Fr. Dan Ruff, S.J. – Pastor
Old St. Joseph’s Church
4th Sunday of OT–B, 6:30 p.m., 2-1-09
We don’t see a lot of exorcisms these days. Instead, we have prescription drugs for treating epilepsy. We also have psychiatrists and psychologists who will prescribe mood elevators and then help us to talk away our neuroses and psychoses at the cost of $150 per 50-minute hour. (And please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying: I am all in favor of mood elevating drugs and psychotherapy, and I am grateful to live in a time when both are available and quite readily accepted.) These days, it seems to be a small handful of folks who are either old-fashioned or truly desperate who still look to the clergy for help. A few Roman Catholics may actually still use the sacrament of reconciliation.
But my point in all this is that we still have “demons” that want exorcising. Oh, sure, we don’t necessarily believe in little red imps with cloven hoofs, horns, and a forked tail. But even in the 16th century, St. Ignatius Loyola– who did believe in such literal devils – acknowledged that some of our “interior movements” which drive our decisions, our moods, and our actions, can originate from our own battle-seared psyche. And among the most powerful and prevalent of these demons is fear.
Some of us are afraid of heights. Others are afraid of crowds. Many of us fear failure. In the wake of the tragedies of September 11, 2001, some of us came to fear Muslims and even persons of color indiscriminately. To a point, that fear helped to entangle us in two complicated and terribly costly wars. Looking closer to the present day, fear is a powerful factor driving our current economic woes. An Associated Press headline yesterday announced: “Stocks stumble as investors fear worsening economy.”
Again, don’t misunderstand me. Fear is a human emotion, and like every other human emotion, it is neither right nor wrong – it just IS. Fear happens – just as sadness, gladness, and anger happen. Furthermore, fear has an important and useful function – it is built into us to help keep us alive. It is ancient, primal, and instinctual. When we are alone in the house at night and we hear a loud bang downstairs, our heart speeds up and our pupils dilate (so that we can see better in the dark). Our brain sends adrenaline and glucose to our muscles and they tense up, poised for fight or flight. Our attention is diverted from the TV show we’re watching or the book we are reading – for the moment, our energies are all focused on figuring out, “What was that noise?”
Luckily, we also have a rational mind which generally gets engaged simultaneously with our self-protective instincts. While all the rest of what I just described is happening automatically, without our conscious control, our conscious rational mind is thinking, “Hmm, well, I locked all three locks and bolted the two bolts on the door, and I armed the house alarm system. Also, the last fifteen times I heard a noise like that, it turned out to be the wind rattling the outer screen door. Let me just grab this fireplace poker – just in case – and go investigate. But odds are pretty good that it’s the wind and the screen door again.”
This is an example, brothers and sisters, of normal, healthy fear. Better to have checked cautiously to see if it WAS a burglar this time, only to find out that it WAS the wind again. Better, that is, than blithely assuming it was the wind and getting clonked on the head by a burglar. So fear is a natural and good thing when it’s properly integrated and managed. The problem is when it becomes irrational and keeps us from living life.
A minor example. When she was a little girl, my mother had a close encounter with a cat. The animal – for who knows what reason – jumped off a fence and onto my mother. Maybe the cat wasn’t even hostile. Maybe it wanted affection, or maybe it was scared and couldn’t get down from the fence. In any case, my mom interpreted it as hostile, and her felt experience was that the cat was coming at her to claw her head and her face. Until her death at the age of 79, my mom had a fear of and an aversion to cats. And her early scare was powerful enough to extend her aversion to dogs, as well. Oh, sure, she learned to manage the fear so that she didn’t automatically run from the room when a dog or cat was present. She even learned to live with a family dog for many years – to let it out to and back in from the yard, to feed it, and so on. But the point is, her first instinct throughout her life remained to react to domestic animals with fear and suspicion. Wired way down into her unconscious was a defensive response – a default (and largely untrue) expectation that any encounter with a dog or cat was going to be unpleasant and potentially harmful. Had she lived on her own, she would certainly have never owned a dog or a cat.
This is a minor example of unhealthy fear – one which limits choices and constricts a person’s life. This fear of my mother’s was relatively innocuous, because you can certainly live a fairly full life without loving cats and dogs. But what if you are terrified of crowds? Suddenly you can’t ride a bus or a train at rush hour. You can’t go shopping on Black Friday; you can’t go the ballet or to a Broadway show or a rock concert or a football game. And why? Because you suffer from the acronym meaning of “fear” – False Expectations Appearing Real. You end up not living a big part of a full and joyous life because of fear that is based in falsehood. And Satan, of couse, is a liar and the Father of Lies – so we’re back again to the demons. Fear in itself is not sinful; but the Evil One can use it to rob us of our joy and our freedom.
The God of the Bible was and is acutely aware of this. I recently learned that some evangelical Christians claim that it the Bible says, “Fear not,” or “Do not be afraid” some 365 times. I couldn’t find an itemized list, so I can’t say whether or not the number is literally accurate. But I know – and you know, just from listening in Church – that God says “Fear not” many, many times throughout the scriptures, and especially in and through Jesus. We heard it today in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Christians: “I should like you to be free of anxieties.” And here, Paul goes to the spiritual core of it. He says that the Corinthians shouldn’t be distracted by temporal fears, but in faith, they should keep their eyes fixed on Jesus and his promise of eternal life.
If we believe, as we say we do, that God created us in love and sustains us in love… if we believe, as Jesus tells us, that he intends for his joy to be in us and for that joy to be complete… if we believe, as the first letter of John tells us, that God first loved us, and that “perfect” love of God “drives out fear”… then why should we be afraid of anything – including death itself?
When the man named Jairus approaches Jesus in the Gospel of Luke to beg for Jesus’ help because the man’s 12-year old daughter is dying, Jesus tells him: “Do not be afraid; just have faith and she will be saved.” Mind you, it is not easy to have that kind of faith – especially when your daughter, whom you love, is dying. So I don’t mean lightly to suggest that whenever our fears are crippling us, we can just sweat and strain and muster up that kind of faith on our own. Our only choice, in fact, is to follow the advice of St. Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises – “I will ask for what I desire.” There is another loving father later in the Gospel of Mark – one whose son’s seizures and convulsions are caused either by a demon or by epilepsy, depending on how you read it. Anyway, I think this father gets it right when he cries out spontaneously to Jesus: “I do believe; help my unbelief!”
So let’s bow our heads and pray that prayer, right here and right now, this evening. “Lord Jesus, we do believe. We believe that you want us to live with zest and with joy – not possessed and crippled and disabled by irrational fears. We do believe, Lord – even as we ask you to help our unbelief. We are children of the resurrection. We believe, although we have not seen with our physical eyes, that you commended your spirit into your Father’s hands on the cross – and by surrendering to death, you conquered it once for all, becoming Lord of all life. We believe in the message of this Eucharist we celebrate – that handing yourself over for us to consume does not diminish your risen life and real presence, but rather increases life and grace within us. Help us, Lord, to trust above all in your love and care. Free us from the demons of anxiety, worry, and fear; cast them out by your abundant love freely poured out for us. Teach us more and more to live in joy, peace, and freedom, so that our lives may bear witness to your good news of hope in sometimes dark and scary world. We pray this in your holy name, Jesus, you who live and reign with the Father and the Spirit, now and forever. Amen.”
©2009 Fr. Dan Ruff, S.J.