Disempowering the Devil

A brother went to see Abba Moses and begged him for a word. The old man said, "Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything."

                                    --Sayings From the Desert Fathers, about hermits' cells

My cell was my monastic refuge.

                                    --Jimmy Santiago Baca, about his prison cell


There is an old saying from the Biblical tradition that the devil has no power of his own, but only the power that we give him. 

We give the devil power by yielding to the temptations he dangles before us. 

That is all the poor devil can do under his own power, which is to say his own utter lack of all genuine power, all genuine capacity to move: Send visions to dance before our eyes. 

In just the same way, a fisherman can only drop a lure before a fish, but has no power to make the fish bite the lure, thereby succumbing to the hook hidden inside it.


If the fish could only withstand the temptation to go after the shiny lure with which the fisherman tempts it, it would never get hooked. Even the wiliest fish, however, cannot be blamed for not being always able to resist every tempting lure that may come along. After all, a fish is only a fish, and thus finally has no choice in the matter.

* * *

Addicts, it is worth noting, are like fish, at least up to a certain point.

 When they begin to succumb to the lure of their objects of potential addiction, they make the death-dealing mistake that the fish makes. Like the fish, they take the bait that gets dangled before them. And like the fish, the addict ends up getting hooked.

Unlike fish, however, addicts can, with good fortune, be brought to a point that they see at last that they do have a choice in the matter. They come to be shown that they have the power, the capacity, to withstand the temptation and thereby to avoid the hook. Where only death had lurked, life breaks through.

Fish have no capacity to come to such a point, where they can see that they have a choice in the matter of taking the bait that is dangled before them. 

Until and unless addicts are fortunate enough to come to a point, a moment of insight, of vision, when at last they are shown that--and how--they do have a choice, they also do not yet really have any choice. Until and unless they are brought to that moment, addicts may as well be fish. 

Prior to that point where they are granted such a moment of vision, addicts, as opposed to fish, may in some altogether abstract, worthless sense "have" what for many centuries has been called "free will." 

If so, however, it is a "free will in bondage." 

*     *     *

On the outside, Emma didn’t seem to want for anything, but let’s be clear—she was starving on the inside. Not the coal-burning-belly type of hunger of the destitute, but the agonizing longing of a free spirit, caged.

--Bernice L. McFadden, The Book of Harlan

In the eighth book of his Confessions, Augustine, the saint of the western Christian tradition, attests to having suffered from just such a state of bound freedom for many years. He depicts how he suffered from it up to up the moment he was personally granted his own liberating vision. 

That moment occurred when, struggling with himself and his own inner devils in a garden in Milan, Augustine heard a child's voice calling him. Responding to that voice by doing what he heard it calling him to do, Augustine experienced at last the liberation of his own free will from its bondage. 

If you don't believe me, just read him. It's your choice, after all.

*     *     *

We disempower the devil by refusing to take the lures with which he* tempts us. Once we are granted the vision to see that it is only by our own yielding to those temptations that we give the devil any power over us, it is then just a matter of vigilance in maintaining the practice of ignoring the damned devil, and just letting him go back to hell where he belongs.

That takes constant practice. Not "practice" in the sense of learning how to do something and do it well in the first place. That is, the sense of the word at issue is not the sort of "practice" that, according to the old common saying, "makes perfect"--the sort of practice that first makes one able to do something, like driving a car or fly-fishing, until one finally learns how to do it.

 Rather, the sense of "practice" at issue in disempowering the devil is the sort physicians do, once they have finished their medical training. We go to physicians who practice medicine in that sense of the word, and not in the sense that they are still trying to learn how to ply the medical craft in the first place. 

To free our will of chains, and then to bind the devil with them, we need first to learn that we have a choice in the matter. That choice is simply the choice not to yield to the temptations with which the devil constantly tries to entrap us. We have to come to learn that we have such a choice in the first place. 

Then we just have to make the choice that we have been at that moment given to make--and then to keep repeating that choice, which is reallly our very choice to keep on having a choice. If we do not continue repeating that choice moment by moment thereafter, then we immediately lose it again, and return our will to its chains.

Staying voluntarily in a hermit's cell, or coming to see that one's enforced confinement in a prison cell offers one the same opportunity, one will either go crazy in the pursuit of diversions, or one will be brought to see that one has the power to dis-empower the devil. After that, all one has to do to stay free, and expand one's freedom ever more broadly, is to keep on practicing the lesson one's cell has taught one.   

That is simple, but not easy.**


*I use the masculine pronoun intentionally here, as more appropriate to the character of the devil than a gender neutral one--at least that old devil in our contemporary global society. 

**To borrow a line from a certain source that those familiar with that source will easily recognize. Perhaps those not familiar with it will begin reading widely until they discover the source. Or perhaps they will not accept that invitation. The choice, after all, is theirs to make.

Saint Augustine, by Michelangelo

Saint Augustine, by Michelangelo