But if that servant says to himself, “My master is delayed in coming,” and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, to eat and drink and get drunk, then that servant’s master will come on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour and will punish the servant severely and assign him a place with the unfaithful. That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely. . . . Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.
Luke 12: 45-48
For many years I had the privilege of accompanying a woman who had a pained and difficult a life and yet was so spiritually alive that she was a persistent challenge to my own spiritual laziness. She had been horribly abused as a child by an uncle who was a pastor, and she was thus unable to live out the illusions of her family system, which were largely based on their religious affiliation. Among those illusions was the understanding in her family, based on their strong evangelical beliefs, that they had each been saved. Her experience of this belief, however, was far more complicated because she knew of the hypocrisy and selfishness that pervaded their familial life. Thus, she was the “difficult” one among them, and their interpretation was that she, among them, was the one that was not saved.. At times she would be called to the altar and she would for a time feel changed and conformed to the ways of the others. Yet, her inner integrity would not allow her to deny her own inner truth. As a result, she was the outsider, the scapegoat in her family. She became the object of her family members’ projection of evil. She was the problem because she could not be “happy” in the artificial ways adopted by her family.
Until the time of her death at a fairly young age, she continued to live this tension. Although the tradition in which she had been formed saw salvation as an enduring experience of a single moment, she could not deny either the truth of her faith in Jesus, on the one hand, or the conflict and struggle of a life besieged by temptation, sin and forgiveness on the other. Faith, even a powerful inner experience of the truth of God’s love for her, did not exclude the presence of temptation and the tension in life between light and darkness.
In today’s gospel Jesus foretells to those closest to him that they will, throughout their lives, continue to experience a tendency to forget the call to integrity and mission, to fulness of life that they have received from him. There is a long “delay,” even in the personal life of most of us, between our experience of the love of God and the call to life in Jesus and the “master’s” return. Often, in that time, we shall, as the disciples in the garden, fall asleep to the presence and suffering of Jesus in us. We shall become drawn to and so conform our lives to “the present age,” rather than to the ways of “eternal life” that Jesus gives to us. Although we “know better,” we shall begin to settle for the passing gratifications of the moment.
Personally, I never cease to be amazed at how much of my life is lived as if I had never known at least the glimmers of Jesus’ promise of fuller life. At times I live in such a way that I am just allowing the time to pass, waiting for the next interesting thing to break my boredom or relieve my anxiety, and so “wasting” my time and my life. It is easy to readily identify with the servant that Jesus describes, losing awareness of and attention to the Lord over time.
The story is told of the Buddha that the quality of his attention and presence led a person to ask him if he was a god or a heavenly being and the Buddha responded “No.” The person then asked if he was a magician or a wizard. Again he responded in the negative. The person then asked if he was a man. And again the Buddha denied it. Finally, the Buddha simply answered: “I am awake.” To witness a human being who is really awake is a startling revelation. To fully awaken by grace to our own spiritual identity is also a revelation. Why is it so rare to be fully awake to the truth of things? it is because we, as the disciples of Jesus, even after having been called and realizing who we are in relationship to Jesus, are constantly being tempted to forget, to fall asleep to the deeper truth.
At times in accompanying the woman described above, I would grow very impatient. As she would describe her struggles to function in life, despite the suffering she experienced as a result of her traumatic early life experience, I would at times want to “correct” her for what could seem to me her self-preoccupation and passivity. Despite my own comparable experiences, I would be angry with her in the lack of correspondence between what she knew in her heart and the outer form she would give her life. I would at times grow tired of the agony she experienced in the tension between her desire to love her family members and her inability to communicate that to them. Finally, at times, I would resent her incursions on my time with, what could feel to me, like a repetition of the same stories.
The problem with the idea that we are “saved” in a single moment that endures through life is that it fails to account for the fact that we are “always and everywhere in formation.” In the Catholic tradition we do not have a theology of salvation that is the same as the one described above, and yet, I often reacted to the struggles of this person as if that was what I believed. I wanted her to just get things right, probably so that I would no longer feel the tensions and conflict involved in the very slow process of working through or awakening. My impatience with her was the same as the ongoing impatience I have with myself. To make real in our lives the truth of our original calling is very slow, difficult, and painful work. What made the woman I am speaking of special in my sight, in retrospect not always in every moment at the time, was her capacity to honestly face her brokenness and darkness, while even in the midst of that experience knowing in the depth of her spirit the love and presence of Jesus. As often as not, that experience was for her a source of pain and not merely consolation, for it brought into relief the distance between its hope and promise and the struggles of the present.
The fourth century Greek father, Evagrius Ponticus, delved deeply into the psyche of one longing to live out discipleship. Quite concretely he dealt with the temptations to forgetfulness and sleep that assail one who knows him or herself called to be a servant and friend of Jesus. Although a controversial figure at different historical epochs in the Church, Evagrius takes up, sometimes in startlingly insightful psychological terms, the way to practice the lifelong attempt to stay awake as we await Jesus’ return. What clearly emerges from his writing is that, as Adrian van Kaam teaches, “formation is sheer work.” Long before the recognition of the human unconscious, Evagrius teaches that if we are to realize the meaning of faith in our lives by giving form to our lives in accordance with it, we must recognize and work with our own “unconscious.” He does this according to the language of his time, calling on us to recognize the types of demons at work in us, and to “take note of the circumstances of their coming.” What give rise in us to sloth, anger, resentment, boredom, lust, greed, and so on? As we would say today, what are the “triggers” of these affects and reactions?
Evagrius says we must learn to name these “demons” and their causes, and then “address effective words against them.” Perhaps a minor personal example will illustrate. As was once pointed out to me, I don’t like to be countered. When imparting my “wisdom,” or perspective on things, I feel very personally hurt when another disagrees with or counters me. Over time I have come to see that my anger at the one who does disagree or points out my mistakes or failings is based on my own self-depreciation. So fragile is my felt experience of my own worth, that when I am shown to be mistaken I feel ashamed and worthless. This, of course, is a great distance from living in the presence and awareness of God’s love and my own communion with God. Yet, until I began to acknowledge the presence of this “demon” of deformed shame and then the circumstances of its coming, it was an unyielding obstacle to discipleship and to the life to the full that is its promise. Evagrius then says that we are to “address effective words against” the demon, or deformative disposition. In time, I began to be able, when becoming aware of these feelings and thoughts that would arise, to name them for what they were and to slowly learn to bear the feelings as I addressed their falseness. A good friend who struggled greatly with shame used to tell me how he had learned to remind himself, in the face of those feelings, that he was a good person. In Evagrius’ terms he was addressing the demon of his self-depreciation.
The mystery of life is all too much for us. So, our unconscious movement is to fall asleep and instead of living our own authentic life to begin to be merely carried along by the pulsations of our age. All of the great spiritual traditions warn us of this truth and summon us to awaken. So much of the evil we inflict on ourselves, each other, and the world is due to our lack of awareness of the movements of our own unconscious, movements which make a space for the demonic to enter in. It is not easy to stay awake for the long haul as we await the master’s return. Yet, the effort is more than worth it, for when we are truly awake we experience the life of the master coming to fullness in and around us. Love, as formation, is hard work. Our failings in love are due to our living a life of reaction based on our unconscious drives and needs, on those demons that would deter us from the life to which we are called.
We must take care to recognize the different types of demons and take note of the circumstances of their coming. We shall know these from our thoughts (which we shall know from the objects) we ought to consider which of the demons are less frequent in their assaults, which are the more vexatious, which are the ones which yield the field more readily and which the more resistant. Finally, we should note which are the ones which make sudden raids and snatch off the spirit to blasphemy. Now it is essential to understand these matters so that when these various evil thoughts set their own proper forces to work we are in a position to address effective words against them, that is to say, those words which correctly characterize the one present. And we must do this before they drive us out of our own state of mind. In this manner we shall make ready progress, by the grace of God. We shall pack them off chafing with chagrin and marveling at our perspicacity.
Evagrius Ponticuss, The Praktikos, trans. John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO, #43