Reading: Laint Luke 11 v 19
“And the last state of that man is worse than the first”
It is a terrifying picture really - a picture of the darkness of utter desolation. It is something which our contemporary culture knows about or, at least, experiences, in one way or another. It is the sense of hopelessness, the sense of utter futility, the sense of the empty nothingness of life.
We live, of course, in a world that is seemingly full of everything; there is a fullness of images. We are constantly besieged and bombarded by a vast array of images which flicker and dance before our imaginations in what is presented to our senses. The consequence is that our sensual imagination is overloaded. What are these images? They are the images of violence, pornography and self-indulgence; in short, the crass hedonism of consumer culture. What is quickly discovered is that they are nothing. There is a terrible nothingness to this fullness of images. They are, as it were, nothing worth and quite unsatisfactory. Yet, they consume us. We are possessed by what beguiles us. We find that we are strangers to ourselves. We are alienated from ourselves.
What shall we do? Shall we empty ourselves of these empty images through some heroic effort of will? Perhaps, but is it really “nirvana” - a state of empty nothingness that we seek? For in the culture of images even the emptying ourselves of the images of sensual immediacy is to find ourselves in vacuum land. (I am reminded of the radio personality Alan MacPhee, who used to introduce his music programme “Eclectic Circus” with the words: “Hello out there in vacuum land”). Whether we are full of these empty images or aware of their emptiness we are nonetheless empty and lost to ourselves. “And the last state of that man is worse than the first”.
What is missing? The what is who. It is God. What is missing is our appetite for the Absolute, our desire for God. At the very least, it is misdirected and lost in the relentless pursuit of everything and nothing. “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee”, in God.
In the Gospel, there is the picture of the housecleaning of our souls. At issue is two things: first, how are we going to clean up the mess? and second, for what end? The point is that without the finger of God the housecleaning will leave us truly empty, indeed, desolate and in despair. “And the last state of that man is worse than the first”.
The point is that the housecleaning of our souls is really about setting our houses in order so that our souls are places for God. Then we are no longer strangers to ourselves. We are at home with God, with ourselves and with one another - in a blessed company. “Blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it”.
The Christian religion par excellence is not about a flight from the world and from the images of the world. It is rather a flight to God in whom there is the redemption of all things - a setting in order of everything. The Christian religion is, in this sense, full of images but only as ordered to God and as seen within the pageant of redemption. It means that the naming of the demons of our souls is by the finger of God. God puts his finger upon our demons. The finger grace of God has the housecleaning touch, we might say - far better than any Mr. Clean. But our souls are put in order by God so that our souls may be places for God.
What does this mean? At one level, it means that our busyness - here acknowledged as a kind of empty busyness - has to give place to a restfullness in God. Our busyness is really our restlessness for God - that is the positive in our busyness. The negative is that without God - without our awareness of our need for God, without our desire for God - we are in danger of despair. In a way, the point is illustrated in another Gospel story, the story of Martha and Mary. Ultimately, the busyness of Martha has to be brought into the restfullness of Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to his word. Such a resting is an attentiveness to Jesus – “listening to his words”. Perhaps the point is best captured by Aelred of Rievaulx:
In this wretched and laborious life, brethren, Martha must of necessity be in our house; that is to say, our soul has to be concerned with bodily actions. As long as we need to eat and drink, we shall need to tame our flesh with watching, fasting, and work. This is Martha’s role. But in our souls there ought also to be Mary, that is, spiritual activity. For we should not always give ourselves to bodily efforts, but sometimes be still and see how lovely, how sweet the Lord is, sitting at the feet of Jesus and hearing his word. You should in no wise neglect Mary for Martha; or again Martha for Mary. For, if you neglect Martha, who will feed Jesus? If you neglect Mary, what use is it for Jesus to come to your house, when you taste nothing of his sweetness?
It is wanted not that we be found empty and in despair but full of the grace of God, attentive to his word and purpose. For only then shall we be in a better state than ever before. Only by the finger grace of God can we avoid the terror of that picture of ourselves where “the last state of that man is worse than the first”.
Father Ed Bakker,
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province,
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne,