“The Worm That Gnaws the World”––Trump and the Problem of Evil

Dis gnaws the traitors in the pit of hell (Inferno 34), Codex Altonensis, Pisa, c. 1385.

Trump will eat your soul in small bites.

–– James Comey

What could I say, what could I do to help this wounded creature whose life seemed to be flowing away from some secret hurt?

–– Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest

 

In his timely essay on “The Psychology of Evil,” Frank Batavick summarizes M. Scott Peck’s diagnosis of evil as a personality disorder:

“Evil individuals programatically indulge in scapegoating, blaming personal problems or the problems of society on someone else or another class of people. That’s because the evil parties consider themselves above reproach and must deny their own badness. By lashing out against others and saying they see evil in them, they are able to transfer their guilt. Evil people are also unable to assume the viewpoint of their victims, and so they lack empathy for the hurt they have caused with their cruel words and deeds.”

Such “malignant narcissists” reject all criticism and repress all self-doubt. They cannot bear the pain of introspection. As “people of the lie,” they deceive themselves as well as everybody else. Their own will trumps all others, and they take no responsibility for the damage they do. As Peck put it, “It is said ‘neurotics make themselves miserable; those with character disorders make everyone else miserable.'” [i]

Our country was poorly prepared for such an “evil” person to be given the power of the Presidency. So far Trump has paid little price for defying norms and breaking laws. And his 10,000 lies (since being elected) go largely uncontradicted in the media, which simply repeat them without correction 65% of the time [ii], amplifying his corrosive disinformation many times over. Corruption, collusion, federal child abuse, a shameless war on the poor, the strangling of democracy, and the ravaging of planet earth are all met with a shrug by craven Senators and 40% of the electorate. Even our best-intentioned leaders lack effective means to contain the raging fires of fascism, tribal hatred, and climate suicide.

What’s going on now, what’s driving us all to the brink, seems more than one man’s “personality disorder.” It may be too late for therapy. We need an exorcism.

“The world of evil is so far beyond our understanding!” says Georges Bernanos’ fictional country priest. “Does the Monster [Satan] care that there should be one criminal more or less? Immediately he sucks down the crime into himself, makes it one with his own horrible substance, digests without once rousing from his terrifying eternal lethargy.”[iii]

Bernanos’ image of evil as an eater of souls, a black hole sucking everyone’s crime into its own “horrible substance” seems disturbingly apt for these times. None of us is exempt from its gravitational pull. Even as we resist its malignancy, we risk being tainted by it, feeding it with our own fascinated loathing. Gaze at it too long and your own heart turns to stone.

As Bernanos’ priest warns a young woman whose hatred for her father’s mistress is eating her own soul:

Who are you to condemn another’s sin? He who condemns sin becomes part of it, espouses it. You hate this woman and feel yourself so far removed from her, when your hate and her sin are two branches of the same tree. Who cares for your quarrels? Mere empty gestures, meaningless cries––spent breath. Come what may, death will soon have struck you both to silence, to rigid quiet. Who cares, if from now on you are linked together in evil, trapped all three in the same snare of vice, the same bond of evil flesh, companions––yes, companions for all eternity.”[iv]

 

Eugène Delacroix, Dante and Virgil in Hell (1822)

In the Divine Comedy, Dante finds the direct road to salvation blocked by three beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a wolf, representing “the three dispositions that heaven refuses”–– incontinence (obsessive lust for one’s own satisfaction), violence (the will to do harm, but also mindless rage) and fraud (hatred of truth and betrayal of trust). His only remedy is the downward path into the depths of the human shadow, facing the condition of our fallenness with honesty and humility.

Aided by a wise companion (Virgil) and protected by the powers of heaven, he makes his harrowing descent into the underworld. Along the way, various monsters and demons try to hinder his pilgrimage. The Minotaur tries to bully Dante and Virgil, but it becomes so consumed with “inhuman rage” that it loses focus. “Run past him while he’s going berserk,” shouts Virgil, and the pilgrims slip safely by.[v]

Further down, the hybrid form of Geryon, “that foul effigy of fraud,” seems even more daunting. “Behold the beast whose stench afflicts the world,” warns Virgil. Geryon has the face of “a righteous man, benevolent in countenance.” These are qualities seen nowhere else in hell, but Geryon’s disarming smile is only a mask. His body is that of a serpent (the archetypal deceiver) and his tail wields the poisonous sting of a scorpion. In classical myth, Geryon “enticed strangers to be his guests, only to kill and eat them.”[vi]

But while Dante is left by himself for a time to converse with dead souls, his guide (we know not how) manages to tame the beast, who consents to carry them into hell’s deepest place. It’s a frightening plunge into darkness, with only the blast of air against the poet’s face to measure the speed of their descent. Recalling the tragic images of Phaeton and Icarus falling to their deaths increases Dante’s sense of panic. “I thrust my head forward / and dared to look down the abyss. / Then I was even more afraid of being dropped, / for I saw fire and heard wailing, / and so, trembling, I hold on tighter with my legs.”[vii]

Facing his fear of the beast and accepting the dangers of the downward passage enable Dante to continue. As Helen Luke insists in her Jungian interpretation of the Inferno, the journey toward wholeness requires us to embrace our shadow and hold on tight. “[I]f we have the courage to see the true menace, and will consent to be aware of our own frauds, then Geryon becomes our servant and will carry us down on his back that we may look upon the roots of evil in the [human] psyche.”[viii]

And what does Dante find at hell’s deepest core? He finds Lucifer, or what is left of him, forever stuck in ice of his own making (the bitter wind generated by his flapping batwings freezes the outflow of infernal rivers). His single head has three faces, each with a different sickly hue. The mouth of each face chews without swallowing the body of a notorious traitor. Everything about him is a wretched parody of the Divine. The three faces parody the Trinity, the freezing wind parodies the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit, the eternal chewing parodies the eucharist.

This is not the heroic and colorful rebel of Milton’s Paradise Lost, but a virtually lifeless thing without mobility, speech or thought. The “creature who had once been beautiful” is reduced to “the evil worm that gnaws the world.”[ix] Virgil calls him “Dis”––not a proper name, but a prefix: “away from,” “split-off,” “apart from,” as in “dis-ease” or “dis-order.”

Gustave Doré, Dis frozen in the lake of ice (1861)

Dante scholars Charles H. Taylor and Patricia Finley “dis” the king of hell as the epitome of brokenness : “The figure at the center of the realm of darkness symbolizes what is most split off from consciousness; separated into opposites the ego does not conjoin, giving rise to the psychological splitting and the paranoia that are at the core of destructive pathology. . . Dis stands frozen at the nadir of Hell as the emblem of lovelessness, the coldheartedness at the core of our deepest failures to be human.”[x]

In Perelandra, C. S. Lewis gives a similar diagnosis of Satan as “no longer a person of corrupted will,” but “corruption itself, to which will was attached only as an instrument. Ages ago it had been a Person; but the ruins of personality now survived in it only as weapons at the disposal of a furious self-exiled negation.”[xi]

What does all this add up to? Although these various literary and psychological descriptions of evil seem chillingly on the mark with respect to our current political situation, the point is not to demonize Trump. He is doing a fine job of that without our help, and he is a symptom more than a cause. As Gandalf says of Sauron in Lord of the Rings, “Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know. . .”[xii]

And I make no claim for anyone’s innocence––not even the saints who “persevere in resisting evil.”[xiii] As Will Campbell has reminded us in his succinct summary of the Christian faith, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”[xiv] Or as Pete Buttigieg, the most theological of the new presidential candidates, told Time magazine recently,

“This idea that we just sort people into baskets of good and evil ignores the central fact of human existence, which is that each of us is a basket of good and evil. The job of politics is to summon the good and beat back the evil.”[xv]

Good and evil are not usual subjects for political discourse, but we live in apocalyptic times. Souls are at stake, the human future is at stake, and to ignore the spiritual dimension of our current crisis only gives the advantage to the malignant shadow trying to consume the world. Night is falling, and it is time to put on the armor of light.

But as the Bible says in its most political book, the battle will not be won by our own violent replica of the devouring beast, but by the wounded Lamb of self-diffusive love.[xvi] Bernanos’ compassionate priest is an incarnation of this sacrificial archetype:

“Truly, if one of us, a living man, the vilest, most contemptible of the living, were cast into those burning depths, I should still be ready to share his suffering, I would claim him from his executioner.”

But the priest is also realistic about the soul-eating alternative: “the sorrow, the unutterable loss of those charred stones which once were men, is that they have nothing more to be shared.”[xvii]

Trumeau (detail), St. Marie de Souillac, France, 12th century.

 

Related post: Dante and Lewis Carroll Walk Into a Dark Wood

 

[i] Frank Batavick: “The psychology of evil,” Carroll County Times, March 23, 2017. https://www.carrollcountytimes.com/columnists/opinion/ph-cc-batavick-032417-20170320-column.html

[ii] Matt Gertz & Rob Savillo, “Study: Major media outlets’ Twitter accounts amplify false Trump claims on average 19 times a day,” Media Matters, May 3, 2019. https://www.mediamatters.org/blog/2019/05/03/study-major-media-outlets-twitter-accounts-amplify-false-trump-claims-average-19-times-day/223572

[iii] Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002), 144.

[iv] Ibid., 138-139.

[v]Inferno, Canto xii.

[vi] Robert and Jean Hollander, note on Canto xvii.1-3, in their translation of Dante’s Inferno(New York: Doubleday, 2000), 295.

[vii] Inferno, Canto xvii, Hollanders translation.

[viii] Helen Luke, Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’sDivine Comedy (New York: Parabola Books, 1989), 33.

[ix] Infernoxxxiv.108 (Hollander).

[x] Charles H. Taylor & Patricia Finley, Images of the Journey in Dante’s Divine Comedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 111.

[xi] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (1943).

[xii] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (London: The Folio Society, 1997), 162.

[xiii] From the baptismal vows in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979).

[xiv] Will Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly (1975). In a conversation following the killing of Episcopal seminarian and Civil Rights martyr Jonathan Daniels, Campbell was asked to sum up Christianity’s message in 10 words or less. His response indicated that simply pointing the finger at the evil of others did not do justice to the shared condition––and salvation––of fallen humanity.

[xv] Buttegieg, an Episcopalian, has also referenced Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet as model for serving the common good. Time interview is quoted here: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/5/5/1855559/-Pete-Buttigieg-shut-down-homophobic-hecklers-then-got-support-from-a-surprising-sourceThe footwashing quote is here: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2019/04/07/pete_buttigieg_hypocrisy_of_evangelical_christians_supporting_trump_is_unbelievable.html

[xvi] In Revelation, a beast uttering “haughty and blasphemous” words makes war on the saints. “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” everyone wonders. God’s reply is not an angelic army, but the Lamb offered since the creation of the world (Rev. 13).

[xvii] Bernanos, 164.

Sweet miracle of our empty hands

Young priest in the Chapel of the Transfiguration, Grand Tetons National Park (1976)

Young priest in the Chapel of the Transfiguration, Grand Tetons National Park (1976)

When I preached at my wife Karen’s ordination on All Souls Day, 2010, I reflected on the peculiar vocation of priesthood. Since today, the Feast of Hildegard of Bingen, is the 45th anniversary of my own ordination, it seems fitting to publish it here.

In nineteenth-century Paris, there was a certain priest who was not quite right in the head, and one day he walked into a bakery, made the sign of the cross over the assorted breads, and said Hoc est corpus meum (This is my body) – the Words of Institution from the eucharistic prayer. When the Archbishop of Paris heard what had happened, he bought up every baguette and croissant in the shop, and reverently consumed them.

This story reflects an understanding of priesthood and sacrament which we do not share, but it does raise questions about the power that is conferred in ordination. What will happen to Karen tonight when the Holy Spirit is called down, and the hands of bishop and priests are laid on her head? How will she be different? What is the nature of the gift she will receive?

Priesthood has a certain aura. You wear special vestments, preside over worship in the name of the whole assembly, and stand at altar and pulpit to speak for God and Christ as though you were heaven’s ambassador. You are called and set apart by God and the Church to do holy things.

Eventually, the doers of holy things are sometimes regarded as possessors of an occupational holiness. The distinctiveness of what priests do becomes a distinctiveness in who priests are. The parson is seen as a kind of model person.

At its best, this understanding of a priest as a walking icon of the Christian life has produced some remarkable saints, clergy who have indeed exemplified a godly life, clergy whose words, actions, and faithfulness manage to bring God a little closer. At its worst, this attribution of holiness to the priest has let everyone else off the hook. We don’t have to be faithful or devout. The priest does that for us.

But in our own day, we have been rediscovering, to our joy, the ministry of all the baptized. All of us, clergy and laity, are empowered and called to be ministers of the gospel, to be doers of the Word in all the times and places of our lives.

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable [i] – that’s on every Christian’s agenda. When the saints go marching in, we are all “in that number.”

Our common vocation as ministers was beautifully summarized by Paul Moore, the late bishop of New York. When he retired, his last words to his people were these: “You are messengers clothed in the beauty of God. Take hope, be strong, be brave, be free, be open, be loving, and hold up the vision of the Heavenly City.”

You are all messengers clothed in the beauty of God, and you will be reminded of that again tonight, when you renew your baptismal vows and are sprinkled with water from the baptismal font, in the hope that Isaiah’s cry may ever be on your own lips: Here am I; send me.

But if we are all ministers, then what is so distinctive about the role of priest? If your understanding of priesthood is purely functional, based on what a priest does, the ministry of the baptized creates a crisis of definition as more and more of the priest’s jobs are outsourced to the laity.

Parish administration, pastoral counseling, preaching, teaching, evangelism, social witness and outreach, worship planning and a great deal of worship leading can all be done by laypeople. There are really only three things that a priest can do that a layperson cannot: preside at the eucharist, pronounce God’s forgiveness after confession, and give God’s blessing.

Just these three things. But perhaps they are not such little things.
Bread, forgiveness, blessing.
The things that priests give, in the name of God, in the name of Christ.
Bread, forgiveness, blessing.

It’s actually quite a lot, really, requiring no less than everything – and a lifetime of preparation. Why a lifetime of preparation? Can’t anyone do these things? Speak some words, perform a few actions? Simple, yes. Easy, not so much.

Ritual is like art, requiring natural gifts, extensive training, and a deep grasp of the cluster of conditions that constitute ritual practice: theology, history, the meaning of sign and symbol, the nuances of body language, gesture and gaze, and so forth.

Karen comes to this calling with her own particular identity, her own unique blend of gifts and qualities. Priesthood is always an embodied phenomenon, something only realized in the form of particular persons. In that respect, each priest is different.

But when the Church sets a person apart in ordination, she becomes more than her individual self. Whenever Karen puts on her priestly stole, she will become 2000 years old, a public representative of the cumulative tradition and collective wisdom of the Church.

As priest, she will be a keeper and guardian of our sacred stories, whose task it is to tend the flame of their saving grace. At the same time, she is given the privilege of being entrusted with the stories of her people, helping them to understand that their own lives are also sacred stories.

The priestly role is not for everyone. It requires a delicate balance between self-awareness and transparency to Spirit, the sensitivity to be attuned not only to one’s own self but also to all the other selves in the room, and to the Holy One in whose presence we gather.

At the eucharist, who the presider is, and how the presider is, both have an effect on the assembly’s understanding of what is really going on when we gather to worship.

The performance of ritual doesn’t happen by accident. It is the product of charism, call and holiness of life. It is a full-time, serious business, as Richard Baxter insisted in the seventeenth century when he said to worship leaders:

[A]bove all be much in secret prayer and meditation. There you must fetch the heavenly fire that must kindle your sacrifices. Remember that you cannot decline and neglect your duty to your own hurt alone; many will be losers by it as well as you. For your people’s sake, therefore, look to your hearts… If [your hearts] be then cold, how [are they] likely to warm the hearts of [your] hearers?[ii]

In its essence, priesthood is a concrete and visible expression of belief: belief in the presence of God, and belief in the meaning and destiny of the eucharistic assembly as the body of Christ.

Every time the priest stands at the altar and says the holy words, the whole assembly is alerted to the fact that we all stand on the border between earth and heaven, the visible and the invisible. The border is where worship is conducted: it is where God gives us the bread of life and we offer in return “our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice”[iii] unto God.

The priest’s ritual words and actions make clear to the assembly what is going on at the border. It’s not a place where we escape the world; it’s where we discover just how sacred the world is. Ordinary bread and wine become the food of heaven and the cup of salvation.

As Gordon Lathrop puts it, the eucharistic assembly is “a hole in the fabric of things, through which life-giving power flows into the world.”[iv]

But the priestly work of bread, forgiveness and blessing is something that belongs to the entire body of Christ – not just the priest, not just this particular assembly, but the whole Church of God’s people throughout the world and throughout all time.

You and I are all priests in a cosmic sacrament, standing in the place of Christ, seeing with the eyes of Christ, in order to make visible and tangible the eucharistic nature of all things. As priests, we look at our neighbor with the most sacred attention – and intention – and say, This is my body, that is to say, Christ’s body.

We look at the stranger and say, This is my body.
We look at our enemy and say, This is my body.
We even look at bread and wine,
ordinary matter, the stuff of the universe,
and say, This is my body.

And so, to return to that bakery in Paris, we may assume that the bread was already sacred before the priest ever got there, and that every crumb was already worthy of reverent consumption. But we would never know these things had not Jesus, and every priest since, taken bread, said the blessing, broken it, and passed it around.

When I was preparing to preach this sermon, I emailed some of my ordained friends around the country, asking if they had any words of counsel or encouragement for a priest at the beginning of her journey.

One priest repeated what a Methodist minister told him at his own ordination 30 years ago: “You can’t help anybody in their relationship with God unless you are completely human.”

Another said that “who you are is infinitely more important to God and the world than the words you speak, the lists you complete or the sermons you write.”

A priest ordained for 46 years offered this advice: “Try to see [God’s people] the way God sees them.”

A seminary classmate who went on to become parish priest, cathedral dean, and diocesan bishop said, “Never leave or forget your diaconal calling. Jesus came as one who serves. As a priest, you must first of all be a servant.”

And a priest I’ve known since elementary school simply said, “Give all to God.”

I also asked my friends if they could provide a few words that distilled for them the essence of priesthood. One of the best teachers I’ve ever had – an Old Testament professor, seminary dean, parish rector, and priest for 63 years – described it this way:

living with and for sisters and brothers
being the body of christ
celebrating with brothers and sisters
word and sacrament and pastoral act
christ recalling us reshaping us refreshing us
being christ’s body for the world

A priest and poet who has worked since the 1960’s in parishes, campus ministry, foreign missions, and the national church office, offered this succinct couplet:

Everything we share is broken;
and yet we remember the whole and make it present.

Another longtime priest wrote: “Yours is to walk with people to the Mystery and back.”

 And finally, the canon to the ordinary in a Midwest diocese, a woman ordained five years ago, quoted a 16th century Sufi mystic:

Go where you are sent
Wait until you are shown what to do
Do it with your whole self
Remain until you have done what you were sent to do
Walk away with empty hands

Empty hands. I have loved this image ever since I first encountered it, just before my own ordination, in Robert Bresson’s film of the Georges Bernanos novel, Diary of a Country Priest.

The story, a retrospective account narrated with passages from a young priest’s journal, turns on a dramatic and transformative pastoral encounter with a parishioner. In one of the great scenes of cinema, fraught with a severe and holy beauty, we witness “a supernatural storm.”[v] And somehow, by what the young and inexperienced priest says to this woman, but even more by who he is, the woman’s hardened heart is broken open, and she is filled with grace and peace.

That night, the priest learns the woman has suddenly died. He hurries to the vigil where her body lies. We see him kneel by her bed to make the sign of the cross over her. At the same time, we hear his voice describe the moment as he would later record it in his journal:

“Be at peace,” I told her.
And she had knelt to
receive this peace.
May she keep it forever.
It will be I that gave it to her.
Oh miracle –
thus to be able to give
what we ourselves do not possess,
sweet miracle of our empty hands.

Sweet miracle of our empty hands. Let us pray that Karen, like every priest before her, may go to the altar of God, the God of her joy, with empty hands:

Hands that offer, and hands that receive,
hands that feed, and hands that heal,
hands that welcome, and hands that bless.

[i] Philippians 4:8

[ii] Christopher Cocksworth and Rosalind Brown, Being a Priest Today: Exploring Priestly Identity (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006), 150

[iii] From Thomas Cranmer’s 16th century eucharistic prayer, retained in Rite I of The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 336

[iv] Gordon Lathrop, q. in Graham Hughes, Worship as Meaning: A Liturgical Theology for Late Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 150

[v] André Bazin, trans. Hugh Gray, What is Cinema? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 137