Some years ago my son, who is not burdened with visitations, told me he had prayed he might get a touch of what I had. He was surprised when I immediately panicked and begged him quite emotionally not to do that. I was almost in tears. My vehemence over it shook him up a bit. It even took me by surprise how intense my emotional fear for him was. He promised me he would withdraw that particular prayer.
Fearful that my son might think I considered my gift a curse rather than a blessing, I spoke to him again after I had thought about it a while. I told him I both understood and was profoundly grateful for the honor involved in it, but that the honor was something akin to that of being able to throw yourself on a live hand grenade: you do it in hopes that none you love will ever have to.
While still a teenager I came to admire the unique stark, spare prose of Ernest Hemingway. He used so few words to convey such complex emotional scenarios. In one of his novels, the protagonist lives an ethic of working very hard, getting all the finest details right while going to great pains to look as if he is hardly working at all. Something about that reverberated in me. Even then, it wearied me how many people I knew who accomplished next to nothing while going to great pains to make sure everyone around them saw their every exertion. I thought how true it was to Hemingway’s work, itself. It must have taken prodigious work to pack so much meaning and pathos into so few words, words that were so punchy and powerful – and I could feel his labors to make it look and feel effortless. I was so taken by it I largely adopted it as my own ethos. A political client once told me, “I don’t really know what it is you do, Charlie, or when you do it. I just know good things seem to happen when you’re around.” I still get a tingle of guilty pleasure at the memory of the compliment.
While I am not going to abandon a quirk that has both served me well and is deeply engrained in my psyche, I am going to set it aside for the purposes of this article.
In the Book of Joel it is prophesied that a time shall come when, even as things grow dark temporally, a great spiritual awakening shall rise to bring joy; “…your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions…” -Joel 2:28. One might reasonably suspect we have entered the beginnings of that time. Many hear the call. Many also cherish the little intimacies – the supernatural nudges – Our Lord gives to let you know He is near and give you heart. This is good.
I am a bit unnerved, though, at how many people seem eager to fully immerse themselves in the spiritual world and do spiritual battle in these times. You don’t know what you ask. Everything comes at a price. Can you bear the burden, the discipline, the deep self-denial and genuine suffering needed to burn away your vanity and self-will in order to be fruitful and steady? Most cannot. But most do not need to, for God calls them in another way.
It should be suggestive that for the first 30 years of regular visitations I told no one about the extent of it. I told friends about certain experiences and intimated at times at something larger, but I kept the fulness of it to myself for 30 years. I only went to another human being after I was frightened of the verisimilitude of the everyday world to what I had been being shown. Even then, I spent four months vetting the priest I would first talk to about it before venturing to open the matter – and I chose him not because he seemed likely to be enthused by such a thing, but to be skeptical. He did not suffer fools or foolishness gladly. As the priests I have worked with could tell you, I spent a good five years desperately trying to find a way out; NOT confirmation of what scared the bejabbers out of me.
Two people I am close to got a significant immersion into the fulness of the spiritual world. One sought it, one did not. One’s experience involved continued encounters with demonic forces without their masks on. The other had a perfectly benign, but intense, encounter. Both were shaken to their core – and prayed to just be able to do ordinary things and NEVER have to experience that sort of thing again.
People imagine that if they enter the realm of the spirits with eyes wide open, they will see wonders and dance with angels. Well, you might, if your sanity holds out long enough. But the only way that can happen is to hold fast to Christ. There are monsters here – and not the one-dimensional type found in movies. These monsters’ unrelenting purpose is to find your deepest fears, your deepest vanities and turn them against you to trick you into letting go of Christ. They will scare you; they will play at being feeble in order to deceive you that you can easily dispatch them on your own; they will tell you how special and magnificent you are; they will threaten and even influence those you love, holding them hostage before your eyes; they will show you how pathetic you are and every disreputable thing you have ever done; they will publicly shame you; they will privately shame you. They have a million different gambits – each custom designed for your weakest spot – all with the same goal in mind, to get you to let go of the Lord for a moment that they may crush you. It is unrelenting. There is a reason why the class of people most vulnerable to demonic possession are exorcists, themselves. It is not because they are weak, but because they are on the field of battle most frequently. If you are where the artillery is flying, you are much more likely to be wounded than if you are away from the field of battle.
On a few occasions in my life, people have told me with confidence that they could handle a demon. Every person who has ever said that to me has shortly thereafter undergone terrible demonic influence and been deeply wounded. Only Christ and His angels can handle a demon. All we can do is hold fast to Him. Others tell me they can always perfectly discern clean from unclean spirits. They are deceived – and about to get their head handed to them. Only unremitting submission to the Lord will prove discernment. Satan will appear to you as an angel of light and life – and is only unmasked when you turn it over to God. If you are getting a little uppity, the Lord will let the deceit persist for a time, to grind the knowledge into you that He is your only defense.
I see people get so excited over a spiritual encounter that they welcome any spirit, just to prove to themselves they are special. When people talk to me eagerly about engaging in spiritual warfare, I usually see children armed with a fistful of rocks eager to get in the middle of a tank and machine gun battle. You cannot be useful in battle until you know how small and frail the very best of us are. If you submit fully to the discipline of the Lord, He will not spare your feelings to prove that to you, to drive home the point that your only defense is to hold as tightly to Him as an Oak Tree’s roots hold to the ground.
An age of overt spiritual battle, an age of miracles is upon us. The first thing you must do, if you are beginning to live the prophecy of Joel, is to get solid spiritual direction. You must learn obedience before you are fit for anything else. Find a priest or a Christian counselor. Spend a few months getting to know them before making it permanent. Once you do, accept direction. Do not shop around for someone who will merely confirm what you already believe. If they tell you something you do not like, do not jump to another director – that is just defiance wearing a false cloak of humility. With a good director, you may often argue vigorously about a course – but when the argument is finished, follow direction. If it is wrong, there will be time enough to correct it. How, though, do you correct unyielding pride?
In the world, obedience is understood to mean the submission of the lesser to the greater. But in God’s economy, that is not what obedience is at all. It is a means of opening up channels of grace. The director is required to give careful consideration to what he recommends. If he does, even if he errs, it opens up a channel of grace, and fruit will be drawn from it. The directed must be obedient, at least to try for a good period to live the direction after having agreed with the director on it – and to revisit it with the director before trying another way. When both parties live their duty, grace abound and covers the occasional lapses by one or the other. Should both neglect their duty, the channels of grace will clog. After the Temple, Jesus was obedient to His mother and father. That should erase any doubts that it often pleases God to have the greater submit in Christian obedience to the lesser – and not in a pretended obedience, but real obedience – that grace may flow abundantly.
I worry that, because many people know I have several spiritual directors – one emeritus and two active – that it might encourage the sort of director-hopping that destroys the very purpose of direction. My directors are from the same order and are in regular communication with each other: one, in fact, is the immediate superior of another. I have NEVER played them against each other – and nothing is told to one that cannot be shared with the others (with the single exception of the identity of Menses). One of them often ‘scraps’ with me – we wrestle over how certain things should be handled. I delight in it, for it so refines and purifies my thought and prayer. But he and I resolve each of those things – I NEVER sneak about like a child and ask another to release me from what I have agreed to be bound to. If I played games like that I would expect – and deserve – to be dropped from direction. Ours is a peculiar situation that is needed and has worked because we live fully the spirit of direction in unusual circumstances. Do not director-hop. If you are going to change directors every time you don’t like the direction, you would be better off not having taken direction in the first place. Why add prideful disobedience to the multitude of sins you must already account for?
Accepting spiritual direction is important for any serious Christian. For those who regularly have any sort of extraordinary spiritual experiences, it is absolutely necessary to weed out deception, delusion and burn away vanity and self-will. For your own good, find a director who is rigorously skeptical – for at least 99 times out of a hundred these are matters of delusion or mania – but one who has not so abandoned hope in God that he reflexively dismisses all such experiences. Active spiritual encounters without solid direction is just a particularly virulent form of occultism – and more dangerous than playing with a Ouija Board. A director can be a priest, religious or properly trained layman. Ask at your parish, call the chancery of your diocese or check with local orders and houses.
I know more than a few priests read this – I have heard from several. To you I ask you to put a priority on taking on more spiritual direction. Christ only counts to one – and each of us is the one. Imitate Him. Advocate for such at meetings of fellow priests – and advocate at the diocesan level to establish training programs for spiritual direction.
I do not encourage people to go running into battle with spiritual forces. I certainly would not encourage people to rush into what I tried so long to get out of. But the battle comes. It is vital now to arm people with Christ, to help them direct their minds towards the reality that He is the source of their only help, through His angels and His saints.
Also for the priests, understand that actual possession is not nearly as common as it once was. It does not need to be. Actual possession requires a commitment on particular demons that limits the scope of their activity. In times of greater faith, it is more often necessary to demonic purposes. But in these times of deep cultural degeneracy, mere demonic influence gives dark forces all the benefits of possession without imposing the limitations inherent to it on them.
Finally, I am working on a booklet of guidelines for effective charismatic ministries, healing services and prayer meetings. It will be top priority when I return to Colorado later this month. I will have it available online and see if I can work with the woman who runs the Full of Grace Supply House to see if we can get an inexpensive print version available, too. I hope to have it up by September, but will be working with a group of people who have not been involved in charismatic ministries before to put together a reformed version of it.