When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together he rebuked the unclean spirit and said to him: “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you. Go out from him, and never enter him again.” And after shouting and convulsing him greatly it went out. And he became like a dead man so that many said that he was dead. But Jesus took hold of his hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he entered the house, his disciples were asking him in private: “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them: “This kind cannot go out by any means except by prayer.”Mark 9:25-29
For all the times I’ve heard and read this story from Mark over the years, I don’t think I ever before appreciated the relationship between the sickness of the boy and the lack of faith in the disciples. It is sometimes a bit of a mystery to scripture scholars why it is that there is such minute detail in this description of Jesus’ exorcising the evil spirits from the boy. As Jesus confronts the demons, the boy shouts and convulses greatly. He then becomes like a dead man, and we see reflections of the resurrection of Jesus as Jesus “took hold of his hand and lifted him up, and he arose.” Jesus here reflects the power of God who will take Jesus by the hand and lift him up, and by extension do the same for all who believe, but prior to that may come the shouting, convulsing, and a type of death.
Back at verse 19, Jesus expresses frustration and exasperation at the disciples’ failure to cure the boy. At the end of the story, in the passage above, when the disciples ask Jesus why they were unable to cast out the demon, his answer is that they will come to be able to do so only through deeper prayer. It seems that the disciples are unable to cast out this particular demon because they still have their own demons that inhibit them. For example, perhaps there is still too much pride or willfulness or concern for how they are seen and appreciated in them as they attempt to heal the boy. And these “demons” in them allow the demon in the boy to resist them. It may be that Jesus calls them to more and deeper prayer because they lack the purity of heart that would make possible their fuller living out of his mission.
At mass yesterday, as I listened to the words of Matthew’s gospel that call us to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us, I experienced acutely the distance between the call to truly love those who have hurt me and my ability to do so. I know the call of Jesus to such forgiveness and love, and I even, at least in thought, want to do so. But I was very aware of how my constricted heart makes it so difficult to truly do so. As an aside here, one way we grow in our capacity for these more radical demands of the gospel is by employing our will to do the best we can. If we keep practicing in this way, we can trust that eventually our heart will begin to reform and transform.
In today’s gospel, however, Jesus is saying that the “problem” is one of inadequate prayer. No less than driving out the evil spirits from a person possessed, all the actual demands of the gospel require the tapping of that spirit and energy from the core of who we most deeply are as children of God. From the mere level of our cultural, vital, and uninspired functional dimensions, we are not capable of driving out the demons and loving our enemies. What Jesus is teaching the disciples in today’s gospel is that they have the potency to live his mission in the world but they have not tapped that potency as yet.
A brother of ours whom I greatly admire once confessed that “No one could reproach me for not having worked enough, but they could readily reproach me for not having prayed enough.” I think what he is honestly admitting, and what most of us can readily identify with, is that prayer is harder for us than many forms of work that we do. Jesus is saying to us, as he does to his disciples, that if we want to do those most important and difficult things that we are capable of and that he desires us to do, we must pray more. Obviously, this no doubt means giving more time to prayer, but it is not only that. It is to dare to pray in the vulnerability and the willingness to truly be changed and even to die to whom we take ourselves to be.
It is here that we begin to see the correlation between Jesus’ call to the disciples to pray and the casting out of the evil spirits from the boy. The confrontation of Jesus with the evil spirits must have been a terrifying one for the onlookers, as they see the boy shouting and convulsing and then appearing to die. Similarly, to bring ourselves before God in total humility and in the nakedness of faith can be terrifying for us. St. John of the Cross explains why this is the case. He says that “before transforming the soul, [the loving fire of contemplation] purges it of all contrary qualities.” As the disciples are stymied in their attempt to heal the boy and have no understanding of why they are incapable to do so, so for us the deepest obstacles in ourselves to radiating the light of Jesus that is our true and deepest identity are deeply hidden and unknown to us. It is in the depths of meditation and contemplation that we come to recognize these obstacles.
Often in the spiritual life, we tell ourselves that we would love the rest and leisure of praying more but that the demands of justice and virtue require us to work more. The truth, however, is that we avoid prayer because we lack courage. As the boy appears to die and must be raised by Jesus, so too we must die to our way of seeing and being in the world. We fear discovering how wrong we have been and how resistant we are to love. For me, it has often been a case of refusing to sit still and pray because I fear experiencing the depth of my own loneliness.
Without that, however, my work will always be limited by my unconscious demands of the other that they take away my loneliness. As much as I may think I am working for and being for only the other, the quality of my presence and availability to the other as he or she is will always be limited by my need of their presence to me. In a famous prayer, Cardinal Newman asks Jesus that he “shine through us.” Clearly, though, if the light (and power) of Jesus is to shine through us, we must have a true transparency. That transparency requires that what John of the Cross calls those “deeply rooted humors” that becloud our transparency be first “expelled and annihilated.” This can only happen as we become aware of them and suffer them and their effects on our lives.
Early on in my formation for religious life, I was always very skeptical when I heard the saints describe how horrible and sinful they were. These were among the best of people, why were they pretending to be less than they were? Now, it is true enough that we do a lot of pretending to be less than we really are, both to others and ourselves. I have also come to realize, however, that what these saints described was how they saw themselves in the brilliance of the light and love of God. To know the love of which we are capable, a love which loves those who persecute us, is also to realize how much we have refused that deeper truth about our own selves. We have chosen to life a life of conformity to the values and ideals of the age, rather than to the truth of the Jesus within us who longs to shine through us. Adrian van Kaam describes this as knowing our dissonance only in the light of consonance. The more we recognize the person we are called to be, the greater our recognition of our refusal to live that life.
As individuals and as communities, we fail the deeper call and work that is ours in Christ because we do not really pray. Prayer is not, first of all, a duty or another means to boost our egos. Rather, it is a furnace of purification and transformation. It is humbling to realize how far away we can seem from Jesus’ description of our capacity for life and love, a love that includes all, even those who persecute us. Yet, if it calls us to be before God in prayer in the full truth of who we are, then that humility becomes the ground of our own purification and transformation. In our core, we are able to do that which seems currently impossible to us, to love as God loves. To realize this potency for God, however, we must bring ourselves to God in humility of heart and in the faith, hope, and love in God’s desire for us and to be born in us.
Similarly, we should philosophize about this divine, loving fire of contemplation. Before transforming the soul, it purges it of all contrary qualities. It produces blackness and darkness and brings to the fore the soul’s ugliness; thus one seems worse than before and unsightly and abominable. This divine purge stirs up all the foul and vicious humors of which the soul was never before aware; never did it realize there was so much evil in itself, since these humors were so deeply rooted. And now that they may be expelled and annihilated they are brought to light and seen clearly through the illumination of this dark light of divine contemplation. Although the soul is no worse than before, either in itself or in its relationship with God, it feels clearly that it is so bad as to be not only unworthy that God see it but deserving of his abhorrence. In fact, it feels that God now does abhor it.St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night, II,10, 2