‘Saints Who Battled Satan’: interview with author Paul Thigpen

Paul Thigpen is editor of TAN Books (a Charlotte-based Catholic publisher) and the author, co-author or compiler of 45 books. A convert to the Catholic faith, Dr. Thigpen has worked as a Catholic journalist, historian, apologist, catechist and member of the National Advisory Council of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. His most recent book is “Saints Who Battled Satan: Seventeen Holy Warriors Who Can Teach You How to Fight the Good Fight and Vanquish Your Ancient Enemy” (TAN, November 2015).

Dr. Thigpen holds a B.A. in religious studies from Yale University (1977) and an M.A. (1993) and Ph.D. (1995) in historical theology from Emory University, where he won the George W. Woodruff Fellowship. He has taught at Missouri State University (Springfield), The College of Saint Thomas More (Fort Worth, Tex.), and Saint Leo University (Savannah, Ga.).

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On Jan. 18, I interviewed Dr. Thigpen by email about his new book.

Why did you write this book?

“Be sober, be watchful! For your adversary the cevil, as a roaring lion, goes about seeking someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith” (1 Pet 5:8–9). The existence of Satan and other evil spirits, and their ongoing activity to turn us away from God, is repeatedly affirmed by Scripture, the liturgy, the church’s magisterial teaching, the writings of the Church Fathers and Doctors and the lives of the saints. My personal experience has also confirmed this reality.

Pope Francis has spoken a number of times about the cevil and our need to beware of the stumbling blocks he places before us. I think it’s one aspect of the pope’s focus on mercy: After all, it’s an act of mercy to warn those who are in danger.

Even so, few others in the church seem to be addressing this issue, and fewer still are providing specifics about how the devil comes against us—especially through temptation—and how we can resist him. So I wrote a previous book, Manual for Spiritual Warfare (TAN, 2014), as a way of offering in more detail the church’s teaching about how we fight against this spiritual enemy, and providing some “aids in battle” from the Church’s tradition: relevant scriptural texts, magisterial teaching, words and anecdotes from the lives of the saints, prayers, devotions and hymns.

This book is an expansion of the Manual’s section on the saints. It focuses on 17 canonized saints from across the centuries whose battles with the devil provide us lessons and encouragement for fighting our own.

Who are you writing for?

My primary intended audience is Catholics and other Christians. Some are aware of the battle and are seeking help to win it, which I hope to provide. Others are unaware of the battle, and I hope to awaken them to the danger. Still others deny the devil’s existence altogether, but if they read the book, they might find a few reasons for reconsidering their assumptions about the matter.

What do you mean by the phrase “saints who battled Satan” in your title?

The counsel and experiences of the saints offer us a rich treasury of wisdom for living, in this matter as in so many others. These 17 elder brothers and sisters in faith knew how to “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Tim 6:12) against Satan (literally, “the adversary”; see Job 1:6; Mt 4:10). So they serve us as models and counselors, and we can also ask them to come to our aid in the struggle. (That’s why the Litany of Saints is part of the Rite of Exorcism.)

Any number of saints could have been included in the book. But I’ve chosen 17 from throughout church history whose stories of spiritual combat illustrate vividly the common tactics of the Enemy and the comrades, weapons and armor that enabled these “holy warriors” to resist and overcome him. In addition, I have two other sections: One, “Brief Scenes of Saints in Battle,” provides short anecdotes from the lives of several other saints. The other, “Saintly Wisdom for the Battle,” includes relevant excerpts from the saints’ writings.

How do these saints teach people “to fight the good fight” in their lives?

They teach us several invaluable lessons. First, they show the importance of developing an awareness of the battle and discernment to recognize the Enemy’s tactics. Second, they illustrate the need to have absolute confidence in Jesus Christ as the One who has conquered sin, death and the devil.

Third, they provide examples of how to call on our comrades for assistance (Our Lady, the other saints, the angels and other believers). Fourth, they show us how to wield the weapons of our warfare (prayer and fasting, the sacraments, Scripture, sacramentals and more). Finally, they teach us that the virtues are the best defensive armor against the Enemy’s temptations. 

What does “vanquish your ancient enemy” conjure up for you?

I like to speak of our ancient enemy because it reminds us that his tactics aren’t new or unknown; he’s been fighting the human race this way from the beginning. So we aren’t alone in the struggle, and we can learn crucial lessons from the hard-won victories of those who have gone before us.

By reading about the saints’ battles, we learn the meaning of St. Paul’s words: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not allow you to be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13).

Pope Francis often speaks about the reality of the devil in our world, especially in the context of temptations to selfishness and exploitation, addictions and violence. In your own experience, how does Satan manifest himself in the lives of people today?

In recent times Satan has demonstrated more of a “stealth” strategy, given that so many people deny his existence. Such denial leaves him ample space to operate undetected.

Occasionally he shows his hand quite clearly. One horrific example would be the diabolical brutality of ISIS. How could the beheading of children while their parents are forced to watch be other than demonically inspired?

Most often, however, the Enemy prowls about, engaging in more ordinary activity, which can usually be summed up in one word: temptation. We can observe certain patterns in his approach in the biblical accounts of the fall of Adam and Eve, the testing of Job and the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. Satan typically tries to influence us through deception, accusation, doubts (especially about God or His love for us), enticement and provocation (to pride, anger, lust, despair and more). I’ve written much more about this topic in the Manual for Spiritual Warfare.

Perhaps in our day, given the hectic pace of everyday life and the ubiquitous nature of communications technology, we might add to that list the temptation to distraction. In our culture, at least, too often we allow ourselves to be seduced into thinking about everything except God and His will for our lives and for the world. We remain at the surface of things, rarely taking the time to plumb the depths. The result is self-absorption, with indifference to the needs of others. It gives our enemy great satisfaction to see us disarmed this way.

Your books tend to contain a lot of us against them, good versus evil and militaristic “spiritual combat” language. What would you say to critics who find this kind of religious language unhelpful in an increasingly globalized and pluralistic U.S. cultural landscape?

I’m simply echoing the time-tested language of sacred Scripture and Tradition. The reality is that our life in this world does indeed entail, inevitably, a combat with evil—the evil inside us as well as the evil around us.  Yet we must keep in mind (and this is essential) the words of St. Paul: “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).

The Enemy we must vanquish is the devil. Even when he is clearly working through human agents, ultimately, our battle is with him, not with those he may be using. Though we must try to stop the evil from being committed, we must never forget that Christ died for the evildoers as well. And we ourselves are counted among the evildoers.

Words like “battle,” “warrior,” “fight,” “enemy” and “vanquish” suggest an element of violence in the spiritual lives of the saints in this book. How do you reconcile the spiritual violence these saints experienced with the joy and peace that authentic Christian living is supposed to produce?

If you find yourself on a battlefield, in the midst of a violent contest that you cannot escape, the only way that leads to genuine peace is to win the battle. Like it or not, we find ourselves on such a battlefield, in such a conflict, just as the saints did. Each time we succeed in overcoming the evil that is within us and around us, we find peace—with God, with ourselves and with others.

Meanwhile, joy is not incompatible with struggle, or pain, or adversity. These situations may keep us from immediate happiness—from contentment with our present condition. But they have no power to rob us of true joy, which, I would propose, is the sweetness of soul arising from our encounter with someone we love. “In your presence,” the psalmist said to God, “there is fullness of joy” (Ps 16:11).

If God is the One we love, then he is with us in the midst of the struggle, and we can delight in his presence and his promise, despite the intensity of the battle. “The Lord is my strength and my shield, in whom my heart trusted and found help. So my heart rejoices” (Ps 28:7).

Once the battle is won, of course, our joy is complete. As in all things, Jesus Christ is our model in this regard: “Looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Heb 12:2).

Out of the 17 saints profiled in this book, do you have any particular favorites?

Each one has endeared him or herself to me in various ways, but I have a special fondness for St. Martin de Porres. The desert fathers and mothers of the ancient church used to emphasize that the virtue of humility was an essential part of the armor that protects the soul from the wiles of the devil. St. Martin’s legendary humility served him well in this regard, and I have much to learn from him.

How has your faith evolved or changed over the course of your career in publishing?

I first published in 1979, and the greatest evolution—or better, revolution—in my faith since then was my becoming Catholic in 1993. I was something of a wanderer, seeking my spiritual home, and the journey took me through a number of faith traditions with whom I had some formal connection at one time or another: Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Episcopal and several nondenominational charismatic congregations. I was even ordained as a minister in the last of these settings.

At last I came home to the Catholic Church, and by God’s grace, here I’ll stay. But I still have great appreciation for what I learned from each of these traditions, so you could say that I’m something of a walking ecumenical movement.

Who have been the biggest influences on your faith and writing?

Aside from the biblical authors, I would note these: C.S. Lewis was critical in my conversion from atheism as a teenager. St. Augustine, the desert fathers and mothers, Blessed John Henry Newman and Thomas Merton were essential in my becoming Catholic. Since then, St. Thomas, the mystics (especially St. Catherine of Siena) and G.K. Chesterton have been formative for me.

What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?

It’s nearly impossible to pick a single favorite. But one passage to which I return again and again is Romans 8:31–39. Here’s a condensed version:

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him? … It is Christ [Jesus] who died, rather, was raised, who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? … No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If you hope to be a saint-in-the-making, and you’re battling Satan, what a magnificent consolation is found in these words!

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about fighting the Evil Spirit, what would it be?

Holy Father, I urge you to support and encourage the training of more exorcists worldwide and to make sure every diocese has at least one. The need for them is growing.

Any final thoughts?

Just a biblical admonition for the readers of America (and for us all) to ponder: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). To paraphrase our Lord (see Mk 8:36): What does it profit us to gain the whole world’s approval, if we forfeit our soul?

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Rydberg
1 year 7 months ago
I think that the Pope has this covered. The challenge is getting the faithful to live authentically in the light of the Gospel, without compromise. Doing the right shouldn't be derailed by an attitude summed up as "well, everbody does it..". We need to remember the Prize! Eternal life in Christ and sharing in the Divine Nature. Realizing that the Glory of God is Man fully alive... And so much more to come... Good News... in The Risen Christ, Blessed be the Holy Trinity...

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