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.

Diadochos writes:

“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.

One thing I tried in my bumbling way to tell the boy who came to me that night in church is that what he thinks will make him happy is a lie. Happiness through drugs does not exist. The way to break the habit is to see through the illusion when it presents itself, and this, I told him, is only possible through prayer; through being constantly rooted in God’s reality. We talked about the chain of thoughts that usually preceded his drug use and how to stop that regression before it gained momentum. The Desert Fathers describe a condition called prolipsis, which is a tendency to sin fostered by long habit. We can see the way the process works, yet we are largely unable or unwilling to arrest its operation.

It’s astounding, when we consider it, how stupid we are, how easily fooled; and not just fooled once, but again and again. Take the case of a man addicted to anger, for there are all manner of addictions. God’s reality presents him with the sound notion that happiness is reached through charity grounded in humility and patience. The illusion of evil tells him that happiness resides in pride and resentment and abuse of others. Now, he will have been angry many times and experienced the pain to himself and others that his rages have caused, yet, he continues to believe that indulging his anger is desirable, is god. And, like a man who has fallen into the same ditch on the same road a thousand times, he will make the fatal step once again.

It is as though we were repeatedly mesmerized and induced to perform an absurd action.

The Desert Fathers are the master psychologists of the spiritual life and much of the writing is an attempt to help us wake up; to break the spell. We fall prey to the illusion of evil, Diadochos tells us, because our perception is not single, but divided. He writes:

"Divine knowledge, once it is awakened in us, teaches us that the perceptive faculty natural to our soul is single, but that it is split into two distinct modes of operation as a result of Adam’s disobedience."

When the Desert Fathers speak of nature, they usually mean nature as God created it in all its purity and goodness, not as fallen and deformed. Man, wounded by original sin, lives in an unnatural way. His ideal beauty, conceived by God at his creation, is marred. And each capitulation to the illusion of evil further obscures from man his real face. He looks into the mirror and sees, not himself, but an imposture, a mask fashioned by his own waywardness assisted by demonic artifice. And he takes what he sees for reality. How, he wonders, could God love this horrible creature? But the Desert Fathers tell us that what God sees when He looks at us is the perfect child He made in His image and likeness; He wishes to restore us to this primal beauty of soul; He has given us His Son for this purpose, and His Son has given His last drop of blood to wash away the impurities that hide from us our true nature.

This nature, we are told, can be rediscovered when we regain the singleness of perception that the Holy Ghost has implanted in our soul; when we begin to see everything, as the phrase has it, “sub specie aeternitatis.To see things under the aspect of eternity is to see things truly, for there is not an atom in existence that does not depend upon God for its being. The illusion of evil is only possible when our vision becomes dual and disjointed. We forget that creation has a Creator and, consequently, come to think of it as operating independently. We come to imagine that God exercises only a limited dominion; that He is to be taken into account in some circumstances and not in others, where we think ourselves free to determine our own course. Ultimately, we adopt a secular mentality in our practical affairs and relegate religion to ritual, which occupies only a very small portion of our time and does not penetrate our thoughts and actions.

But no man can serve two masters, nor maintain two competing visions of reality. Sooner or later, one becomes dominant and the other subservient to the point of insignificance. But while the tension between competing visions continues, there is hope. So long as we feel keenly the pull of opposing forces in our soul, there remains for us the possibility of resolving this tension by adopting the singleness of perception that is nothing other than the guidance of the Holy Ghost.

Those poor young men whom Our Lord placed in my path during those dark hours were engaged in a terrible combat. They were deeply wounded, ripped in two by this dual vision. “I don’t want to be this way anymore,” both of them said. Indeed, it is a cry of the heart that most of us could make.

We are all, in some way, to some extent, addicts. We have our preferred drugs: anger, vanity, lust, gluttony, etc. Our vices become almost second nature to us, so that we become less conscious of their presence and effect. It is only when we try to free ourselves from the thralldom of these unnatural influences that we become aware of how deeply they have taken hold of us. The Desert Fathers tell us that the demons attack us most furiously when we try to escape from them; otherwise, they lie quietly, complacently, so that we hardly notice them.

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

1 comment:

Leonora said...

Yes, it's true that we are all in some ways addicts. I've also heard it explained that these addictions might be thought of as idols. What do we idolize? Money, food, our family, job...?