To sustain social justice work, you need a foundation: prayer
A Reflection for Monday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time
Find today’s readings here.
Today’s Gospel reading happens right after the transfiguration. Jesus comes down the mountain and finds a mess. It’s very much like the scene when Moses comes down with the Ten Commandments, to find that, in his absence, the people have started worshiping a golden calf. They’ve completely lost the plot and forgotten who is at the center of their lives.
In today’s passage, the disciples have tried and failed to expel a demon from a boy. He is foaming and convulsing, utterly in the grip of this evil spirit.
The boy’s father brings him to Jesus and says:
“[I]f you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
Jesus said to him,
“‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.”
Then the boy’s father cried out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!”
And Jesus, of course, drives the demon out. I say “of course” because he is Jesus. He is the one from whom all power and healing comes.
These two passages—the healing of demonic possession, and the Old Testament scene it echoes, when Moses purges the people of their idol worship—are not as foreign to our twenty-first century life as they might seem. Frank demonic possession may be rare, but it’s extremely common for people to walk around and live their lives possessed of evil and unholy ideas.
And, like the disciples, there are phalanxes of Catholics who spend their days trying to drive these demons out. Exposing stories of abuse in the church, naming and shaming perpetrators and the institutions that enable them, calling out evil and evildoers on social media and in real life. There is so much evil. Fascists, antisemites, racists, misogynists, abusers of all kinds. How can we not at least try?
But anyone who is engaged in this work will eventually come to a place where they have to ask, “Why is this not working?”
Just like the disciples, who came to Jesus privately and asked, “Why could we not drive the spirit out?”
Jesus answers them, “This kind can only come out through prayer.”
That’s it? That’s it. Because it puts Jesus at the center.
I thought of a short essay in the New York Times by the Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren, who describes how on fire she was as a new college graduate, heading into battle as a social justice warrior. One day, she caught up with a Franciscan friar she had known and admired in school. She says:
“He looked at me and said matter-of-factly, ‘You do not have the life of prayer and silence necessary to sustain the work you are doing.’ I was a little insulted. What the hell did he know? But over the course of the next two years, he was proved right. I simply did not have the spiritual rhythms and practices to cultivate the wisdom, humility, thoughtfulness and rest my work required. I burned out quickly.”
This is what happens when you try to drive out demons and you make the work, however worthwhile, the center of your life, rather than Jesus. You lose the plot. You forget who you are worshiping, like the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Horeb. Like the disciples who could do nothing with the evil spirit, you have no power. You burn out.
The first reading of the day asks:
To whom has the discipline of wisdom been revealed?
And who has understood the multiplicity of her ways?
There is but one, wise and truly awe-inspiring,
seated upon his throne:
There is but one, Most High
all-powerful creator-king and truly awe-inspiring one,
seated upon his throne and he is the God of dominion.
Spend time there, at his feet, and then you will be able to do the work you need to do.