Readings: Micah 5:1-4; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-44
We are surely all familiar and comfortable with the notion that increasing holiness deepens and heightens sensitivity to the presence of the divine and the sacred within the situations of our every day lives. Accordingly, spiritual oblivion and a fundamental insensitivity to the presence of God in our daily lives are typically symptoms of an unspiritual life absorbed in the superficialities of this passing world. However, to be largely oblivious of God and unaware of the sacred in everyday life does not necessarily mean that one is especially evil. On the contrary, increasing evilness can paradoxically heighten the sensitivity to the presence of the divine but in a markedly different manner to that of a truly holy person. For whereas the presence and closeness of the divine is a source of consolation, joy, and gratitude to the holy, it is a source of terror, anguish, distress, and abhorrence to the truly evil person.
Saintliness heightening sensitivity to the presence of the divine is clearly illustrated in today’s gospel telling of the still unborn John the Baptist leaping for joy at the arrival of Mary bearing within her the Incarnate Son of God. The saintly Elizabeth, too, filled with the Holy Spirit recognizes the presence of the divine in Mary exclaiming: How does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? A similar sensitivity to the divine is manifested in the persons of Simeon and Anna who later would recognize the divinity radiating from the infant Jesus being brought to the temple by Mary and Joseph. And when that infant had become a man about to embark on his public ministry it was once again John the Baptist who would recognize him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Evilness as paradoxically heightening sensitivity to the divine is illustrated several times in the gospels where demons recognize Jesus for who he truly is. One thinks, for example, of that incident in the synagogue when a demon speaking through the man it had possessed anxiously asks: What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are–the Holy One of God! However, between the very holy and the very evil is where we locate the vast majority of the crowds and even disciples who had little inkling of his true identity. Even Peter, who declared Jesus to be the Son of God, did so only because, in the words of Jesus, the Father revealed the truth to him.
And so because we probably find ourselves numbered among this majority we might draw encouragement from the thought that our limited and poor ability to recognize the presence of God in the daily situations of our lives is not necessarily all bad news! For although it confirms that we are not yet holy and perfectly redeemed, it also suggests that we are not totally evil–for it would seem that it requires either great holiness or great evil to be fully and constantly aware of the divine. This is obviously not an invitation to complacency or spiritual inaction, because our location somewhere on this continuum between great holiness and great evil is never static and there can be no spiritual neutrality–as Jesus warned, whoever is not for me is against me, while Saint Bernard cautions that not to advance is inevitably to regress. Instead of remaining static, the moral quality of our daily lives and the choices we are making at every moment are nudging us ever so gradually but inexorably towards either greater holiness or greater evil.
And because the presence and closeness of the divine is a source of consolation, joy, and gratitude in the holy, and a source of anguish, distress, and abhorrence to the truly evil person, we who are neither can often be bewildered and discouraged by the intermingling of the good and evil in our hearts. For as we struggle and stumble towards the light and away from the darkness, our experience of the divine is a sometimes confusing blend of spiritual consolation and inner suffering. Consolation is those regions of our hearts already yielded to God and purified by the life-giving Spirit, but suffering in those unpurified and rebellious regions of our hearts still under the sway of the evil one.
And then there are those times when consolation and suffering seem to merge into each other and we enter into that paralyzing state that the spiritual masters term acedia. This so-called Noonday Devil envelops us in the distressing experience of spiritual boredom and even aversion for things spiritual and holy–suggesting that we have become evil. However, if we are headed towards the light and not into eternal darkness, this acedia causes great distress and anxiety. So too our pain and suffering are tempered with deep sorrow for our sins and distress at our distance from the holy and not–as in the case with demons–repugnance and loathing in the presence of the holy and divine.
In these remaining few days of Advent then let us take time to review our spiritual journey as it has unfolded over this last year and attempt to ascertain whether the priorities we have set for ourselves, the moment-by-moment choices we make, the nature and quality of our thoughts, words and actions, are steps taking us towards the light or back into the darkness from which the Incarnate Son of God came to rescue us. And in realizing our distance from that light let us not despair but pray with Saint Augustine: Lo, I love you Lord, but if my love is too mean, let me love you more passionately. I cannot gauge my love, nor know how far it fails, how much more I need for my life to set its course straight into your arms, never swerving until hidden in the covert of your face. This alone I know, that without you all to me is misery, woe outside myself and woe within, and all wealth penury, if it is not my God.