Devil's Alley

It is said that the devil’s hoof print is to be seen in Devil’s Alley off Nelson Street in Kings Lynn. The devil arrived by ship to the town, and disembarked to steal some souls, but he was spotted by a priest who drove him away with prayers and a dousing with holy water. The infuriated devil stamped his hoof with anger so hard that he left his imprint.

The devil is now more a figure of fun, rather than cause for fear. You may find ladies on hen nights dressed as little devils for example. But in former days he was regarded as a fearsome spirit. St Peter in his first letter warned Christians to beware that the enemy the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

Our medieval ancestors would have been petrified by the idea of the devil claiming their souls at death, and taking them down to hell, churches had the doom painting prominent.

When Jesus said to Peter ‘Get behind me satan,’  there was  probably nothing worse that he could have thrown at him. It was not easy for Jesus to face up to his fate. We know that from his agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Through prayer he realized that suffering and death was his destiny. It had taken forty days in the wilderness for him to come to terms with what it meant to be the Messiah, ‘the anointed one’. He had been tempted to use the power to his own advantage; a temptation he firmly resisted.

But here it as though Satan returns to him in the voice of Peter. No master, you must not suffer, that is not the way for the Messiah; hence the vitriole in Jesus’ retort. Peter is rebuked and called Satan, because he thinks as the world thinks. Paul calls the devil the 'god of this age who has blinded the minds of unbelievers.’ In John’s gospel, Jesus  calls the devil ‘a liar and the father of lies.’

In the cathedral at Orvieto, in Umbria, Italy, there is the Capella Nuova, with fresco paintings by Signorelli of the last days, and among the visions of judgement, heaven and hell, there is one that appears to show Christ preaching to the people, but he has the devil prompting him. Closer inspection reveals that the figure, though it looks like Christ, has a harsh countenance. It is not Christ but antichrist, one who resembles Christ but is actually totally the opposite. He gathers wealth, encourages violence and evil.  On the pedestal on which he stands is carved a figure of a man riding a horse bare back, the symbol of excessive ambition. 

Though Peter did not want to turn Christ to self-seeking ways, he thought he knew better than Jesus. However his misguided eagerness to protect him would have neutralized his mission and purpose and rendered it impotent.

It is  vitally important for the Christian to be as close and familiar with Christ as we can possibly be, that we do not subvert or divert the mission of the church and of ourselves by thinking we know better than Christ.

In Paradise Lost, Milton described Satan as 'the tragic hero of modernity whose mind and spirit remain invincible moved by the unconquerable will never to submit to God and so enabled slyly to appear patron of liberty.'

Sometimes we may knowingly go against the ways of Christ. We know what we are going to say or do is wrong but we do it anyway. But there will be other times when we fail to follow Christ’s will without realizing it. We must be humble enough to ask others to tell us if we are wrong, and listen to what they say to us.  

The world cannot give the Christian true satisfaction. That can come from Christ alone. ‘Our hearts are restless until they can find rest in him', as St Augustine said. The satisfaction lies also in the paradox that to save our life, we must lose it. We must let go of self, and selfishness, and seek the good of others.

The rock on which Christ was to build his church within minutes became the stumbling block. It must not be so with us. We must keep our minds set on the gospel of Christ, and not be conformed to the capricious whims of the world and of our own desires. We will not see the devil disembarking at the quay or stamping his foot. Evil is sometimes hard to recognize, but what is evil in us and around us must always be recognized and opposed.