Paul Thigpen graduated summa cum laude from Yale and holds a doctorate in historical theology from Emory, but his interest in recognizing and defeating demonic influence is far from academic. Thigpen toyed with the occult as a teenager, prior to becoming a Christian, and for anyone who doubts the existence of demons, he has some creepy personal stories to share to convince you otherwise.
After finding Christ, Thigpen served for a time as a missionary with a Pentecostal organization, trying to attract “street people” and drug addicts to Christ through Christian rock (he was lead singer in a band). Eventually he found his way into the Catholic Church, and he is now a husband and father, the editor of TAN books, as well as the author of more than 40 titles in his own right. His latest is Saints Who Battled Satan. It features some of the more exotic instances of demonic attack on individuals, but it also shows that the means of defeating such interference are fairly simple, and accessible to anyone. Here is my interview with Paul Thigpen.
Rebecca Ryskind Teti: Saints Who Battled Satan is a follow up to your earlier volume, Manual for Spiritual Warfare — an effort to “put flesh” on what you recommend there. How did you come to be interested in the topic of spiritual warfare?
Paul Thigpen, Ph.D.: The Manual includes a few anecdotes from the saints and some of what they wrote about spiritual warfare. But I found so much more saintly wisdom than I could include there, I decided to write an entire book about the subject.
I became interested in spiritual warfare through personal encounters with demons. I experienced phenomena caused by malicious spirits when I was toying with occult practices as a teenager, before I became a Christian, and again after I became a Christian, when I served on the international mission field. For me, it’s not a simply a matter of Christian doctrine. It’s a matter of survival.
Of course, I’ve come to recognize over the years that the Enemy of our souls most frequently assails us, not through strange phenomena, but rather through temptation. That’s the battle every Christian must fight, and must win.
RRT: “Spiritual warfare” sounds both intimidating and somewhat old-fashioned. Why should readers want to know more about it?
PT: Whether or not they realize it, every single person is engaged in spiritual conflict. There are no non-combatants, no demilitarized zones. And the outcome of this spiritual war will determine their eternal destiny. So readers need to learn all they can about who he is and how he works against us. The first rule of successful warfare is know your enemy and his tactics. That’s why I wrote the book!
I suppose the subject is old-fashioned in the sense that the war has been going on since the dawn of human history. Satan tempted Adam and Eve, he tempted Jesus, he tempted the saints, and he tempts us. In this case, the old-fashioned weapons, armor, and strategy available to us are the most effective, because they have been proven again and again through the centuries.
RRT: Is spiritual warfare too much for beginners? So many —maybe the majority— of people we run into have never received what catechists call “initial proclamation” in any credible fashion. How do you (should you?) talk about the devil to people who haven’t experienced the love of Christ? Is this only for people who are already committed to Christian prayer and discipleship?
PT: The book is primarily intended for those who have at least a basic sense of who Jesus Christ is and what it means to be his disciple.
At the same time, thinking back on my own experience of encountering demonic powers as an atheist teen dabbling in the occult, I think if someone could have put my two volumes on spiritual warfare into my hands somehow, they could have save me a great deal of trouble!
RRT: In some sense any saint must be understood to have battled Satan, yes? So why these? Are they just favorites you stumbled upon, or was there some particular method by which you chose?
PT: Yes, every saint battles Satan, so choosing the ones to focus on here wasn’t easy! Several factors entered in. First, to emphasize the universality of spiritual combat, I wanted to include saints from a variety of cultures and historical periods. The saints I chose (including additional ones featured in the sections called “Brief Scenes of Saints in Battle” and “Saintly Wisdom for the Battle”) hailed from two dozen nations in Asia, Africa, Europe, and North and South America. They represent every century since Christ, except for our infant twenty-first century.
A second factor was my concern to select stories and quotes that illustrate the principles laid out in the Manual. I wanted readers to encounter real men and women who experienced both the ordinary and the extraordinary activity of the devil, so they could see more clearly how he tempts and provokes us. I wanted readers to see how the saints have employed spiritual weapons such as prayer, Scripture, the sacraments, and sacramentals; how their virtues served as their spiritual armor; and how they have called on the assistance of their commander, Jesus Christ, and their comrades in battle: the saints & angels, especially Our Lady.
A more prosaic factor was just the availability of relevant biographical information. For each of the seventeen saints, I needed access to texts that provided enough information for an entire chapter. Even so, because there were some great brief anecdotes and quotes from other saints that were too good to leave out, I added additional sections for these.
RT: Do you have a favorite chapter? Why?
PT: My favorite is the one on the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom I like to call our “Warrior Queen.” She has an essential role in her Son’s battle against Satan. Her fiat—her yes to God the Father—made way for God the Son to pitch His tent on our battlefield and win the decisive victory through His life, death, resurrection, and ascension. And ever since then, as the Queen of heaven, she has intervened to protect and assist us.
What I enjoyed most about writing her chapter was using my imagination to speculate about the ways in which Satan would have tried to tempt and intimidate her. Given what we know about her life, and what we know about the Enemy’s usual tactics, I considered those events in which he almost certainly would have tried to crush her or make her stumble.
What might the Devil have said to Mary after Simeon’s prophecy in the temple? When the innocents of Bethlehem were murdered? When Jesus was maliciously opposed at every turn? When she stood at the foot of the Cross?
RRT: Most of the saints you write about have encounters with demons that are genuinely frightening and “out there”: devils beating them with sticks, or appearing in the guise of predatory animals. Is there a danger in filling up on these wild stories — of becoming paralyzed by fear of the same — or becoming fascinated by the power of evil?
PT: Most readers will never have to suffer the extraordinary demonic assaults that are recounted in the book. I include them for two reasons: First, they show that these battles weren’t simply some kind of inner psychological conflict. Second, at least a few readers will almost certainly have similar experiences, and they need to know that God is able to deliver them even from such extraordinary assaults.
It’s not about being sort of perversely entertained by the sensational events the book describes, nor becoming frightened by them. My hope is that instead, readers will recognize this text as a call to arms, an inspiration to victory, and a source of consolation and courage.
RRT: There are sure to be skeptics who dismiss these stories as pious legends. Even if we take them at face value, most of us will, as you say, never encounter the devil on the stairway — and we would like to keep it that way! Are we right to hope never to have such an encounter? How do you hope your book helps those of us battling more prosaic temptations? Maybe we aren’t doing enough good that Satan himself finds he needs to thwart our apostolic plans; we’re just fighting a daily fight not to be lazy, not to take shortcuts on the job, to resist impure thoughts, to battle an addiction…. What do the wild stories teach us that we can use to recognize temptation amid ordinary problems?
PT: Those who are tempted (and I use that word advisedly) to dismiss these stories as pious legends should review the first section of my earlier book on spiritual warfare, which will challenge their assumptions!
At the same time, however, I’ve included a great deal of reporting about the kinds of Enemy attacks most of us are more likely to encounter. St. Perpetua was tempted most strongly by the misguided pleas of her father. A youthful St. Catherine was tempted by the devil’s appeals to her vanity and accusations of her inadequacy. St. Benedict was tempted through troublesome memories.
St. Martin de Porres was tempted sorely to doubt. St. (Padre) Pio wrestled with depression and was tempted to despair about his salvation. St. Gemma Galgani was tempted through the trials of chronic physical illness.
These more ordinary kinds of experiences—less spectacular, less obvious Enemy assaults—can be just as dangerous spiritually.
Writing this book deepened my faith in God’s faithfulness to help us win the spiritual war. It drew me closer to the saints so that I call on them much more often now to assist me. As I face the Enemy, I have a vivid sense that I’m not alone; my spiritual comrades surround me in battle. I hope reading it will do the same for readers.