Friday, May 29, 2009

2-1-2009: 4th Ordinary Time (B)

Deuteronomy 18:15-20/Psalm 95/1 Corinthians 7:32-35 /Mark 1:21-28
Maureen McMahon was a troubled soul I knew from my first parish assignment some twenty-five years ago. Irish-born, unmarried, and possessed – possessed by an inability to stop praying. Now, you’re thinking, why would that be a bad thing. But, like the person who can’t stop washing her hands, Maureen was obsessed, compulsed, with the fear she might have said only nine out of the ten Aves on her last decade, or missed the Angelus as she dozed from exhaustion around noontime. Worried to the point of bewilderment over forgetting her Morning Offering, or ashamed at ignoring her Guardian Angel, or omitting a Glory be, Maureen’s anxiety was palpable and poisonous. Those who claim that there’s a power in prayer need only look to Maureen for confirmation; even medication didn’t help for long. Maureen wore down her beads searching for an elusive peace, unable to realize that her prayers were the very obstacle to the peace she sought. She was fighting a losing battle. Prayer was her demon.

Historians tells us that the ancient world suffered from deisidaimonia, demon-terror. The ordinary person believed demons were everywhere, invisible but ever-hovering over your shoulder or lurking in an unopened closet, waiting for a chance to take you over, possess you, and make your life miserable. Protection from demons, and their threat of possession, came by way of incantations, amulets, formulaic rituals which needed to be performed with a certain precision. Maureen McMahon might have found herself more at home, at least less obviously different, in this milieu of demon-terror.

It’s onto that scene Jesus comes in today’s gospel and encounters the man with “an unclean spirit.” Such a designation, unclean, remains ambiguous till we look at the original Greek. The word translated as unclean is, almost literally in the Greek, “anti-cathartic.” Catharsis – relief through the release of emotion – is something we understand from literature and film. This man’s demon was literally plugging him up, inhibiting him, holding him back from acknowledging what he was feeling and thinking. What Jesus offers is freedom, the ability for the possessed to express what he feels, to say what’s on his mind and in his heart; to get things off his chest, to breathe freely. Jesus’ exorcism, in other words, is a catharsis, release from what possesses: it is freedom.
In the gospel the demons are the ones who acknowledge Jesus as “the Holy One”; they mask their destructive work with religious talk and pious platitudes. Jesus’ response is simple and direct: Be quiet, he tells them, and come out of him. Let the demons be quiet for a change; and let the person express himself. Maureen McMahon couldn’t or wouldn’t hear that command and so let her demons continue to block her up, inhibit her emotion, encumber her soul with endless fret about how to say your prayers.

Prayer, you see, is not an end but only a means. Perhaps genuine prayer is not about appeasing God as the ancients tried to appease those hovering demons. Maybe authentic prayer is not about praising God who, after all, has no need for our words. Real prayer may simply be the vehicle-of-catharsis: dissolving blockages, unclogging congestion, relieving anxiety, exorcising demons by whatever name -- freeing us up and preparing us for that promise of peace.

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