Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Wrestling Angels or Battling Demons?
I can imagine Jacob's fear of meeting his brother. He earlier had stolen Esau's birthright, and he has every reason to presume Esau would hate him. At this point in the story, Jacob has gathered all kinds of gifts for his brother, hoping against hope to be forgiven. Perhaps on this night, he wrestles both physically and figuratively with God, wanting to do the right thing and yet being terrified that things might go completely wrong. He wrestles, and manages to do the right thing. He survives, both the angel and his brother.
I think we wrestle with God, too. Like Jacob, we want to make peace with those who ought to be closest to us. We want to set things right. We want to do the right thing. And yet the unknown possibilities can be so frightening. We don't always know how people will receive us. And yet we take the plunge. Like Jacob, sometimes we come out of these experiences with God wounded but blessed, perhaps even given a new name, marked by our encounter with the holy.
Spiritual battle also can be with more deadly forces. In the Gospels, Jesus casts out demons right and left, freeing people who have been bound. While we may not see people being "possessed" by evil in the Hollywood sense of things, battling demons is still something we have to deal with, too. In the Eastern monastic tradition, Evagrius Ponticus writes of the eight thoughts, which are the precursor to what we now know as the seven deadly sins. Actions begin with thoughts in our mind, and so the devil first works to get into our head. Thus we have to deal with temptations to lust, greed, anger, vainglory, pride, sloth, acedia (a listless sense of boredom with life), envy, gluttony, and the rest. The challenge is to nip the bad thoughts in the bud. Do we nurture thoughts that will lead us down a road to bad actions and ultimately the death of our soul, or do we dash bad thoughts against Christ, as St. Benedict suggests, and nurture more life-giving thoughts, which give rise to virtue and good actions?
This kind of battle can be as simple as choosing the moderation of one cookie instead of two, or it can be as frought with danger as choosing to be faithful to a life commitment in the face of real problems and painful difficulties. Whether what we face be a small matter or large, the feelings of weakness and powerlessness sometimes can be overwhelming. Yet the message of the Gospel is that Christ has defeated evil. With Christ, we can overcome temptation. Even if we fail sometimes, the mercy and love of God outweigh our sins. Ultimately, we never are alone. God is with us, Emmanuel, and if we allow God to take the lead, everything will be okay.