The Devil: A Modern View of Him


I WRITE this statement, not as a scientist or a theologian, but as a human being who has experienced one of the visitations which our mediæval forefathers called the Devil. There would be no excuse for my confession unless I thought it could help others, but this I do believe. And I address myself, humbly, because I write from no pedestal of official knowledge or special training, but very earnestly, because I describe real events, to the doctors and alienists who deal with ‘sick souls,’ and to the sick souls themselves, to those who have known, as I have, the abysses of spiritual despair.

I am a woman, not yet forty, happily married. I have several children. In the past I have had more or less illness, but I am, I think, a healthy person.

I believe in God — not tamely, as one believes in a proposition that cannot be disproved, but actively and ardently. God, and especially God as revealed to us by Jesus Christ, I know to be the central reality apart from whom all other realities are myths and mistiness.

So much creed is a necessary preface to my statement that, despite all the conditions for happiness in my private life, and despite a deep religious conviction, I am often attacked by extreme melancholy.

This is not a novelty. Over a period of many years I have been familiar with varied forms of severe depression; and familiarity alone has not made them easy to bear. This depression is not a mild general malaise: it is an acute horror and distaste for life, often an acute desire for death. Sometimes the term of the depression is short; usually it. lasts more or less continuously for weeks. There have been moments when I did not dare turn over in bed because ‘The Thing’ waited for me near the wall. Recently I have experienced depression to a rather violent degree, and under conditions of particular happiness and well-being. And in the meditation necessary to cope with this absurd misery, I decided that it was not enough to fight the Devil in myself: I must, if I could, help other people to fight him. For it seems clear to me that depression, melancholy, recurrent despair, and neurasthenia, are a sort of devil’s work, and must be met as such.

Is there a Devil at all? Not in a philosophic. sense, of course. The world cannot be a fundamental dualism. And on the question of good and bad angels hovering between the Creator and the human souls He created, ready to aid or to maim, I am an agnostic, though I have been strongly tempted to believe in good ones! But the Devil that I do recognize, and wish to illustrate here, is that tendency in human nature to split, or incomplete, forms of consciousness in which the less desirable group of passions claims control of the whole machine. That is a commonplace but not inaccurate description of sin, and I believe that causeless unhappiness of the soul-swamping kind has the same make-up.

In my own case it has been, perhaps, peculiarly easy to recognize the nature of this trouble, because my depression, my Devil, has never succeeded in making me suppose that anyone else, or any particular circumstances, were responsible for my distress. So far my intellect has stayed clear. It has been clouded sometimes on the matter of self-reproach. I have had a tendency to exaggerated and futile remorse for rather slight offenses, but almost, always with a half-humorous realization that ‘it war n’t so.’ Again, my depression has often been clearly personified, which, although startling, has helped me to know it for an alien thing. Yesterday I was sitting by my husband, motoring through beautiful country. Apart from my own slight fatigue, every condition of the day and hour was delightful. Suddenly a voice inside me, the voice of my entire self, it seemed, repeated, ‘I do not want to live. I do not want to live.’ Now that was a lie and I knew it to be a lie. I went on talking to my husband, cursed the Devil inside me, and said some silent, prayers; and after a while the voice ceased.

At other things and for other people, the Devil’s ways are subtler. But in every case of depression as apart from sorrow (and though we dignify many trivial moods under that name, true sorrow is a rare and holy thing), there is, according to my thesis, a like process. The Devil, the partial mood, the lesser self, claims to speak as the ‘ whole man.’ And the frequent, success of the imposture lies in the fact that the ‘ whole man ’ may be for the time a lost ideal. As doctors and the mothers of naughty children know, you often cannot find and address the true self. ‘The good little boy has gone away.’

So far I have said nothing new, and I suppose many psychiatrists would accept this bungling statement of their problem. But what I now wish to add, though not new either, is too little practised. I believe that, in either medicine or friendship, if depression is caused by the Devil, it must be cured by the Presence of God! And the value of this rather crudely mediæval nomenclature is that it suggests, by so naming the adversary, the only possible ally who can triumph against him. Perhaps also the doctor or friend who will accept my terms may find that they shed illumination on the always difficult question of an outsider’s relation to a sick and despairing soul.

People suffering from neurotic melancholy are apt to be tormented by one of several forms of false self-consciousness in regard to other people; or they sometimes alternate from one of these moods to another. Either the sufferer believes that no one can understand his pain, and so has a feeling of nervous hostility toward those about him who pretend to sympathize, but who are really, as he believes, half indifferent ; or he is ashamed of his misery, afraid others will guess and try to share it, and so locks himself away from intimate contacts. (I have often experienced the latter mood.) In either case the invalid is separated from his kind: an isolation is set up, and the soul, walled off from free human intercourse, becomes more and more the prey of its controlling disease, its demon of unhappiness.

There is a third false relation possible between the sick soul and its would-beadviser, which is perhaps more disastrous than either of these — that in which the afflicted spirit tries to sustain himself by the mortal bread of human sympathy. This attempt, in the spiritual realm, is akin to sex unchastity. It is an effort to use what should be a symbol, a signal, and an inspiration, as if it were a possession and a mere gratification. The doctor or friend who permits himself to be made a substitute for God will meet catastrophe, unless the sick soul, finding itself ill nourished and ill contented, rescues itself from false dependence.

In recognizing, however, the absolute limits of human sympathy in the cure of neurasthenic melancholy, I do not at all wish to disallow what the helper may indeed accomplish. To say to a tormented spirit, ‘ I am incapable of saving you,’ may not be encouraging; but to continue by saying, ‘I know Who can and will save you,’— to say this with such ardor and authority that the sick soul is convinced, — that is indeed to act as a priest. And the service so rendered may be the greatest which doctor or friend shall ever render.

You cannot give what you have not got. The doctor or friend who does not believe in the Lord’s active and jealous love for every created soul, cannot exorcise the Devil by any formal shibboleth. I speak, not to the total disbelievers, of whom, even among doctors, there are few, but to the average human being — to the majority, who really believe in God, but who are a little afraid to trust Him in so serious a business.

I am not a Christian Scientist; I deny neither sin nor suffering; I am not skeptical of experienced and detailed care in relation to mental disease. Indeed, I believe more heartily in a physical regimen as applied to neurotic states than do many of the physicians I have known. Order in daily living, an order applied from outside for young, tired, or puzzled people, is sanifying and useful. Accurate intellectual work, regular hours for food and sleep (possibly fasting, carefully practised), sunlight, exercise in the fresh air, — especially exercise that induces violent sweat, — swimming, mountain-climbing, gardening, housework, all these things seem to me to have their place in the complex task of reassembling and reëducating split and disordered natures. But these forms of action deal with the periphery of disturbance. Some message may travel back from them to the centre, and they may all be tried as secondary measures of help, with a good-tempered interest in their result. But if it is the centre which is disturbed, it is the centre, first of all, which must be reëstablished. And to re-create a shattered soul, only large measures will suffice.

We talk of split personality, of an unbalanced nature, of partial and moody people, as if a fused personality, a balanced nature, a unified and orbic character were a common phenomenon. There is nothing rarer. Being a whole soul, having all one’s memories, faculties, and powers in full play, is equivalent to genius. The man whose slightest action proceeds from the deep places of his central faith is always a leader among men, and most lives are attended by an inner chorus of such reflexions as ‘But I knew better.’ ‘Why did n’t I think of that?’ ‘I was n’t quite all there that time.’ So feebly do most of us fulfill that mystery we are sent here to perform, the mystery of being ourselves!

Most honest people — if they have any gift of self-analysis — will confess that but a few times during their whole lives have they been lifted on a flood of love, grief, or personal danger, to the exhilarating sense of unity. And at its best this is not a mere sensation of increased vitality. It is a metaphysical reality, a synthesis and fusion of all the too-often scattered aspects of personality, a genuine ‘wholeness.’ Alas, the absence of this wholeness is far commoner than its presence, and the neurotic, melancholy, or desperately depressed people are not, it must be remembered, the only ‘split personalities.’ They are merely a group who, perhaps for largely physical reasons, suffer more than their fellows from this division.


What is the remedy? ‘To get fat and take things more easily ’ is the usual advice of those who, though incomplete themselves, live comfortably and do good work. And there is common sense in that view, if it will work! Life, after all, often tends to swing the timid or disorganized spirit into pleasant or dangerous and stimulating situations, where his troubles cure themselves. A visit from a fascinating sister, or a play of Bernard Shaw’s, even a timely household crisis, demanding unselfish action, may be of more use than much taking of pains. But, at the very last, the thing is not a joking matter; and great souls as well as little ones have suffered intensely, and often been paralyzed for their life’s work, by that uncaused anguish which is harder to bear than grief. No one can read the story of mediæval saints (or of modern ones, like Tolstoi) without recognizing in their ‘night of the soul,’ their aridities, and their ‘abandonments,’ the counterpart of our modern melancholies. The long literature of mysticism is scattered with canny knowledge about bitter mental states, and the Devil’s use of them to tempt us away from sane living; knowledge that would shame some of our alienists. And it was One, long ago, who said of a sick soul whom He was about to deliver, ‘This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.’

Fasting is something we at present understand little. It certainly has its uses in producing mental states at once intense and simplified, and I cannot think Christ’s fasting was accidental or unimportant. No generation interested in the discipline of the soul ought to ignore this subject. My own conclusions beyond this, however, are not worth offering.

As to prayer, it is the single greatest need of man; and though its neglect may to all appearance go unpunished in many instances (think of our unselfish public characters in America — doctors, writers, and social workers — who never to our knowledge use formal worship), yet this is not the case with sick souls.

‘But how is prayer possible to anyone so tormented and darkened as I, and whose faith is after all so weak?’ the sick soul cries out. The answer must be in terms, not of possibility, but of necessity. It is never possible to pray as we ought to pray. Our mere weakness of body, our more humiliating weakness of purpose, make almost all human prayers a travesty on that intense and extended communion with God which is the goal of our frail desires. But the wise doctor, to whom a sick soul says, ‘I do not know how to pray,’ will no more stop to argue that question than he would if a tired invalid said, ‘I do not know how to eat well.’

‘You do not know how, but you must,’ he would retort to the dyspeptic; and to the sick soul he must answer, ‘You do not know how to pray, but you can. You do not need any art or wisdom. You must simply turn to God. You say you do not know Him, but I say He knows you. There is no credible God except the God whom Jesus Christ proclaimed, who has counted every hair of your head and every tear from your eyes. All your pain is his pain. Offer it to Him, then. If for the moment you have no talent, no joy, no vision, no virtue, to offer your Father, offer Him your suffering and offer it completely. Cast away all reserves and all courage. Let your whole trouble be poured out, like water on the ground.’

Such advice, such a command, is, I hold, the physician’s duty and the friend’s privilege to give, whenever the spectacle of a spirit twisted with causeless pain is presented to them. Prayer is varied and infinite as the manifestations of man’s life on earth, and no formula for it, not even Christ’s spoken words, can predetermine the shape and habit which any individual’s prayer should assume. But if our diagnosis of the sick soul is correct, if such a nature is a spirit community in which the members know not each other, and where an alien spirit or trivial mood controls, unity can and must first be achieved in any sort of immediate and sincere confession to God. And in such a first abandonment, profound, instinctive, and helpless as a child’s sobbing, there is healing beyond expression. The process demands no effort, hardly an intention, perhaps not even hope; for those who suffer above a certain degree do not live in the future: the moment’s ordeal is all that consciousness can hold. The only duty, the only necessity, for spirits, if the demon of melancholy has brought them to that experience, is to share it absolutely, unreservedly with God.

But this confession must indeed be to God and not to man, and to God with no man hearing it, if a real cure is to be assured. And here at once is the physician’s dilemma and his deliverance. He must in some way speak with authority as an accredited priest, demanding this supreme sacrifice of every inhibition and restraint. And he must also make himself of no account and take himself away, out of the mind of the sick spirit altogether. He must leave the sufferer alone with the Lord.

For both friends and doctors this is sometimes a difficult deed. We trust God so feebly. We tend, if our affections are once stirred, so to overestimate the value of those little talents apart from that Stern Husbandman who lent them to us. But the sick soul is a burden which no other soul on earth can bear alone. And the doctor or friend who believes that, the sufferer has really gone from his presence into the comfort of a divine interview, will know a rare and perfect happiness.

Moreover, there is still work for the ministering friend or medical expert. Conversion for the depressed soul in a single prayer is indeed possible. And in the habit of prayer that may at once be set up if the first attempt has reality, the invalid will soon learn to cure himself, and dismiss or exhort his helpers. Yet the later prayers will change their form. This immense burden of pain once delivered over to God, the Devil abolished, the quondam sick soul then asks orders for a new life. At the moment of extreme depression, he could not believe that the world offered him any further opportunity for usefulness.

And may I say here, that I do not think it wise always to try to pierce such depression with a description of the sources needed from the sick soul? The ‘work-cure’ type of treatment for neurasthenia will always fail, I think, in the deeper-seated cases of depression, because it tries to enlist the enthusiasm of a partial being. Three quarters of a soul may be stirred to get up and behave like a real person, and occasionally (here is the strength of the work-cure theory) does become one in action. If, however, there is a part of him forever unconvinced, waiting apart in chains of affliction and iron, that rebel will some day break loose and destroy the whole artificially ordered programme. But the soul that has once become whole in abandonment to God, that has been delivered from the control of its ‘malicious minority,’ its Devil, that soul can truly begin a new life. Such a nature may, indeed, because of its new reliance on its Creator, be capable of such labors, as before its ‘fall’ into despair it never dared dream of. And a doctor or friend may help during the stages of the soul’s reëducation, not so much by practical advice or superior wisdom, as by a reinforcing faith in his chosen path. When he looks back to them for guidance or comment, they can repeat, out of the fulness of this belief, ‘ Blessed be the name of the Lord.’

May I now be allowed to add to these rather loose remarks, some distinctly personal ones?

For my own case I have talked with four doctors. Each of them gave me kindness and sympathy. All except one took pains to assure me that my depression was not alarming, that I was not ‘abnormal.’ That assurance, by the way, reminds me of a friend of mine, a famous painter, one of whose pictures was lost on a railway journey. The picture was an important one. The United States government was interested in finding it, and a young government clerk, trying to soothe my irate and not at all plaintive friend, explained that the delay was not unusual. ‘There is really no need to worry.’ — ’Silly boy,’ the painter commented to me; ‘he did n’t understand at all. I don’t in the least mind worrying so long as I get my picture.’ And I might honestly have told the three kind doctors that I did n’t a bit care whether I was normal or insane, if only it would please stop! The fourth doctor was agnostic on that point, but he minded my suffering too much to give me any comfort. I spoke with him only a few times (once each with the others), because, though at first I got the impression that I could shift my pain to him, as soon as I saw any chance of success, I was dismayed: first, by the selfishness of that process, and second, by its uselessness. For I wanted not to share the evil thing or shift it, but to have it taken out of the world.

Among the other doctors was one who was not an alienist but a surgeon. We talked for twenty minutes once when I had been seriously ill. I told him the trouble and said, ‘Only religion will help.’ He answered, ‘That is perfectly true’; and nothing that any doctor said about the depression—very severe at that time — ever helped me so much. He could have said more; but he was shy, and I had already chosen my own way. Nevertheless, I tell the story, unpicturesque as it is, and I am grateful to him.

This article has been written partly while I was suffering from extreme depression and partly while I was perfectly free from it. The faith I express stands firm in both stages. I have often believed that I had, with the Lord’s help, conquered the demon melancholy forever. After six months or a year I have, so far, always learned that I was mistaken. At this moment, I cannot tell what the years have in store for me. But it is possible that just my uncertainty may be of use to those I address. For I am perfectly confident about the future — not that this visitation of darkness, this machination of the Devil, is surely exorcised, but that, if it comes, the Lord will be ready to fight on my side, and that I am not afraid of the battle.