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Of Coddling Demons and Auricular Confession

25 Jun

No being could attain a “perfect badness” opposite to the perfect goodness of God.
~ C.S. Lewis

The Gospels are filled with weird scenes – which you’d expect from eyewitness accounts of an incarnate God. There’s no precedent for Jesus, no template or benchmark. He’s extraordinary in so many ways, so it’s no surprise that his actions and words would be extraordinary as well – at least on first hearing.

You know this from witnessing your own children thrill at the coming of Christmas when they were very young. The story of the Bethlehem invasion was fresh and exciting – and fantastic! The same goes for Passiontide as our young ones grew morose upon hearing of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, which transmuted into delight upon their discovery of Easter and the resurrection.

Then there’s us. We don’t think of the Gospel accounts as unusual anymore because we’ve heard them countless times, and we’re accustomed to their quirky narrative shifts – even if we don’t really understand them. Like Judas, for instance. We hear about Jesus choosing him as an apostle, despite his knowing (as God) that Judas would betray him down the line. The Lord even sends out the future traitor with the other apostles to minister to the crowds – what? Yet we just glaze over when we hear it proclaimed at Mass or referenced in a sermon. Yawn.

Once in a while, however, every once in a while, the Scriptures come alive again, even for us, even for me. Maybe it’s a particular lector’s voice and intonation; maybe it’s an enlightening commentary or sermon; always it’s grace.

Such a grace came my way recently as I reviewed the Gospel accounts of Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac. There’s a version of the story in Matthew, but fuller accounts appear in Mark and Luke. The action takes place in Galilee in the latter days of the Lord’s public ministry there. He and the disciples had just arrived in the region of Gerasa (or Gadara, or Gergesa – there’s some confusion about this) after a rough passage across the Sea of Galilee. A deadly tempest had terrified the disciples, but a sleepy Jesus had taken it in stride and quelled it almost as an afterthought. The disciples were duly impressed: “They were filled with awe, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?’” (Mk 4.41).

As if to answer that question, Jesus followed up his demonstration of power over natural forces with a startling demonstration of his supernatural dominion.

As soon as he and his crew hit the Gerasene shore, a wild man accosted them from a graveyard. I picture him as a combination of J.K. Rowling’s Hagrid and Marley’s ghost from A Christmas Carol – all hair and height, bruises and blood, with shackles and chains rattling about. The possessed Galilean tomb-dweller, hardly still a man, rushed the Lord and demanded an accounting. “What have you to do with me, Jesus,” he shouted, adding a confession, “Son of the Most High God?” Finally, a plea. “I beseech you, do not torment me” (Lk 8.28). When Jesus asked for his name, the wild man claimed, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”

We’re definitely in strange territory here. I see a walking stadium full of demons testifying to Jesus’ divine identity. Also, I see a tortured, lonely soul, a castoff loser and social threat, rebuffing the ministrations of the one he knows could totally heal him. Stranger still, Jesus is choosing to chat with him – or them (pronouns with Legion are tricky). But what’s there to chat about? Let’s free the poor guy from his spiritual affliction and restore him to his family already – ba-boom.

Yet, the strangeness only widens as the Gospel writers next draw our attention to a herd of pigs – pigs! a herd! – on a nearby hill. You’d think Jesus and his Jewish companions would’ve avoided this area altogether rather than risk even the slightest association with pork. Nope, and the pigs actually end up playing a central role in the tale. “Send us to the swine,” the Legion of demons begged Jesus, “let us enter them” (Mk 5.12). I envision a Messianic shoulder shrug and toss of the head, followed by the Aramaic equivalent of “Why not?” before Jesus gives in to the odd petition. “Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine,” continues St. Luke, “and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned” (8.33).

The Gospel narratives move on to the swift reaction of the swineherds and local townspeople (they “were seized with great fear” and asked Jesus to “depart from them”), as well as the equally swift recovery and commissioning of Legion (whom Jesus sent home to proclaim “how much the Lord has done for you”). But I’m stuck back on that hillside. “The demons puzzle us,” writes Frank Sheed. “The pigs puzzle us.” Right, as does Jesus himself, for it seems to me that he took pity on those demons when he acceded to their request. Was the porcine possession a show of compassion for the hellish habitués? A bizarre amnesty, no matter how fleeting, granted by the Good Shepherd himself? I’m with Sheed who comments, “We long to read deeper into the mind of our Redeemer.”

Frankly, I’m also interested in reading deeper into the minds of those devils. They must’ve known that they were still destined to return to Hell eventually, for even if their pig-hosts hadn’t immediately rushed to a watery demise, they would’ve been butchered soon enough. Since Legion’s demons had no doubt about who and what Jesus was (and is), what could’ve motivated their plea for temporary clemency? Surely not love – but…hope? Is it possible that these damned creatures were displaying a last vestige of hope, however unlikely?

We’ll never know. What we do know, however, is that the graphic transfer of Legion’s burden to the doomed pigs was a stark display of release and liberation. Perhaps, as Jerome Kodell suggests, it was meant to broadcast Legion’s fresh start, providing his community “visible proof that the demons have left the man.” Granted it required significant destruction of property (which prompted the objections of those swineherds), yet maybe such was justified in order to reassure Legion’s people of his radical transformation – and even Legion himself.

Weird as it is, I think the pig-demon transfer in this Gospel story is a valuable illustration of why we have auricular confession. As the Catechism affirms, the sacrament of reconciliation requires the penitent to be contrite, practice humility, and “confess with the lips” (CCC 1450). Certainly there are exceptions – speech impairments, for example, and extreme debilitation – but ordinarily, in “accord with the law and practice of the Church, the faithful must orally confess their sins” (Congregation for Divine Worship). It follows that the confessor must ordinarily hear those sins and voice an absolution.

“But why do you have to confess your sins out loud?” my Protestant students often ask me. “Why can’t you just confess them directly to God – in private? Or just write them down?”

Next time I get that question, I’ll have a ready answer. “Because we’re Legion,” I’ll say. “Because our sins are like demons, and we need concrete, sensory reassurance that they’ve been excised from our souls.”

When I confess my sins, as humiliating as it is, I’m always glad to be getting them out of my head and into the open air. To hear myself pronounce my self-accusations, knowing that the alter Christus is craning an ear, means that my sins are gone, they’ve been sent over the confessional cliff, and they’re drowning in grace – what a relief!

Then it’s my turn to listen, and the priest’s verbal funneling of the Lord’s forgiveness is an electrifying largesse (CCC 1465). It’s a new beginning, every time. And every time, I’m sent out unburdened after my penitential encounter, but with an implicit (sometimes explicit) commission, similar to Legion’s: “Go in peace,” the priest may intone, “and proclaim to the world the wonderful works of God who has brought you salvation.”

They’re words I never tire of hearing, and the strange mercy they bespeak never grows old.
_________________________

A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Blinkers, Bakers, and Benevolence

25 Mar

“The quick slick confident judgments we are forever making are merely silly. Who can read the chaos in another’s soul from which his actions proceed?”
~ Frank Sheed

Read more…

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Of Concupiscence, Wheat Beer, and the Princess Bride

8 Jun

Smoked-Gratzer-wheat-beer-300x170
Earth’s Redeemer, plead for me
Where the songs of all the sinless
Sweep across the crystal sea.
~ William Chatterton Dix

Read more…

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On the Glory of Opaque Self-Awareness

26 Jan

widow's mite_costa

Since it belongs to the supernatural order,
grace escapes our experience (CCC 2005).

Read more…

Fountain of Grace

20 Sep

fountain

SMITH: I stick up for the thing every man has a right to. Perhaps the only thing that every man has a right to.

MORRIS: And what is that?

SMITH: The benefit of the doubt.

(G.K. Chesterton)

I have a short list of songs I’d love to play on the drums. There’s “Good Times Roll” by the Cars, and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Stones. “Take the Money and Run” by the Steve Miller Band makes the cut as well, but I don’t think I could ever duplicate drummer Gary Mallaber’s syncopated hi-hat magic, even back in my high school heyday.

Joe-Walsh-Rocky-Mtn-feat-imageThen there’s Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way,” his slow-churning paean to life in Colorado. For one thing, it’s straight-on rock, but with a bluesy tinge, giving it a measured pace – more my speed in other words. Plus, it came out when I was a young transplant to Boulder from New Jersey, so I readily identified with Walsh’s love of the mile-high state. “Couldn’t get much higher,” he sings. “The Rocky Mountain way is better than the way we had.” No offense to Jersey, but it’s hard to beat living at the foot of snowcapped peaks.

The song appears on Walsh’s 1973 album “The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get,” and I wore it out on my stereo – even playing along on my Ludwig drum kit, much to my family’s dismay. It’s a happy, exuberant tune, and still fun to sing along with when it comes up on the classic rock station. But Walsh himself? Obviously he was a fine musician and songwriter – something that even a middle-class pop star wannabe like me could recognize, especially once Walsh joined forces with the Eagles during their “Hotel California” days. Otherwise, I never gave him much thought, I suppose, and if anything I probably assumed he was just another rowdy rock star – and, keeping with stereotype, a druggie to boot.

That changed this week.

A friend of mine sent me a link to an older news item in the Boulder Daily Camera. “Did you ever know about this sad and interesting connection between Boulder and Joe Walsh?” he asked. I read through the feature, and suddenly Joe Walsh went from generic rock star to real human being – an individual, with a story and a history, complete with the same emotional wrenchings up and down that life throws at all of us.

It turns out that about the time I was bingeing on his music in Boulder, Walsh was living there himself, recording at the Caribou Ranch up in Nederland, and enjoying a rich family life with his wife, Stefany Rhodes, and their young daughter, Emma. While Walsh toured, Rhodes would stay in Boulder, taking Emma to a park near their north side home, or bringing her to other homes for playgroups.

125134599_1392404907In 1974, just weeks shy of Emma’s third birthday, Rhodes was driving Emma to one of those playgroups when another driver ran a stop sign and crashed into them. Emma’s injuries were massive and she never recovered. Both Rhodes and Walsh, who was on his way home from a concert tour when the accident happened, were understandably devastated.

The story doesn’t end there, however. In addition to writing and recording a song in honor of his beloved daughter, Walsh went about establishing a physical monument to her as well – a water fountain in the park she played at so often, along with a memorial plaque:

This fountain is given in loving memory of 
Emma Walsh 
April 29, 1971-April 1, 1974

“The fountain was all Joe’s doing, really,” said Emma’s mom, Stefany Rhodes. “Joe was a very romantic person.” The whole story moved me to tears, and I was frankly embarrassed by my surprise that a hard rocking mega-star could be so tender and vulnerable.

And Walsh’s depth of feeling after Emma’s death wasn’t a fluke borne of fleeting intense grief either. Like so many pop stars, he did have his struggles with substance abuse and serial marriage, but it’s evident that through it all, he still managed a fair amount of reflection and self-awareness. “One thing I found in the music business is if you pretend like you know what you’re doing, everybody thinks you know what you’re doing,” Walsh admitted to 60 Minutes, “and I just never wanted anybody to find out that I didn’t have a clue.”

Clearly I was the one who didn’t have a clue. My surprise at Joe Walsh’s ordinary human frailty and profound grief belied assumptions and prejudices that made me ashamed. It brought to mind the famous “Who am I to judge?” rhetorical question posed by Pope Francis – especially since it had just come up in an NPR story last week. Journalist Paul Vallely revealed a detail about that controversial papal soundbite that I’d never heard before: That the Pope had been responding to questions about his efforts to reform the Vatican Bank and his selection of Monsignor Battista Ricca as his point man. “He was asked about Ricca [and] the man’s gay past – if he seeks the Lord and repents, who am I to judge – that was the context,” Vallely said. “It was interesting that he was not going to be steered away from his intent to radically reform the bank by people leaking things like this.”6c8437783-130729-pope-plane-8a.nbcnews-fp-360-360

When the Pope’s comment hit the headlines in 2013, I, like many others, had a knee-jerk moment: What does he mean? How am I going to explain this to my kids and non-Catholic friends? Is Church teaching going to change?!

Nothing of the sort. It was just Pope Francis being Pope Francis: pastoral, merciful, and unpredictable. Now I come to find out that it was also Pope Francis showing his managerial backbone by refusing to allow vicious rumormongers from derailing his radical reforms.

In other words, “Who am I to judge?” applies to my assumptions about the Pope as much as anything – or anyone – else.

Back to Joe Walsh. The more I read, the more I discovered that there was way more to the notorious partyer and rowdy rocker than I could’ve ever ever imagined. He’s sober now, and more settled, which allows him to channel his tremendous talents and sensitivity in a myriad flourishing directions. “I look around and the people are very happy,” he said of his latest concerts. “We can elevate everybody’s overall feeling of good will and everybody has a great time — including me.”

Sounds like grace to me — and who am I to judge?

For the Lamb…will guide them to springs of living water;
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Rv 7.17).

bbbb_emma__________________________

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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