Some have requested that I make the opening and closing comments to our conversations available as well as our programs. Bear in mind that the conversation is a conversation, so the middle part is just questions that may or may not have been asked on Sunday. I hope they are questions readers will find fruitful to consider.
This Lent, we are looking at sin through the eyes of the 4th century mystic, Evagrius Ponticus. Temptation, for Evagrius, came in the form of demons attacking his soul. The first week, we talked about how a person can be divided and then dominated by our personality, so that the thoughts that move us to action can appear to come from the inside and the outside. We can no longer tell the difference between ourselves and the things that drive us. Whether it is an evil thought or a message from God depends on how we name it because the truth is it is just a thought. How we receive it and how we respond to it are matters of choice if we can separate ourselves, the spark of the divine, from our thoughts, emotions, personality, and ego.
The second week, we talked about the demons of desire: gluttony, lust, and avarice. These demons convince us to retreat from ourselves and into the world. We escape into the sensual, piling up experiences to drown out the depth of who we are. We turn outward to try to control the world around us to keep us safe. We hoard things to make sure we are never without.
While I love me some gluttony and lust as much as the next person, this is really my week. When I wrestle with the demons of desire, it is only because I don’t want to have to deal with the demons of resistance: sadness, anger, and acedia. I feel like I have the upper hand with the demons of desire; I can turn the tables pretty easily if I set my mind to it. I can choose to eat or drink less. I can choose not to treat people as objects. I can live without a lot. Not because I’m a particularly good person, but because those aren’t my particular issues most of the time. Like Mike Tyson late in his career, I choose to fight the demons of desire because those are easy wins for me. I decide when the fight is over. But the demons of resistance, they don’t play. These are my demons, the ones that have taken up residence in my soul, built a homestead in my heart. The demons of resistance, unlike the demons of desire, push the world away.
As I mentioned in my e-mail, I’m highly susceptible to acedia, a bored restlessness that makes it impossible to focusEvagrius calls acedia the “noonday demon” because it strikes in the middle of the day and makes the sun move slowly across the sky. It makes the day seem fifty hours long. Monks under the sway of acedia look out the windows to see if any other monks have emerged from their cells. Not seeing anyone, they become angry or depressed. Acedia causes more trouble than all the other demons. When acedia wins the battle, he props the door open for all the other demons to come back.
Some people turn to anger. You may sense that something is wrong with your world and you know just how to fix it. But first, you have to be perfect. Anger sets up shop in your head and tells you all the things you are doing wrong. You can’t make a move without wondering if it’s the right move and you never act without playing it over and over in your head, beating yourself up over what could have been. You might feel guilt, as Moses did, and flee from the world. Or perhaps the internal critique is too painful, so you turn it on the rest of the world. It’s not me, it’s you. If you would just do the right thing, I would be fine. People won’t stick around for that. In the end, you find yourself an alien in a foreign land even if you are at home.
Where some people get angry, I get sad. I am certain that there is a place somewhere out there where everything is perfect. And wherever I am right now is not that place. I am certain that everyone else is happy and prosperous and loved. But not me. My friend Phil is just luckier than I am. My friend Dan figured out his career path earlier than I did. My brother is talented in a lucrative field. Everyone else caught a break and I didn’t. This isn’t the sadness of pain, but the sadness of envy. I retreat into myself, living in imaginary worlds that can’t be tainted by the stench of the flesh. Then I find out that I’m right. There really is something wrong with me. No one wants to be around that guy. And I don’t want anyone around that guy, either, because, sooner or later, whoever is trying to help me, whoever thinks I might be worth being around, will finally figure out the truth. Then I really will be alone after having dared to hope.
This is how the demons of resistance work: they isolate us. They convince us that there is something wrong with us or something wrong with the world. So we push the world away, whether to protect ourselves from the world or the world from us. Once we are isolated from the world, we are isolated from God. We no longer see the spark of the divine in the other. We no longer see the love or pain in the eyes of another or the immeasurable possibility of an outstretched hand. We forget that we are the image of God, so we push everything away and finally feel nothing at all.
Anyone here ever fight these demons? How’s it going?
Did anyone add something to your life for Lent? Is anyone practicing a form of quiet or solitude?
What do we see in Moses’ story? How do we characterize his anger? Is he a hero? Why does Moses go back?
Where do we see these demons in the world? How do they affect justice? What happens when we disconnect?
When Moses first experienced his anger, he reacted. One could argue that his anger was righteous and perhaps even that his actions were righteous. But he did not know who he was. A Hebrew raised as an Egyptian prince in a life of wealth and privilege, he had no connection to his blood, to his people. He was an alien living a hybrid life on the boundary between two worlds. He saw injustice and did something about it, but then the demon had him. He had no way to understand what he had done, so he heard criticism in the voices of his people. (This would not be the last time.) So he fled to Midian.
When he arrived in Midian, he immediately saw another injustice. Women gathered to get water were harassed by shepherds, so Moses drove them off. Probably the right thing to do and it gained the favor of their father. Yet he was not at home. He was an alien in a foreign land. He had not yet discovered the person he was created to be. He had anger and he had guilt and he had alienation, but he did not have a purpose. As the story goes, it came to him in a burning bush.
Meeting God, Moses knew who he was. He directed his anger toward God’s purpose of liberation. He gained courage and pursued his mission with zeal. He gained the conviction to convince not only Pharoah, but his own people. Then he drove those people through the desert for forty years. Through their grumbling and mutiny, he maintained a sense of purpose. He knew justice and he knew its lack and he knew what to do about it.
When we know who we are, we take control of our anger and our sadness. We become focused. We still feel sadness, but it becomes compassion, feeling with. This sadness is no longer the sadness of envy, but the sadness of concern. It knows the other without possessing the other and without losing the self. We still feel our anger, but it becomes a fire for justice. It no longer destroys, but creates. And acedia no longer has a home. He will never stop trying, but knowing his name and where he is from renders him transparent. We see what he seeks to hide: the image of God in ourselves and the world.