Do you know how to avoid the demonic?

We are living in a challenging generation in terms of our belief in and understanding of the spiritual. Many Christian ideas that used to inform our families, communities and laws have faded. What used to be seen as dangerous or even evil is now normalized and often celebrated.

Most have heard of the Pew Research study that found that about a third of Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Starting in the 1970s, just about all seminaries taught that possession is a psychiatric problem, and many taught that the devil is not a person but an idea. Western culture significantly dabbled in the occult in the form of the spiritualist movement from the late 1800s through the post-World War II era. We have been in a revival of this in the form of paranormal investigating, brought about this time by myriad television shows on the topic. Witchcraft (“Wicca”) is now an official religion in the United States, and Satanism has pushed for recognition and an open presence in the culture. The struggle to protect and honor life has ceded ground in many places as a secular view of life became more the norm.


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Seminarians are often taught very little about the dangers in the spiritual world and the rules God set up to protect us from them. In many cases we seem to be embarrassed by the ideas that spirits are real, that angels and demons exist, and that exorcisms are not an ancient misunderstanding of neurological problems. Because many shy away from these ideas, our young people are usually left uninformed by the Church. They are then taught by the internet and Hollywood about these things.

There is a natural and inherent curiosity in human beings about the spiritual. From a Catholic-Christian perspective, we say that our souls naturally yearn for God. We also have a rational curiosity about what happens after our death, and whether lost loved ones are somehow alright and/or whether we can communicate with them. Many people seek a direct interaction with the spiritual, and the various occult systems claim to offer that. If young people do not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, they may seek that direct connection elsewhere. When we combine this with our lack of teaching on the reality and the dangers of the occult, we see problems. Many young people model the ideas they learn from the media or the internet. The screen, small or large, has always had a powerful effect in culture and provides most of the “teaching” on the spiritual now.

If young people do not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, they may seek that direct connection elsewhere. When we combine this with our lack of teaching on the reality and the dangers of the occult, we see problems.

Opposing the First Commandment

Given this situation, the first thing we can do is start to educate our young people on what the Church knows and can teach. We have a broad and deep understanding of the spiritual world and its manifestations in the Catholic faith. We understand poor souls (“ghosts”), angels, demons, saints and, of course, God. We have a deep understanding of mysticism and the miracles that often happen secondary to it. We have well documented and externally verified healings, apparitions of Mary in many places around the world (and to hundreds of thousands of people), saints who have levitated into the air, documented cases of people with the stigmata, and it goes on and on. The Church is rich with the supernatural.

Golden Calf

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On the negative side, the Church also understands and knows how to deal with the preternatural. We have the Old Testament stories that set up the need for Jesus to open the way back to the Father that was closed by our fall to temptation in the garden. We have the examples Jesus gave in seven of the major Gospel miracles. We have his direct command to go forth and cast out demons. We have the many stories of the apostles and the early Church doing the same.

The First Commandment is: I am the Lord your God; you shall not have strange gods before me. When we turn to spirits other than God for comfort, information or power, we are breaking the First Commandment. The usual ways this is done is turning to divination (a spirit or a psychic telling us about the future), necromancy (calling the dead to talk with them), or black magic (cutting a deal with a spirit for some favor).

Many young Catholics do not know that these are mortal sins, or how strongly they are condemned in Scripture. There are a number of relevant Scripture passages, but one suffices: “Let there not be found among you anyone who causes their son or daughter to pass through the fire, or practices divination, or is a soothsayer, augur, or sorcerer, or who casts spells, consults ghosts and spirits, or seeks oracles from the dead. Anyone who does such things is an abomination to the Lord, and because of such abominations the Lord, your God, is dispossessing them before you. You must be altogether sincere with the Lord, your God” (Dt 18:10-13).

So we see in the word of God that God sees talking to spirits, divining the future (an augur is a diviner who foretells events) or casting spells as an abomination — which is “something regarded with disgust or hatred.” These practices violate the First Commandment and are described as causing God disgust. They also become a mortal sin when we do them willfully with full knowledge of their gravity. Not only do these practices cause God disgust and cut off our spiritual life (until we confess them), they start or deepen a relationship with a demon.


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What spirit will respond to the ghost hunter? What spirit will come to the black magician who tries to summon something? Not a saint, as they would not contribute to such sin. Not a poor soul in purgatory, as they also would not facilitate such sin. Nor a holy angel, for the same reason. What is left is the demons and perhaps the damned souls that are their unfortunate property. These deceptive spirits will pretend to be dead people or a lost loved one. They will also pretend to be helpful or our friends in the beginning.

Just about every extraordinary demonic case (their ordinary activity is temptation, while their extraordinary is infestation, oppression and possession) I’ve been aware of over these 15-plus years stems from a First Commandment violation. Someone in authority over something or someone has turned to the demons and entered into a relationship with them.

Now, while God has to allow every action of the demons, they are not running free doing whatever they wish. God limits their activity, especially their extraordinary activity, until we know we are dealing with demons and continue on anyway. At that point, we are really rejecting our relationship with God and embracing a relationship with the demonic. In practical terms, this is usually the serious black magic practitioner or someone who has willfully engaged with them in some way.

The First Commandment is: I am the Lord your God; you shall not have strange gods before me. When we turn to spirits other than God for comfort, information or power, we are breaking the First Commandment.

Cultural practices


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Many of the practices that lead to these dire situations are normalized or even celebrated today. Ghost hunting is a staple of cable TV, Wicca (which involves the casting of spells to foist one’s will on their life and/or others) is an official religion, psychics who talk to the dead are a theme in TV dramas, and youth books celebrate the “misunderstood demons” and glamorize the witch and magician. In addition we have a number of eastern traditions that have become popular in the west.

Kundalini yoga is a branch of yoga that has the goal of awakening the spirit of a serpent that (they say) lives at the base of the spine in every person. Once awakened it moves up the spine over minutes, days, weeks or months as the person does yoga. In India this process is often sped up by the laying on of hands by a yogi master. When it reaches the top of the head, it causes involuntary body jerks and motions as well as animal-like vocalizations. These are seen as a good sign that the person is making progress. There are many testimonies online of lives being seriously disrupted for months or years after this occurs. Yoga postures are worship postures for Hindu gods, whether we do them purely for exercise or as a religious act. If one did it purely as exercise, it would be a form of religious appropriation to some but likely will not cause spiritual problems. Unfortunately, it is common to be drawn to the more esoteric parts of yoga over time. When we move into chanting Hindu gods’ names, or trying to awaken spirits in our bodies, we are in a more problematic place from a Catholic-Christian perspective.

Reiki is a system that claims to provide physical healings through the spiritual actions of practitioners. This is not a Christian system. The initiation to be a “Reiki master” involves a verbal request for such (an act of the will), anointing the hands with an oil and the drawing of symbols over the person’s head. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops did a study on Reiki and released a document on it in 2009. They concluded: “Since Reiki therapy is not compatible with either Christian teaching or scientific evidence, it would be inappropriate for Catholic institutions, such as Catholic health care facilities and retreat centers, or persons representing the Church, such as Catholic chaplains, to promote or to provide support for Reiki therapy.”


We can make a list of things to avoid, but it is perhaps more useful to understand why we should avoid them. Then we can make a choice about it, either based on our fear of God (the purgative way and the desire to stop offending God) or based on a desire to be doing the good instead for love of God (the illuminative way, which cannot really happen until most of the purgative way has been worked through).

Here is a simple list to help you move toward God:

      • Go to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of obligation.
      • Go to confession at least once a month and when you have a mortal sin you need to confess.
      • Spend at least a few minutes in the morning and the evening praying and talking with God. Increase this to reasonable levels over time.
      • Repent of your sins and forgive the sins of others.
      • Do some spiritual reading each month and see how you can incorporate something from it into your life.
      • Do some works of mercy each month; be kind to people.
      • Learn the Ten Commandments, and then avoid breaking them.
      • ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

      • Stop judging your life subjectively, but try to see yourself as God does by learning his word and laws.
      • Avoid paranormal investigating or watching shows on it.
      • Avoid divination, horoscopes and psychics.
      • Avoid making yourself into an idol with supposed powers, or the same for other people.
      • Avoid taking up religious practices from other religions.
      • Avoid witchcraft, Satanism, the New Age and secret societies.

The Catholic context

All of this can lead to a simple list of things to avoid, but perhaps we can put it all in a bigger context. The spiritual life for the Catholic Christian has been well defined by St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Teresa of Avila, among others. This journey is usually defined as the purgative way, the illuminative way and the unitive way.

The first phase of the spiritual life, the purgative way, is about purging sin from our lives as much as we can. Essentially, “stop doing bad.” This process starts with getting educated on what constitutes sin, what does God want us to avoid. Then there is a process of rooting out sin by not just stopping it but by finding what in ourselves gives rise to it. As we address our wounds and the bad lessons we learned, there is less driving us to sin. There is never a state completely free from sin, but one can root out most of the sources of mortal sin over time. This phase is usually motivated by a fear of God when we become aware of how sinful we really are and realize how much we are likely disappointing God.

Then there is the illuminative way. During this phase one starts to try to live out the virtues in order to please God. Essentially, “start doing good.” One set of the virtues that Pope Gregory I recorded are: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. The soul starts to practice these not out of fear of God but out of love for God.

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The final stage, the unitive way, is when the soul starts to have some direct experience of God in this life. It is like a limited foretaste of heaven while still alive. St. John of the Cross wrote poetry to try and convey this in a limited way, but he clearly said that no human language could capture it.

When we are not well catechized, we are in a phase before this journey begins. We do not know God’s rules or how they play out. We do not know sin well or realize how sinful we really are. Until we become educated and honest in our self-assessment, we cannot really start the spiritual journey. Our culture, in many cases, would have us assess ourselves by our own standards, not God’s, and likely conclude, “I’m a good person.” There is rarely objective truth or a need to conform to it in modern culture. Usually each person “has their own truth,” which honestly amounts to do whatever you want and then justify it afterward.

The Ten Commandments and the cautions that derive from them are objective truths. When we willfully violate them, we break our friendship with God and start a friendship with a deceptive spirit. That is likely why God put the First Commandment first: it is essential, and the breaking of it is spiritually dangerous. God’s laws and word must be known for us to really start the Christian spiritual journey. There is an objective truth which was established by the creator. The breaking of God’s laws provided in that truth has consequences. Jesus paid the price for our sins on the cross, but that does not free us from the responsibility to know and live God’s word in this life. When we reject God’s word and laws, we break our friendship with him and start walking life with another spirit. No amount of self-justification and post-modern imagined self-definition will change that.

Even though our culture and media has become less Christian and more sinful, we do not have to live that way. We can choose to do the work to get to know God and the freedom that comes from following his laws, which protect us from the bondage of the enemy.

There is a spiritual world; there are angels and demons. The Eucharist is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus. He is there because he loves you so much.

Adam Blai is the peritus in religious demonology and exorcism for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Counterfeit bookWhen it comes to spiritual practices, recognizing what lines up with our Catholic Faith and what is harmful can be very difficult. We’ve heard the questions before. Maybe we’ve even asked them ourselves:

  • Can I practice yoga if I’m just doing it for exercise?
  • Someone told me about Reiki healing. Is this practice okay?
  • Astrology seems to be accurate. Can I try it?
  • The Enneagram is just another personality test, right?
  • People in my parish use centering prayer — is this okay for Catholics?
  • What about mindfulness, acupuncture, Zen meditation, horoscopes … ?

If you have wondered about these or other spiritual practices, or if someone you know has been lured into any of them, you’re not alone. It is essential that Catholics arm themselves with knowledge of these practices, so they can easily recognize false spiritualities that do not line up with Jesus Christ. In his book “Counterfeit Spirituality: Exposing the False Gods” (OSV, $16.95), Bryan Mercier equips Catholics to spot false teachings and practices that have infiltrated our society and captivated members of our Church.

Order from osvcatholicbookstore.com

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