God’s Gentle Whisper
By Dan Clendenin
From Our Archives
This week I caught a second case of COVID. In my first case, I eventually tested negative on Day 10, but then I tested positive again on Day 14. I suspect that I’m a case of “Paxlovid Rebound” (see article below).
During my first quarantine, I struggled with lethargy and fatigue. The one silver lining was that I circled back and re-read some of the fourth-century ascetics who fled the cities of Egypt for the silence of the desert. The monks reminded me of an important truth about the Christian life — in the words of Saint Anthony (251–356), “expect trials until your last breath.” In fact, this wisdom comes straight from the readings for this week.
In Psalm 42, the cynic taunts the psalmist: “My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’ Why are you downcast, O my soul, why so disturbed within me? Lord, why have you forgotten and rejected me?”
When Jezebel threatened to murder Elijah in 1 Kings 19, he knew better than to trifle with political power. It was not an idle threat, and so “he was afraid and ran for his life.” Scared to death and on the run, Elijah hid in a cave and prayed to die. “I have had enough,” he told God.
In Luke 8, a nameless man was exiled to the margins of society. He was filthy and naked in public. He couldn’t control his speech. He was so violent that people couldn’t come near him. All attempts to restrain him failed. He exhibited a common form of self-harm even today — self-mutilation. The etiology of the day added it all up and called it demon possession.
“My name is Legion!” he screamed, “for we are many.” Tortured in body, mind, and spirit, the Gerasene embodied the totality of human suffering, for a Roman “legion” consisted of 5,000 soldiers.
The story is so disturbing that Matthew’s condensed version doesn’t even mention that Jesus healed the man. Rather, all three synoptic gospels emphasize the people’s fear of Jesus and anger at their economic loss. When they saw this afflicted man completely healed, and the drowned pigs, “all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear.”
Like the wisdom of Saint Anthony, and these three readings, there’s also the famous first paragraph of The Road Less Traveled (1978) by the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck — “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.”
In some ways, each one of us could say, “My name is Legion.” We’re all a mysterious mixture of powerful influences that we did not choose — nature, nurture, geography, and culture. Add to that our own free will that interacts with the loving providence of God.
Our wisest guides also observe that there are many things that we don’t understand about ourselves. “I do not understand what I do,” Paul wrote to his readers in Rome. To the Corinthians he said that his life was full of “conflicts without and fears within.”
Consider these two examples.
One of the monastics that I re-read last week was John Cassian (360–435). He traveled from his home in Romania to join a monastery in Bethlehem, made two extended visits to the monasteries of Egypt, and then spent time in Constantinople. Cassian later settled back in Marseilles, where he founded two monasteries, and wrote three books. His Conferences and Institutes chronicle the riches of early monasticism based upon his eyewitness accounts, and in so doing Cassian transplanted the movement to the West.
Cassian is effusive in his admiration for the monks, but he’s also remarkably candid. Exactly what did those eccentric Christians discover when they fled the corruptions of the city to the loneliness of the desert? In short and in sum, they experienced a raging battle in the cacophony of the human heart, a veritable “legion” of disturbing inner voices. In battling their inner “thoughts,” the monks pursued a sort of spiritual paradox: greater self-awareness and less self-consciousness.
Cassian wonders aloud, “Why is it that superfluous thoughts insinuate themselves into us so subtly and hiddenly when we do not even want them, and indeed do not even know of them, that it is very difficult not only to cast them out but even to understand them and to catch hold of them?”
And that’s only the beginning. Here’s a grocery list of the struggles that Cassian observed among the monks that I underlined in his two books — boredom, lethargy, sleeplessness, bad dreams, impulsive urges, self-justification, self-deception, seething anger about trivial matters, sexual fantasies, pious pretense that masked as virtue, clerical ambition, crushing despair, confusion, wild mood swings, flattery, vanity, and lust. Why, he wondered, would a monk give up great wealth to enter the monastery, and then get angry over a pen or a pin?
These are the “legion” of struggles that we do know and can identify, says Cassian. But there are also “many [other] things that lie hidden in my conscience which are known and manifest to God, even though they may be unknown and obscure to me.”
Cassian embraces our human brokenness “without any obfuscating embarrassment.” He never “despises anyone in belittling fashion” for their struggles. These monks were brutally realistic about “the flighty wandering of the human mind,” but they were also unfailingly compassionate because of it.
Mother Teresa (1910–1997) is rightly honored for how she embraced the material poverty of the poor. But that was only part of her call, and perhaps not even the most important part. She also entered into the spiritual darkness of the poor. That’s the theme of her controversial book Come Be My Light that shocked both her admirers and critics. Published in 2007 to coincide with the tenth anniversary of her death, in letter after letter Mother Teresa describes in excruciating detail the spiritual darkness that plagued her for fifty years. She begged that these letters never be published.
She describes her interior struggles as an absence of God’s presence — an emptiness, loneliness, pain, spiritual dryness, or lack of consolation. “There is so much contradiction in my soul, no faith, no love, no zeal… I find no words to express the depths of the darkness… My heart is so empty… so full of darkness… I don’t pray any longer. The work holds no joy, no attraction, no zeal… I have no faith, I don’t believe.”
And what about her famously calm demeanor? “The smile is a big cloak that covers a multitude of pains… my cheerfulness is a cloak by which I cover the emptiness and misery… I deceive people with this weapon.” She repeatedly admitted to her confessors that she felt like a “shameless hypocrite” for teaching one thing while experiencing something far different in her own life.
Beyond addressing the material poverty of the poor, there’s this second sign of Mother Teresa’s sainthood: “If I’m going to be a saint, I’m going to be a saint of darkness, and I’ll be asking from heaven to be the light of those who are in darkness on Earth.” Mother Teresa eventually concluded that her spiritual darkness was not an obstacle to her call from God to serve the poor, but instead central to that call. In her own darkness she identified with the poor, and shared in the sufferings of Christ himself, who on the cross screamed in agony at the abandonment of God.
When Jezebel threatened to murder Elijah, he rightly feared for his life. After fleeing to the desert with a death wish, angels rescued him and sent him back to Horeb, to “the mountain of God” where Moses received the Ten Commandments. At Horeb he entered a cave where “the word of the Lord” spoke to him.
God spoke to Elijah, but not like he expected. Standing on Horeb, a “great and powerful wind” blasted the mountain and shattered the rocks, “but the Lord was not in the wind.” An earthquake shook the earth, “but the Lord was not in the earthquake.” Fire scorched the land, “but the Lord was not in the fire.”
After these dramatic acts of nature, “there came a gentle whisper.”
In that faint but discernible whisper God spoke to Elijah. And perhaps that’s how he speaks to us today, despite the Total Noise from our culture, and the “legion” of voices inside our heads: “Do not fear, I am with you. You are mine. I have called you by name. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”
Mary Elizabeth Coleridge (1861–1907)
Sunshine let it be or frost,
Storm or calm, as Thou shalt choose;
Though Thine every gift were lost,
Thee Thyself we could not lose.
Mary Elizabeth Coleridge was a British novelist and poet.
NOTE: See “The Mystery of Why Covid-19 Rebounds in Some Patients Who Take Paxlovid” (JAMA, June 8, 2022).
Dan Clendenin: firstname.lastname@example.org
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