The National Catholic Review

The First Mass took place in a small, Eastern Kansas farming community, its citizens equally divided between Catholics and Mennonites. I was there as the vocation director for the Diocese of Dodge City, which Fr. Jim, the newly ordained, had joined while working in the western part of the state. A very small dinner followed the Mass. Most of its participants, both Catholic and Mennonite, came from farm families.

It was a coffee and tea event, though at the end of the meal a sister of the newly ordained offered a toast. She then asked her Father and Mother if they wanted to say something. Jim’s father smiled but nodded his head, no. At first Jim’s mother also demurred, but she thought better and rose, completely forgetting to raise her glass. Toasting was not typical among these folk, and hers wasn’t like any other I have ever heard. She said, “Jim, you know I pray a rosary every day.” Taking one from her pocket, holding it in her hand, she continued, “From now I promise to say another one, just for you, everyday of my life, because I know that, as a priest, the devil will try you sorely and assail you. I want you to know that you will be armed with your mother’s prayers.” She sat down; Catholic, and Mennonite, heads nodded in agreement.

Each generation of believers should pay particular attention to those parts of the gospels that seem to make little sense, or offer small appeal. That would provide something of a check against the predispositions and prejudices of any given age. This weekend’s Gospel of Mark, an exorcism of Jesus, is a good example. When did you last hear a sermon about evil spirits?

There are at least two reasons for that, one solid, one perhaps not. First, the primary focus of the gospels, and their preaching, should be the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ is Lord of whatever might exist in the cosmos. Second, many scripture scholars and theologians would argue that the existence of angelic spirits, good or evil, are part of the cultural baggage of ancient peoples, not a timeless truth being revealed by God in Sacred Scripture. That’s the one I don’t find convincing.

Certainly, there can be no doubt that we no longer require the existence of malign spirits to explain epilepsy or psychotic personalities. True enough, but the problem with that sort of theological reasoning is that we also don’t require the existence of God to offer a scientific explanation for anything else that happens in our world. In an effort to “sound scientific” to modern ears, a theologian can’t argue against the existence of angels and demons and then argue for the existence of God. If one is superfluous to the understanding of casualty in the modern world, so is the other.

Most theologians would follow St. Thomas Aquinas and argue that God’s causality is not on the same level as worldly causality. God isn’t needed to explain epilepsy anymore than God is needed to explain cancer, but that’s not to say that God isn’t still the deepest reality standing beneath both.

Here’s an analogy. Making God, or other supernatural agents, causes of what happens within the world is a bit like scouring the pages of a novel looking for the novelist. The “causality” of the novelist lies in the existence of the story itself. The novelist isn’t one more character within it.

That’s why many theologians would argue that the existence of God can’t be proven, because — to stay with the analogy — there’s no way to argue yourself out of the pages of the novel. Many theologians, like the young Joseph Ratzinger, would suggest instead that the great clue to God’s existence is the sheer intelligibility of the world. The more we know of it, the more it makes sense, the more it seems to conform to the very structures of our intellects. That seems to suggest a divine intelligence as its author. Would one — could one — read with interest a novel produced by a computer randomly conjoining sentences and paragraphs from other works? Would such a book possess the intelligence that our minds track?

Whatever clues there might be, faith knows a God it cannot prove. It wouldn’t be faith if it could! Faith perceives God in the patterns of events: we recognize a loving presence in prayers answered, in calamities averted and blessings received. Ironically, faith also recognizes a loving presence in unanswered prayers, in calamities born with acceptance, in blessings still awaited.

The perception that we call faith is akin to Fr. Jim’s knowing that his mother loves him. If you were to ask him to prove it, he could never marshal enough facts to establish the matter to the satisfaction of every independent observer, but he equally could not doubt the pattern that he has perceived in his Mother’s lifelong relationship with him.

Having suggested that there may well be an intelligence we can never pinpoint, whose very presence only reveals itself in the intelligent patterns of the whole, is there anything irrational about suggesting that the space between the human and the divine is not a vacuum?

Before writing off a large portions of the ministry of Jesus to primitive folklore, before suggesting that the exorcisms in our own Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults are simply ritual frippery, ask yourself if you’ve never perceived a malign presence in your own life. Again, the issue is not causation so much as comprehension. How else to explain the deeply personal nature of the pattern? For example, a young man sits with a gun, pondering suicide, but then gets up and shoots his sleeping grandfather. Or, how can someone who truly receives a life like Job, not ask if some malign intelligence has been given sway to have its way? After the Virginia Tech shooting Bill O’Reilly asked a befuddled priest if he could explain such an incident without invoking Satan. I don’t know if the devil is needed to explain the shooting, but I’m unable to explicate the power of the American gun lobby without suggesting Satanic forces.

I think Father Jim’s mother knew what she was about, and she offered her prayers many years before the clergy abuse scandal broke. And, before anyone suggests that I am passing off our evil, sinful decisions, to Satan, I am not. I’m simply saying that such utter malignancy seems greater than the individual souls who choose it. It seems the very mark of a malign presence, a personality turned from all that is good, to all that our minds were created to comprehend.

The devil will try you sorely and assail you. I want you to know that you will be armed with your mother’s prayers.” “Jesus rebuked him and said, ‘Quiet! Come out of him!’” (Mk 1:25). Before deciding that such talk is senseless, ask if the world itself doesn’t require a deeper sense, a deeper intelligibility, than our day-to-day experiences and our mundane explanations of them.

Rev. Terrance W. Klein