"Such is the choice I set before you this day. blessing or curse. A blessing, if you will obey the commands I now give you from the Lord your God; a curse, if you disobey those commands, and forsake the path I am showing you."
--Deuteronomy 11: 26-28
One reason I evangelize and share the truths of the faith is because I know what it is like to live without God, and even worse, in opposition to Christ, divine truth himself. Some people live as virtuous pagans--mindful of the basics of natural law even without faith. That is itself a grace (though they don't know it). My wife was a "virtuous pagan" (not even baptized!) until she came to faith with me. I'm also thinking of people like Jennifer Fulwiler before her conversion, or more illustrious persons like Aristotle and Socrates. It is quite another thing to walk in grave sin, because you are essentially walking with devils. That person is vicariously taking part in the curse of the fallen angels because demons have an affinity for persons and places devoted to grave sin. St. Francis saw this in a vision when he saw a cloud of demons descended on Arezzo, a city torn by civil war.
Arezzo, a city full of devils
That's why places like strip clubs, drug houses, abortion clinics and prisons have a strange pall about them, and why many people insist that there are haunted houses. There is something heavy and oppressive in the air that produces disquiet, and that is the presence of demons. Some people even bring a host of demons with them wherever they go (as my conversion experience suggests). Once while entering a local church I sensed a pall, the heavy oppression of demons. I turned to my wife and said, "Something's wrong. I don't think Father Slider's here today." Sure enough, there was a substitute priest, a long-standing heretic on basic questions of Christology (he denied that Jesus was the son of God) as well as the usual dissent from moral issues. The light, consoling presence of angels had been replaced by demons. The poor priest even wore it on his perpetually worn face and heavy shoulders. I was once like that. The spiritual had revealed itself in the natural, and even colors had lost their luster. In fact, after my conversion the whole world literally brightened and sparkled, as though I had an eye operation! May the poor priest enjoy the grace of conversion, and become a priest for Christ as we hear in Fr. Scheier's remarkable testimony.
Conversely, there are those persons and places that glow with the peace and light of Christ. We've all felt this in devout parishes and in deeply Catholic homes of friends and relatives. They are the "resting places" of angels, or at least, angels show their delight by their presence. Demons don't like to be in close proximity to the things and people of God, and so they usually do their work at a distance. That is why St. Paul describes the temptations of demons upon the faithful as "arrows" (Ephesians 6:16)--because they have to be launched from afar. Demons still relish the opportunity (granted by God) to assail the saints in close combat, but they soon leave for more agreeable company.
The saints have often made their mark by descending into the territory of demons and letting Christ shine through them. We think of the martyrs of the Roman circus, St. Patrick against the Druids, Sts. Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher in the dungeon for the sanctity of marriage (like John the Baptist before them), or Fr. Damien amidst the incest and despair of the Molokai leper colony. St. Maximillian Kolbe was even described by a death camp-survivor as "a great shaft of light" in the darkness of Auschwitz.
As the world continues to darken by pursuing man-made lights (these are more agreeable gods since we fashion them ourselves!), all followers of Christ must brighten by reflecting the true source of light. That is what I pray for my future, for those who take up the apostolate and for all street evangelists. For now I'd like to recall an episode from five years ago that bears on some of these matters.
A Weekend at Duke University
Part I: The Blessings of Life
"I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly."
Gospel of John, 10:10
In October 2010 I travelled to North Carolina to visit my best friend who was working on post-graduate studies at Duke in surgical medicine. Dunya, a Chaldean Catholic, has always had an intrepid streak. Before my conversion she once declared to me during an argument, "Scott, you need to find Jesus! Jesus is the way, the truth and the light!" I responded with uproarious laughter. Less than a year later I converted and she got the last laugh.
Not long after I arrived at Duke, we sat on her couch chatting about her dating life. Dunya had longed for marriage and children, but she was always attending other people's weddings. She mentioned that a Coptic Christian named "Raphael" had expressed interest in her through her "Catholic Match" online profile. She hadn't responded back and she wondered what I thought of him. She passed me her laptop and I was delighted to take a look. Then something strange happened. When I looked at Raphael's photo, it was as though I was seeing him through the loving gaze of Christ. I experienced Christ's delight, and a supernatural warmth flowed from Raphael's smile. I thought he must be a holy man.
I continued to examine the photo with great interest. In the photo, Raphael had turned for a moment as he hiked up a hill. His posture shown in a supernatural light and beckoned to Dunya, "Come follow me." My eyes grew wide and I blurted out, "This is your husband!" I repeated it several times in a state of disbelief. Then I explained that she needed to follow him, and said in our joking way, "We all know how strong-willed you are--make sure you let him be the man!" Dunya's moods alternated between eagerness and alarm--she had never even met or spoken to Raphael. Nevertheless, a couple years later they were married in the Church (after some dust-ups and storms--it was a match that only grace could secure), and now they are deeply in love and grateful for each other.
Raphael had appeared in the photo that day as brimming with supernatural life, as though he walked in the light of angels, because his fundamental orientation is toward Christ, the very well-spring of life and light. He had his battles with God, including feelings of resentment, abandonment and frustration at God's ways. He wasn't as conformed to Christ as I had assumed, but he and Dunya have enjoyed the blessings of God because they persist in walking after Christ in faith.
Part II: The Curse of Rebellion
"You belong to your father the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desires...When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies."
Gospel of John. 8:44
The next day I followed Dunya down to the Duke campus for a little tour. There was an unmistakable stir on campus, and it was clear that there was a popular event taking place. As we entered the student union, an anxious security guard stopped us and asked us if we were here for the book-signing. We said "No" in bewildered tones, and he replied that he was just trying to screen-out protesters. Then he explained, "Richard Dawkins is here promoting The God Delusion. A local church said they're going to come out and have their say." As soon the guard uttered Dawkins's name, two things simultaneously happened. I was immediately aware that there were thousands of demons (not ten, not a hundred, but several thousand) in the air about us. They were seemingly "guarding" Dawkins or at least the event. The other thing that happened was that I felt my chest moderately compressed by an exterior force; my breath was short and my heart rate increased. Dunya began pacing back and forth saying, "Oh my God, oh my God, what are going to do? My heart is beating like crazy." For Dunya, someone like Dawkins is a kind of boogeyman, and she felt she needed to be up at arms and do something, preferably something confrontational. Yet Dawkins is just another secular humanist academic (a dime a dozen), albeit more vocal, and more accomplished in his particular field (evolutionary biology). Before my conversion, I had even read chapters from The Selfish Gene in a doctoral class, "Evolutionary Theories of Morality". Dawkins wasn't so different than the professors I knew, and I regarded many of those professors with affection.
Dunya and I moved over to the railing to pray, and like a good Chaldean Catholic she produced a rosary from her pocket. The security guard eyed us warily, and we turned our backs to the hubbub, and tried to pray. But the demons redoubled their efforts, and our minds were restless and scattered. We felt a prompting to kneel, and found a quiet spot on a lower level to pray in reparation. As soon as we went downstairs the demons left us in peace, satisfied by our departure. After prayer, I decided that I wanted to see Mr. Dawkins up close since it would be easier to pray for him in the future if I could bring his face to mind. As soon as we returned to the signing the demons descended upon us--especially since there was a momentary lull in the line. I walked over and saw him seated behind the table. He was unremarkable, oblivious that he was guarded by thousands of demons. I must have watched him like a zoo animal because he looked back at me with a curious expression. I asked God if I should approach him and offer him a word or something, but was given no indication. Then we left, thinking that if we had been saints we could have made a difference.
|I took this photo of the chapel tower on the day of the book signing|
We noticed outside that the Duke Atheist Association (they had t-shirts for sale!) had set up shop next to the Duke chapel tower. I let my eyes follow the high rise of the tower into the blue sky and tufts of clouds. I could sense God's solidity and his abiding presence. He is always there, always faithful, even while he is casually mocked by his beloved creation immediately below. Frankly, the Dawkins devotees (and Dawkins himself) would fall off a horse if they suddenly knew there was a God, and that Jesus was their savior, the Eternal Word made flesh.
We watched the event-goers arrive and leave with great anticipation and satisfaction, as though they had received some grace, though it was an "anti-grace", the fruit of sin. They even clutched their newly signed books as a new convert grips his Bible. The crowds roughly fell into three groups. The largest contingent was composed of prideful nerds: the intellectually hungry and imperious types that show up in Dostoevsky novels (always lean, spare and envious--as Shakespeare warns against in "Julius Caesar"!). In past centuries they formed the backbone of the radical socialist/Marxist movements in Russia and the West. The next group were high-achieving wastrels; denizens of the Duke hook-up culture who worshipped physical beauty, sensuality and status. They had sleek bodies, a trendy appearance and a secondary concern for social issues. The last group wrenched my heart: they were the freaks and rejects, physically repulsive or even handicapped. One of these beamed with pride at having met his hero, while his face was scorched from a fire or industrial accident, leaving scars where his hair should be. Christ had come especially for these, but they spurned hope and self-giving love for resentment and self-assertion. Mercifully, we know this is just a snapshot in time, and all is not lost. In the final post of this series ("A Tender Saying"), I will reflect on how our Savior tries to lure us back through every twist and turn of our life.
Our Choices Matter
It's no small thing to spend your life against Christ. St. John XXIII described the fruits of our choices at the opening of Vatican Council II (as Cardinal Sarah pointed out in God or Nothing): "Men are either with Him and His Church, and then they enjoy light, goodness, order, and peace. Or else they are without Him, or against Him, and deliberately opposed to His Church, and then they experience confusion, bitterness in human relations, and the dangers of fratricidal wars." While St. John focused here on the earthly fruits of our fundamental orientation, we also know that these choices reverberate into eternity. I will (thankfully) conclude this series of "Hard Sayings" with some thoughts on divine judgment and the hereafter.