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The Enemy of Human Nature

Tiziano Ferraroni, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Thu, Aug 4th 2022

The Enemy of Human Nature

Christian tradition has always warned against an evil presence that, although unable to compete with God in dignity and power, is committed to spoiling God’s work, seeking to hinder the salvation of human beings and, more generally, the fulfillment of creation. Many facets of the mode of action of this presence have emerged over the centuries, and many names have been assigned to it. Most of them are commonly known names, more or less figurative, sometimes personal, each expressing some characteristic: Satan (the accuser), the devil (the divider), the evil one, the serpent, the dragon, the demon, etc.[1] There is also the name “Lucifer,” meaning “bearer of light.” Originally this was a name of Christ, but over the centuries has become the r name of the angel who rebelled against God out of pride.[2]

This malign presence is recognized as having its own will and freedom, and therefore the dignity of an intelligent creature, of a “person.” Let us add that sometimes it is spoken of in the singular, other times in the plural, e.g. demons, devils, principalities and powers. It seems that so many names and so many representations are necessary to designate a presence that does not have an individual name and a face of its own, whose tactic consists in concealing itself from any attempt at understanding. 

A new expression from Ignatius of Loyola

Ignatius of Loyola, a man anchored in the Church’s process of discernment,[3] unreservedly adopted the traditional representations of the devil. This is shown in the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises when the exercitant is invited to meditate on the dynamics of sin, beginning with the fall of the angels. The few words that Ignatius devotes to this episode reflect classical demonology (cf. SE 50). On closer inspection, however, not all the terms inherited from tradition to designate this evil presence have the same weight for Ignatius. It is no coincidence that the word Satanás rarely appears in his writings,[4] that the term diablo never leaves his pen, and that instead the word demon appears several times. Ignatius uses the expression espíritu malo (“evil spirit”) to indicate the action of the devil in the heart of a human person insinuating harmful thoughts, opposed to the good ones suggested by the spirit of God.[5]

What attracts our attention most, however, is the term that Ignatius prefers to describe this malignant entity, enemigo.[6] Sometimes to this term he adds the specification de natura humana with some variations. Only once does the synonym adversario appear (SE 13). We observe, therefore, that, although Ignatius places himself in continuity with the tradition, the fact that he privileges some terms rather than others reveals a certain sensibility, even a deliberate option. To speak of the devil in terms of “enemy” is to assume a particular perspective, and to write of it in the more specific term of “enemy of human nature” suggests a certain vision of human beings, God and the devil itself, and a certain understanding of their way of acting and interacting.

The expression enemigo de natura humana appears seven times in the Spiritual Exercises,[7] only once in the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus,[8] while we meet it with some frequency in the Letters and Instructions.

Ignatius was certainly not the first to designate the devil as an enemy. Already in the parable of the wheat and the weeds we find such an attribution: “The enemy who sowed them (the weeds) is the devil” (Matt 13:39). From the earliest centuries, a great number of spiritual authors have devoted themselves to describing the wiles of the “adversary” and proposing remedies to counter  them. Ignatius follows along these lines, but he does so in his own original  way. Let us not forget that he was a man of his time and that, moreover, in his youth he even had the status of hidalgo (“knight”). The world of warfare was already part of the lived experience of the man who looked at the world in terms of friends to defend and enemies to fight against, and this attitude marked out the man who had been a knight, concerned with the defense of honor and justice, and the fight against the enemy.

It is not surprising, then, that when Ignatius composed the Spiritual Exercises, he would invoke  this chivalrous “pride” to move the affections of the exercitant. The “Exercise of the King” (cf. SE 91-98) and the “Meditation on Two Standards” (cf. SE 136-147), two of the exercises that constitute the heart of Ignatius’ tactics, are striking examples of this: the first focuses on a call to serve a king (at first an earthly king, and then, a fortiori, an eternal king) in his battle against enemies for the good of humanity; the second has the characteristics of an apprenticeship, so that the exercitant learns to unmask the attempted seduction of the enemy and makes sure to soldier under the right flag.

We note, however, that although the language of war pervades these two exercises, it is taken up and reinterpreted within a new perspective. Little by little the exercitant realizes that the enemies to be feared are not human beings who, on the contrary, are all looked upon by Christ as friends whom he wishes to lead to the Father. Instead, the exercitant discovers that the “true” enemy is the one who acts within himself or herself, undermining his or her own heart. It will be the exercitant’s own heart, then, that will become the place of battle. This is what Ignatius himself experienced when, during the convalescence that followed his wounding at Pamplona, he realized at a certain point that the enemies to be fought were not the French, but those voices within him that attacked him and took control of his heart, leaving him “dry and discontented” (Rule 8).

We now come to Ignatius’ own expression, which adds to the term “enemy” the specification “of human nature.” If we consider the Exercises as a personal journey in which the exercitant moves toward the fulfillment of his or her own nature, which is that of being a creature whose end is in God (cf. “Principle and Foundation,” SE 23), the “enemy of human nature” will be the one who will do anything to hinder this path toward human fulfillment. It will try to divert the exercitant from his or her true path (i.e., from God) and to make him or her desist from this path, presenting distractions, insinuating thoughts that make the effort unbearable, discouraging, in order to make him or her stop or even turn back.

The “Rules for Feeling and Knowing the Various Motions that Move in the Soul,” relating to the First and Second Weeks of the Exercises (cf. SE 313-336), contain a detailed description of the various ways in which the enemy seeks to accomplish this end. If human nature finds its foundation and its fulfillment in relationship with God, the enemy of human nature will try in every way to loosen, if not even sever, the ties of this relationship, insinuating doubts about God and promoting self-closure, the narrowing of horizons to the measure of one’s own needs, and concern for one’s own survival. When a person has become a being closed in on him or herself, seeking his or her own fulfillment, then he or she will be denatured, dehumanized, and the enemy will have scored a win.

Other more specific considerations come to us from the passages in which Ignatius directly uses the expression “enemy of human nature.” We note that it appears especially where the most fragile side of human nature emerges. It is at this level, Ignatius seems to suggest, that the enemy acts most effectively. By pointing out the weaknesses of a person’s nature and portraying them as insurmountable obstacles, it will more easily succeed in making the person waver in his or her journey toward God. It is no coincidence that the “enemy of human nature” is mentioned three times in succession in the Final Rules of the First Week, in which, with colorful imagery, Ignatius describes how the enemy appeals to a person’s weaknesses: their fear (cf. SE 325), their shame (cf. SE 326) and their personal inadequacies (cf. SE 327).

This ability of the enemy to insinuate itself into the most sensitive parts of a person in order to diminish his or her vital energies is also exposed in a letter that Ignatius wrote to Sister Teresa Rejadell on June 18, 1536: “You, therefore, in the face of the enemy of human nature, who attempts to take away the strength that the Lord gives you and to make you weak and so fearful with snares and deceptions, do not dare to say: ‘I am eager to serve N. S.’ Instead, you must say and proclaim without fear: ‘I am his servant and I will die rather than give up serving him’” (Epp I 99-103).[9]

We note how, for Ignatius, human nature has no negativity in itself, not even in its weaknesses, but the enemy’s tactic is to make people believe that human nature is problematic, inadequate.  One is thus led to consider it, and to consider oneself as a consequence, unfavorably, and thus to reject it, to reject oneself and to reject the Creator of human nature. The enemy thus insinuates a negative interpretation, provoking discouragement and fears that are harmful to a person’s journey.[10] Ignatius invites us to react decisively[11] against the temptation to despondency, cooperating with God’s action with all our strength.

Let us add that in this struggle to bring human nature to fulfillment, one is not alone with the voice of the enemy. There is also the Friend of human nature, the one who has manifested this friendship by assuming it and inhabiting it in all its aspects, even the lowliest ones. The incarnate God, Jesus Christ, has shown us the beauty and dignity of human nature, exhibiting it in its fulfillment, pointing out the way to it and revealing to us that it is possible to reach it. The path taken by the Friend was that of accepting human nature to the end, without rebelling against it, but making it an instrument for the service of men and women and for the glory of the Father. He, the true man who “knows our nature better than we know ourselves” (SE 89), continues to suggest the way, to call us in the right direction and to encourage us on the way with thoughts opposed to those of the “enemy of human nature.”

The eschatological combat in the heart of the human person

Another element for reflection arises from Ignatius speaking several times of the “enemy of human nature,” but never of the “enemy of God.” Only in one Gospel citation does he allude to the “enemy of Christ our Lord” (C 622). We should not conclude that for Ignatius the devil is a “friend of God,” but grasp in this Ignatian choice the option of taking Christian non-dualism seriously. The devil is not “directly” an enemy of God, because it can do nothing against God,  given it is not a principle or force on a par with God. It is a creature, and as such can threaten God’s work, but not God. Therefore, there is no doubt that the devil behaves as an enemy of God, but  not in the sense of a principle that could aspire to defeat God. Since it can do nothing against God, it turns against the most beautiful of all creatures, the human being.

Ignatius takes seriously chapter 12 of the book of Revelation, in which the final battle is described: “The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Rev 12:9). The unveiling brought about by this chapter – apokalypsis means “ the removal of the veil” – opens wide before our eyes the eternal present of God, revealing to us that, in eternity, the final battle has already been fought, and that the Lamb with his angels and martyrs has already won. The combat is now taking place on earth (cf. Rev 12:13,17): the eternal and final victory must radiate across time and space, and this fulfillment is entrusted to the freedom and responsibility of humanity. The eschatological combat, that is, the combat between life and death, is not, therefore, postponed to an indefinite hereafter or to an indefinite future; it is being played out here and now, in the heart of every man and every woman,[12] so that every man and every woman may bring back to their hearts the victory of Christ and may make of their own hearts – that “place” which more than any other place on earth is entrusted to each one – a portion of the Kingdom of God, planting there the flag of the Risen Lord.

It is also true that, if the “enemy of human nature” cannot fight on equal terms with God, it does not fight on equal terms with human beings either,  because humans cannot defeat the devil on their own. But, as we have already said, spiritual combat does not involve two – a person is not alone when faced with the enemy – but  three, because the Friend and his allies come to the aid of the humans involved. Therefore, spiritual combat is not won by fighting face-to-face against the enemy – this is a dangerous temptation – but by letting the Winner enter into oneself. It is a combat that is won by surrendering to the Friend.[13] It is not by chance that the journey of the Exercises is a journey in which the person disposes himself or herself so that Christ may grow in him or her, and it is Christ who reveals and renders harmless  the snares of the enemy.

The terms in which Ignatius chooses to write about the devil thus reveal a clear perspective.  Without ever denying the extraordinary manifestations through which the devil can make itself present, Ignatius invites us to focus on its ordinary action, which is far more devious and dangerous to the heart of each person. By seducing the heart, the enemy manages to distort reality and to confuse good with evil, thus compelling the person to carry out evil actions and to spread evil in the world. Behind this conception of Ignatius we find the advice not to identify people – or groups of people – with the evil they commit, or even with the devil itself, but to look at reality in its complexity, always considering the fight that is going on in the heart of every human being. By identifying the devil as the enemy, Ignatius invites us to avoid any unjustified identification: for the Christian, following Christ, the only true enemy is the devil; other people are “fought against” and sometimes get caught up in the enemy’s nets, but the Christian is invited to always see them as friends, and to help them get out of the nets in which they have become entangled.

Humans should not delude themselves that they are the principal combatants

We have seen that the devil is portrayed through many images, and that it is referred to by many names, because in reality it has neither a face nor a name of its own. The devil is an inherent contradiction. It is an “angel,” that is, a messenger, who does everything to discredit the “good news.” It is Lucifer, that is, a bearer of light, whose main occupation is to extinguish every spark of life, so that the darkness triumphs. Its ways of making itself present vary according to ages and places, because it necessarily manifests itself through images, thoughts and forms pre-existing in the imagination of the people of whom it hopes to take hold. Besides, every spiritual experience is culturally and psychologically conditioned, because it takes place within certain representations, even while overcoming and transforming them from within.[14]

It is not by chance, therefore, that Ignatius chose the term “enemy” and, more specifically, the expression “enemy of human nature.” This choice, however, was not only pertinent to the times  to which he belonged. It is also appropriate, above all, for the modern world, which Ignatius, in his own way, helped to develop. Indeed, the process of re-evaluating the subject, promoted with such vigor in modern times, is at the heart of Ignatian spirituality.

It is important, however, that in order for this process to succeed, one does not delude oneself that one is the principal combatant. In addition to the dense web of relationships that allows subjectivity to emerge, and without which one falls into individualism, there are two other actors who behave in ways that are not always obvious, and to whom Ignatius never ceases to call attention: God and the enemy of human nature. God is the one who facilitates this process. The enemy of human nature is the one who obstructs it, placing all sorts of obstacles in its way, one of which is the insinuation of a negative view of human nature, making use above all of a person’s weakness and vulnerability.

Let us place ourselves firmly on the side of the Winner, and let us commit ourselves courageously so that each one of us may be offered the conditions, exterior and interior, to grow in humanity, to bring to completion in our person what we are created for. Let us not forget to tell ourselves and humanity today that being human is beautiful, and it is beautiful despite all our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, because it is from there that care, relationship and the ultimate meaning of life are born. May God be fully manifested (theophany) in the full manifestation of the human person (anthropophany). May God, who at every moment wills and creates human nature, be truly glorified in it.[15]

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.6 art. 6, 0622: 10.32009/22072446.0622.6

[1].       Cf. S. Lyonnet, “Démon: dans l’Écriture”, in M. Viller et Al. (edd), Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, v. 3, Paris, Beauchesne, 1957, 142-152.

[2].       The noun “Lucifer” is already attributed in the book of Isaiah to a being who fell from heaven (cf. Isa 14:12) while in the Second Letter of Peter,  Lucifer – lucifer in the Latin of the Vulgate, φωσφ?ρος in the original Greek – stands for the awaited Christ (cf. 2 Pet 1:19). In the early Christian centuries “Lucifer” was even a baptismal name.

[3].      Cf. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises (SE), No. 352.

[4].      It appears only in a letter to his brother Martin (Letters and Instructions [Monumenta Ignatiana = MI, Epp] I 79-83) and in the Notices of Our Blessed Father Ignatius (MI, reglas, 141-143, [9]), transmitted by Pedro de Ribadeneira. In both cases we are dealing with Pauline quotations: “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14) and “messenger of Satan” (2 Cor 12:7).

[5].      Cf. Ignatius of Loyola, Pilgrim’s Tale [also known as Autobiography] No. 8.

[6].      The term appears 37 times in the Exercises, 31 of which  allude to the demonic presence. In the Constitutions (C) the word “enemy,” referring to the devil, appears 3 times. We also find a reference in the Pilgrim’s Tale (P), and one in the Spiritual Diary (D).

[7].      Cf. SE Nos. 7; 10; 135; 325; 326; 327; 334. To these recurrences we must add two others, which show some variations: in SE 136 the possessive adjective nuestra appears and there is an inversion between the noun natura and the adjective humana: “enemigo de nuestra humana natura”; in SE 333 Ignatius modifies the terms of the specification: “enemigo de nuestro provecho y salud eternal.”

[8].      In C 553. Let us add that in C 622 the enemigo “de Christo N. S.” is also mentioned, with explicit reference to the Gospel parable of the weeds.

[9].       Gli scritti di Ignazio di Loyola, Rome, AdP, 2007, 939. This letter can be found in English in G. E. Ganss (ed), Ignatius of Loyola: Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works, New York, Paulist Press, 1991, 332-338.

[10].    Pope Francis underscores this aspect in his apostolic letter Patris Corde: “The evil one makes us see and condemn our frailty, whereas the Spirit brings it to light with tender love. Tenderness is the best way to touch the frailty within us. Pointing fingers and judging others are frequently signs of an inability to accept our own weaknesses, our own frailty. Only tender love will save us from the work of the accuser (cf. Rev 12:10)” (Francis, Apostolic Letter Patris corde, December 8, 2020).

[11].    The agere contra recommended by Ignatius in his letter to Teresa Rejadell is advice that returns frequently in his writings (cf. SE 16; 97; 157, etc.)

[12].    Cf. “Meditation on Two Standards.”

[13].     Cf. M. Giuliani, L’accueil du temps qui vient. Études sur saint Ignace de Loyola, Paris, Bayard, 2003, 103-120.

[14].    Cf. J. García de Castro, El Dios emergente. Sobre la “consolación sin causa” [EE330], Bilbao – Santander, Mensajero – Sal Terrae, 2001, 84-86.

[15].    For more details on the origin and occurrences of the expression “enemy of human nature” in Ignatius’ writings, cf. T. Ferraroni, “L’enemigo de natura humana nella prospettiva di Ignazio di Loyola”, in Perspectiva Teológica 53 (2021/2) 301-323.

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