Sunday, February 26, 2012

Fuga Mundi

"The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: 'This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.'" [Mark 1:12-15]

This Gospel for the 1st Sunday of Lent (Year B) is terribly succinct by comparison with the parallel passage from Matthew (proclaimed in Year A) and that of Luke's Gospel (assigned for Year C). Its first sentence, however, jumped out at me in an extraordinary way this year:  "The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan."

Lots of images and thoughts came to mind, but an episode from the life of St. Benedict prevailed. In Pope St. Gregory the Great's Life of St. Benedict (2nd Dialogue) in Chapter 8 he recounts the story of the jealousy of a wicked priest named Fortunatus, who sought to destroy Benedict and his work. Benedict pitied the man and ultimately withdrew himself to another location for the sake of his monks, entrusting them to other governors who would not provoke the priest.

St. Gregory explains very well that Benedict did not flee from evil, did not seek to escape the real world, but carried on the struggle after the manner of our Lord and Savior:

"The old enemy of mankind, not taking this in good part, did not privily or in a dream, but in open sight present himself to the eyes of that holy father, and with great outcries complained that he had offered him violence. The noise which he made, the monks did hear, but himself they could not see: but, as the venerable father told them, he appeared visibly unto him most fell and cruel, and as though, with his fiery mouth and flaming eyes, he would have torn him in pieces: what the devil said unto him, all the monks did hear; for first he would call him by his name, and because the man of God vouchsafed him not any answer, then would he fall a-reviling and railing at him: for when he cried out, calling him "Blessed Bennet," and yet found that he gave him no answer, straightways he would turn his tune, and say: "Cursed Bennet, and not blessed: what hast thou to do with me? and why dost thou thus persecute me?" Wherefore new battles of the old enemy against the servant of God are to be looked for, against whom willingly did he make war, but, against his will, did he give him occasion of many notable victories."

Our struggle is indeed against Principalities and Powers, the minions of Satan. Our Lenten exercise is indeed more than a retreat. Days of recollection, spiritual exercises, are, yes, strength training; they have their sense in the words of Jesus inviting His disciples to come away and rest/divert for a while. Our annual Lenten penance is in a sense other, just as Jesus' 40 days in the desert were other; they were neither rest nor diversion. Lent and Lenten practices (classically: prayer, fasting and almsgiving) can help us contextualize the struggle, that determined effort which must be ours in seeking the Lord and His kingship over our lives. St. Gregory tells us that St. Benedict never simply locked horns with evil or butted heads with the devil. He defeated the Prince of Darkness by his life of intense communion with the Lord, by his relentless prayer, his humble estimation of self and absolute confidence in Christ Who has won the victory for us.

You might say that I don't have the foggiest idea what the words "fuga mundi" mean, simply because they don't even hint at what for or to what end Benedict, the whole monastic tradition and the Church's great ascetics turned their backs on this world's passing splendors.

Again this week I posed my question to a man working hard here in Ukraine as a Catholic missionary: "The moment of grace at independence, with the fall of Communist repression of all things spiritual, has passed. A generation has passed and there really aren't people remaining who can be called back to the practice of their faith. How do you announce the Good News to a world that has never known Christ?" I'll leave his answer aside and hint at my own response by insisting that like with Jesus Himself, like with Benedict, father of Western Monasticism and one of Europe's Patrons, it cannot be done without engaging in spiritual combat with the one who holds so many in chains, in darkness, in the shadow of death. It cannot be done without a fight, without engaging the enemy in the desert.


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