The idea that we should avoid evil is firmly rooted in our soul. We have an innate sense that evil we expose ourselves to or evil we are exposed to can have a detrimental effect on our minds. Exposure to particularly traumatic or evil happenings can leave its scars. This innate sense that evil can really damage us is backed up by empirical evidence. In recent times, research in psychology has highlighted how early childhood trauma impacts on our mental health. Research into psychiatric disorders is also highlighting how early childhood trauma, e.g. sexual abuse, has a strong relationship with hearing voices and seeing visions. With this research becoming more evident there has been a shift away from medical models that overemphasised the biological roots for psychological issues to one that recognises that the type of environment we grow up in and the evil that we are exposed to often leaves its scars. This has resulted in more talk of ‘trauma informed care’, which is better than the dominant ‘diagnose and drug ‘em’ models. Yet, with credit given where credit is due, there really is nothing extraordinary in this shift of emphasis. A brief reflection on one’s own experiences and a short consideration of the lives of others will help us to see that traumatic experiences do often leave their scars in various ways. This understanding that exposure to evil has detrimental effects on one’s minds is also nothing new. It has been written about and more clearly explained long before psychiatry and psychology became professional disciplines. Let us look at some of this wisdom from the past.
‘It is better for us not to know low and vile things, because by them we are impeded in our knowledge of what is better and higher; for we cannot understand many things simultaneously; because the thought of evil sometimes perverts the will towards evil.’ St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, First Part, Treatise on the One God, Q. 22 (The Providence of God), Article 3, h (Reply to Objection 3)
Our minds tend to be corrupted by evil. St Thomas, the Angelic Doctor of the Catholic Church, clearly understood this. Rather than focusing on ‘better and higher’ things which purify and lift our minds, our minds can be poisoned when we focus on or know ‘low and vile things’. St. Thomas wrote in a time (the 13th century) where evil and immoral practices, e.g. homosexuality, murder, were far less prevalent and where most minds were kept free from knowledge of this vileness. The time in which St. Thomas wrote is often referred to by modern secular historians as ‘The Dark Ages’ yet this period, especially the 13th century, was one of the most truly progressive and enlightening periods of history. Minds were kept safe from the dark knowledge of low and vile things so they would not be impeded in knowledge of what is better and higher. These ‘dark ages’ helped minds such as those of St. Dominic, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure rise to higher levels of sanctity and philosophical insights than men have reached since. Our modern pagan times (or our ‘enlightened times’ as many believe) make it harder for one to keep focused on what is better and higher. This is because sin is so prevalent and is seen as ‘progressive’ by many, e.g. abortion as ‘health care’, LGBT ‘pride’. As we are often swamped in the filth of ‘low and vile things’, the mind struggles to reach to better and higher things. Yet, if we want to maintain good mental health and, more importantly, avoid our will being perverted towards evil we must take St. Thomas’ advice and try not to know, or, at the very least, not focus on ‘low and vile things’. We must do what we can to keep our minds pure and our wills incorrupt in our current times and avoid exposing ourselves deliberately to evil. Focused efforts on purity and sanctity will only help in establishing one’s sanity while ‘holiness consists in hating and waging war against all that is evil and cleaving to that which is good.’ (Fr Auguste Saudreau, ‘The Ideal of the Fervent Soul’) This is what we must do for the health of our mind and soul. What we expose ourselves to will have an impact on our thoughts and actions. As St. Francis de Sales says, ‘let us have good thoughts: then we shall never have evil movements. Let us shun immodest company: then we shall not be provoked to lust. To cure ourselves of our vices, it may be well to mortify the flesh, but above all we must purify our heart.’ (‘The Devout Life’)
But what happens when we are exposed to evil or have evil inflicted on us without our consent? Sometimes due to these experiences, e.g. sexual abuse as a child, people will find that they are more inclined towards evil and immoral practices, e.g. homosexuality, and will sadly give themselves over to it, doing so often with the encouragement of psychological professionals. Others will resist some evil inclinations but find themselves distracting themselves from the reality of their trauma in other ways, e.g. alcohol, drugs, gambling, binge eating, etc. Others will find themselves able, by the grace of God, to face reality, understand themselves and their behaviour and find peace of soul amidst the crosses they have been given. Still, others will find themselves in psychiatric services, diagnosed with a psychiatric condition such as personality disorder or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, drugged up, and told that they have a biological condition which will be needed to be treated with psychiatric drugs for life. (This is a common experience for people and I have seen this for myself while working in psychiatric services where many people’s traumatic stories were missed due to an overfocus on supposed chemical imbalances). There are many different paths people take when they are exposed to evil at a young and innocent age. Some decide to indulge more in the evil they have encountered while others try to understand and combat their perverse inclinations towards evil. Many struggle to make sense of the hatred they have for the evil inflicted on them along with the hatred or guilt they feel towards themselves. All seek answers to help them to understand the disorder, angst and restlessness they identify in themselves. As our society becomes more and more disconnected from the truth and more and more people are exposed to evil, this sense of disorder is only increasing. So what is the solution?
‘Far from seeking out that which is evil, Love dreads meeting with it’ – St Francis de Sales (‘The Devout Life’)
The first step is to identify what is evil and to avoid meeting it. There is a terrible amount of confusion about evil in our world today. This confusion is not helped by leaders, e.g. the hierarchy in the Church, who have responsibility for helping souls to avoid evil, but who in some, if not many, cases, have helped to corrupt souls by exposing them to evil or confusing them about what constitutes evil. Due to how evil can be cloaked in the guise of virtue, we must be ‘wise as serpents’ in our endeavours to avoid meeting evil. If we want to have peace of soul and liberty of spirit, we must focus on what is better and higher, not what is low and vile. We must love with is good and pure and dread meeting evil. This website and service endeavours to point out some of the most obvious examples of low and vile things, e.g. abortion, fornication, homosexuality. It tries to point people towards better and higher things, e.g. the teachings and true representation of the Catholic Faith, virtue, sanctity. While countless modern psychological theories compete for people’s attention and money, the fundamental principle for finding peace of soul, no matter how traumatic your life has been, remains the same, ‘Turn away from evil and do good: seek after peace and pursue it.’ (Psalm 33:15). We have a responsibility to figure out what exactly this means and what it entails (1).
Ultimately, the best approach for identifying and avoiding evil is a life of prayer. So, to end, let me share this prayer of Fr Martin Von Cochem, written in his classic book, ‘The Four Last Things’ that may give help to you in your endeavours:
‘O my God, grant me grace that on earth I may love the light and eschew the works of darkness, in order that I may attain to the contemplation of the eternal and perpetual light!’
(1) If you want a more detailed philosophical outline of what evil fundamentally is you can check out St Thomas treatise on the distinction between good and evil here.