Sunday, October 30, 2011

Angels and demons: Do they really exist?

I’ve noted in an earlier post that seventy-two percent of Americans believe in angels. Why would so many people believe in the existence of beings for which there is not a scintilla of scientific evidence? Partly because of references to angels in the Bible and other literature. Mostly because they either believe they’ve had an experience with an angel, or have heard the story of someone who claims to have had such an encounter. 

There are numerous references to angels and demons in the sacred scriptures and apocrypha of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Three angels are mentioned by name in  the scriptures of all three of these religionsthe archangels Rafael, Gabriel and Michael. The names of many more angels and demons are laid down in the apocrypha of the three religions.

For Christians, and especially for Catholics, the biographies of the saints provide numerous accounts of encounters with angels and demons. Perhaps the saints are the most likely to be tempted and tormented by demons, while being protected by their personal angels. Then again, such encounters are most likely to be recorded in the investigations into the lives of saints made by church officials. The lives of those of us that have not attracted the attention of church investigators are not so carefully scrutinized. Perhaps such encounters are far more common than realized.

More than 100 concise sketches of encounters of the saints with angels and demons appear at the following site: I recommend that you start by reading a few of the following accounts:

      003 Maria of Jesus of Agreda - (1602-1665)                                                
      011 Saint Robert Bellarmine - (1542-1621)                                                   
      012 Saint Benedict - (Circa 480-547)                                                            
      014 Servant of God Anfrosina Berardi - (1920-1933)                                   
      015 Saint Louis Bertrand - (1526-1581)                                                        
017 Blessed Veronica of Binasco - (1445-1497)                                           
019 Servant of God Maria Bolognesi - (1924-1980)                                     
026 Servant of God Edvige Carboni - (1880-1952)                                      
027 Servant of God Giulio Castelli - (1846-1926)                                         
028 Saint Catherine of Siena - (1347-1380)                                                  
      031 Saint Bernard of Clairvaux - (1090-1153)                                              
      034 Saint Joseph of Cupertino, O.F.M.Conv. - (1603-1663)                        
      038 Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich - (1774-1824)                                
      040 The Apparitions of the Angel at Fatima 1 - (1916)                                 
      043 Blessed Angela of Foligno - (1248-1309)                                               
      044 Saint Francis of Assisi - (1181-1226)                                                     
      048 Blessed Maria of Jesus Crucified - (1846-1878)                                    
      049 Saint John of the Cross - (1542-1591)                                                   
      050 Saint John of God - (1495-1550)                                                            
      056 Teresa Higginson - (1844-1905) (Sacred Head of Jesus)                     
      058 Saint Faustina Kowalska - (1905-1938)                                                 
      059 Saint Catherine Labouré - (1806-1876)                                                  
      060 Father Lamy - (1853-1931)                                                                    
      065 Pope Leo XIII - (1810-1903) (Rerum Natura encyclical)                       
      066 Saint Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori - (1696-1787)                                   
      068 Saint Ignatius of Loyola - (1491-1556)                                                   
      098 Saint Pio of Pietralcina (Padre Pio) - (1887-1968)                                 
      119 Saint Bridget of Sweden - (1303-1373)                                                  
      124 Saint Thomas Aquinas - (1224/25-1274)                                                
      128 Saint John Maria Vianney - (1786-1858)                                               

What makes me think that angels and demons exist? 

I’ve never seen my guardian angel, or any other angel, for that matter, so far as I know. But I did have one experience with a demon. It happened when I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. 

I was working on a term paper in 1959 about elements of witchcraft in the poetry of William Butler Yeats. At the time, I was corresponding with Gerald Gardner, who ran the Witches Museum at Castletown, Isle of Man, until he died in 1964. 

At the time, I began reading extensively in the occult, from the apocryphal books of Judaism dealing with demons through accounts of the maguses of the Middle Ages on down to the thinking in the late 1950s about wicca and the occult. If you’ve not read the Book of Solomon, an apocryphal Judaic text, it’s about the supposed power King Solomon had over demons, and was a favorite text of medieval necromancers, alchemists, and maguses.

One weekend night in Madison. I decided to see if I could summon a demon using instructions in one of the books I was reading. Alone in my room at Maude Tarr’s boarding house just off the University of Wisconsin campus, I drew a pentacle on the floor of my room, lit some candles, and uttered the incantation I’d found in a book of spells. I was frightened out of my wits when a demon’s head materialized in the room. The flesh of its face was green and purple, its mouth was filled with hair, and its eyes glowed red. 

I broke the pentacle by erasing a part of it with my shoe, blew out the candles, and the specter vanished. I’ve never experimented with summoning demons since. Was I hallucinating, hypnotized by the candles, and by my own chanting? Probably. But that specter was awfully real to me at the time, and I still have memories of it more than 50 years later.

If you are looking for more information about angels and demons, you might try Peter Kreeft’s Angels and Demons: What Do We Really Know about Them? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995).

Much of what we think we know about angels and demons, heaven, hell, and purgatory, comes not from nonfiction works on theology and philosophy, but from fiction. If I had to recommend any one work of fiction, it would be the John Ciardi translation of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy. There are two reasons I recommend Dante. One is that Dante is generally recognized as one of the four greatest authors of world literature - along with Shakespeare, Cervantes and Homer. The other is that although the Divine Comedy is fictional, Dante’s journey through hell, purgatory and heaven is based on the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, written by perhaps the greatest of the Catholic doctors of the church. Dante’s epic poem is fictional, but grounded in the Aristotelian logic of Aquinas.   

Dante’s visit to hell is probably the most famous literary depiction of the realm of Lucifer in literature. Hell was created by Lucifer's fall, and he is now trapped, in Dante’s poem, in the lowest level, reserved for traitors. 

While on the surface the poem describes Dante's travels through hell, purgatory, and heaven. at a deeper level, it represents allegorically the soul's journey towards God. At this deeper level, Dante draws on medieval Christian theology and philosophy, especially, as already noted, the Thomistic philosophy of the Summa Theologica. Consequently, the Divine Comedy has been called "the Summa in verse."

If you manage to wade through the Divine Comedy, you might next try John Milton’s Paradise Lost, another epic poem dealing with Satan’s fall from grace.

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