The National Catholic Review
I remember watching a television episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I would like to say I was watching it with my kids, but actually I was watching for my own interest, without them. Mr. Rogers was interviewing the Wicked Witch of the West from the classic film The Wizard of Oz. For the benefit of the children watching, Margaret Hamilton was explaining how make-up works, how she really was not a witch but an actress, so that the character in the movie wouldn’t seem so scary to them. For the adults watching, however, she had another intention, namely, to explain why the character fascinates us.

Ms. Hamilton explained that for a character to be successful in the movies, the audience has to find something sympathetic in the character. It is impossible to have any sympathy for someone who is purely and utterly evil. In fact, she explained, the Wicked Witch of the West has two qualities that are very endearing: she loves what she does, and she is very good at it. Every time I hear her cackle in equal degrees both playful and malevolent, How about a little ball, Scarecrow? as she conjures up and prepares to pitch him a fireball, I have to agree with her on both counts.

The story sticks in my mind because in its own way it illustrates one of the deepest convictions of orthodox Christian theology, namely, that evil is never unmixed with good. To the contrary, it is dependent upon the good to perpetuate itself. Evil is the good, deformed and corrupted. That is what is so horrifying about it. A computer with a virus is powerful and destructive, yet it is hauntingly familiar. There is nothing new but the corruption, which in itself is not a thing. This is what makes evil so horrifying: its close proximity to the good.

Blinded by Goodness, Deaf to Charity

An unforgettable reflection on this is Gregory the Great’s narration of the Life and Miracles of St. Benedict. Like many ancient saint’s lives, this one is narrated in such a way as to make a theological point. At the beginning of the story, Benedict drops out of school and leaves the world while still a student, seeing its emptiness, Gregory tells us, and he leaves it without regret. He spends his life building an alternative community in the wilderness, a place from which to see the world in its true character, a place to gain perspective on all of its arrogance and false claims to power. Benedict’s work is accompanied by miracles, one after another, some of them miracles of perspective or seeing. He is able simply to look at the rope that binds a peasant’s hands in the power of a ruthless landowner and the rope falls away. God does not recognize these bonds as legitimate.

And yet, at the end of the narrative, Benedict comes up short. His sister, Scholastica, asks him to prolong their once yearly conversation late into the night. It’s a reasonable request. Scholastica loves her brother, and they are talking about the joys of heaven, much like Monica and Augustine in another famous vision scene, already a classic by Gregory’s day. Benedict refuses, for the rules of his new, alternative community forbid him to spend the night outside the monasterythough Gregory the narrator has made it clear that the house in which they are meeting is on the grounds of the monastery. Benedict has also apparently forgotten that in his early days in the wilderness, he was fed by the kindness of a monk who had to sneak away from his own monastery to share his bread with him.

Scholastica prays to God, who answers her immediately by providing a thunderstorm deluxe, so terrifying that Benedict could not think of leaving. In a rather unflattering scene, he scolds his sister for producing a miracle. But Gregory reminds us that her power was the greater in this case because she loved more, and God is love. It is only after this correction by his sister that Benedict has his famous and beautiful vision of the world summed up as a ball of light under God’s providence, a corrective to his earlier, colder seeing of the world that had prompted him to leave it with so little regret.

What is scary about the story is that Benedict is blinded, one might say, not by any evident evil but by his own goodness. His alternative community is, in fact, a good corrective to the power of the world, corrupt as it mostly is, and it does provide a miraculous vantage point for renewed perspective. His miracles of building this new perspective, conformed to the biblical miracles in both Testaments, are truly the work of God. Yet Benedict becomes so addicted, as it were, to these displays of power that he grows deaf to the simplest request of charity, one that would require no miracle at all to perform. Even his alternative view of the world, the reader discovers almost with horror, is tainted with contempt. Though God does not love evil, God loves the world, and far from leaving it without regret, declared ultimate solidarity with it in the Incarnation.

The reader can sympathize with Benedict. His whole sense of self-worth, his life’s project, his glorious new city set on a hillthat is where he should invest his time, talent and treasure, not in a conversation with a woman (by definition of low status in antiquity) on ground that was not clearly marked as his. There is no glory in his staying. But that is exactly what the Incarnation is, a dwelling and a staying, a conversation, on our grounds and on our terms. It is nothing glorious that could augment the divine résumé. Scholastica’s invitation represents the easy-to-miss perspective of the Incarnation.

Gregory calls attention to the declaration God is love of St. John, who also tells us that the Son of Man did not come to judge the world, at least not in any way separate from his love. Benedict is judged, it is true, but by the evident contrast between his addiction to his own power and perspective and Scholastica’s desire for a simple conversation in charity. Love reveals evil, and so judges it. Love is the only thing that can judge, that can separate the evil that is entangled, wherever it exists, with the good. Benedict’s judgment of the world, his contempt, was a function of what Augustine would call pride.

Terrifyingly Close Connections

Where does this leave us? First with the terrifying realization that evil is always intimately connected with the good, and inconceivable apart from it. The opposite is not true, namely, that good is in any way predicated upon evil. That is the point of saying that evil is not a thing in itself that can, like a strand of different material, be intertwined with the good. Rather, evil is the good, impugned, corrupted, deformed. It is terrifying, because as such it forms a limit to our imagination, to our vision.

We admire the Angel of Darkness because he looks so much like the Angel of Light. We pride ourselves on our discernment of evil in the worldof other people’s evil, of evil out there. And we look at the world, ready to leave it without regret, ready to advance our own perspectives with wonders of valor and force. The trouble is, our perspective can have much truth to it. God does not recognize as legitimate the bonds of a dictator’s oppression, and it may be we are called upon to see through the ropes and cause them to drop free. But the more our action and our perspective are formed in contempt, in a looking down or despising of the world out there as evil and our own action and perspective as good, the more we are really staring in fascination at the Angel of Darkness, blinded by his seeming light.

One is reminded of the horror of the father in Flannery O’Connor’s story The Lame Shall Enter First, a darker variation on the same theme as the Life and Miracles of St. Benedict. In this story, the father, a social worker who has recently lost his wife, rejects belief in God in favor of a doctrine of human progress. He buries his grief in an obsession with reforming a delinquent adolescent, a project he pursues to the extent of inviting him to move in with himself and his son, who is still desperate with grief at the loss of his mother. Learning from his new roommate, who is a believer, that his mother is in heaven, the son, who understands only that heaven is somewhere in the sky, accidentally kills himself trying to leap there. When the father finds his son’s body, the truth that he literally took better care of the juvenile delinquent than he took of his own son overtakes him, and he realizes that in staring with such obsessive fascination at his own goodness to the neglect of his son, he has in fact been staring at the clear-eyed Devil all along. His own son kills himself from the loneliness and grief that the father’s obsession had left him with. The demands of love were simple all along, but inglorious. Like Benedict, all the father had to do was to stay with his son, talk to him (literally) about the joys of heaven where the child’s deceased mother had surely gone. But that would not have added to the father’s résumé.

Start by Seeing the Evil in Oneself

The implication of these stories is clear. We need to make judgments on, and take action against, the evil out there, yet the best place to start is and must always be with oneself. One may seem to see clearly the evil out there; one might rejoice in the ability to separate it from the good, to see through its entanglement with the good. But without a corresponding awareness of the deeply mixed character of one’s own goodness, this vision will be one of contempt and a net addition to evil, rather than an amelioration of it. There is no true judgment apart from love, and love always means a staying with, a conversation in solidarity, like the Incarnation. It always means the sacrifice of sharing, simple, inglorious, but the only basis for any true judgments or any attempt to separate evil from good.

It may be that one must go to war to abolish slavery, for example, and yet at the same time one must realize, and say, that the war itself is a kind of judgment on our own national perverseness and disobedience, as President Lincoln put it in his Oct. 3, 1863, Thanksgiving Proclamation. Any perceived need to resort to violence must always be perceived as a judgment on oneself and a call to repentance, to the acts of sharing and love that are inglorious but provide true light. To confuse our work, based on our judgments, with God’s work and God’s judgment, even in cases where the judgment is correct, is to act with a contempt that separates us, as the good, from the rest of the world as evil, without regret. It will in the end accomplish only what evil is best at accomplishing, of old and to this daynamely, self-destruction.

The sources of renewal lie rather in the imagination-expanding, vision-restoring acts of staying with, which from an imperial perspective always seem eminently negligible, never powerful, always foolish, if even recognized. But as the stories we have explored remind us, their power is in their ability to create vision, to show a way forward that we had overlooked, to receive from acts of human solidarity hope in that very solidarity, and to expose the emptiness of contempt, its foundational lie: that human solidarity is productive of nothing, is not glorious and goes nowhere. We should not be surprised that this turns out to be a lie, for the devil is a liar and the father of lies. We should be surprised, instead, that the remedy is so simple.

John C. Cavadini is chair of the theology department and associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Ind.