Wisdom was created before all other things, and prudent understanding from eternity. The root of wisdom—to whom has it been revealed? Her subtleties—who knows them? There is but one who is wise, greatly to be feared, seated upon his throne—the Lord. It is he who created her; he saw her and took her measure; he poured her out upon all his works, upon all the living according to his gift; he lavished her upon those who love himSirach 1:4-10
And when Jesus entered into a house his disciples asked in private, “Why were we not able to exorcize it?” And he said to them, “By nothing but prayer can this kind come out.”Mark 9:28-29
In today’s gospel Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John have just come down from the mountain where the transcendence and glory of God had been made manifest in Jesus. According to Mark the disciples “had become extremely afraid” at this wisdom of God made manifest. It is all far too much for them. It perhaps is not accidental, then, that as they, with Jesus, come down from that experience of what lies beneath “the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life,” they encounter an intractable problem. A father has brought to the disciples his son who is possessed by “a mute spirit” that appears, from the symptoms described, to be what we today would call epilepsy. Yet, according to the words of the father to Jesus, the disciples “did not have the strength” to drive out the evil spirit. When the disciples ask Jesus why they were unable to exorcize the spirit in the boy, he tells them that there are times when “nothing but prayer” can accomplish what is needed.
The entire context of the ninth chapter of Mark’s gospel draws us into a reflection on the reality of our human experience as spiritual. To live in the spirit, that is to attempt to live our lives as distinctively human, as all we are called to be, means to live with what seem to us incompatible polarities. It is to live in the tension that Paul describes between spirit and flesh, or as psychoanalysis reminds us, “The human being is a god who defecates.” Our aspirations are forever meeting up with our limits. Even, as Paul also says, we often fail to do the good we desire to do. As we all know, our best efforts can often seem not only to fail to be effective but even to make things more confused and chaotic. The truth of the matter is that, as the disciples, we are constantly coming upon “common, ordinary, unspectacular” demands of us that we seem unable to meet.
This inherent life tension is not an easy one to bear. And so, we tend to attempt to dissolve the tension one way or another. On the one hand, we can attempt the solution of Peter in the narrative of the Transfiguration. He says to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is a good thing for us to be here, and let us make three tabernacles, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Mark 9:5). Similarly, we can attempt to live as gods or angels, spiritualizing all of life through dint of our imaginations. We can attempt to give form to our life by denying our flesh, our bodily needs, our inner conflicts and tensions, the complicated and dark aspects of the reality around us. We can “see” everything in light of our own wishes and desires to escape the reality of the world’s limits and our own sinfulness. I think as a young person I was, in part, attracted to religious life because I thought there that all the suffering of the fear, anger, tension, and conflict that I felt within would magically disappear in its “spiritual” environment. Continually through life, in our own ways, we can attempt to dissolve the tension in life, the polarities that constitute the human experience, in favor of the spiritual dimension.
On the other hand, we can attempt to dissolve the life-giving tension that is human life by repressing the spiritual dimension of our own being and of the world. We often do this not so much by conscious and cognitive decision but rather by “throwing ourselves” into activity as if our own will and ego were the determinants of our life and experience. In today’s gospel, the disciples experience that they do not have the strength to drive out the evil spirit from the boy. Those of us formed in American pragmatism have built into our consciousness the idea that we can be whatever we make ourselves to be and do whatever we set our minds to. We believe that if we are unable to do something it is our fault; it is because we are not working hard enough or not doing something right. This conflates the wisdom of God with the potency of our own will and ego. It fails to acknowledge that perhaps God’s wisdom is manifest also in our limits, brokenness, and littleness. It reduces the mystery that pervades all of life and represses our innate spiritual awareness. This repression of spiritual awareness Adrian van Kaam calls “the primordial act of violence from which all other acts of violence spring.”
The wisdom in our being limited, as St. Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 12, is that we realize through this that we are all parts of one body, and that body is Christ. We can measure the level of our repression of spirit in our resistance to collaboration, to our working together. To truly work together deeply requires of us that we admit to each other our own limits. As Paul puts it, if I am metaphorically a hand of the body, it does not diminish me to acknowledge that I am not a foot, nor my need for a foot. This is a very difficult truth for those who are brought up in a formation tradition that values above all autonomy and independence. We experience and transcend the limitation of that teaching and realize our need for each other through the experience of limit and failure, through experiencing those moments when we do not, ourselves, have the strength the task requires.
When the disciples get Jesus in private, they are eager to ask him why they were not able to exorcize the evil spirit in the boy. In all likelihood they were asking him what they did wrong, so that they could do it right the next time. But Jesus, as every great spiritual teacher, is not a problem solver. He doesn’t tell them what to do, because he can’t. Instead he tells them that “By nothing but prayer can this kind come out.” Jesus answers that they are to change their mode of presence to such an experience. For ourselves we might hear Jesus telling us what to do in those many moments in life when we experience “ego-desperation.”
Sirach tells us that the Lord poured out wisdom “on all his works, upon all the living according to his gift.” To understand the wisdom of God requires that we look deeply enough into persons, situations, and things. When we “hit the wall” and experience something is so beyond our ability to comprehend and respond to, we must pray. That is what Jesus tells us. That the disciples did not see this encounter with the father and his possessed son clearly and truly is why Jesus laments their lack of faith. It may have been that instead of really hearing and seeing the man and his appeal, the disciples saw this encounter as a test of their own abilities. Because this became “about them” rather than waiting on the promptings of wisdom to speak to them in its own time, their efforts proved futile.
For most of my life, I read this passage through the lens of my own dichotomizing tendencies. Because prayer and action had been contraries for me, I thought Jesus was saying that there are situations to which we are unable to respond, so we should merely withdraw and pray. In this dichotomized view, we are to push as hard as we can and when we fail we should become passive and merely pray to God for “a miracle.” From this perspective, however, our interpretation of the situation, of the appeal to us, remains fixed. We behave as if we heard correctly the first time; it’s just that we are unable to fix the problem as we see it. From this view, prayer serves our tendency and desire to dissolve the tension of spirit and flesh. Yet, in the garden Jesus will tell his disciples to “watch and pray” (Mt. 26: 41). Prayer is not passivity; it is deeper activity.
So much of our activity springs from habit and impulse. We work, even for others, largely out of the acquired wisdom of our cultures and our unconscious impulses. Yet, as spirit we have access to the wisdom of which Sirach speaks. It is the wisdom that inheres in everything created, in the very flow of life and creation. Our access to this wisdom is prayer. To recognize and respond to the wisdom of the Creator that is at the heart of creation, we must be still and wait upon it. Often it is when we have exhausted the strength of our willfulness and pride form that we, in our emptiness, become available to this deeper wisdom. The disciples are no doubt discouraged, and perhaps on the verge of despair at their abject failure and, no doubt, shame and embarrassment for being seen as so ineffectual. Ego desperation often leads us to discouragement and depression. Jesus, however, shows them another path. He says, in effect, you are discouraged because you are not yet seeing the truth of, the wisdom in, this experience. Instead of moving out of your heart in discouragement, move more deeply into it in prayer. Where you are tempted to give up, instead care more, invest yourself more, by being available to the truth that prayer will reveal to you.
Blaise Pascal reminded us that “the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” When we hit our limits, our executive will would usually move towards despair and would seek refuge in no longer caring. Jesus’ injunction is to turn away from that movement of our unconscious and to pray, to enter into our hearts even more deeply, to suffer all of what our heart is suffering, and to watch and wait there until the wisdom in it all manifests itself to us, in its own time. Then we may find ourselves able to respond “in spirit and in truth.”
While on the one hand it is beyond dispute that all action binds, on the other hand it is equally true that all living beings have to do some work, whether they will or no. Here all activity, whether mental or physical, is to be included in the term action. Then how is one to be free from the bondage of action, even though he may be acting? The manner in which the Gita has solved the problem is, to my knowledge, unique. The Gita says, “Do your allotted work but renounce its fruit. Be detached and work. Have no desire for reward and work.”Mohandas K. Gandhi, The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi, Introduction, #22