The Psalms and the Demons

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

The third line of our Psalm 26 says, “trusting in God, I have not slid.”  But why do we need to trust in God?  Why do we slide?

The Psalms talk often about “the wicked,” and use a lot of military imagery.  (Also, as here, there is courtroom imagery: grant me justice!)   This adversarial language is for many people one of the greatest obstacles to falling in love with the Psalms.

But there is much to be gained from this warfare spirituality.  Today, let’s take some time to think about our spiritual enemies, the demons.


We face, first of all, metaphorical demons.  Think, for example, about the “seven deadly sins.”  (I did a series on these last fall.)  “Deadly sins” sounds like “mortal sin,” so we might be tempted to think the point is that these are the things you go to hell for – and then wonder how gluttony could possibly be on that list.

But the older language is “capital sins,” from the Latin word for “head.” These are the “principal”or “leading”sins, or also, the “headings” under which you can consider other sins.  The point is that gluttony, lust, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride are the root causes of other sins: not just sins themselves but also things that lead us to sin.  The danger of gluttony, for example, is that it nurtures a sense of self-indulgence, of giving in to whatever feels good at the moment – and forgetting the spiritual battle.

The even older language (especially in Cassian) is “the spirits” of sin.  Now we are close to the metaphorical idea of “demons.”  Gluttony (wrath, sloth, etc.) are metaphorical “demons” that oppress us.  These “spirits” are not looking for what’s good for us; in fact, since they drive us without reference to our true happiness, they are our enemies.  Desire itself is not an enemy, but this tendency to run out of control is a real danger.


It is very helpful in our spiritual life to “objectify” these enemies, to name them, take them seriously, and go to war against them.  To realize that they will destroy us if we don’t destroy them.  This is war.

One thing that is helpful about this objectification of our metaphorical demons is that it helps us to distinguish ourselves from them.  I am not gluttony.  That isn’t me!  In fact, that’s . . . something else, some other power, that’s trying to hurt me!  The Psalms’ insistence on talking about enemies helps me to think this way, to separate myself from my sin.

And of course, in the Psalms, the metaphors always emphasize that our enemies are too strong for us, but God comes to our help.  It is always the helpless nation of Israel calling out to the Lord to come to the rescue – “trusting in God, I have not slid.”  Thus the way the Psalms discuss spiritual warfare also helps us to focus on grace.


But though we can think of the “spirits” of sin as metaphorical demons, we also need to be reminded that there are real demons, fallen angels.

How should we think about the demons?  The cartoon image of a good angel on one shoulder and a bad angel on the other actually isn’t too far off.  It is far better, anyway, than more “muscular” images of demons who throw physical objects or make heads spin (though these things are real too).

The angels are immaterial creatures.  They cannot control our free will, but they can make suggestions to us.  Good angels can point out to us things that we ought to notice.  Bad angels, demons, can plant bad ideas.  It is awfully helpful, when our minds start running to negative thinking, when all we can think of are other people’s faults, for example, or ill wishes, to realize that there do exist spiritual forces who are cleverer than us and who wish us ill.

Why would they want to hurt us?  Because they want to be in charge.  They want to be the smartest guys in the room.  (Sound familiar?  They aren’t so different from us.)


The warfare imagery of the Psalms reminds us that there are bad influences in our spiritual life, both metaphorical and real demons.

The Psalms have a magical way of shifting our focus: we may begin by thinking that other people are our enemies, but soon we see that our real enemies are spiritual.

Watch for a time today when you need to distance yourself from your demons.

Gluttony and Fear of the Lord

gluttonyI have been thinking about gluttony: the holidays have that effect on me. So much good food. So much ill health. So much cause for celebration, but so many questions about celebrating well. It would be good if I could lose some weight in the new year, also so that I could be a better father: more energetic, stronger for the things my family needs me to be stronger for. Even more, I’d like to be holier in the new year.

My wife brought up recently that we can use fasting to celebrate, too. Traditionally the day before big feasts was a fast. It wouldn’t kill us to fast now and then – in fact, it might make us healthier. And it would be nice if we had some way to mark solemnities other than adding to our girth.


The first thing to say about our relationship with food, of course, is that it’s not that big of a deal. It’s the least big deal of all the vices: unlike pride, envy, wrath, sloth, lust, and even greed, a disordered relationship with food doesn’t directly hurt other people.

The second thing is that there are serious issues of health involved. Our culture is pretty screwed up in its pursuit of a svelt body: but the truth is, I’m overweight, and it isn’t good for me, on any level.

But the third thing is that spiritual things matter more than the size of my belly. The real question is not about diet, but about gluttony: disordered desires, that affect my love of God and neighbor, continue to read more, what follows can save your life.


Maybe a helpful way to approach the question is in terms of fear of the Lord. Yes, “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18). But on the other hand, fear of the Lord is a near-constant theme in Scripture, including in the New Testament and even the words of Jesus: “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Jesus goes on immediately after that to say, “fear not therefore, you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:31). The first thing to say about fear and the spiritual life, then, must be that there are many kinds of fear: good and bad; fear of God, fear of other things; different kind, even, of fear of God.

Augustine worked out some important ideas about fear of the Lord in his commentary on that line we just saw from First John, and the tradition has really run with those ideas as very useful. In short, he says we can fear that God will get in the way of our delight, by preventing us from having fun; this is a spiritually destructive kind of fear. But we can also fear God’s punishment: and just as God’s punishment is there to help us move toward God, so too fear of that punishment can help us grow in the spiritual life. Fear of punishment is a spiritually productive thing.

But not a perfect thing. The highest, best kind of fear, says Augustine, is the fear of wounding our relationship: the delicacy of lovers, or of child and parent. I would never want to do anything to hurt the ones I love, and that makes for an entirely different kind of fear, fear that is not cast out but increased by love.


This is a helpful way to think about gluttony. On the one hand, yes, it’s true, God doesn’t “care” if I have another Christmas cookie: anyway, there’s no law against this cookie. On the other hand, I want to grow ever more sensitive, ever more delicate about my relationship with God. I want to think about him more, not less. It is not good for our spiritual life – indeed, it is one of the worst things of all – to spend life naming what God doesn’t care about, what doesn’t matter. The Psalms often repeat, “the wicked . . . has said in his heart, God has forgotten; God hides his face; God will never see it” (e.g. Ps. 11:11).

The struggle with gluttony is not about absolute right and wrong. It is about spiritual sensitivity, fear of the Lord, trying to live ever more in the presence of God. We should never think, “God hates this cookie.” But we should fight strenuously against the thought, “God doesn’t care.” God does care: he cares about our relationship. Let us use the struggle with gluttony to struggle to do what is best: what celebrates best, what best serves the people around us, what can best unite us to God, what can best serve our long-term interests. And never say God doesn’t care.


Do you find yourself approaching food with an attitude of mediocrity: it doesn’t matter, God doesn’t care? How could you grow in your relationship with God through food?

The Heart of the Matter: Gluttony and the Holidays

Warmed_spiced_eggnog-0-lA few additional words on this Sunday’s reading from Romans.

“Let us then throw off the works of darkness
and put on the armor of light;
let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day,
not in orgies and drunkenness,
not in promiscuity and lust,
not in rivalry and jealousy.”

At first glance this list is a bit unconvincing. I sure don’t participate in any “orgies.” (I had to look that up. The root meaning of the English word has to do with very drunken parties; by extension it sometimes includes the sexual wildness that might ensue at such a party. The Greek is komos, which has to do with literally being laid out on the ground, but by extension is used for the kind of party that might leave you in such a position.) Anyway, I don’t go to orgies, and I’m not promiscuous. What does this have to do with me?

But St. Paul tends to do a kind of nasty number, where he lists some really big sins – and then punches you with a sin you commit too, in the same list with that really bad stuff!

And so after orgies and promiscuity, just when I am feeling really good about myself, he slips in “rivalry and jealousy.” Darn. It’s almost funny, how we first try to defend ourselves by saying, “nope, I don’t go to orgies” and then, at the end of the list, we have to take the opposite tack, by saying, “oh, come on Paul, rivalry and jealousy aren’t so bad . . . are they?” But Paul puts them in the same list as promiscuity! Don’t count me with them! Just because I’m always competing with my coworkers, and comparing myself (favorably) to my friends and family? That’s not so bad, is it?

Notice, in fact, that Paul does the same thing in the earlier part of the list. Our eyes can slip past this. “In orgies . . . and drunkenness. In promiscuity . . . and lust.” Oh, come on, Paul! Promiscuity is one thing, lust (the word he uses just means lack of self-control) is another! Sure I like to drink, but I don’t attend “orgies”! I’m not one of those people! I’m not a sinner!


Of course, this is the same thing Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ . . . but I say unto you . . . whosoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be in danger of hell fire.” What?! Look, I haven’t killed anyone. It was just a couple little mean words. Words can never hurt you!

“You have heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, whoever looks on a woman to long for her [yes, that’s all the Greek says] has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Come on! No! I’m not a sinner!

In fact, even the Ten Commandments play this trick on us. Have I committed Murder?  Nope.  Adultery?  I’m good.  Theft?  Not recently.  False witness?  Not under oath, anyway. Hey, look at me!  I’m righteous!  Coveting?  Oh.  Shoot. Really?  I can’t even covet my neighbor’s house?  I mean, stealing is one thing. I don’t steal anything, I just wish it were mine . . . .

Here’s the point: Christian morality is about our heart. What is your heart set on? Coveting really gets to the heart of the Ten Commandments. Treating other people as fools is just as bad as lusting in our hearts, which is well along the same path as murder and adultery. The real problem is that we are meant to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and minds and souls and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. We can’t just say, “I haven’t killed anyone.” That doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.


In our holiday drinking and celebrations, the question is not “how much is too much?” Not even, “I’m not really drunk.” The problem with drunkenness is the same problem as orgies: where is your heart? Do we love our God and our neighbor? We can certainly express those loves through conviviality – but do we love God, or do we really love food and drink?

Our reading from Romans ends, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” Oh, have an egg nog! But only in Christ, only for Christ, only with your heart set on the things that are really worthy.


How do you find yourself “making provision for the desires of the flesh” instead of “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ”?

The Spirit of Gluttony

image for vicesOn Fridays we will be going through the primary vices that stand in the way of our development in the spiritual life.


Our first vice is gluttony. Viewed from a worldly perspective, gluttony doesn’t seem like that big of a problem. Sure, we should be healthy, and I suppose that means we shouldn’t sneak too much ice cream in the afternoon, or take fourth helpings every night. I don’t know about you, but what really causes me trouble, in terms of sheer empty calories, is bourbon. Ah, bourbon!

But on the other hand, and maybe ironically, the Catholic should have enough contempt for the body not to take this too seriously. There are worse things in the world than having a little bit of a beer belly. In fact, in our world today, it often seems that worship of the body has gone way too far. People organize their whole lives around staying svelte.

To truly love the body is not to worship it, but to live in it. A little bourbon, appropriately applied; a piece of birthday cake; a feast with friends: these, we rightly say, are worth more than a magazine-worthy body.

And indeed, there is a kind of gluttony even in taking food too seriously. Foodies – those who live for the coolest recipe, or the most super-organic food out there – often seem to be making their bellies their gods. We don’t want to do that.

So on the natural level, gluttony is a vice than can go both ways: we can love food too much, we can oppose it too much; we can be too worried about health, we can be not worried enough; we can be too picky, we can be too slovenly. The key is moderation – or, better, discretion. The key is to eat intelligently, to be led by our souls, not our bellies.

But gluttony is also significant on the spiritual level. It is significant, in fact, precisely because it is not that big of a deal on the natural level.

On the spiritual level, the question of gluttony is precisely why we make such a big deal of it. Why, when the tradition suggests we skip a meal here or there, or not have a fancy meal or too many desserts, does that make us panic? What are we living for?

Precisely because food isn’t that big of a deal – honestly, there are a lot of things we can go without, even if they are nice – it is a good place to practice self-control.

Think of it this way. An awful lot of our sins can be described as spiritual gluttony. Those nasty words I am so tempted to say are like a tasty treat. I need to say no. That lustful glance, that self-indulgent rest when I know I should be working or praying, the addictive acquisition of stuff I don’t need, and the delicious indulgence of my own will just for the sake of doing it my way: this is the real stuff of the spiritual life, but it is all an awful lot like grabbing a glass of bourbon (or a cookie, or a third helping of dinner, or an excuse on a fast day).

Fasting and gluttony are not the most important thing. They are the little thing, where we can practice living for something higher, instead of just indulging.

And so the Church encourages us to fast. Traditionally every day of Lent, except Sundays and solemnities, was a fast day: pretty tough. In the East they make it both longer and tougher. Canon Law still tells us to skip meat on Fridays (and for many of us, fish is even fancier than meat) unless we live a harder fast. Many in the tradition have found small ways to fast every Wednesday and Friday of the year, and the day before every feast day. And there are always ways to deny ourselves what we don’t really need.

On the other hand, we can also practice detachment from food by eating when we ought. To make a feast on a feast day: not just self-indulgence, but really celebrating with food.

And practicing hospitality. St. Benedict’s Rule says to treat the guest like Christ. He’s really just paraphrasing Cassian on gluttony, where he says that the desert fathers would eat nothing for days – then have six meals a day to welcome guests.

The point is to use food to practice setting love above all else.

Click here for the entire “Vices” series.