Sunday, November 11, 2007

Doorstep Demons

In a rather entertaining opening to the parable of a dinner invitation gone awry (Luke 14:15-24), Jesus describes the unexpected response of those first invited to a feast. One said, “Sorry, I can’t come, I just bought some real estate, and I have to go look at it, please excuse me”; the next one said, “Sorry, I can’t come, I just bought a team of oxen, and I have to go look them over, please excuse me”; the third one said, “Sorry, I can’t come, I just got married, please excuse me.”

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that a bit of land, a pair of work animals, and maybe even an evening à deux for the newly-weds could wait long enough for those invited to go to a party? But no, all of them have fallen prey to the sleight-of-mind typical of doorstep demons.

A retreatant first introduced me to these household pests when she said, “The hardest part of contemplative prayer is getting over the threshold.” In fact, the hardest part of every form of prayer, and of many another gospel work besides, is getting over the threshold because of the doorstep demons camped there. One cannot say what they look like because no one has seen them. One can say, though, what they do. They spread a miasma of ill-feeling between you and what you’ve been inspired to do. The miasma is a distorting fog through which what you were planning suddenly looks much less attractive.

Let’s say you heard the parable of the dinner invitation read in church. It made you laugh, and then it made you want to take a look yourself at an invitation of grace you’ve refused. Come prayer time, you plan to sit down with that parable and use it to help you take a look at what it was you turned down and why. As you open the bible, the story no longer seems either funny or compelling. In fact, it begins to look boring. You’ve heard it so many times. You know what it says. You know what you’re supposed to think about it. “Been there, done that, I think I’ll go get a cup of coffee. I’ll come back in a minute and find something else to pray.” But the headline on the paper sitting by the coffee pot catches your eye. “I’ll just sit down and read this for a minute while I drink my coffee. Otherwise I might spill it on the rug in my room.” The headline story is really interesting and reminds you of an article you’ve been meaning to read on famine in China. You go and look for the article, coffee cup in hand, the well-being of the rug forgotten. You can’t find the article, but your eye falls on that letter you meant to answer yesterday. In the blink of an eye, prayer time is over, the parable is forgotten, and you’re deep into your correspondence. You missed the feast of the Word altogether, but, except for a twinge of guilt, you don’t even give any thought to what you’ve missed. The doorstep demons chalk up another win.

Most of us are a bit less honest than the invited dinner guests. They at least named their doorstep demons honestly as they refused the invitation. We’re a bit more apt to sidle away from the threshold so mysteriously blocked by the demons “boring,” “hard,” “too-much-work-to-get-into-right now,” “painful” (who is usually disguised as one of the others), or downright “you-just-don’t-want-to-go-there-and-you-know-it”. We throw out excuses behind us as we go, creating our own trail of fog, which deceives neither God nor ourselves, really. And always we are the losers. It was a great party. We just didn’t go.

The most effective way to deal with doorstep demons is to recognize that they’re there and pray for the miasma to clear. If God could blow the Red Sea aside, God can blow away a little fog. Then look the doorstep demons in the eye, call them by name and then walk right through them. They aren’t actually very substantial. You say, “Look, you ‘fake-sense-of-urgency’, that pair of oxen you’re throwing across that doorway really could wait. They’re bought and paid for, they’ve been stabled and fed, they don’t need me right now. I’ll take care of them as soon as prayer time is over.” And you’ll find the little pests have disappeared, leaving the threshold clear for you to cross.

The feast is worth the effort.

©2007, Abbey of St. Walburga

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