Friday, November 22, 2013

The power of nothing

Thoughts seem to circulate in the mind of Christ with a life of their own, actually, no doubt with the life that God gives them, but it never ceases to amaze me how we are often found musing on the same ideas, even when we are far apart, even when we aren’t in touch with one another.

A thought has been besieging my mind the last few days, a thought about how unreality, call it fantasy, call it day-dreaming, better yet, call it ‘nothing’, afflicts and affects us, sometimes to the point where we are, where I am, paralysed against the doing of any good thing, anything at all.

It is a passage from C. S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters, the first book of his many of us had ever read, which keeps drifting in and out of my thinking.

‘…Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them…’

This is the dreadful scenario, that it might be me he is talking about. These words are put in the mouth of a devil intent on snaring human souls, his advice to a ‘younger devil’ (if there really is such a thing, for Lewis’ is writing a quasi-allegory). He continues, explaining that one needn’t worry about big sins: a plethora of small ones will do the trick, will cause the soul of a man who unconsciously commits them to shrivel, to become what it has pursued: nothing.

‘You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from [God]. It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.’

I wrote just now that it amazes me how people are often thinking the same thoughts, alleging that we all participate in the mind of Christ, which is of course our hope. I have experienced this many times. It was reading what Fr Stephen wrote once in his blog that made me decide to put down these thoughts in mine. He writes,

‘… Our battles against, anger, lust, greed, envy, etc., are all struggles with things that are not. They have no more existence than we ourselves lend to them. And since we ourselves are not the Lord and Giver of Life, their existence is as nothing. And yet we find ourselves attracted to nothing—our minds constantly employed in dialog with nothing. The sweet work of repentance that is set before us as followers of Christ, is nothing other than the return to reality. God does not call us to spend our time thinking about what we imagine Paradise will be like. He invites us into the reality of Paradise now, which we can know through forgiving everyone for everything; by being generous in our almsgiving; by praying honest, simple prayers.’

It isn’t just his notice of what Lewis calls ‘the power of nothing’ that distinguishes Fr Stephen’s words, but his ready and refreshing and simple reminder of the way out of it—repentance, forgiving everyone for everything—‘right away’ is all that I would add—and then, the rest of the Lenten discipline which some of us try to follow for the whole year: generosity and real prayer. He continues,

‘It is quite possible for our lives to be dominated by things which have no existence. Our dreams and fantasies, our fears and anxieties, take on an existence that overwhelms everything else. Not only can such concerns not be defeated on their own ground (they are the masters of the unreal world) they must be slowly dragged onto the very ground of reality, Christ Himself, so that they can be revealed in their powerlessness and swept away with the dust of non-being.’

These words may seem hopelessly idealistic, even poetic, but they are nonetheless true. I marvel at myself, writing what I think but usually being prevented from acting on what the words mean. That was my pervasive meditation for hours this morning as I wandered in and out of prayer on my bed. In prayer, with God, out of prayer, nowhere, holding on to nothing, searching for that something I can almost just remember—but only a temptation—again, just nothing disguised to my mind as something great. But only God is great. Only He is real and true. And only in His presence, in prayer, am I delivered from the power of nothing over me.

O Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of blessings and Giver of Life, come and abide in us, and cleanse us of all impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.

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