02 July 2010
Looking For The Light
“Looking for the Light”
- by Edwin Faust
. . . In the early a.m. of what had been a sweltering day ending in a thunderstorm, I drove home with steam rising from the roads and the world enwrapped in a warm fog. As I pulled into my driveway, I saw rising from the swirling mist in the beam of my headlights a human figure. This startling wraith wobbled slightly, as though it were a new creature unused to its legs, then steadied itself by placing its hands on the hood of my car. It was a young man, very young, no more than 20, I guessed, about the age of my eldest son. He had been drinking and had stumbled into my driveway and fallen onto the pavement, where he had remained until roused by my headlights and the approach of my tires. This he confessed to my brokenly, with repeated apologies. “I’m sorry, sir. I’m so sorry,” he said, then burst into tears, his whole frame shaking uncontrollably. Instinct overcame caution and I placed my arm around his shoulders and led him to the curb where I gently lowered him into a sitting position.
“Where do you live?” I asked.
“With my dad.”
“Why don’t we call him to come get you?”
He looked up with alarm, with a sudden flash of sobriety, then shook his head violently.
“We don’t get along,” he said, and took to sobbing again.
Patient interrogation finally discovered a sympathetic cousin who lived nearby. He handed me his cell phone and I found and dialed the cousin’s number. He promised to come immediately. Meanwhile, I sat beside the unfortunate soul and asked him whether he was simply drunk or had taken any drugs.
“Just drunk,” he said. “But I do drugs. That’s why my dad doesn’t like me.”
“Maybe you should stop doing drugs,” I suggested.
“I can’t. I want to. But I can’t. I don’t want to be like this. I’m sorry.”
And with his latest apology, he hung his head and cried quietly until his cousin arrived and I eased him into the front seat.
The incident haunted my thoughts for the next few days, and when at work I would read in the police blotter reports of young men arrested for possessing drugs or being drunk and disorderly, his face would rise in my memory as it rose from the mist that night.
Within a week of this encounter came a second one much like it but in significantly different circumstances. There is a parish in my neighborhood that has maintained perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for almost 12 years. I have been one of the regular adorers, doing a two-hour shift between 1 and 3 a.m. every Thursday. The pastor tries to arrange to have two people present around the clock, but the night hours are difficult to fill. For the past seven years, I have been alone during my vigil. Shortly before 3 a.m. on this occasion, I heard the door of the church open and thought it was my relief arrived early, but I could soon tell by the sound of the footsteps this was someone else. My relief is an old man who walks with a cane. I turned and saw a young man approaching me. He carried a plastic cup in his hand and wore a sleeveless T-shirt. His ears were pierced and his arms tattooed. I imagined, because of the cup and his appearance, that he had just left a bar and had wanted into the church. Such things happen from time to time. He walked straight toward me and then stopped, looking directly at me with a woeful and plaintive expression.
“Are you religious, sir?” he asked.
I could now discern that he had not just left a bar, for he was far too young; as it turned out, only 16; nor did he appear to be drunk.
“Yes,” I said.
“Can I talk to you?”
I explained that I had to remain in silence in front of the exposed Sacrament until my relief arrived, after which I would be free and willing to talk. I invited him to wait. He walked to the back of the church and slumped into a pew. When I heard the cane tapping its way up the aisle, I collected my spiritual reading and motioned for the boy to follow me outside. We sat on the church steps. He had the look of a lost child.
“Things not going well, are they?” I asked.
“No. I got kicked out of rehab for the second time.”
“Cocaine. Crack and marijuana.”
I ascertained that he was sober; that it was desperation that had driven him to church in the middle of the night. He had been raised Catholic, he said. In fact, he lived not a block from the church.
“How do you get along with your parents?” I asked.
“Not good. They’re separated. My mom lives in Florida and my dad and I don’t get along. He doesn’t like me much.”
“Why did you come to church tonight?”
“Cause I don’t want to be like this anymore.”
It was a phrase that resonated.
He then asked me if my prayers “come true.” I tried to explain that prayers aren’t quite like wishes made upon a star or a Christmas list sent to the North Pole; that true prayer is to ask to do what God wills, not to ask God to do what we will; but that I was certain God willed him to break his habit and that such a prayer would surely be answered.
“I try to break it, but I can’t,” he said. “I know what I should do, but I can’t do it.”
“Of course you can’t,” I said. “None of us can do much on our own. That’s why we have to pray all the time.”
We talked more. I offered him some advice and encouragement; he shook my hand, thanked me, said he would return to rehab in the morning, then wandered off into the night.
I went home but could not sleep, and so I prayed for the boy and for the other young man; and I wondered about the sum of human suffering that exists in this seemingly pleasant and prosperous little town in which I live. How many broken homes? How many unloved children? How much addiction? I also felt the anguish of impotence. What could I do to help these poor creatures whom God had sent to me? It is all I can do at times to keep myself on the straight and narrow. I could pray, of course, and perhaps that is the best recourse; and I could counsel the distressed to pray, and certainly that is their only hope. But we are all, the sober and the besotted, creatures of and epoch that demands immediate results through direct action. And that is probably why we fail so miserably to help those among us who so urgently need help, for the truly big problems are spiritual in nature and require spiritual remedies that unfold in God’s good time.
The night of my encounter in church I had been reading the Desert Fathers. Among the regrettable results of the Orthodox schism is a tendency in the West to forget the luminous writings of these saints of the early Church. The Orthodox may claim them, but the Desert Fathers lived centuries before the schism, which I am sure they would have deplored as an act of inexcusable pride and rebellion.
I have been keeping company with some of these holy men for some years now. We commune mostly in the small hours of the morning, when a brief respite is to be had from the maelstrom of modern life. I had that night been contemplating a few sayings by a fifth century Abbot, Saint Diodochos. In fact, I had been trying to understand and to connect two things: the illusion of evil and the singleness of perception.
“Evil does not exist by nature, nor is any man naturally evil, for God made nothing that was not good. When in the desire of his heart someone conceives and gives form to what in reality has no existence, then what he desires begins to exist.”
I thought about this for some time. How can we commit evil if it has no existence? And how can we bring into existence that which does not exist by nature? As I pondered and my mind became still, I was given some light in the matter. Evil is an illusory good. For instance, we conceive the idea of getting drunk, and we begin to imagine that getting drunk will make us happy. And so we proceed to act upon our idea. And what do we then discover? Getting drunk does not make us happy. It makes us foolish and, later, sick and ashamed. So drunkenness as happiness is an evil that does not exist by nature. It has no substance, no reality. Yet, we try to bring it into reality. We try to become God, to create our own world, one shaped by our misbegotten notions of good. We set up, in the words of the great Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh, a rival good to God’s. And to the extent that we persist in this endeavor, we become farther removed from reality and more deeply mired in illusion. If insanity is defined as an inability to recognize what is real, then every sin is an insane act. Evil, ultimately, is madness.
The drug addict or the alcoholic at least has the advantage of open combat. He sees the enemy clearly and he knows that compromise is not possible. It will be victory or death. So it is for all of us. The Desert Fathers tell us the only way to victory is by constant remembrance of God. They urge frequent repetition of the name of Jesus and the cultivation of a stillness of intellect that will allow us to see the approach of the enemy when he comes at us with some enticing image, attempting once again to hypnotize us by the suggestion of an illusory good.
This stillness of intellect requires that we spend some time sitting quietly, not chasing after every image that presents itself to us, but dissolving them with the remembrance of Jesus. With practice, with persistence, we are assured, we can come to perceive the ineffable beauty of our soul as it reflects the mind of our Maker.
This perception is what Diadochos calls spiritual knowledge. Most of us lack it or have only a very obscure and partial vision of it. Like those poor, lost children I met, we mostly wander in the dark, drugged or made drunk by our assorted illusion, seldom in any vital relation to reality. But we have, through grace, the power to sober up, to escape from the dark. Our Lord promises us: “If they eye be single, they whole body shall be full of light.” To live in the light is to see what is real, and to see what is real we must never stop praying, never stop hoping, never stop trusting in the One Who fashioned our soul in love and redeemed it in His blood.
- Edwin Faust