Wednesday, July 17, 2002

We have God's joy in our blood.
— Frederick Buechner in The Longing for Home

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote that "Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God." Perhaps he exaggerates but there is an element of truth in his claim. A pure undercurrent of joy pervades my life in the Church, although not always the entirety of my life as I live it. It's a little bit like being in love. Usually when my thoughts turn to God and/or His Church, my heart soars. When this doesn't happen -- when instead I feel frustrated or bitter or angry -- I can be pretty sure that there is great evil afoot ... in my own heart.

Evil is the strangest of creatures because it is so devious and a true master of disguise. It is patient and quick to take advantage. It never rests and it never abandons us. It can inhabit our smallest gesture, our slightest indifference. It is equally at home in the highly theatrical and the insufferably banal. We are as likely to encounter it as an exterior force in our lives as we are in our daily examinations of conscience. Ultimately, it is a Mystery of created being. I don't pretend to understand it...

When I was a child, we were constantly being reminded that Satan can appear as an angel of light. It was common knowledge that he might have a dark visage. No one thought it worth reiterating. Today, it seems necessary to re-affirm that prior common knowledge. We seem to think that evil will always appear as a seduction. When it takes a darker shape, we seem to think that it is somehow self-contained and that it doesn't tarnish everything it touches. It would be nice if things worked out that way but the truth is that they rarely do.

The desire for vengeance is a case in point. If someone damages me or mine, I will most definitely feel a desire for overwhelming retaliation. My sense of proportion will have been diminished and at least temporarily de-commissioned. I will want to 'get my own back' and I will want to do it in a manner that ensures that my 'enemy' is entirely incapacitated. I will probably justify my over-reaction as a legitimate desire to ensure my future security. Dead enemies aren't in any position to retaliate. The dead kin of my dead enemies are equally non-threatening. It should be obvious that if I engage in a blood feud, I have aligned myself with the darker forces.

Some one once told me that we have lost the original significance of the maxim: "an eye for an eye" . Apparently this was not a justification for retaliatory action. Rather it was an effort to set limits on retaliation. It was a rejection of the blood feud in favor of justice. It was in effect a statement of 'this far AND NO FARTHER'. This makes a great deal of sense to me.

So let's say that instead of a blood feud, I engage in measured justice or even that I turn the other cheek. One might assume that I have not be 'touched' by the evil in the sense that I have not been morally damaged. This strikes me as a risky assumption. There are so many small but immoral reactions I might have to my damaged state,

I might for example blame God for my suffering and cut myself off from his grace. I might decide that I can generalize my experience in a way that leads me to certain unwarranted prejudices. I might decide that I will never again risk myself in love. The list could continue endlessly. There are innumerable moral choices that I might make and in doing so, in a very real sense, I will have allowed evil to enter into me.

We can brush these responses off as natural but this fails to address the issue of responsible personhood. The moral truth is that we can be as morally damaged by the travesties we suffer as by the travesties that we inflict. When we lose sight of this moral dimension, we can unwittingly put our souls in peril. We can effectively become the evil that was done to us. One of the great powers of evil is its power of corruption.

Another and for me more pertinent access to evil exists in our everyday reactions to the small 'slings and arrows'. We might misunderstand something some one does or says. Or, almost as bad, we might insist on accurately understanding what some one does or says when the more charitable course would be to allow a wider latitude in interpretation. We might take injury where none was intended or we might see injury where none occurred. And these, more or less, are only our sins of omission. They don't begin to address the sins that I myself instigate.

There are a multitude of small engagements with evil in which I relinquish the battle without even the simple acknowledgment that I was engaged in a scrimmage. Often, after the fact, I am able to discern my lost battles by the absence of joy and the presence of discontent or frustration in my non-specific mood. There are even days when I can use that disharmony almost as a Geiger counter. The closer I approach the territory of my sinfulness, the higher my stress indicator rises. Not always, but often, my sins show their ugly little tell-tales in just this fashion.

Perhaps this is the exercise of conscience. I guess that there is a peace in the Lord akin to joy and that, when that peace is disrupted, it leaves echoes in our souls. Today, I'm going to pray for better hearing and a quicker reaction time.

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