MALIGNANT IS A SCARY WORD. And the author of the Anima Christi lived in a world that was much more spiritually attuned than our own. Some would at once dismiss that to mean superstitious. But that's too easy. The Medieval world produced arguably some of the most refined responses to God in music, painting, architecture and poetry the world has known.
Perhaps we're unable to fully comprehend how the author understood the words, malignant enemy, followed by defend me, but it surely sounds as if he believed there could be something ruinous poised against each of us. I'd say it this way: it seems that there is something personal to each of us that wants us down, not good, not whole or holy, undone, un-realized. I'd call it personal as it seems to be somehow tailored to each of us as we struggle to live our own unique lives truthfully.
A Buddhist occultist visited Athens in our own time, and while being taken around the city, he stopped his guide and said to him, "I see demons hanging off of people's lips, eyes, ears and throats. And who are the men in the black robes and beards?" The guide answered, "They are our priests." The occultist said, "I see demons swirling around them looking for a way to get in." When I shared this account with a Greek monk here in the United States he said, "Regrettably, demons do find a way into the priest's life too often."
Some will say, you'd expect an occultist to talk that way. But there are lots of people whose seeing is inexplicable. If that were not so, then police departments wouldn't employ certain clairvoyants to help solve crimes. Admittedly, it seems like dangerous business. Contemporary Christians are often embarrassed by these kinds of references. Maybe we've become too sophisticated.
But whether we frame it spiritually, psychologically or socially - there does seem to be a malignant enemy against which we need to be defended. If the Medieval or Buddhist images are metaphoric, I'd suggest again that metaphor doesn't mean not real - but rather most real. So we can name these things for ourselves.
When I was a boy in the 1950's and 60's, the first vestment the priest put on over his street clothes before celebrating the Catholic Mass, was called an amice. An amice is a rectangular piece of white linen with strings attached to the two top corners. The priest would pass the opened amice over the right side of his head, and touching it to the back of his head he would begin a prayer. Then lowering the vestment to his shoulders he would arrange the amice around his neck, pass the strings around to his back, cross them over and pull them around to the front where he would tie them. The other vestments would be placed on top of the amice, making it essentially unseen, except for a little around his neck. A medieval amice kept a priest's throat warmer in a winter-cold church, and collected perspiration in a summer church. But like all the vestments, the amice had a mystical significance. You'd have to stand in a sacristy these days while priests are preparing for Mass to understand just how neglected this mystical awareness is.
One Sunday morning, when I was about seven years old, my large family was early for Mass. Taking up the front pew I had an unobstructed view of the sanctuary. Before the Mass began the old pastor appeared in the doorway leading out of the sacristy (priest preparation room) to the sanctuary (where the Mass would take place). He seemed to be checking things: are the candles lit, is the tabernacle key in place, are the people arriving? He was wearing a black cassock and the amice, which I had never seen before. But very clearly I heard in my mind, "I want to wear that." And on my ordination day, twenty-one years later, I did, and have ever since.
Some years later I became chaplain to a school for young people who were in trouble. Some had done dangerous things, illegal things, terribly hurtful things. Most had some kind of drug-alcohol involvement which resulted in not a little life-damage. Early one Wednesday morning as I was in the school-chapel sacristy getting ready for Mass, the teen-aged altar server stood nearby watching me. As I put the amice on my head and lowered it to my shoulders he asked, "What's that?" I told him "It's an amice and the little prayer the priest prays while putting it on asks God to protect the priest's thoughts." The boy answered, "We should all wear an amice." He understands.
Here's the Latin prayer and its English translation, with a final thought about the power of words. And indeed we can all pray the prayer, even each morning, asking to be defended against the malignant enemy, as in the course of the day, perhaps the place of the greatest ruinous and unholy toxicity might well be the place of our thoughts The amice is called the Helmet of Salvation, which clues us in: this is a kind of warfare.
Place, O Lord, the helmet of salvation upon my head, that I may overcome the assaults of the devil.