Letter to Robinson K. Russo a young seminarian, continued…
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)
As a priest, you will be in constant danger of thinking that your struggle is against the parish council, the finance committee and the diocesan bureaucracy. It is not. Our struggle is against the devil. In his brilliant book, “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis has the devil calling human beings, “amphibians.” We live like frogs on the edge of the pond. We, like the frogs, live in two worlds. They live in water and on the land. We live in a spiritual realm and a physical realm. It is much easier to live on the land, quite frankly. You can see what’s out there more easily and travel becomes simply backward and forward sort of arrangement; whereas in the water, vision may be obscured, and opportunities as well as dangers are much more omni-directional.
So it with us, especially us priests. The visible world is much easier to deal with. The devil will try to convince us that the real work of the priesthood is dealing with baptisms, weddings and funerals (called the hatch, match and dispatch part of the business) we get the ceremonies done with as little hassle as possible. It always amazes me that people will complain to the proper authority, meaning the bishop if they were unhappy with your “performance.” (I am not making this up. A person, not a parishioner, not even a Catholic, used that exact word in a letter to the bishop regarding a funeral I offered.) You will fight with wedding planners who want the bride brought down the aisle in a chariot drawn by llamas, and you will fight with the mother of the bride who wants the llamas to remain in the sanctuary during the Mass. (This part I am making up, but not by much.)
Above all, the devil will want you to believe that the most important thing you will do is go to meetings. For some reason bureaucrats think that going to meetings is real work. They will plan endless meetings that you will be expected to attend. The devil will gradually convince you that there is nothing spiritual about the priesthood, by having you forget that he even exists. Again, C. S. Lewis:
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”
You will get some very strange people who think that everything is going bump in the night. I remember a woman who was absolutely frantic about being attacked by demon-possessed birds. They would charge at her windows and terrify her. I explained that male birds will charge their own reflection during mating season and that nothing supernatural was going on. She was not convinced.
On the other hand, you will meet people who, when they see someone floating five feet over a bed will insist that there is just a strong updraft in the room. The middle position is the correct one. Part of the job of the priest is to be a little skeptical about spiritual phenomena. A little skeptical, just a little. We usually become so skeptical that if a miracle or a demon came up and bit us in the ankle, we wouldn’t notice it.
That’s just where the devil wants the clergy. He wants us firmly planted on our fundamental fundament, and never on our knees. There is a saying, “Whom the devil cannot make bad he makes busy.” I would change it slightly for the clergy, Whom the devil would make bad he would first make busy.
I am a lousy prayer. There is so much else I have to do. God is very patient. When I come late to prayer, and spend only a little time, the Lord never gets mad. On the other hand, the people who so want you to see things the way they seem things will get very huffy if you are late for their event, or only spend a little while at it. The Almighty usually gets the leftovers in my life, because, oddly, the All Powerful never insists on having His own way – unlike the head of the parish llama herding committee.
The worst is the late-night party. People will invite you to an event that starts at 8:00 PM. They will expect you to stay until midnight. No mind that you must be up at 5:30 AM to be awake for a 6:30 AM Mass at which you will be expected to preach a reasonably coherent, but very brief, sermon. They will say, “But father, it’s only once in a blue moon.” For them maybe. For you it happens a few times a week. There are birthdays, there are anniversaries, there is the arrival of the Nouveau Beaujolais. Most people celebrate the great events in the lives of ten or twenty people. You will have a family of thousands. That’s at least three or four birthdays a day. They will expect you to get just a little tipsy to help them celebrate the great event. That means you will need treatment for alcohol or liver failure or maybe both in pretty short order.
Once Jesus was asked, “What is the work of God?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:29) Remember that the Greek word in question is “pisteuein.” To believe in modern English primarily means “to be of an opinion” the word in the text of scripture, “pisteuein” primarily means to trust. The Christian’s first task is to trust Jesus.
How do you learn to trust someone? By getting to know them. Time spent in the study of Scripture and time spent on one’s knees before the Blessed Sacrament is the great task of the priest. If you have no spiritual power, what can you give a world ensnared by the devil? There is a great deal of talk these days about accompanying the people. What good is my company, if Christ does not accompany me? The great work of the priest is accomplished in prayer; and the world, the flesh, and the devil will conspire to keep you from prayer, and for the most part I go happily along with them, forgetting the incredible power that waits for me in prayer.
To be continued.