Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Demons According to St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross

by Fr. Antonio Moreno, O.P.


In this article Fr. Antonio Moreno, O.P., examines the powerful insights of Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila regarding demons and things of demonic nature, based on accounts of their own experiences.

Larger Work

Spirituality Today


258 – 270

Publisher & Date

Dominican Province of St. Albert the Great, Fall 1991

It is not popular in these times to write about demons. As Lucien-Mary of St. Joseph says, "It is doubtless the masterpiece of this master of illusions to pass himself off as nonexistent in a world where he so easily gets souls to go the way he wants, without needing to show himself: He has every interest in not doing so" (95). Her observation is similar to Baudelaire's well-known quote to the effect that the devil's cleverest wile is persuading us that he does not exist.

Richard Woods wrote that theological thought has tended to relegate Satan from the center of speculation and preaching. "Perhaps the most strenuous objection to the devil comes not from atheists and psychologists, as might be expected, but from the clergy" (93). Paul VI, however, in That Evil Which is Called the Devil, says that one of the greatest needs of the church today is to defend against this personalized evil and that it is contrary to the teaching of the bible and the church to refuse to recognize the existence of such a reality.

Joseph de Tonquedec, S.J., theologian and official exorcist of the diocese of Paris, observes in "Some Aspects of Satan's Activity in this World" that,

It is true to say that while cases of genuine possession are extremely rare, the patients of whom I speak are innumerable. It would not be legitimate to treat them as possessed, for all the evidence goes to show that they are not. On the other hand, they are not invariably or necessarily mental cases, who would have some chance of a cure through psychology. (40)

The problem of demons is still relevant and the writings of Teresa and John of the Cross on this subject are illuminating. Both are extraordinary saints and Doctors of the Church who speak of having had innumerable encounters with demons. Both were well-known, especially John, for their powers in exorcising demons. As Teresa asserts, "John of the Cross has a special gift to cast demons . . . In Avila he cast many from a person, and he commanded them in the name of God to tell him their names, and they obeyed immediately" (Letter 48.2).

Demons and Teresa and John of the Cross

According to Teresa, the devil takes more pains to bring about the downfall of a soul receiving graces from God in prayer than in less-favored souls. This is also the opinion of John of the Cross who says that the devil accomplishes more through a little harm caused to an advanced soul than great damage to many others.

Like a good captain, a holy soul leads many others to heaven and does the devil much harm. Such a holy soul's special love of God is sufficient to make the devil do his utmost to bring about perdition. The conflict, then, is sterner for such a soul than for one who is less holy.

As soon as the devil began to notice Teresa, she endured the terrible and subtle temptations of despair, false humility, false presumption, and false fears as well as the temptation to abandon mental prayer. These temptations put her soul's peace and love of God at risk.

Apparitions of Demons

John of the Cross never refers in his writings to personal external demonic apparitions. Teresa, however, describes in her Life how the devil appeared to her, sometimes having: "An abominable form; his mouth was horrible. Out of his body there seemed to be coming a great flame, which cast no shadow" (288). On another occasion, she saw a most hideous little devil, snarling as if in despair at having lost what he was trying to gain. She also saw with the eyes of the soul two devils of hideous aspect who seemed to have their horns around a priest's throat while he celebrated Mass. In her Life, Teresa describes how in 1550 she had a vision which carried her spirit to a place in hell.

Teresa discovered that holy water, better than anything else, had the power to expel these external and visible apparitions, noting that theologians agreed with her experience. For example, in our era Tonquedec says that holy water is expressly blessed to keep away from the places and persons on which it is sprinkled "all the power of the enemy and the enemy himself with his apostate angels" (50).

These external bodily visions were unusual, even for Teresa, who observes that she could not see anything in the majority of her apparitions of angels and demons. So, her visions of demons were chiefly intellectual visions: "I have seldom seen him in bodily shape, but I have often seen him without any form, as in the kind of vision I have described, in which no form is seen but the object is known to be there" (292).

Importance of Demonic Temptations

Both Teresa and John of the Cross emphasize the importance of demonic temptations. Teresa warns that the crafts and wiles the devil uses to prevent souls from walking the way of perfection are terrible. For John of the Cross, the devil is the mightiest and most astute enemy, his wiles more baffling than those of the world and the flesh. He is "the hardest to understand," causes the ruin of a great multitude of religious who set out on the life of perfection, and no human power can be compared with him (Spiritual Canticle, 431).

The devil deceives, blinds, corrupts, and seduces. Diabolical temptations are the ordinary experience of humanity. For Tonquedec, he is the tempter, the seducer, the inspirer of evil actions. Homicide, hatred, lying, are his "works." He is the "father" of murderers and generally of all sins. Woods believes that contemporary and historic experience reaffirms the importance of the role of the demonic in humanity's spiritual evolution. He adds: "Apparently, well-organized Satanic sects do exist throughout America, and some, at least are vicious and even homicidal" (100).

But the devil is not the only cause of our sins, as Aquinas observes in the Summa and Teresa in her book, The Foundations. For Teresa, our own perverse inclinations and bad humors especially if we suffer from melancholy — also cause us much harm (ch.4, n. 2). "Melancholy" was the term formerly used to describe neurosis. It is fair to say, however, that the devil is indirectly the cause of all faults arising out of our nature in the sense that as a consequence of original sin the devil introduced disorder and concupiscence to human nature.

The Devil and the Weaknesses of Human Nature

We must realize that demons are pure intellectual beings, not rational beings like us. They possess a superior knowledge of our weaknesses and dispositions which they use to tempt us. Teresa is aware that, "The devil knows very well to take advantage of our nature and little understanding" (Letter to Isabel de S. Jeronimo and Maria de Jesus in Obras Completas, 980). In Spiritual Canticle, John of the Cross also suggests that demons use the world and flesh to enhance the power of their work: "The temptation of the devils . . . is stronger than those of the world and the flesh, because the devils reinforce themselves with these other two enemies, the world and the flesh, in order to wage a rugged war" (431).

The devil knows how to exploit our instincts and passions, the weakness of our flesh and our pride. Victor White, in God and the Unconscious, remarks that misfortune, sickness, or mental anxiety are not sins, but they may induce us to rebellion and despair. And Satan may take advantage of all of them to tempt us to sin.

For Aquinas, the devil can only act on the human mind through natural, physical, and psychological causes; conversely, all natural, physical, and psychological causes can be instruments of diabolic purposes. This view blurs the distinction between mental disorder which comes from internal causes and mental disorder which comes from diabolic agency, posing a difficult problem of discernment. For White, there is no such thing as a purely mental diabolic disorder.

Ways of Demonic Temptations

The demonic temptation generally affects the psychosomatic powers; viz., the imagination, memory, and sensory appetite, which are important for using and controlling our emotions. By tempting these powers, demons disturb the sensory appetite and indirectly affect the intellect and will. The experiences of Teresa and John of the Cross verify this doctrine which is commonly accepted in spiritual theology. John says that the greatest demonic deception is through the memory, and that it can last a long time, especially in souls that are engrossed in the dark night of the senses at the threshold of the night of the spirit.

In addition to ordinary temptations of imagination and memory, souls in advanced states of perfection are the object of another kind of temptation. The devil knows that a temptation causing the downfall of an advanced soul cannot usually be an open temptation, which is easily rejected, but a deception (viz., evil) under the appearance of good. Thus Teresa writes:

But the devil comes with his artful wiles, and, under the color of doing good, sets about undermining it in trivial ways, and working it in practices which, so he gives it to understand, are not wrong; little by little he darkens its understanding and weakens its will, and causes its self love to increase in one way or another he begins to withdraw it from the love of God and persuade to indulge its own wishes. (Interior Castle 120)

John of the Cross also writes of these experiences, observing that the devil causes the greatest harm and makes the soul lose abundant riches by alluring it with a little bait out of the simple waters of the spirit. Teresa had similar experiences, finding that this sort of temptation usually occurs with contemplative souls who find themselves in the "fifth mansion;" the mansion characterized by the contemplative prayer of union with God.

The Devil Counterfeits God

To deceive contemplative souls, the devil also counterfeits God. Obvious temptations are disguised as false apparitions of saints, or in beautiful or apparently holy words. John says:

The devil often purveys objects to the senses, affording to the sense of sight images of saints and most beautiful lights . . . And to the sense of smell, fragrant odors; and he puts sweetness in one's mouth, and delight in the sense of touch. He does all of this so that by enticing persons through these sensory objects he may induce them into many evils. (Ascent, 133)

Teresa experienced such temptations on several occasions when the devil attempted to present himself to her as the Lord by making a false likeness of Him. But she noticed that the soul becomes troubled, despondent, restless, and is unable to pray. The same is true concerning interior locutions, also difficult for the soul to judge. In these cases, John of the Cross advises that accurate discernment depends on the holiness of the spiritual director: "A person, in consequence, will have to be very spiritual to recognize this" (Ascent 207).

Different Kinds of Temptations

In the Spiritual Canticle, John of the Cross explains three different kinds of diabolic temptations which affect advanced spiritual souls: First, those that vehemently incite the imagination; second, when the first way proves futile, bodily torments and noises that distract the soul; and third, still worse, the sometimes frightful torment of the devil struggling against the soul with spiritual terrors and horrors (476). The Spanish saint gives little detail of the second category of temptations, although as we read in biographies of his life, he was affected by them (P. Crisogono de Jesus Sacramentado 111).

In the case of spiritual horrors, "the devil can do this easily, for since the soul at this time enters into great nakedness of spirit for the sake of this spiritual exercise, the devil can easily show himself to her, because he is also spirit" (Spiritual Canticle 476). His mysterious presence poses intriguing psychological and spiritual problems.

It is accepted theological doctrine that ordinarily the diabolic influence is through the senses, especially internal senses of memory and imagination. But both John of the Cross and Teresa suggest that some temptations and horrors may transcend the senses and affect the spiritual powers of the soul. This seems to occur only in advanced contemplatives who have already reached the spiritual betrothal with God in the sixth mansion and are near the threshold of the seventh one, the spiritual marriage. Let us consider John of the Cross' description of the horror that the devil causes through the senses:

When the spiritual communication is not bestowed exclusively on the spirit, but on the senses too, the devil more easily disturbs and agitates the spirit with these horrors by means of the senses. The torment and pain he then causes is immense, and sometimes it is ineffable. For since it proceeds nakedly from spirit to spirit the horror the evil spirit causes within the good spirit, if he reaches the spiritual part, is unbearable. (Dark Night, 383)

Later, in Dark Night, John of the Cross suggests the possibility of a purely spiritual contact: "This horrendous communication proceeds from spirit to spirit manifestly and somewhat incorporeally, in a way that transcends all sensory pain" (385).

Near the spiritual marriage, the fight for salvation and the struggle of good and evil are dramatically enacted. The angels assist the soul and the demons try for their last chance. When the spiritual communications are from the angels, the devil may detect some of these favors granted to the soul. "God ordinarily permits the adversary to recognize favors granted through the good angels so that he may do what he can, in accord with the measure of justice, to hinder them" (384). Then the devil cannot complain that he is not given the opportunity to conquer the soul. According to John, he could do this if God does not allow for a certain parity between the two in the struggle for the soul.

The angels produce spiritual communications; the demons, spiritual horrors. But in the end, victory belongs to the good angels. These horrors which purify the soul are followed by a spiritual favor, in accord with the dark and horrible purgation it suffered. The soul "will enjoy a wondrous and delightful spiritual communication, at times ineffably sublime. The preceding horror of the evil spirit refined the soul so that it could receive this good" (385). John remarks, however, that these spiritual visions belong more to the next life than to this.

Teresa experienced similar encounters and observed that the devils produce nothing but aridity and disquiet.

This disquiet is such that I know not whence it comes: only the soul seems to resist, is troubled and distressed, without knowing why; for the words of Satan are good, and not evil. I ask myself whether this may be so because one spirit is conscious of the presence of another. (Life 237)

For Marcel Lepee, this is one of those astonishing phrases that her genius let fall lightly from her pen, for she is able to distinguish that which comes from ourselves from that which is added; from all that comes from another. "Her spirit tended to God, and another spirit would turn her away from Him . . . so it shuddered through and through at this hideous contact" (99).

These spiritual encounters occur only in persons so advanced in perfection and so purified by sufferings and trials that they acquire a little of the knowledge which corresponds to spiritual beings, which penetrates all beings, as Paul says and John of the Cross explains: "The soul with universality and great facility perceives and penetrates everything earthly or heavenly presented to it. Hence the Apostle says that the spiritual man penetrates all things, even the deep things of God (1 Cor 2:10)" (Dark Night 345). This is the characteristic of the spirit purged and annihilated of all particular knowledge and affection, which is the spirit of contemplation in its higher states.

Humility and Demons

For John of the Cross, a soul which expects to overcome the devil's "strength" will be unable to do so without prayer. Yet to understand his "deceits," the soul needs humility — for the devil is the sworn enemy of humility. The Spanish mystic notes that the devil's bait is pride — especially the pride that arises from spiritual presumption.

Holy souls must be cautious about any kind of revelations, for the devil usually meddles in them and "joins together so many apparent and appropriate facts, and implants them so firmly in the imagination, that it seems that every event will undoubtedly occur" (345). If the soul has no humility, it will not be torn from its opinion and believe the contrary. Teresa says that demons even use the image of Christ or his saints to foster false devotion. But the visions of the devil do no harm if there is humility:

For my own part, I believe that His Majesty will not allow him, or give him the power, to deceive anyone with such appearances unless the person himself be to blame . . . I mean that for humble souls no deception is possible. (Foundations, 41)

Faith and Demons

The foundation of the Christian religion is faith. Errors and lies will be spread by demons to try to undermine this foundation. For Teresa, the devil — altogether a liar — can play many tricks, but "God will not permit him to deceive a soul which has no trust whatever in itself, and is strengthened in faith" (238).

John of the Cross is even more emphatic and advises that, for the devil, the light of faith is worse than darkness.

When the soul is clothed in faith the devil is ignorant of how to hinder it, neither is he successful in his efforts, for faith gives the soul strong protection against the devil, who is the mightiest and most astute enemy. As a result, St. Peter found no greater safeguard than faith in freeing herself from the devil, when he advised "Cui resistite fortes in fidei"(1 Pt 5:9). (Dark Night 376)

To foster the obscurity of pure faith, the spiritual director must be careful not to foster visions, locutions, prophecies, or other kinds of extraordinary phenomena. Although these phenomena are sometimes from God, they are more often from the devil. For John of the Cross this danger was real. He understood that the devil can present to the memory many false ideas under the guise of truth, making these ideas seem so certain that the soul thinks they cannot be false, but that what it feels is in accord with truth (Ascent 227).

The Devil and the State of Perfect Union With God

After spiritually purified souls reach the state of perfect union with God through love in the "seventh mansion," the diabolic temptations are over, and demons are afraid of them. "Nor did Aminadab appear," John says in the end of the Spiritual Canticle. Aminadab symbolizes the devil, and in this state the soul is so favored, so strong and victorious that the devil knows he has lost the battle. At this stage, the devil flees in immense fear and does not venture to reappear. Teresa, also victorious, perceived that the devil was terrified of her, but not she of the devil: "[Devils] seem to be afraid of me. I have acquired an authority over them, bestowed upon me by the Lord of all, so that they are no more trouble to me; now they fly" (Life 242).

In this state, souls are transformed in God. They are divine by participation and possess Christ-like qualities. In them the Redeemer has defeated Satan and his kingdom of darkness. Teresa and John of the Cross struggled with demons, but in the end their victory — and God's — was complete.

Some Theological Reflections on Demons and the Mystics

Any valid doctrine concerning demons presupposes faith, which presents to us the object of our belief — in this case, demons. Just as we do not see God, we do not see demons. Any speculation on demons must be founded on sacred scripture, spiritual theology, and the experiences of saints.

1. Teresa and John of the Cross believe, through faith, in the existence of demons. They could not doubt their existence. In addition, they experienced visions, locutions, apparitions, horrors, physical damage, temptations, and other manifestations of tile demonic. Some saints are subjected to these unusual demonic interventions, as was the case of Ignatius of Loyola, and in modern times, the Cure d'Ars.

2. Demons are our adversaries, trying their utmost to hinder the journey of souls towards God. But demonic actions assume a special intensity, and are more subtle and stronger, when directed against advanced contemplative souls. These souls attract demons who desire to stop or at least slow down their progress towards God. The soul of a saint is the battleground between good and evil, between God and demons. After the soul of a saint reaches the seventh mansion, however, diabolic activity comes to an end, and the demons are afraid of them.

3. Teresa and John of the Cross did not enjoy the benefit of our knowledge of psychology. But they were endowed with unusual discernment, and they knew that apparent demonic manifestations were often merely the result of mental illness or "melancholy." They also knew that demons use human weakness and adverse mental states as instruments for their temptations. Hence, it is not easy to discern when an apparent demonic temptation is merely psychological, and when it is both psychological and demonic.

Because the Spanish mystics were aware of the difficulty often involved in detecting the demonic, they recommended prayer to overcome the devil's "strength" as well as humility and recourse to God's light to discern the devil's "deceits." And modern discernment of spirits cannot afford to ignore modern psychology, but an exclusively psychological approach to those who appear to be affected by demonic influence is incomplete, and should be complemented by prudent theological discernment. St. Ignatius' rules for the discernment of spirits, for example, are a model of wisdom and experience. For advanced contemplative souls, the writings of Teresa and John of the Cross are very useful. In the Mountain, especially in book two, John of the Cross scrutinizes in detail the rules for the discernment of that which comes from God and that which comes from our own imagination or from the devil. In some of the chapters of her Life and the Interior Castle, Teresa complements John of the Cross' analysis with her own acute observations (Mansion 6, ch. 7 and 8; cf. Mansion 4, ch. 2 and 3).

4. Some confessors were certain that Teresa was possessed and should be exorcised. They were, as Teresa called them, "half-learned men," who did her much harm. Theologians, like Pedro Ibanez, Domingo Banez, Alvarez de Toledo, and saints, like Peter of Alcantara and Francis of Borja, never deceived her.

Pedro Ibanez, a famous theologian, who commanded Teresa to write her Life, applied the rules of discernment of spirits to Teresa, and she passed the test in each of his eleven strict rules. Allison Peers had the good sense to include these rules, and how Ibanez applied them to Teresa in the third volume of his Complete Works of Saint Teresa of Jesus (312-333). These rules are valid rules even in our times, for an authentic discernment of spirits presupposed the inspiration of the Spirit, as well as the help of a sound spiritual theology and a healthy psychology.

Naturally, any psychologist or theologian who a priori discards the existence of demons is not qualified to enlighten us on this problem, no matter how outstanding a scholar he or she may be. On the other hand, we must reject the work and writings of any modern theologian who ignores the benefits of psychology or finds demons in every neurosis.

As this article has attempted to demonstrate, a careful reading of Teresa and John of the Cross on demons may be profitable, particularly for Christians interested in contemplation and concerned with the discernment of spirits.

Works Cited

Crisogono del Jesus Sacramentado, OCD. Vida y Obras de San Juan de la Crus. Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1974.

John of the Cross. The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. Trans. by Kieren Kavanaugh, OCD and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD. Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1979.

Ibanez, Pedro, OP. The Complete Works of St. Teresa of Jesus. Trans. by E. Allison Peers. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1946.

Lepee, Marcel. "St. Teresa of Jesus and the Devil." In Satan. Ed. by Bruno de Jesus-Marie, OCD. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1972.

Lucien-Marie de Saint Joseph, OCD. "The Devil in the Writings of St. John of the Cross." In Satan. Ed. by Bruno de Jesus-Marie, OCD. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1972.

Teresa of Jesus.

  • Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. Trans. by E. Allison Peers. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1961.
  • Complete Works of Teresa of Jesus. Trans. by E. Allison Peers. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1946.
  • Interior Castle. Trans. by E. Allison Peers. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1961.
  • Obras Completas de Sancta Teresa. Madrid: BAC, 1974.

Tonquedec Joseph de. SJ. "Some Aspects of Satan's Activity in this World." In Satan. Ed. by Bruno de Jesus-Marie, OCD. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1972.

White, Victor. God and the Unconscious. Cleveland: Meridian Books: 1965.

Woods, Richard OP. "Satanism Today." In Soundings in Satanism. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1972.

A native of Spain, Fr. Antonio Moreno OP, is a professor of philosophy, psychology and spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley. He has written a book on C.G. Jung entitled Jung, Gods and Modern Man and many articles in the United States, Spain, Italy and Canada.

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