"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Me too, Lord?

For several days, I pondered writing a great deal about two moves the Pope has made recently: lifting the 1988 excommunication of the SSPX bishops, and reminding La Pelosi that for her, as a public official, to think of the killing of unborn children as a genuine right is incompatible with her duty as a faithful Catholic. Both papal moves are demonstrably unlikely to bear fruit; for that reason it's easy to see them, cynically, as cynical provisions of "political cover." Thus one might say that the Pope seeks only to insulate the Holy See from blame: blame for the steadfast refusal of the SSPX bishops to accept the doctrinal developments of the Second Vatican Council, and thus for what will likely remain a de facto schism; blame for the steadfast refusal of many Catholic politicians to insist that the youngest and most vulnerable members of the human race have a right not to be killed for their parents' convenience. Knowing that neither refusal will be softened in the foreseeable future, the Vatican is perhaps comforting itself with the thought: "At least we said the right things. What do you want us to do, bring back the Inquisition?" But as Lent approaches, I find myself being led to an explanation that is at once less cynical and more daunting.

The explanation I have in mind resurrects a biblical reminder that most Catholics prefer to ignore, or even to ridicule as pre-scientific cosmology: "For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens" (Ephesians 6:12). The "evil spirits in the heavens," and specifically "the prince of the air" (Eph 2:2), are no mere creatures of myth, suitable now only for use as metaphors. They exist in the ordinary sense of the term, and they do whatever they can to plague us. In this media age, when waves of electromagnetically encoded lies and filth are "on the air" all the time, how can a faithful Christian not believe that we struggle against the Prince of the Air?

I thought of that as an explanation for what will be the inevitable failure of the Pope's recent moves as I followed the controversy about SSPX Bishop Williamson's filthy, Holocaust-denying lie. Nobody would have paid much attention to that tiresome crank if the Pope hadn't recently lifted his excommunication; as it turned out, a media firestorm obliged the Pope to issue the ritual condemnation at precisely the time that arduous efforts at reconciling the SSPX to the Vatican were being made. This is the sort of embarassment that is quietly engineered by the Prince of the Air. The same goes for the spectacle of American Catholic politicians snuggling up to the Pope while eagerly supporting not only the Roe regime—effectively an unlimited abortion license—but in particular a president who sees nothing wrong with killing infants born alive after botched abortions. The only effective way to show the world that such anti-evangelization is incompatible with being a faithful Catholic would be to excommunicate the anti-evangelizers. But that, naturally, would resurrect the charge of "Inquisition!" and spark an even greater PR disaster. So now we have a situation in which most Jews resent the Pope's lifting the excommunication of a hateful man, and most Catholics would resent the Pope's imposing excommunication on a class of hateful politicians. Clever, that prince.

In point of fact, many faithful Christians—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox—grapple palpably with the demonic. I'm not talking about mere temptation, which we all struggle with; often enough, Satan's minions will tempt us, but we do such a good job of succumbing to temptation that, even more often, all Satan has to do is leave us alone. Yet beyond all that, I know by experience that the things recounted in this recent Inside Catholic story are not all that uncommon. People who have such experiences often get brushed off by clergy, who mostly suspect a lack of appropriate psychiatric meds; and it is anticipation of such a reaction which explains why some of those who suffer most never bother turning to their clergy at all. The dean of Rome's exorcists, Gabriele Amorth, is sickened by that fact and has been trying to change it for a long time. In 2005, he convinced the newly-elected Pope to approve a special exorcism-training course in Rome for priests around the world. It was successful enough to occasion at least one other such course in Rome, from which my current diocese has benefitted in a way I'm not at liberty to divulge. But most bishops would rather have nothing to do with the whole nasty business. Some don't believe in it at all. Others simply know little about it and want to know less. Either way, the Church ends up with a lot less "deliverance ministry" than people need. She won't use some of her own best weapons.

Even so, I find myself perversely disappointed that I am not one of those who face the demonic in ways impossible to keep mistaking for something else. Tom Hoopes, author of the above-linked story from Inside Catholic, remarks that Satan is like the space-alien leader in Independence Day who responds with one word to the President's efforts to negotiate on humanity's behalf: "Die." Hoopes advises: "The next time you face a temptation, remind yourself that you're cooperating with the malevolent will of a highly developed insect that hates you yet wants to be with you forever. You'll find your old reliable sins lose a little of their allure." Indeed. And it's a lot easier to give oneself that reminder if one is palpably experiencing diabolical phenomena.

This is not to deny that I did, once. Decades ago, I was walking along Broadway in New York with a close friend who had just emerged from a Italian movie about an evil town during World War II. He was visibly shaken, explaining to me that he felt the presence of...well, of Old Scratch. I reminded my friend that Jesus had defeated Satan, so that faith in Jesus empowers us to make Satan buzz off by telling him to buzz off. At that moment, I was knocked to the ground with a shout by a sharp blow to my sternum. The blow came from no visible source; we were the only people walking on that side of the block at the time. When I opened my shirt to check for injury, we both saw a large red welt disappear before our eyes. I was uninjured.

Say that I'm nuts if you want. I know I'm not. I had received an unmistakable gift from below, and I still don't know what I had done to warrant such attention. I hadn't said anything that many Christians didn't say to each other every day, and I certainly wasn't holy enough to pose much of a threat to the Prince of the Air. I'm still not, which might explain why I haven't experienced any palpable diabolic infestation since. Sometimes I'm almost envious of saints, such as Padre Pio or Gemma Galgani, who rather often found themselves beaten by devils making no effort to conceal their own identity. I'm told that, in Padre Pio's case, the devil was the V.I.P. himself. At least such people had unmistakable confirmation of how much good they were doing!

But on second thought, I have experienced the diabolical since then. Not so long ago, I endured a a period of severe depression in which I realized that I was losing everything, and almost everybody, I cared about. Accompanying all that were public calumnies and detractions which, though individually explicable in purely human terms, did not strike me as collectively explicable in any terms other than the diabolical. Praying and meditating about it in the context of my life's general collapse, I came to realize that I had opened myself by my own choices to all the spiritual evils I was suffering. When made, those choices had seemed very plausible, almost inevitable, to me; but I now realize I had willfully let myself be deceived. Hell didn't need to beat me or do anything obvious. All it needed was for me, in my pride and lust, to cast aside my cross. That's just what I did, and in so doing opened myself up to much gratuitous mischief. Much of my life since has consisted in paying the price for it.

What's the lesson? It's partly that, for a disciple, there is no escape from major crosses. The only question is whether they will be borne willingly and thus fruitfully, or unwillingly and thus uselessly. But it must also, and more controversially, be said that even that majority of Christians who don't experience palpable manifestations of demons are vulnerable to the unseen forces of evil. You don't have to see spinning heads or green puke to recognize that. All you have to do is open yourself up. Some people do it by dabbling in witchcraft or the occult. Others simply believe their own bullshit about how they are living. But even if you aren't doing any of that, don't imagine it can't happen to you. If you stay close to God in prayer, the sacraments, and loving those who need your love, it probably won't happen to you. But if you don't, you might find out too late that it has.
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