Blessing the Hour

Eamonn Clark, STL

There are a few Marian devotions which have become extremely popular over the centuries. The rosary of course, but also the Angelus (at 6:00 AM, 12:00 PM, and 6:00 PM), and the ubiquitous May Crowning devotions. All beautiful and worthy exercises of piety. However, there is another devotion which is shorter, simpler, and practiced by several saints, including St. John Vianney and St. Anthony Claret, two of my personal favorites. It is called “blessing the hour.”

It goes like this. Every waking hour, on the hour, one prays a “Hail Mary,” dedicating the following 60 minutes to Our Lady. 8:00 AM? “Hail Mary…” 9:00 AM? “Hail Mary…” 10:00 AM? “Hail Mary…” Etc.

That’s it.

By doing this, one reminds oneself to sanctify the whole day. It’s a great opportunity to pause, for just 10 seconds, and consider whether one is living up to the standards of the Gospel given the activities of the preceding hour, and then to make a resolution to do better in the next hour, asking the Blessed Virgin Mary for her help. She certainly likes to be asked for such favors, and she certainly likes to grant them – so why deny her the pleasure, meanwhile denying ourselves of her powerful help?

Over time, this practice will help one to keep up a constant kind of awareness and familiarity with the Lord and His Mother, in accord with St. Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess. 5:17) If we are intent on one day making our eternity to be with such Friends, we ought to get in the happy habit of conversing with them at least every 60 minutes, no? And so, at the hour of our death, we are ready to spend every minute like those ten seconds each hour, but with so much more pleasure, peace, and love:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the Fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Main image: A statue of the Virgin with Child, outside Santa Sabina, in Rome

St. Thomas Aquinas on how to ensure your prayer is answered – in 4 easy steps!

Eamonn Clark, STL

It’s a shocking claim, but it’s eminently sensible… if you want a guaranteed answer to your prayer, you must only do four things. And note that I mean the kind of answer that you are actually looking for, rather than getting something different which God wants for you instead (which would be better for you than your own idea anyway).

St. Thomas Aquinas lays out the four steps, or aspects, in the Summa Theologica, II-II q. 83, a. 15. They are:

To pray piously – If we are asking God for something rudely, as if we are entitled to it, we are not praying very well. A pious prayer is humble, respectful, and sincere.

To pray perseveringly – When we really want something, we will typically keep asking until we obtain it. So it is that when we pray for a favor in a fleeting way, we are not desiring that favor very seriously. Why then should we expect Providence to match our desires? We might fall into presumption if such prayers were answered and end up not even praying piously for favors the next time around.

To pray for what is useful for salvation – Despite what it may seem, God does not actually particularly care about the score of the big football game coming up. (In fact, it can be sinful to pray for certain outcomes in such things, unless one has some extraordinary vested interest in them.) While God will grant little favors sometimes that make our lives more pleasant or convenient, normally by the natural order of things, these are small potatoes. Even miraculous physical healings are low on the list of God’s priorities – just look at how Christ did not open up a miraculous hospital in Galilee to heal every single sick person, though He could have done so. What God really wants is our everlasting friendship.

To pray for oneself – People have free will. They can accept grace or resist it. It is not possible to merit another human being’s salvation, although we can assist in a way. However, when we desire our own salvation we have immediately put ourselves on the right path by that very act of the will. Our free will is moving in the right direction already.

That’s it! It may sound underwhelming, but it’s surely not. With this formula, we can obtain Heaven, thus fulfilling the purpose of our existence. God will never deny a soul that earnestly seeks its own salvation through humble and frequent prayer for favors that relate to growth in charity and avoiding falling into Hell. Do you want to obtain the courage needed to go to Confession? You will have it. Do you want to become more temperate? It will be given to you. Do you want to enjoy a deeper friendship with the Lord and be a great saint? He wants to give it to you. All you must do is ask in the right way, and it is sure to come to you.

Haggai and the Woman with the Hemorrhage

Eamonn Clark, STL

Today, a short meditation on the fulfillment of the Old Law and the Prophet Haggai… First, the text of the Gospel of Mark 5:25-34 (also found in Matthew and Luke):

25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32 He looked all around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

It is a familiar passage, but there is more going on here than meets the eye; in this incident the Prophet Haggai has been “overcome,” or rather, the law which Haggai refers to has been usurped by a superior Legislator. Haggai was sent to encourage the Jews to rebuild the Temple, after they had returned from their exile in Babylon; there was reluctance to do the work out of a kind of spiritual lethargy. He has a short dialogue with the priests about sacrifice and law. Let’s see the text of Haggai 2:10-14

10 On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Haggai: 11 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Ask the priests what the law says: 12 If someone carries consecrated meat in the fold of their garment, and that fold touches some bread or stew, some wine, olive oil or other food, does it become consecrated?’” The priests answered, “No.” 13 Then Haggai said, “If a person defiled by contact with a dead body touches one of these things, does it become defiled?” “Yes,” the priests replied, “it becomes defiled.” 14 Then Haggai said, “‘So it is with this people and this nation in my sight,’ declares the Lord. ‘Whatever they do and whatever they offer there is defiled.’”

Clearly, the Flesh of Christ is more sacred than “sacred flesh.” Some flesh is sacred by ritual – His Flesh is sacred by nature, and the “order of purity” is reversed.

When faith in Him is offered, and His clothing is touched from that motive, spiritual healing, or forgiveness, comes. What is it to touch His clothing now? It is that which “covers” His Sacred Flesh – that which mediates His Presence, namely, the Sacraments, which lead to the Eucharist, especially Confession. On the Cross, Christ’s side poured forth water and Blood – Baptism and the Eucharist – but He also had His cloak taken from Him. Unlike the veil of the Temple, torn from top to bottom, Christ’s cloak was woven from top to bottom: the one was destroyed by God, the other represents the Sacramental order which one must pass through to reach the Flesh of Christ aside from the waters of Baptism, an order disrespected by those concerned with possessions, with amusement, with going along with what the crowd is doing, despite being right next to the Crucified One – just like the soldiers who gambled for the garment, or even like the masses that pressed up against Christ for motives out of curiosity rather than faith. Simply touching the cloak is not enough, as the crowds and soldiers did; nor even does touching the Flesh suffice, as those who crucified Him did. It must be done in the right way to receive the cleansing power which comes from Him.

To make a good Eucharistic sacrifice, the priest must be clean – so too must we be clean to receive that Flesh, not only washed with Baptism, but also having touched the cloak of Christ in faith to be healed of our spiritual impurity. By entering “through” that “veil” into the New Temple, namely, into the Risen Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ, we can live with the same God Who once dwelt behind the curtain of the Temple, without going all the way to Jerusalem. Power flows forth from Him openly now, for all the nations. Unlike the impure inhabitants of Jerusalem, those who approach the Lord in faith and humility through the Sacraments will be living stones, built up into a spiritual temple, ready to offer sacrifices acceptable to the Father (1 Peter 2:5) – and others will even in a way be made pure through us, especially priests, by the very power of the One Whom we have encountered and share.

A First-Class Encounter with the Devil?

Eamonn Clark, STL

Hollywood is fascinated with the Devil. Every year it seems there’s a new film about possession, the occult, or demonic infestation. The public – i.e. normal people – eat it up: clearly, we are fascinated too. And that’s just what the Devil wants.

I have never dealt with anything like demonic possession or infestation directly, though I have priest friends who have. If you had any doubt, let me assure you, all that stuff is plenty real. And yet somehow, so many of the people who flock in droves to see blockbuster hits about these things might also believe they are real – and they don’t do anything to change their lives in response to the terrifying world of Hell and its inhabitants. There is one simple reason: they have mistaken these second-class encounters with the Devil for first-class ones.

The Devil, when most successful, stays most hidden. It is hard for him, as he loves to show off – and ultimately, there is always some tell-tale sign of his wicked presence, even if we can’t quite notice it. Eventually, like Odysseus sailing away from the cyclops, he will simply have to tell you that it was him – he wants all the credit, you see, all the glory. He can’t have a quiet victory, not in the end. He has to taunt his opponent.

But he is willing to wait, at least sometimes, staying quite hidden. Ironically, things like possessions and infestations and apparitions are part of this overall strategy. By making so many people aware of his activity in these extraordinary phenomena, he deceives a great number: they think that this is the point of the Devil’s work, namely, to make things float around a room, to take control of someone’s body and mind, to make himself appear in fantastical shapes. Well, it isn’t. While we look at the “bright and shiny things,” our attention is diverted as the real goal is accomplished, slowly but surely – temptation leading to sin: a first-class encounter with the Devil. When one is really distracted, thinking not only that extraordinary manifestations of the Devil are first-class encounters, but that they are in fact the only encounters, one will likely not even recognize temptations to be temptations, thus not seeing sins to be sins. Game, set, match.

Finally, the one who does not believe in the Devil at all is likely to be quite firmly grasped in his wicked clutches – and one day, he will let that person know definitively who won his soul from God. And then they will be miserable together forever.

The truth is that the Devil is boring. Sin is boring too. God, and virtue which leads to God, are interesting when rightly seen, as their “horizon” is infinite love, while the Devil is just a creature, and sin leads only to creatures, all finite, many quite unloving. Friendship with the Infinite One – a first-class encounter with God, the life of charity – now that is worth more than a few hours at the cinema to sit back and enjoy… it is worth an eternity of fixation, and a life of self-sacrifice.

A “Spitting Image” of Obedience

Eamonn Clark

“The next time you see her, spit in her face.”

An extremely instructive story for those who are tempted to trust their own judgment in the spiritual life is related in Gerard de Frachet O.P.’s Lives of the Brethren (available online here). Over a 5 year period (about 1255-1260), De Frachet (d. 1271) collected stories from the earliest life of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), which stories were well-founded on eyewitness testimony, with many of the brothers who are in the stories still being alive at the time of composition. It contains some of the earliest biographical information of St. Dominic, Bl. Jordan of Saxony, and many other stories of miracles, extraordinary piety, and heroic virtue. The episode we are considering goes like this – from page 209 (Imperium Christi Press, trans. Conway), in Chapter 22 of Part V, titled “Impatience and Phantasms”:

“One of the brethren in the convent in Paris gave himself up entirely to prayer to the detriment of his studies and teaching. The devil was also in the habit of coming to him, feigning to be the blessed Virgin, at one time praising his state of soul, and at another revealing future events. The brother happened to mention this fact to Brother Peter of Rheims, who was prior at the time, and was advised to spit in the face of the phantom if it appeared again: ‘For if it be the blessed Virgin,’ said he, ‘she will not be vexed, being always most humble of heart, nay, she will excuse you on account of your obedience; while if it be the father of lies he will make off in confusion.’ The brother simply did what he was told and spat accordingly, upon which the devil roared in anger: ‘Curse upon you, where did you learn such gross manners!’ He went off ashamed of himself, and never ventured to come again.”

Let those taken in by interior assurances of piety and holiness beware… they are blind guides. Even exterior affirmations should be distrusted, and they should be rejected entirely when there is an objective problem (such as neglecting one’s duties, even for an outwardly pious motive). The most famous example of such radical self-distrust is perhaps that of St. Teresa of Avila, who would regularly see Christ in apparitions but would essentially ignore their content without approval from her director – she knew her director would not deceive her, while she was less sure if she was really encountering the Lord in her visions.

And should there ever be an experience – psychological, physical, mystical – which suggests that one go against the lawful and reasonable demands of one’s superiors (natural or ecclesiastical, including one’s spiritual director), let alone that one go against the teaching or demands of the Church, one can be assured that such a thing is not from God. (Cf. Gal. 1:8 – “But even if we or an angel from Heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!”) Such illusions should be rejected – they should be spat upon. Let’s have terrible manners with the demons… Maybe that sometimes means spitting on apparitions, but it always means being obedient to God, to His Church, and to all our legitimate superiors who represent them both.

Main image: Paris – the old convent church (Couvent St. Jacques) in which this incident occurred was destroyed in the first half of the 19th century.

Seven False Messiahs – Which one do you believe in too much?

Eamonn Clark

The little writing I have been able to do outside of normal work has recently been quite fruitful. Allow me to share a schema which identifies seven false messianic paradigms (or expectations of what the Christ is supposed to be or do)… We all gravitate toward one or more of these, and it is the task of the Gift of Understanding to correct these errors (crushing our little mental idols of God), leading us toward the truth rather than imitations of it.

The Messiah is not primarily about any of the following things: politics, rubrics, therapeutics, economics, theatrics, academics, or aesthetics. He is concerned with each, but only halfheartedly, as it were. One can easily identify an “antichristic” figure who would fulfill each of the seven the way we are inclined to desire… But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Politics – This is the paradigm which dominates the Gospels, and its zenith is found in Peter. The Messiah will throw off Roman rule and usher in an age of peace in Israel, and there will be a big Jewish party in Jerusalem. When Peter tells Jesus he is ready to die for Him, he really means it: he will die for this cause which he has fallaciously projected onto Jesus. When he discovers in the Garden of Gethsemane that the political Messiah is not Jesus, his whole world of hopes and dreams collapses – this is not the Messiah Peter signed up for. It is also not a Messiah which can be legitimately invoked to sanction any prudential legislation which a state might have to produce. The things that are God’s are God’s, the things that are Caesar’s are Caesar’s. The Christ does not deign to sanction public policy which exceeds the boundaries of the Ten Commandments – it is beneath Him.

Rubrics – The Pharisees will immediately come to mind with this word, “rubrics.” This is correct, but it is not sufficient… The thought that the Messiah is supposed to keep everyone in line extends beyond the Torah, written and oral, and into normal human behavior as well. Why does God allow people to do evil things? How can grace come through wicked ministers? Isn’t this what the Messiah is supposed to fix? No, no it is not. The Messiah is not these people, after all, and His glory is behind the cloud.

Therapeutics – The encounter with the rich young man is one example of a search for a Therapist-Messiah. Those who merely want the Christ to affirm them rather than challenge them are falling prey to this trap. The Messiah has not come to bring peace, but a sword. The world of discipleship is not a “safe space,” it is a continual high-stakes battle against sin and self-confrontation for the sake of deeper conversion of heart. “Spiritual but not religious” is the apex of this calamitous paradigm.

Economics – The crowds are like the Devil… They want the Messiah to turn stones into bread. The feeding of the 5,000 prompted the crowd to try to take Jesus away to make Him their king (John 6: 15). They are hoping for an endless Divine buffet, not of the Bread from Heaven, but of literal bread. It turns out that the Divine medical clinic was not in the cards either, though such arrangements would certainly have improved the temporal quality of life of, well, everyone. But civic works, as nice as they are, are not what the Christ has come for.

Theatrics – We’ve had the bread, so what about the circuses? Again like the Devil, the crowds always want a show. They want signs… meaning spectacular outward manifestations of Divine power. But this didn’t work for their forefathers in the Desert, and it will not work for them either, for miracles not only aren’t the point of the Messiah, they do not even of themselves suffice to create faith.

Academics – Those who regularly pray the Office of Readings might recall St. Francis Xavier’s scathing critique of the scholars in Paris… Surely, to turn the Christ into a mere object of study and intrigue is a deadly error. We might think of Herod as a prototype, who loved to listen to John the Baptist, but would not repent, and who longed to see Jesus for some time out of curiosity (which plugs into theatrics as well). The Messiah has not come simply to be an interesting point of debate, He has come for something greater. To reduce faith to study and learning is, therefore, a colossal error. Faith is the result of grace.

Aesthetics – Finally, we have a kind of catch-all error. In general, the Messiah has not come to create a certain kind of experience of God. “Stop holding on to me,” the Risen Lord tells the Magdalene… The Kingdom is not of this world, it is of eternity and consists in grace – it is a silent and invisible reality, at least for now. No fire or storm or earthquake is necessary. While we might point to some ancient errors and movements as examples of aesthetic errors, surely we can acknowledge some in our own day, such as certain attitudes which can surround the liturgy (with both libs and trads) or spiritual growth in general, such as I have discussed elsewhere. The Messiah is not about creating certain feelings or experiences, nice as those may be.

More false paradigms could possibly be added, though these will suffice for today. It is also a worthy endeavor to explore various combinations of these errors to see what kind of behavior and mindset they cause when working in tandem, such as with so-called “moralistic therapeutic deism“… But I will leave that to you the reader to do for yourself.

What, then, is the Messiah really about? In what does “messianics” really consist? Well, it is partially concerned with the 7 things above… But only indirectly. Christ is concerned with economics, for example, but it is not the primary mission. He is really concerned with how people relate with laws and protocol, but again, that is not the fundamental point.

The Messiah is Revelator and Redeemer. He gives us doctrine ordered to salvation, and then He actually offers us that salvation through Himself. All other activities of the Christ center around and are ordered to revelation and redemption – showing the way to God, or helping us to walk it. That road is narrow, but its gatekeeper is the real Christ… The wide road has a different gatekeeper, who also is concerned with politics, economics, and so on, albeit in a direct and fundamental way – it is the Devil, or the antichrist, wherein we see fine temporal “leadership,” but a terrible eternal friend.

Practical Chastity

Eamonn Clark

“Oh Lord, give me chastity and continence, but not yet!”

The words of a wizened St. Augustine, reflecting on the prayer of his younger heart, are deeply insightful. They reveal us to ourselves, no doubt, and they give us a hint as to the path forward in our own journey towards sanctity: we must become chaste now. Not next week, not tomorrow, not this Lent, but right this very moment. 

Where to start? Well, first it will be helpful to recognize that lust is a sin which must be faced by getting away from the delight toward which the passion moves. As St. Thomas says, some sins must be fled from due to the sweetness of their object, while some sins must be faced by meditation on the opposing good (like how the slothful person should consider the goodness of spiritual things and thus be more drawn to them). All this is to say, the first step on the road to chastity is to step away from the cliff. In other words, remove the occasion of sin, or at least make the occasion as weak as possible. Here are just a few suggestions to consider.

  1. Put the computer by the window, or in a common area, or use some monitoring program.
  2. Take cold showers.
  3. Avoid “attractive” people who are off-limits.
  4. If you must associate with such people, don’t drink alcohol around them.
  5. When tempted to unchastity, pray a rosary, or sing a pious hymn, and then make a decision about whether you still want to sin… You are quite likely to be repulsed at the thought.
  6. Go to bed tired, but more importantly, get out of bed when you wake up. No lazing around.
  7. Purge your life from things which remind you of or move you toward unchastity… images, books, music, etc.

But sometimes this isn’t enough. Sometimes the passion creeps up, and the fire burns, and you’ve done nothing to occasion it. Then what? Well, run away. And I mean this quite literally. You see, the urge to the preservation of the species (the sexual urge) is strong, but the urge to self-preservation is much greater. To put it another way, make yourself uncomfortable by some kind of ascesis – recovering from pain is much more urgent than the pursuit of pleasure. The body will work to get back to “equilibrium” before reaching for a further good.

  1. Physical exercise. Nobody ever had an unchaste thought after a hard work-out. This also releases endorphins. And endorphins make you happy.
  2. Fasting. The old penitential manuals recommend it as well!
  3. Some other acute (but minor) self-affliction, like holding your breath, biting your tongue, etc.

Beyond moderate ascetic practices, generally making yourself (ideally keeping yourself) busy is helpful. Even simply getting up and moving around can distract the body and mind enough to drive out temptation. On top of this, here are some more “spiritual” remedies…

  1. Laughter. As an overflow of a delight of the rational soul into the senses, laughter is an extremely effective cure for lust.
  2. Cultivating humility with respect to an off-limits “person of interest,” such as realizing that they almost certainly don’t have the same feelings for you and never will, and that they would be horrified if they knew your desires. Seeing as the entirety of the natural “social” pleasure annexed to carnal pleasure is derived from the ego, this can be huge.
  3. Frequenting the Sacraments, especially confession, addressing struggles openly and with special resolution to amend your life in this regard.
  4. Prayer, especially placing yourself under the protection of the Blessed Virgin, even in an urgent moment of temptation.
  5. Resisting despair. One of the “daughters” of lust is a deadening of any desire for spiritual goods (which can become full-blown acedia in addition to serious violations of the 6th Commandment). The pursuit of chastity can also be very difficult, and therefore frustrating. This means that hope, as both the desire for the good of Heaven and the trust that the necessary help will be given to reach it, is a fundamental enemy of lust, and it should be cultivated through prayer, spiritual reading, healthy friendships, and an unwavering confidence in God’s mercy and desire to satisfy those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Prophets in Israel

Eamonn Clark

A little prophetic history to mull over on your Monday…

When Israel entered Egypt, it took them 430 years to escape and get to Canaan. Solomon’s Temple is around for about 430 years. After the Exile, Malachi is the last of the prophets, for… about 430 years, up until John the Baptist (or arguably the ones giving us any of the Lucan canticles – but really John is the culmination of the prophetic tradition).

What does this mean? At least 3 things…

1 – God has a plan, and it involves patterns. Numerology is not necessarily “superstitious,” and it deserves serious consideration in the study of salvation history. God knows that we like patterns and that we are inclined to look for them and understand things by them, so it stands to reason that He would use them, just like other natural inclinations (like mythic archetypes, bodily communion, etc.)

2 – These ages are mirrors of each other in some way. I leave that for your own reflection… Deserts, places of prayer, spiritual patronage… and those things’ beginnings and ends.

3 – You can’t fake being a prophet in Israel. One would think that if you could, it would have happened at some point in 430 years. But it didn’t. Prophets were truly extraordinary teachers and preachers with the grace of God ensuring the success or at least the authority of their prophetic career.

True Myth Part 4: Jesus and the Tricksters

Eamonn Clark

Jumping ahead quite a bit in Scripture in our “true myth” series, today we will look at an incredibly powerful relationship between Jesus Christ and the “trickster archetype.”

Fans of the Baltimore Catechism will recall that God “neither deceives nor is deceived.” How then, could God incarnate fit into this paradigmatic role of the Trickster, occupied by deceptive figures such as Loki, Hades, various coyotes, ravens, and other such creatures – including serpents – throughout the history of mythology? These figures use trickery in order to gain power… What does Jesus have to do with this?

Without a full exploration of the ins and outs of the trickster paradigm, we can point out just a few commonalities which apply to Jesus:

  1. He is, in many ways, in between life and death. (See Levi-Strauss on this characteristic of tricksters qua mediators of life and death for more… think of how the animals which normally portray trickster characters are neither herbivores nor hunters but eat already dead animals…) Here are some examples of this “in between” space:
    1. The Baptism in the Jordan – in between the Nations (death) and Israel (life), in between the Sea of Galilee (full of fish and where He calls the first disciples) and the Dead Sea (…dead…), in the midst of the flourishing jungle but in the lowest part of planet Earth, and in water (which both gives and takes life).
    2. His first act after the Baptism – He goes out into the desert (to deal with a real trickster) in between Jericho, the city of sin and death, and Jerusalem, the city of spirit and life… This same space will be the setting for the story about the Good Samaritan (representing Himself), who picks up the half-dead (!) sojourner (Adam), of which He is the renewal.
    3. He touches the unclean (symbols of death) and gives healing/life – For example, the raising of the little girl in Mark 5, or the healing of the leper in Matthew 8.
    4. The Resurrection – Did He actually die? Is He really alive? Whatever the case, it’s clear that our sense of the “in between” is tapped into… The psychology of the uncanny valley is maxed out.
  2. He normally dwells on the outskirts of society, frequently retreating to the wilderness for solitude. Much of the 3 years of the public ministry is spent camping just near the Decapolis and other such places. Bethany is another place worth mentioning, as it is not quite in Jerusalem, but it is near it, where he raises Lazarus from the dead (more “in between” life and death imagery) and prepares for Passover for the last time… Gethsemane and Golgotha are also just outside Jerusalem.
  3. He claims the role of a gatekeeper to the underworld. (Even more death-life ambiguity.) “I hold the keys of life and death,” He says in Revelation 1:18. Or take John 10:9 – “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved,” or John 14:6, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
  4. He is a shapeshifter.
    1. The Resurrection – He is the same, but different. (More ambiguity!) The disciples can only half recognize Him, though the wounds give testimony that it really is the same man they knew. But He is changed somehow.
    2. The Eucharist – Jesus literally takes the shape of bread and wine.
    3. God has become a human being – certainly a kind of changing shape, albeit in a qualified sense.
  5. He cannot be contained or caught by the power of opponents. He passes through the crowd, or He hides effectively, as seen in many passages in the Gospels, such as the rejection at Nazareth in Luke 4. Instead, only He has the power to lay down His life… and take it up again (John 10:18).
  6. He does not often give direct answers. Instead, He speaks in parables, riddles, questions, and ambiguities. He arguably only directly answers 3 questions of the over 100 put to Him, and He arguably asks over 300.

Other “trickster” characteristics might be noted as well, such as spiritual power, unclear origins, and a preference for working in the midst of obscurity and chaos. What are we to make of all this?

It is that Jesus goes to the most “uncomfortable” place in our psychology and asks us, nonetheless, to trust Him. So one of the deepest parts of our mind, which is intuitively inclined to see the brokenness of the world, is “cured” by His reversal of the trickster archetype.

God “deceives” in a way by becoming human (thus not “looking like God,” as He did on Mount Sinai with fire and thunder), in order to gain the power of persuasion or condescension. But also, and perhaps in a deeper and plainer sense, God is not only reversing the trickster’s goal-paradigm but inverting it as well… Instead of deceiving to become powerful, God becomes weak in order to tell the truth.

 

Scripture and the Crisis – Part 3

Eamonn Clark

See Part 1 and Part 2. Today we look at the story of the Levite and his concubine at the end of the Book of Judges. Warning: do not read while eating.

Judges 19-20

In those days Israel had no king. [The chaos of Israel after Joshua’s death is ominously summed up in this line, which is repeated several times throughout the Book of Judges. It is a lawless land. Here, near the end of the age of the quasi-vigilantism of the Judges, we see moral corruption at its peak in a story which is perhaps the most gruesome of the entire Old Testament.]

Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. [The Levites were the sacred tribe which held no land of its own and from which all the priests came. What is this Levite doing in the wilderness, away from civilization? He is near the tabernacle at Shiloh but is not obviously personally dedicated to it. He certainly does not seem to be interested in the hermitage for the sake of private prayer… Why is he taking a half-wife from a city already known (from the previous chapters of Judges) to be a source of intense corruption of worship (namely, idolatry)? This shady situation already blurs some lines: the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the natural, and the conjugal and celibate. Nothing is immoral in itself so far, but we should expect trouble with such ambiguity and proximity to sin. And how we have allowed these same lines to be blurred in the past decades… It is no longer the flesh descendants of Levi, but the spiritual descendants of Melchizedek – the clergy – who have been wandering about, swinging close to sin, and blurring lines. Much of this also has to do with concern for proper worship.] But she was unfaithful to him. [An idolatrous hometown breeds unfaithfulness – go figure.] She left him and went back to her parents’ home in Bethlehem, Judah. After she had been there four months, her husband went to her to persuade her to return. He had with him his servant and two donkeys. She took him into her parents’ home, and when her father saw him, he gladly welcomed him.  His father-in-law, the woman’s father, prevailed on him to stay; so he remained with him three days, eating and drinking, and sleeping there.

On the fourth day they got up early and he prepared to leave, but the woman’s father said to his son-in-law, “Refresh yourself with something to eat; then you can go.” So the two of them sat down to eat and drink together. Afterward the woman’s father said, “Please stay tonight and enjoy yourself.” And when the man got up to go, his father-in-law persuaded him, so he stayed there that night. On the morning of the fifth day, when he rose to go, the woman’s father said, “Refresh yourself. Wait till afternoon!” So the two of them ate together.

Then when the man, with his concubine and his servant, got up to leave, his father-in-law, the woman’s father, said, “Now look, it’s almost evening. Spend the night here; the day is nearly over. Stay and enjoy yourself. Early tomorrow morning you can get up and be on your way home.” 10 But, unwilling to stay another night, the man left and went toward Jebus (that is, Jerusalem), with his two saddled donkeys and his concubine. [The inconstancy of the Levite, triggered by a desire for food and drink, for rest, and for pleasing his concubine’s father, ends in imprudent haste. Such closeness with the world will lead to bad decision-making, it seems, where the darkness will come quickly, bringing trouble with it.]

11 When they were near Jebus and the day was almost gone, the servant said to his master, “Come, let’s stop at this city of the Jebusites and spend the night.”

12 His master replied, “No. We won’t go into any city whose people are not Israelites. We will go on to Gibeah.” 13 He added, “Come, let’s try to reach Gibeah or Ramah and spend the night in one of those places.” [Jebus – Jerusalem – was at that point not yet a Jewish city. The Levite’s insistence on staying among the children of Israel signals a kind of piety, but also a false sense of security. “As long as we are with God’s chosen people, we will be alright.”] 14 So they went on, and the sun set as they neared Gibeah in Benjamin.15 There they stopped to spend the night. They went and sat in the city square, but no one took them in for the night. [Recall how the angels visiting Lot were also going to stay in the square. Nobody is on the lookout anymore.]

16 That evening an old man from the hill country of Ephraim, who was living in Gibeah (the inhabitants of the place were Benjamites), came in from his work in the fields. 17 When he looked and saw the traveller in the city square, the old man asked, “Where are you going? Where did you come from?” [The perfect set of questions for the Church these days, especially the hierarchy.]

18 He answered, “We are on our way from Bethlehem in Judah to a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim where I live. I have been to Bethlehem in Judah and now I am going to the house of the Lord. No one has taken me in for the night. 19 We have both straw and fodder for our donkeys and bread and wine for ourselves your servants—me, the woman and the young man with us. We don’t need anything.” [Notice the strangeness of the Levite’s answer… Is he going to Ephraim’s hill country, or to the tabernacle at Shiloh? He apparently complains that nobody has provided hospitality, but then says he doesn’t need anything. As we have seen already, he is a confused man.]

20 “You are welcome at my house,” the old man said. “Let me supply whatever you need. Only don’t spend the night in the square.” 21 So he took him into his house and fed his donkeys. After they had washed their feet, they had something to eat and drink. [Quite the partier this Levite is.]

22 While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.” [Like the men of Sodom, they are opportunists, but they are also homosexuals. The two dispositions are not caused by each other, but evidently, they exacerbate each other.]

23 The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this outrageous thing. 24 Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But as for this man, don’t do such an outrageous thing.” [This is almost exactly the same as the episode in Sodom. But now watch the turn…]

25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine [the one who had motivated the whole journey he is on, whom he went to retrieve 4 months after her unfaithfulness!] and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. [The men are so full of lust that they are placated by this woman being put in their midst. The Levite’s willingness to do this, however, does not seem to be quite the same as the owner of the house. We do not hear a complaint from the Levite – perhaps he is just a coward. He is half-hearted and uncertain, as we have seen throughout the whole story, except when it comes to protecting himself. Even though he would have been overcome by the mob, he at least could have made his concerns known. After all, the sacred caste has a special duty to speak out against evil! Why is it not the Levite who is exhorting and castigating the mob?] 26 At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.

27 When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. [How many victims of abuse are captured by this image? Longing for safety and acceptance, only to have become so weakened that they can merely lay at the threshold.] 28 He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” [See the pastoral skills of the Levite at work.] But there was no answer. [Now comes the turning point…] Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home. [The realization that his half-beloved has been killed seems to move him to mercy. About a thousand years later, Christ will tell a story in which a Levite fails to pick up a man only half-dead for fear of being made unclean. Only now does the Levite begin to be “serious” about loving, and in a way it is too late… But what he lacks in timeliness, he arguably makes up for in grotesque theatricality.]

29 When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel. 30 Everyone who saw it was saying to one another, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Just imagine! We must do something! So speak up!” [And this is what we have seen happen. The effects of abuse have been sent around the Earth, in all its graphic nature. The nations are horrified and enraged, and rightly so. In our day, it is arguably worse, as it was not a group of Levites who abused the woman but other men. How much more intense might the reaction of Israel have been if such a thing had happened in the shadow of the tabernacle at Shiloh…]

(20) 1Then all Israel from Dan to Beersheba and from the land of Gilead came together as one and assembled before the Lord in Mizpah. The leaders of all the people of the tribes of Israel took their places in the assembly of God’s people, four hundred thousand men armed with swords. (The Benjamites heard that the Israelites had gone up to Mizpah.) Then the Israelites said, “Tell us how this awful thing happened.”

So the Levite, the husband of the murdered woman, said, “I and my concubine came to Gibeah in Benjamin to spend the night. During the night the men of Gibeah came after me and surrounded the house, intending to kill me. They raped my concubine, and she died. I took my concubine, cut her into pieces and sent one piece to each region of Israel’s inheritance, because they committed this lewd and outrageous act in Israel. Now, all you Israelites, speak up and tell me what you have decided to do.”

All the men rose up together as one, saying, “None of us will go home. No, not one of us will return to his house. But now this is what we’ll do to Gibeah: We’ll go up against it in the order decided by casting lots.

12 The tribes of Israel sent messengers throughout the tribe of Benjamin, saying, “What about this awful crime that was committed among you? 13 Now turn those wicked men of Gibeah over to us so that we may put them to death and purge the evil from Israel.” [Again, like we’ve seen in the two other passages we’ve looked at before, the penalty which is seen as appropriate is extreme – but so too has the evil been extreme.]

But the Benjamites would not listen to their fellow Israelites. [One might be inclined to say that they don’t want to go down the rabbit hole on this.] 14 From their towns they came together at Gibeah to fight against the Israelites. 15 At once the Benjamites mobilized twenty-six thousand swordsmen from their towns, in addition to seven hundred able young men from those living in Gibeah. 16 Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred select troops who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss. [We see now two groups – the Benjamites, who don’t seem to think that retribution for a crime is all that important when it concerns men of their own kin, and the men of Gibeah themselves, the one who actually perpetrated the crime. They are now defended by many armed men, including highly skilled warriors – who shoot from the “sinister” hand.]

17 Israel, apart from Benjamin, mustered four hundred thousand swordsmen, all of them fit for battle. [They have far more men, but Benjamin is more greatly invested in victory… Their own existence seems to be on the line.]

18 The Israelites went up to Bethel and inquired of God. They said, “Who of us is to go up first to fight against the Benjamites?”

The Lord replied, “Judah shall go first.”

…(the Benjamites kill 22,000, then 18,000 in a series of battles commanded by the Lord – they pray and fast and weep and ask again if they should go up)…

The Lord responded, “Go, for tomorrow I will give them into your hands.” [God has desired the fighting to occur even though He knew Benjamin would cut down so many good men. But now, God will fight on the side of the good guys.]

29 Then Israel set an ambush around Gibeah. 30 They went up against the Benjamites on the third day and took up positions against Gibeah as they had done before. 31 The Benjamites came out to meet them and were drawn away from the city. They began to inflict casualties on the Israelites as before, so that about thirty men fell in the open field and on the roads—the one leading to Bethel and the other to Gibeah. 32 While the Benjamites were saying, “We are defeating them as before,” the Israelites were saying, “Let’s retreat and draw them away from the city to the roads.” [Benjamin is lulled into a false sense of security by their apparent dominance, then this arrogance is capitalized on by the other tribes. What exactly such a strategy would look like today, I do not know.]

33 All the men of Israel moved from their places and took up positions at Baal Tamar, and the Israelite ambush charged out of its place on the west of Gibeah. 34 Then ten thousand of Israel’s able young men made a frontal attack on Gibeah. The fighting was so heavy that the Benjamites did not realize how near disaster was. 35 The Lord defeated Benjamin before Israel, and on that day the Israelites struck down 25,100 Benjamites, all armed with swords. 36 Then the Benjamites saw that they were beaten. [Ultimately, the victory belongs to God. And it will come unexpectedly and swiftly.]

The Israelites go on to destroy all the cities and towns of Benjamin, although a small remnant of Benjamin escapes alive, not only because no tribe can be entirely snuffed out among Israel, but also as a reminder that evil can never truly be entirely rooted out in this life. The Levite’s lack of good sense is what occasioned all of this, however. While he is not the perpetrator of the abuse himself, he could have taken many steps to avoid such a catastrophe. There are many lessons here for clerical culture – the importance of clear boundaries and categories in relationships, dedication to frequent and right worship, a clear sense of purpose and personal identity, appropriate distance from worldly pleasures, careful decision-making, and courage to speak out against evil – even, sometimes, in the face of the mob.

Next time, we’ll look at some of the personal psychology involved in abuse… Be sure to subscribe to be notified!