28 November 2016

On Battling Demons and the Mediation of Peace

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, you have written about battling demons as something real in the life of the hermit. I wondered if you were aware of the hermits who say that the stories of the desert mothers and fathers battling with demons are just legends and that the vocation of the hermit is to mediate peace? Do you agree or disagree with this appraisal of the situation?]]

Thanks for the question. I can't say I am familiar with the comments you are recounting but I both agree and disagree with them --- assuming of course, the accuracy of your account.

With regard to the comment about the stories of the desert elders being just legends, I would disagree with the use of the qualifier "just". Legends are powerful stories which can convey a kernel of truth. They can work like myths actually do work. To speak of "just myth" or "just legend" is like saying it's "just a matter of semantics". Such speech  denigrates and neglects the power of language to mediate truth; it disregards the fact that words matter. That said, yes, I would agree that the stories of the desert elders battling demons are legends or rather, are stories with significant legendary features whose purpose is to describe an inner experience or event which is otherwise difficult to speak about or convey. Like myths they may be best honored when we do not take them literally. (Taking myths literally trivializes them and the truth they convey.) At the same time, their deep truth is truly heard when we allow ourselves to imagine the details in ways which fill our minds and hearts so we can really consider or meditate on them --- just as we would do with something which is literally true. We must allow ourselves to enter the stories fully so that they may address us and resonate within us --- just as we do with Scriptural stories, especially the parables of Jesus. Only in this way will we come to receive the truth they seek to mediate to us.

As I have written several times, it is traditional wisdom to understand that eremitical life involves battling with demons; in my own experience, however, those demons are mainly the ones we carry in our own hearts. The demons we battle may be those of insecurity, inferiority, arrogance, perfectionism, and so many others. They may involve memories which reside in both our minds and muscles because they have been profoundly encoded neurologically. They may be the demons of trauma or abuse or poverty and severe lack which so wound and injure our hearts as well. Almost anything that happens to human beings at the hands of others, themselves, or life's circumstances more generally can take on demonic dimensions and be triggered in the face of the love of God which seeks to heal us in the deepest and darkest places within our hearts, minds, and souls. Because hermits live religious poverty in the silence of solitude and spend their lives seeking God in this way, much of the noise and many of the distractions that attenuate or prevent most peoples' attention to their own hearts and to the darkness and demonic voices that dwell there are missing.

Being confronted by and accepting the love of God is profoundly healing, consoling, and life giving but at the same time it can be and often is a tremendously strenuous and painful process. When I wrote recently of the personal work I had been doing beginning June 1st I said the following: [[. . .believe me, when we deal with the parts of ourselves left unhealed, distorted, or broken in childhood and throughout life, the process of healing can be as fierce, demanding, and messy as stories of Desert ancestors battling all day and night long with demons then coming out of their caves torn and bloodied but exultant in the morning! The same is true of the story of Jacob wrestling with God (God's angel) and, painfully wounded though he was, refusing to let go until God blessed him. We enter the desert both to seek God and to do battle with demons; it is a na├»ve person indeed who does not anticipate meeting themselves face to face there in all of their weakness, brokenness, and [(fortunately), their] giftedness as well! We may well know that God is profoundly involved in what may eventuate into the fight (or struggle) of and for our lives but it can take time, faith, and perseverance before we walk away both limping and blessed beyond measure.]] (cf Sources and Resources for Inner Work)

Yes, it is true that hermits and eremitical life more generally is about the mediation of peace. The purpose of the struggle with demons is precisely to allow the hermit to dwell in peace and to extend that peace to others and to the world at large. When I write about the hermit (or any Christian) becoming the very prayer of God I am pointing to the same reality. Likewise speaking of being mediators of God's love or being the counterpart of God are ways of conveying the same truth. So, yes, I completely agree with the hermits you are referring to in this regard. However, I believe the struggles so often spoken of in the Apothegmata of the Desert Elders, Cassian's Conferences (esp Conf VII), or in the Life of Anthony, for instance, point to a necessary purgative and healing stage of our inner lives as we become the people we are called to be --- people who embody and mediate genuine peace.

Remember that in all of the readings we heard in the past couple of weeks at the liturgical year came to a conclusion judgment was most often portrayed as a kind of harvest --- and one that was not without a kind of violence or struggle. In every act of love, every act, that is, of judgment, God says an unconditional "yes" to us -- to the true self with all its gifts and potentialities, its yearnings and needs, but God also says "no" to anything which is unworthy of us --- to anything within us that cripples, distorts, or represents falseness. God embraces the wheat of our true selves as something in which God delights --- something which will nourish and bless the whole world, but the chaff of falsity and distortion is threshed away and left behind forever. In this way God creates us, summons us to be as fully and exhaustively as we can be. In this way he loves us and all those whom our lives will eventually touch. The result is a holiness occasioned by the love of God while the consequence of such healing and integration is shalom or peace --- not as the world gives, perhaps, but for which the world yearns almost immeasurably.

I sincerely hope this is helpful.