Which saints suffered from temptations and evil thoughts?
Q: Dear Father John, Lately I have been experiencing an issue in relation to certain lines in certain prayers. I know that I heard a song blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. It was not something I expected when I heard the song. This was a while ago but now I have thoughts about God the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and Mary. This happens even in church or while praying the Rosary. I ask God to not let these thoughts enter my mind, but they still do. In your article you state: “…it is worth mentioning that many saints experienced violent and intense temptations to blasphemy towards the end of their lives, when they were well advanced in the spiritual life.” Which saints had bad thoughts or temptations?
A: I don’t know enough about your particular situation to give specific advice about how you may be able to deal with this issue. But I can give some general advice – which may also be of use to other readers.
When evil thoughts knock at the door of your mind, refuse to let them in. You may not be able to keep them from knocking, but by saying a short prayer (“Lord Jesus, have mercy on me… Lord Jesus, I love you… Sacred Heart of Jesus, I trust in you…”) or praying a favorite line of Scripture (“Let it be done to me according to your word” [Luke 1:38], “Trust in Him at all times” [Psalm 62:8], “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” [Psalm 27:1]), you may be able to resist letting them in. If they continue to clamor, continue to resist them: make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament; go to confession; open your Bible and read the Word for fifteen minutes; do a work of mercy for someone; refocus on the task at hand…
St. Paul explains that he “takes every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). When God permits us to be barraged by evil thoughts, we can follow St. Paul’s example. Even if we feel ourselves weak, we can still put up some resistance, which will eventually repel the spiritual attack: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). And if our resistance takes the form of turning our thoughts to God, not just gritting our teeth and trying to exert massive self-control, then God will surely come to our rescue if we persevere: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8). Sometimes the battle rages for long periods; God permits that in order to help us grow in virtue, self-knowledge, humility, and wisdom. Sometimes we must make strong, courageous decisions to resist the evil attacks, as St. Benedict did when he threw himself into a thorn bush in order to quench the fire of lustful temptations.
On the other hand, if we are partially responsible for the origin of the evil thoughts, then we need to take the ax to the root and chop away. If we are filling our minds with worldly images and messages, or flirting with evil influences in what we listen to or how we spend our time, we are opening the door to evil thoughts. In a sense, we become their accomplices; we put ourselves in the path of sin. In this case, we can’t expect God to remove the evil thoughts unless we repent and remove ourselves from the evil influences.
If we make a decent effort to resist, and the evil thoughts keep coming back and trying to invade our minds and hearts, we can trust that God knows what he is doing. He may be giving us a season of battle for our own sake, or for the sake of the Mystical Body of Christ, or both. We can continue to trust in him, and beg for the grace to persevere in our struggle to be faithful: “But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).
Less Ordinary Issues
In certain cases, these types of thoughts may also be related to a disorder, called Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). That type of disorder can also be exacerbated by spiritual attacks. We don’t have the space to go into the nature of this disorder here. If responsibly and determinedly utilizing the normal means to resist evil thoughts (like the means mentioned above) do not, over time, give you more strength and interior peace, there may a treatable disorder involved. But before going for a diagnosis, I would recommend meeting with a spiritual director to talk about the whole picture of your spiritual life. (Here is a short article, written from a Christian perspective, which can serve as a very brief introduction to OCD.)
Saints Are People Too
As regards to the saints who struggled against blasphemous thoughts, St. Therese of Lisieux describes such struggles in her autobiography. St. Anthony Mary Claret had such struggles too. St. Ignatius of Loyola describes how in times of spiritual desolation thoughts against Jesus or the other Persons of the Blessed Trinity assailed him. Detailed descriptions of these kinds of interior struggles are offered by the desert fathers, like St. Moses the Black and St. Anthony of the Desert.
The struggle against unwelcome evil thoughts can bring intense psychological and emotional pain. In such times of interior battle, the comfort of Christ-centered friendships can be a soothing balm and a secure refuge. I would like to invite our readers to comment on this post, and maybe share some of their experiences. And I promise to pray that the Holy Spirit will enlighten, strengthen, and guide you in this season of your spiritual journey.
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