“Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” – Ephesians 6.11-12
“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” – 1 Peter 5.8
The spiritual world is real, and there is a battle going on.
Though Satan and his demons rarely reveal themselves to ordinary people, when it comes to those who are strong in the Lord like the saints, demons apparently sometimes make open attacks.
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Of course, Jesus has already overcome Satan and all the evil forces of this world. Though Satan rages on, looking for souls to pull down to hell with him, any person who abides in Jesus cannot be separated from God.
So don’t let these stories frighten you. Rather, let these stories be reminders that Satan and his temptations to sin are real – even if you don’t see him like these saints did.
1) St. Anthony the Great: “The lion was roaring, wishing to attack”
A 3rd-4th century desert monk, we know about St. Anthony from a biography written by St. Athanasius called Life of St. Anthony. It says that when people would visit St. Anthony at his desert home, “they heard tumults, many voices, and, as it were, the clash of arms. At night they saw the mountain become full of wild beasts, and him also fighting as though against visible beings, and praying against them.”
In one story, St. Anthony decided to spend a night alone in a large tomb. A huge group of demons descended upon him and attacked his body. The devil “so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain. For he affirmed that the torture had been so excessive that no blows inflicted by man could ever have caused him such torment.”
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The next day, a friend bringing him supplies found him and brought him back to the nearby village. But that evening, he regained consciousness and asked for the friend to carry him back to the tomb. After his friend shut him back in the tomb, St. Anthony called out, “Here am I, Antony; I flee not from your stripes, for even if you inflict more nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ.” The demons returned, and here’s how St. Athanasius describes what happened next:
“[I]n the night they made such a din that the whole of that place seemed to be shaken by an earthquake, and the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things.
“And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of them was moving according to his nature. The lion was roaring, wishing to attack, the bull seeming to toss with its horns, the serpent writhing but unable to approach, and the wolf as it rushed on was restrained; altogether the noises of the apparitions, with their angry ragings, were dreadful.”
Though he was in terrible pain, he responded boldly to the demons:
“If there had been any power in you, it would have sufficed had one of you come, but since the Lord has made you weak, you attempt to terrify me by numbers: and a proof of your weakness is that you take the shapes of brute beasts.
“If you are able, and have received power against me, delay not to attack; but if you are unable, why trouble me in vain? For faith in our Lord is a seal and a wall of safety to us.”
Suddenly, the roof opened up and a bright light filled the tomb. The demons vanished and his pain ceased. Realizing that God had saved him, he prayed, “Where were you? Why did you not appear at the beginning to make my pains to cease?” And God replied to him: “Antony, I was here, but I waited to see your fight; since you have endured, and have not been beaten, I will ever be a succor to you, and will make your name known everywhere.”
St. Athanasius writes that “[h]aving heard this, Antony arose and prayed, and received such strength that he perceived that he had more power in his body than formerly. And he was then about thirty-five years old.”
2) St. Padre Pio: “These devils don’t stop striking me”
Born in the late 19th century, St. Padre Pio lived and died in Italy – but was known and revered throughout the world when he died in 1968. A holy priest, miracle-worker, and stigmatist, St. Padre Pio was also regularly attacked by demons.
According to Fr. Gabriele Amorth, a leading Vatican exorcist, “Padre Pio’s real enemies were the demons who besieged him. […] The great and constant struggle of Padre Pio’s life was with those enemies of God and human souls, the devils who tried to capture his soul.” Even in his youth, St. Padre Pio would enjoy incredible celestial visions, but also suffer demonic attacks. Fr. Amorth explains:
“The devil would appear to him as an ugly black cat, or in the shape of a truly repugnant animal. The obvious intent was to fill him with terror. Other times demons came as young girls, nude and provocative, performing obscene dances, to test the young priest’s chastity. But Padre Pio sensed his greatest danger when the devil tried to deceive him by taking on the form of one of his superiors (his provincial superior or his spiritual director) or in a sacred form (the Lord, the Virgin, or St. Francis).”
This last tactic – of the devil appearing as someone good and holy – was a particular problem. Here’s how St. Padre Pio would discern a vision:
“He noticed a certain timidity when the Virgin or the Lord first appeared, followed by a sense of peace when the vision departed. On the other hand, a devil in sacred form provoked an immediate feeling of joy and attraction, replaced afterwards by remorse and sadness.”
Satan would even sometimes attack St. Padre Pio physically. He describes this in one letter he wrote to a priest confidant:
“These devils don’t stop striking me, even making me fall down from the bed. They even tear off my shirt to beat me! But now they do not frighten me anymore. Jesus loves me, He often lifts me and places me back on the bed.”
Indeed, if we are close to the Lord, we should have no fear of demons.
3) St. Gemma Galgani: “His brutal claws”
St. Gemma Galgani was a late 19th century Italian mystic who had incredible spiritual experiences.
In a letter to a priest, she wrote:
“During the last two days Jesus has been telling me after Holy Communion: ‘My daughter, the devil will soon wage a great war against you.’ These words I hear in my heart continuously. Please pray for me…”
She quickly realized that prayer was the best defense. In response, Satan gave her violent headaches in order to make sleeping difficult for her. Her fatigue then made sleeping more difficult – but she persevered:
“How many efforts does not that wretch make to make it impossible for me to pray! Yesterday evening he tried to kill me, and would have succeeded if Jesus had not come quickly to my aid. I was terrified and kept the image of Jesus in my mind…”
At one point, while she was writing a letter, the devil “snatched the pen from her hand and tore up the paper then dragged her from the table, seizing her by the hair with such violence that it came off in his brutal claws.” She describes another attack in one of her writings:
“The demon came before me as a giant of great height and kept saying to me “For thee there is no more hope of salvation. Thou are in my hands!”. I replied that God is merciful and therefore I fear nothing. Then, giving me a hard blow on the head in a rage he said “accursed be you!” and then he disappeared.
“I then went to my room to rest, and there I found him. He began again to strike me with a knotted rope, and wanted me to listen to him while he suggested wickedness. I said no, and he struck me even harder, knocking my head violently against the ground. At a certain point, it came to my mind to invoke Jesus’ Father “Eternal Father, through the most precious blood of Jesus, free me!”
“I then don’t quite know what happened. That contemptible beast dragged me from my bed and threw me, hitting my head against the floor with such force that it pains me still. I became senseless and remained lying there until I came to myself a long time afterwards. Jesus be thanked!”
But she kept her faith in Jesus. She even used humor against the devil. She wrote this to a priest:
“If you would have seen him, when he fled making faces, you would have burst out laughing! He is so ugly!…. But Jesus told me not to be afraid of him.”
4) St. John Vianney: “It is because I convert souls to the good God”
St. John Vianney lived in France in the early 19th century. He is so respected for his holy work as a priest that he is the patron saint of priests. And apparently he regularly did battle with the evil one.
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Once, his sister spent the night at his home attached to his parish church. She was awakened by a strange rapping sound on her wall and table. She went to St. John Vianney, who was hearing confessions late at night, and he explained:
“Oh, my child, you should not have been frightened: It is the Grappin [“pitchfork”; his nickname for Satan]. He cannot hurt you. As for me, he torments me in sundry ways. At times he seizes me by the feet and drags me about the room. It is because I convert souls to the good God.”
In another instance, St. John Vianney was in his parish church hearing confessions when someone reported to him that his bedroom had caught on fire. His response?
“The Grappin is very angry. He couldn’t catch the bird so he has burned the cage. It is a good sign. We will have many sinners this day.”
5) St. Teresa of Avila: “Their horns [were] around a priest’s throat while he celebrated Mass”
St. Teresa of Avila was a 16th century Spanish mystic and is honored today as a Doctor of the Church for her incredible insight into the spiritual life. And in her prayers and meditations, she regularly came in contact with the devil.
“An abominable form,” she writes, “his mouth was horrible. Out of his body there seemed to be coming a great flame, which cast no shadow.” She once saw “with the eyes of the soul two devils of hideous aspect who seemed to have their horns around a priest’s throat while he celebrated Mass.”
Yet, even for her, these visual manifestations were rare. “I have seldom seen him in bodily shape,” she writes, “but I have often seen him without any form, as in the kind of vision I have described, in which no form is seen but the object is known to be there.”
Her weapons against these evil forces? Prayer, humility, and – interestingly enough – holy water, which she claimed from experience was a particularly effective weapon.