As we move from a month devoted to Mary, past Halloween, to a month that begins with a focus on all saints and souls, it is appropriate to think more about the spiritual world and the ongoing warfare that is a part of our lives, as to be better equipped. A lot of the work Paul Thigpen does is writing so as to arm people for the battle. One of his recent tools is a book called Saints Who Battled Satan: Seventeen Holy Warriors Who Can Teach You How to Fight the Good Fight and Vanquish Your Ancient Enemy. We talk a little about it here.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Are our lives really about warfare? That doesn’t sound pleasant.
Paul Thigpen: No, it’s not pleasant. But it’s true, as the Scripture repeatedly affirms: “The life of man upon earth is a warfare” (Job 7:1). “Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:3). “The weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor 10:4). “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the Devil” (Eph 6:11).
I think if we’re honest, most of us will admit that our lives involve a struggle against the darkness, both within us and around us. With this book, and my previous title Manual for Spiritual Warfare, I’m just trying to help readers get a clearer picture of what kind of evil we’re up against.
This book in particular focuses on one marvelous source of consolation and encouragement: We have as our comrades in this conflict a host of saints in heaven. Now that they have won their own battle and their victor’s crown, they stand before God, sharing in the triumph of Jesus Christ their Commander, who vanquished Satan on the Cross.
Their courageous conduct when they too were soldiers on earth can provide us a marvelous example to follow. I focus on seventeen of them in this book. Because they knew how to fight and win over the Devil, their wisdom can advise us.
But they are by no means simply resting on their laurels in God’s presence. As members of the Church Triumphant—those who can now exult in victory—they are eager to assist the members of the Church militant—those who must still soldier on in this world.
They intercede for us powerfully. But they can actually do much more. They can engage the Enemy directly and effectively on our behalf through their share in God’s power.
Lopez: You write about Mary’s role in spiritual warfare early in the book. Why do demons tremble at her name?
Thigpen: For the same reason they tremble at the name of her Son. He terrifies them because He came into the world to destroy their works, and they cannot resist His power (see 1 John 3:8). “Since therefore the children share in flesh in blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the Devil” (Hebrews 2:14).
How did the Son of God come to have a share in our flesh and blood so that He could rescue us from the demons? Through the human mother chosen for Him by God the Father. His flesh was taken from hers. They tremble at the name of the humble woman whose consent to God allowed the Incarnation to take place, so that they were utterly vanquished and humiliated. She was the woman through whose holy Seed the head of the Serpent was crushed (see Genesis 3:15).
This isn’t just some kind of theological speculation. Exorcists will tell you from personal experience that demons speaking through their victims abhor the name of Mary as they do the name of Jesus, and the words of the Hail Mary prayer pound on them like a sledgehammer.
Lopez: Why does Mary care so much about “the plight” of her children still on earth?
Thigpen: When, on the cross, Jesus gave Mary to the Apostle John to be his mother—“Son, behold your mother” (John 19:27)—He gave her to us all in that role. Every mother knows just how strong is the bond of maternal concern for her children. I remember how intensely my mother desired my welfare in this life; could I ever imagine that she would forget about me upon reaching heaven?
Consider as well that the saints in heaven have been perfected; they are able now to love more deeply, passionately, wisely than they could ever love on earth. So the loving concern of the saints for their “younger” brothers and sisters still fighting the fight in this life is beyond our imagination.
Lopez: Why is St. Joseph the “Terror of Demons”?
Thigpen: Though we know little about St. Joseph from the Gospels, what we read there demonstrates that his righteous character and behavior served as a defense for his beloved wife and foster Son. The Holy Family was a little city under perpetual siege by the Devil. But Joseph was chosen by God to guard the city walls.
When he first learned that Mary was carrying a Child who was not his own, he naturally concluded that she had committed adultery. But so great was his love for Mary and even for her unborn Child that his primary intention was to protect them. Rather than publicly exposing the situation—which would have led to terrible consequences for both mother and Child—he “resolved to send her away quietly” (see Mt 1:18—19).
When the angel revealed to him the truth of the situation and told him not to fear to take her as his wife, his great faith in God prompted him to do that immediately (Mt 1:20—5). Though he knew that such obedience would come with a great cost, his impulse, again, was to protect Mary and the Babe.
Yet once more, when the angel warned him to take his little Family and flee to Egypt because Herod planned to kill the Child, he obeyed right away, in the middle of the night. With extraordinary courage he left for a foreign land without preparations, without telling their extended family, without a job or home waiting for them, and despite numerous dangers on the highways because of robbers and worse (see Mt 1:13—15). His compelling desire was to defend them, and that desire led him to choose Nazareth as their home when they returned, to avoid the possible wrath of Herod’s son in Judea (Mt 1:19—22).
Our last glimpse of Joseph comes when Jesus was twelve years old, and he and Mary couldn’t find Him in Jerusalem. When they did, after three days of separation, Mary’s words reveal Joseph’s heart as well as her own when she said to the Boy, “Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously” (Lk 2:48).
I think we can conclude that whatever attacks the Devil may have attempted in the “hidden years” of the Holy Family at Nazareth, those attacks were unsuccessful in large part because of Joseph’s protection, who served as their divinely appointed defender.
After Joseph left this world for the next, he went on to take on the mantle of a defender, not just of the Holy Family, but of the extended family of Jesus and Mary—that is, the whole Church. He has in fact been declared “Patron of the Universal Church.” Many titles ascribed to him in the litany that bears his name remind us of this role: Guardian of Virgins, Pillar of Families, Patron of the Dying, Protector of Holy Church. But none among them is more fitting than the title that reveals his might as a spiritual warrior: Terror of Demons.
Joseph may well have been a man of few words; Sacred Scripture has recorded nothing from his lips. But this title suggests that when we call on him for rescue from our diabolical adversaries, he need not even speak to them: His very presence terrifies them and sends them fleeing. (More about Joseph’s role in the apostolic exhortation of Pope St. John Paul II Redemptoris Custos: On the Person and Mission of St. Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church.
Lopez: How can the saints help us cultivate wisdom?
Thigpen: Wisdom can be defined in several ways, but my personal definition is this: Wisdom is seeing things as God sees them, and responding to them as He would have us respond. Since God sees things as they truly are, if we can see them the way He does, we’ll know reality, and how best to respond to it.
In spiritual warfare as in so many other situations in life, the saints help us to see things as God seems them and to respond accordingly. Through their example (and through their intercession and other assistance), they assist us in more truly knowing God, ourselves, our neighbors, and our world. And we imitate them in their response to these truths.
Knowing the truth is essential to spiritual warfare because one of the Enemy’s most common and effective strategies is to deceive us—to entice us to believe lies about who God is especially, but also falsehoods about ourselves and others and our world. Our knowing and acting on the truth undermines this strategy.