We Need to Talk to Converts About Spiritual Attack

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Yesterday I was going through my email inbox, and I came across an old note that filled me with mixed emotions. In the From line was the name Anne Rice.

A couple of years ago, shortly after she announced her return to the Catholic Church, I sent Ms. Rice a note to say how excited I was to hear her story as a fellow former atheist. When I saw her name pop up a few hours later, I figured it must be an auto-responder. Instead, I was delighted to find a brief but warm response from the author herself, offering thanks and encouragement on my own journey. The email made my day.

As I re-read that old exchange, I thought back to those days when Ms. Rice was overflowing with excitement about her newly rediscovered Catholic faith. It was bittersweet to recall what a force for good she was in the Church. When she announced late last year that she rejected Catholicism and all Christianity, I, like many people, was deeply saddened.

At the time, I got a lot of emails from blog readers asking for my take on this turn of events. I didn’t respond because I was embarrassed to say what I really thought:

It was probably spiritual attack.

It’s a subject nobody wants to talk about. Even among fellow Catholics, you risk being seen as superstitious or ignorant if you acknowledge that there is a dark force whose sole purpose is to keep people away from the light of Christ. And, to be sure, some hesitation about the subject is warranted: We’ve all heard stories of people who became overly fixated on the subject of evil, renouncing personal responsibility with “The devil made me do it!” arguments or seeing demons around every corner. So it’s good not to place too much emphasis on the forces of evil. But this is a subject where we want to be very, very careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and I think that modern Catholic culture has done just that.

In my own journey, an understanding of the reality of demonic activity has been critical to my spiritual life. I’ve been fortunate to have a spiritual director who has helped me learn to recognize when these kind of forces may be at work, and to act accordingly. For example, at one point I walked into one of our meetings to announce that I was quitting a spiritual writing project I’d just started. Agitated and jumpy, I ranted about how I was sick of this and sick of that, I knew everyone would hate it, and, besides, it was all moot since I was going to fail anyway.

“This line of thinking is not from Christ,” she said. Christ doesn’t accuse. He doesn’t fill your heart with resentment of others. He never makes you feel like a failure. She gently pointed out that I needed to wait to make a decision about how to proceed until I was in a place of peace. Sure enough, after going to confession and spending time in prayer, I realized I should continue with the project, and it ended up being beneficial to me as well as others. I suppose that my agitation could have just been that I was in a bad mood or had been drinking too much coffee (though I doubt it, given some of the specific spiritual “symptoms”)—but, either way, it was helpful for me to learn to recognize and reject those thought patterns that are not of Christ.

This advice has been particularly critical in times of doubt. Twenty-five years of atheistic thinking patterns don’t go away overnight, and since my conversion I’ve had plenty of periods where I experienced doubt or spiritual dryness. In these moments, it’s been extremely important to understand how to parse through my thoughts carefully, separating reasonable points from lines of thinking that seem to stem from spiritual attack, bad moods or other distracting forces (I once summarized what I learned about that here). Thanks to this understanding, each period of exploring my doubts has only led me to a deeper knowledge of God and greater faith in the Church.

Obviously I don’t know exactly what happened in the case of Anne Rice. But as I look at her name in my inbox and remember the hope and peace she exuded when she first returned to Catholicism, I have to wonder if perhaps spiritual attack was at play. With the amount of good that she was poised to do, it would make sense that the forces who oppose God and the Church would be all over her. Not only is she an intelligent, articulate public figure with the platform to reach thousands—if not millions—of people, but her conversion hinged on something that the world needs more than anything, and that the demons hate most of all: the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. When I think of the peaceful, joyous tone in her 2009 interview with Mary DeTurris Poust and contrast it to the unsettled, antagonistic tone of her announcement that she was leaving the Faith (in which she referenced negative stereotypes about the Church that even a small amount of research could have cleared up), it makes it seem like this may have been a case of someone simply not being equipped for spiritual warfare.

And so, as a new group of converts (and “reverts”) prepares to come into full communion with the Church this Easter, I hope that our RCIA directors talk to them about this issue. I hope they make Dr. Peter Kreeft’s recent article about the reality of spiritual warfare required reading, and emphasize the benefits of finding a trusted priest or trained spiritual director to help navigate the ups and downs of the ongoing conversion process. Because while the path to sainthood is a beautiful road where we find peace and fulfillment as we grow closer to the Lord, we must never forget that it is also a battle.