22 September 2012

The Romance of Evil?

[NB.  Deacons are preaching this weekend.  Below is an unfinished homily from 2009.  Never preached it. Reading back over it, I'm thinking it's more of an essay than a homily.  Take what you can!]

25th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Holy Rosary Priory, Houston, TX

Along the way to Capernaum through Galilee, the disciples were arguing among themselves. In their ignorance and fear, they were wrangling with one another, jockeying for position and prestige within the troupe. What were they arguing about? What could disrupt their peace? Jesus started the trip by telling them what was going to happen to him once they got to Jerusalem: “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.” We might imagine that this revelation would provoke astonished questions, some howls of dismay or at least a few protests. But the disciples did not understand what Jesus had revealed to them. They were fearful of asking him what he meant. Rather than risk showing their ignorance and fear, they choose instead to argue about who was first among the twelve of them, who was the greatest of Jesus' disciples. When Jesus asks them what they were discussing, they remain silent. Given the absurd nature of their conversation, this was likely their best response. No answer at all. Confronted with the prospect of a bleak future as Christ's disciples—certain persecution and death—the Twelve turn inward and wrestle over insignificant questions of precedence and power. Unwilling to relieve their ignorance by asking questions or assuage their fears by faith, they choose to distract themselves with internal political games. Simeon Weil* once wisely observed, “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.” Faced with the barren boredom of real evil, how often do we open our hearts and minds to the romance of imaginary evil, hoping for something more enticing, more entertaining than what we have been promised as Christ's faithful disciples? 

 It might seem a bit much to accuse the Twelve of opening themselves to the games of imaginary evil. Don't we usually reserve the adjective “evil” for the most heinous, most obscene acts of desecration? When asked to think of Evil, don't we usually conjure images of Adolf Hitler, Nazi concentration camps, whole cities laid waste by carpet bombing? Or perhaps the medical rituals of abortion, the horrors perpetrated by serial murderers? We do think of these and rightly so. But this is Weil's point. “Real evil,” she writes, “is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.” Concentration camps were models of modernist efficiency. Carpet bombing was made possible by technology and precision-mapping. Abortions are done in sterile, clinical settings by professionally trained physicians. Serial killers are psychotically methodical, obsessively exacting. True evil is sterile, precise, methodical, and efficient. True evil is also irrational, primitive, and wholly devoted to destruction. The disciples are not toying with real evil; in their ignorance and fear, they are gaming with the romance of political intrigue, the kinds of wars we fight on chess boards. Though they are not playing with the Real Deal, they are tempting it by allowing humility to weaken and fade. James warns: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.” 

 Seeing jealous ambition among his disciples, and knowing that they do not understand his fate or theirs, and knowing what selfishness and ignorance can breed, Jesus smacks them with this sobering truth: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” If you will be the greatest, you must be the least. If you will be first, you must be last. If you will be the master, you must serve. This truth is of no use to an ambitious soul. No truly political animal can hunt successfully with this truth as a weapon. Jesus not only smacks their jealous ambition with an order to serve, he tosses all their pettiness, all their planning, all their machinations and plotting right into the fire of humility. Jesus knows that no true spiritual adventure can begin in ignorance or fear. It is wisdom and faith that kick us into gear! And only humility can be a wise and trusting guide. 

Simeon Weil says that real evil is boring and barren. She adds, “Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” So, real evil and imaginary good are both tedious and sterile. If we understand the spiritual and emotional dangers of real evil, can we say that we understand the traps laid for us by the imaginary good? If truly good things are “new, marvelous, intoxicating,” then the imaginary good must be familiar, dull, and sobering. If the truly good offers fresh, miraculous, and uplifting insight and possibility, then working with the imaginary good must leave us numb with sedate routine, sluggish habit. The trap of the imaginary good is insidious, perhaps more so than the perils of real evil. Take the disciples as an example. Confronted by the possibilities of Jesus' revelation, they fall back into a familiar pattern of squabbling over precedence. Hearing what lies ahead, as promised, they revert to what they know: infighting over insignificant questions of authority and power. Rather than end the maneuvering by appointing a lieutenant, Jesus shows them the power of a real good—a new, marvelous, and intoxicating possibility: leadership as humble service. 

Rather than paint an improbable vista of wealth and prestige for those charged to lead, Jesus takes a child on his lap and says, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.” Receiving Christ is not about building monuments or temples or palaces; it is not about filling charitable trust funds or establishing new religious orders. Tossing all worldly expectations and priorities into the furnace of humble service, Christ says that we receive him and the One Who sent him when we receive one child in his name. Just one. Not a whole orphanage. Not even a pair of siblings. Just one child. A tiny act of compassion, a small mercy shown to someone who cannot repay your kindness, cannot owe you a favor, someone who will not boast of your generosity or brag about knowing you. In the eyes of the world, an act of love that wastes an opportunity to move ahead. Exactly. Just so. 

In their idle arguments about priority, the disciples play at a game that matters a great deal in the world, that part of creation ruled by unrestrained passion and power. They play a game called “The Wisdom of Men.” To be better, then the best in the world, a man's heart and mind must be impure, conflicted, abrasive, controlling, ruthless, negotiable, and insincere. Nothing like the heart and mind of a child. But James reminds us that “the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.” A heart and mind that welcomes divine wisdom exudes quiet confidence, serenity of purpose, eagerness to serve, and a depth of sincerity. Having reached the child-like heights of Christ's peace, anything and everything imagined and done by such a soul is new, marvelous, and intoxicating—truly Good and Beautiful. 

Earlier I raised the question: Faced with the barren boredom of real evil, how often do we open our hearts and minds to the romance of imaginary evil, hoping for something more enticing, more entertaining than what we have been promised as Christ's faithful disciples? Very few of us will embrace real evil as a way of life. Some of us will toy with imaginary evil as a naughty diversion from what we imagine to be our rutted, routine lives. Most of us believe ourselves to be practitioners of the real good. But are we really just playing with the imaginary good, the lukewarm forms of goodness? Are we just good enough to be comfortable with the spiritual boredom that slowly wets the Spirit's fire within us? Do the wicked say of us: “Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law. . .”? If the practitioners of real evil do not see us as a threat to their ambitions, then how are we helping them? What are we doing or thinking or saying that gives that world—the world where real evil thrives—more power, more prestige, more wealth? 

* Gravity and Grace

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  1. Anonymous7:26 AM

    For my money, not only a homily, but a great one at that! Could endure a little bit of editing/paraphrasing but it's perfectly preachable.

    1. Thanks, MFT! I could probably get away with preaching this at Blackfriars in Oxford. They're used to more discursive homilies.

  2. I agree, this is quite good. Granted, as a homily, it would need some tightening up, some things moved around, etc... The ideas presented are excellent, easily adaptable to everyday life, and that last paragraph is something else! I could also very easily see you walking around with your student(s) having a discussion - there are parts that just beg for questions, responses, etc... I found it it to be discursive in the sense of walking about, discussing, exploring ... I didn't think it rambling, and believe me, I have heard many a rambling homily :-).