, the exorcist should prepare himself carefully by means of sacramental confession, fasting, and prayer, and then perform the rite in a church or chapel (and only in exceptional circumstances in a private home), in the company of serious and pious witnesses (but only a few), and with sufficient assistants who will be able to control the patient in moments of crisis.


The interrogations should be made with authority, but they should be few in number, as is indicated in the Roman Ritual. The witnesses will observe silence and remain in prayer but should never interrogate the devil. The sessions should be repeated as often as is necessary until the devil is cast out.


Once this has taken place and the liberation of the patient is verified, the exorcist should petition God to command the devil never again to enter the body he has just left. The exorcist should give thanks to God and exhort the liberated patient to bless God and carefully to avoid sin lest he or she fall again under the domination of the devil.


A person may also come under the power of the devil by reason of the habitual practice of evil or the uncontrolled desire to experience extraordinary mystical phenomena or receive charismatic graces. In the first case a confessor may, unknown to the.penitent, apply an abbreviated form of exorcism when giving absolution to habitual sinners. In the second case it is necessary to exercise discernment of spirits when the person claims to have received some special grace or favor from God. (To be continued . . .)


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3 Responses to “Discerning the Diabolical Spirit”
  1. Amy says:

    I tend to agree with Deliliis. The late Fr. James Lebar, I do believe, worked as a chaplain in a psychiatric hospital at one point. My opinion is that the only way we can discern the presence of evil spirit is in fact via the gift of discernment; and infused, supernatural gift of the Holy Spirit and it cannot be desired or acquired but manifested by pure grace alone. We also need to consider the relationship between sin and man's soul(psyche). Sin wounds the soul without question, and it's wreckage can take years to remedy: and it makes people mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically sick. Fulton Sheen wrote much about this subject. It is impossible in my humble opinion to experience any degree of diabolical obssession for example, without the ordinary, created faculties being wounded. The interior faculties and the resultant victimization of an obssession, are even more ineffable to analyze. If we see the fruit of what ordinary, mortal sin can do to the mental state of any man, it is often indescribable in scientific terms to evaluate what a diabolical infusion of torment can and will produce. One thing is guaranteed it the activity of the ordinary and extraordinary, the reality of suffering. It can either be redemptive and lead us to greater intimacy with Christ and personal holiness, or left untreated at all levels, it can worsen the grave condition of the afflicted person and potentially lead one away from God. It is hard to deal in quantifiable facts and proof when dealing with mystical enigma. Yet it is worth mentioning their is no known cause of mental illness, it is speculated it may be chemical. Either way the symptoms of both conditions are real, and like Fr. Corapi has said, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I have always said experience is the greatest teacher, and unless you have experienced something first hand, I do not know how one would discern much describe such with any degree of accuracy. Only prayer and the sacramental life will nourish anyone's condition, regardless of origin. By the way, outstanding article on the subject. One of the best I have ever read.

  2. De Liliis says:

    I've heard the opposite testimony from a priest, that in fact, mental and spiritual illness go together so very much.

    I heard a story about a priest who said the prayers of exorcism in a mental institution.. and there was a gigantic reaction from all the patients..

    Why is it we always hear warnings against too much corporal penance but never against too little? How often do we see too little instead of too much? Which one's the bigger problem?

    Some of the reaction against corporal penance is the wisdom of the world rather than of the saints..

    Squeamishness. We don't get to take these bodies with us to the next life.

  3. mum6kids says:

    Interesting but something that should be approached with EXTREME caution.
    In over 16yrs of Psychiatric nursing and in having a dear friend commit suicide a few months ago I have only ever ONCE come across someone where I suspected their mental illness was spiritual. The man was not mentally ill in any classical sense and was horribly "spooky" and just vile in behaviour. He died in horrible circumstances but forunatately didn't manage to take anyone with him.

    I have come across a few "Christian" books and places where the diabolical was overly suspected and thus damaged the health of some of my patients.
    The Church has strict rules on this for a very good reason.

    On a personal note I have faced and know I will face again a huge spiritual battle because of the suffering that I must go through. Feeling that God has abandoned me has been acute.
    But I know even that suffering can be offered.

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