I recently attended a baptism at St Elias Melkite church in Los Gatos, CA. This was done on a Sunday morning immediately before the Divine Liturgy and the whole community was encouraged to attend to welcome the new member into the Church and the congregation.
At one point we all turned as directed by our pastor, to the West in order to renounce the Satan loudly and to make the gesture of spitting on him. We then turned around and to the East, ad orientem. This was as much, it seemed to me, to turn our backs on Satan as to look for the Risen Christ. It was a powerful moment.
The power of actions and words to affect our hearts profoundly was made very strongly in the St. Elias bulletin for that very Sunday, which reproduced a letter from Russian Orthodox Bishop Irenei of Sacramento to his flock, and was talking about something else also connected to the devil - Halloween.
In the letter, he is advising Christian not to participate in Halloween celebrations. At one point he says:
Where secular people may feel they have the option to divorce the spiritual realm from the physical and do one thing with their bodies while believing another in their minds, we Christian people do not. We know that the actions of our bodies, and the things we do with our lives, affect our hearts and are directly connected to spiritual realms of which we are, on account of our weakness, not always immediately aware. Can you honestly think—you who gaze at and touch the holy icons in your home and in our temples, and know that the saints are present with you, and that you are drawn into their holy lives—that to be willingly surrounded by images of the demons (however childish and infantile their representation) will not also affect your heart, and your children’s hearts, and draw them closer to powers that none would call holy? And not just to gaze upon such images, but to fashion them into clothes and costumes and wear them on one’s body?
How many of us in the Roman Church, even the pious, actually venerate holy images as a habit that would make the Bishop's words true for us, I wonder? We neglect such piety at our peril, I feel, as the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council knew over 1,000 years ago. This neglect might well have contributed over many decades to the decline of the Faith and so many of the problems we see in the Church and beyond. Accompanying the lack of engagement with visual imagery in our liturgy, there is the rise, in the wider culture, of the veneration of images of evil that the Russian Orthodox Bishop is describing. We would do well to reintroduce the veneration of sacred art into our liturgy as a matter of urgency.
And, perhaps the same neglect opened the West door of the Church and left it ajar and unattended, drawing the 'smoke of Satan' into the vacuum created by the absence of fragrant incense, and followed, who knows, by the entrance of Satan himself. If he did enter, he would as likely as not be greeted by a shower of spittle, but greeted in a spirit of diversity by a priest facing him directly, worshiping and making a sacrifice. What sort of message does that communicate I wonder? Those who do realize the seriousness what is going on and object are too often showered with spite, if not spittle, for their troubles.
Look at the imposing West facade of the gothic Beverly Minster, in Yorkshire, England. This is the gate of a fortress designed, I suggest, as much to keep certain forces out (and to reassure us by making this clear), as much as it is to let people in.
To repeat a sentence from the quote above:
We know that the actions of our bodies, and the things we do with our lives, affect our hearts and are directly connected to spiritual realms of which we are, on account of our weakness, not always immediately aware.
Unthinking participation by Catholics in the promotion of the symbolism of Satan is not limited to reckless, light-hearted partying on Halloween. Think for a moment of the modern desire to flee the urban environment to 'commune' with nature by experiencing 'pristine natural beauty' (ie unaltered by man) is not in itself evil, but it is a sign of something that is - the view that man and his work are unnatural and necessarily destructive to the world. The wilderness used to be the place to be civilized through settling and cultivation and was seen as the place of spiritual warfare with the devil. Christ and the Early Church Fathers both went out to the wilderness for this reason. Now we flee civilization to embrace the spiritual wild west.
Man is both part of the natural world and capable, with God's grace, of raising it up to something greater than anything it could be through its own momentum, by cultivation and civilization that is in harmony with Creation. When he does so he participates in the creative force the draws the world its final end, that is, what it ought to be. A symbol of this is beautiful farmland and, even more so, a garden cultivated for its beauty which bears the mark of the gardener who made it, and inspired by the Gardener. Certainly, man is fallen and his work can destroy too; but where faith and freedom predominate, the general rule is of improvement.
The public park or botanical garden used to be a place within the city that elevated it through their beauty. Even the New Jerusalem has gardens, new Edens. Now gardens are deliberately unplanted, so to speak, with native plants. This still might be beautiful, but it is not, I would argue, as beautiful as it ought to be. Whether this is the specific intention of the new gardeners or not, it symbolizes the hatred of the influence of man on nature, and the desire to undermine good society, for it says that those species cultivated by man are not natural, not good, because man himself is not part of nature.
And as I said before symbols matter.
Such gardens, by degrees, bring the wilderness into the polis and thereby contribute to the forces that bring its spiritual overlord in too. They are anti-Edens, gardens of the culture of the abolition of man. They tell us that the existence of mankind is a failed mission of a God they reject. It tells us that the whole project of mankind itself ought to be aborted.
By contrast, here is a public garden, also in Yorkshire, England. It is Breezy Knees Garden in the city of York. My guess is that there is not a single uncultivated species in view and it is all the better for it:
I believe that even if there is no overt religious connection to such public places, they speak to that part in us that would have participated in the medieval devotion to Mary as the Garden Enclosed in the past. Surely it is better to aim to create places in our cities that might be dwelling places for Our Lady than for the serpent?
Mary not only rests in the Hortus Conclusus - the Garden Enclosed of the Song of Songs - but she is also, traditionally, identified with the garden itself. What is sad for me, is not so much that people who hate the Church and Mary, want to destroy the symbolism that supports it. One would expect that, even if it is just felt as an instinctual desire to destroy what is beautiful and created by man. The dismay arises from how little pushback there is from those who believe and ought to know better than to encourage the symbol of the anti-Mary - the Wicked Witch of the West - in our own backyards. Sometimes ‘not in my backyard’ is a good thing!
It is the great deceit of the devil that he convinces so many of us today that he doesn't exist and I suspect that most who propagate his influence are doing so unwittingly and would consider ideas that they are the useful fools of Satan risible. And they are likely to scoff at those who suggest it. But this should not put us off.
We have no need ever to fear Satan, as we know, for victory over him has been won and those of us who have been baptized and have put on Christ participate in that victory. But that does not mean we must pretend he is not a threat and cease to be vigilant in guarding against his influence. Evil is the absence of good. The vacuum created by neglect is itself the problem as much as what subsequently fills it, which will be a greater evil if good does not fight to occupy and tame the wilderness, as St Anthony Abbot did and so many have done since.
St Cyril of Jerusalem wrote the following in his Mystagogical Catechesis (XXXIII, 1073B):
When you renounce all compact with Satan, all compact with hell, God's paradise is opened for you which he planted in the East and whence our first parent was driven forth for his disobedience. This is figured in your turning from the West to the East, which is the symbol of the sun.
And as Gregory of Nyssa pointed out, paradise is here, now, for the baptized, and open for us to enter if we wish.
Every day when we turn towards the East where God planted his paradise, and when we remember our exile from that blissful locality in the East, we have a right to enter ourselves once more.
Representations of paradise and its four rivers in early baptistries and apses confirm this connection. Here is the apse of St John Lateran in Rome showing the four rivers, in the East, (with the deer who yearn for those running streams).
Any symbolism that reinforces this wonderful message of joy in the here and now, as much as in the hereafter is worthy of encouragement, just as any that undermines it should be discouraged. Let us hope that when the devil tries to enter our lives from the West, that he does not do so unnoticed, but rather we are there to spit on him!
St Michael pray for us.