Spiritual Childhood and Demonic Pride

This article was a homily given on Wednesday, July 13, 2022, at a Votive Mass of Saint Joseph at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC during the Apostoli Viae Investiture Retreat.

Readings for Wednesday of the Fifteenth Week of Ordinary Time: Isaiah 10:5-7, 13b-16; Matthew 11:25-27

Something that I hold as a treasure in my heart as a priest is not only the members of Apostoli Viae, my past and current parishioners, and spiritual directees, but especially my own family. I am blessed to have three godchildren, two nephews, and a niece. I remember three years ago when my nephew Shane was four months old, and my parents babysat him when I was home on my off day from the parish. I decided to offer mass in English in the Ordinary Form for my mother and father and my baby nephew, Shane, who was in attendance. I remember, after finishing the Roman Canon, beginning to pray the Our Father in English. Shane, barely six months old at the time, starts saying, “buh buh bub buh buh. Buh buh bub buh buh.” It was like he was trying to pray along with me. It was a kiss from God moment. I told my sister Colleen later  that evening what had happened, and she said, “Oh, I pray the Our Father with him every night before I put him to bed.”

“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.” Jesus today wants to remind me of my identity in Him as a Child of God and the power of this great gift.

What does it mean to be childlike? Elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke (10:21), Jesus uses the word little ones in reference to being childlike. As disciples of Jesus Christ and members of Apostoli Viae, this is at the heart of the interior life- this child-like identity and disposition in Christ. Like learning how to pray when we were a baby verbally and then early in the interior life through the way of contemplation, both our prayer and our community life may often sound and look like a jumbled mess. Yet what matters is that when we pray, we invite the Lord of Heaven and Earth into the imperfect yet messy cry of our prayer and our lives in all humility and trust and with no presumption. In this position of receptivity, the Father will always be there to assist us. Saint Therese of Lisieux reflects on this childlike desire for sanctity while reflecting upon a chance to play the role of Saint Joan of Arc in a convent play:

Then I received a grace which I have always looked upon as one of the greatest in my life because at that age I wasn’t receiving the lights I’m now receiving when I am flooded with them. I considered that I was born for glory…after seven years in the religious life, I still am weak and imperfect. I always feel, however, the same bold confidence of becoming a great Saint because I don’t count on my merits since I have none, but I trust in Him who is Virtue and Holiness. God alone, content with my weak efforts will raise me to Himself and make me a Saint, clothing me in His infinite merits. (Story of a Soul, Ms A 32r)

When we unite the brokenness and messes in our lives to the infinite merits of the cross of Christ, the Lord always takes delight in the offering we make. He then plants and nourishes a seed in us by which we begin to share more fully in the mysteries of his passion, death, and resurrection in the mysteries of our own interior life, even when its a joyful, garbled mess.

If we are not vigilant along the way of faith through humility, we can become like the Assyrian, who “seizes plunder, carries off loot, and treads them down like the mud of the streets. But this is not what he intends, nor does he have this in mind.”  The Assyrian represents demonic pride that can so often be subtle in its influence on our hearts, minds, and wills. It also represents carnal wisdom that blinds us from seeing the workings of the Lord and hearing His voice for what they are in themselves. Like a child throwing a temper tantrum, or desiring control solely on its own terms, I can so often focus solely on my own will and what I want to do for the Lord. These expectations are often filled with good intentions yet often can be distracted by activism, my desire for control, self-interest, and vainglory. If the way of contemplation and discipleship that the Lord calls me to embrace becomes just about how I will serve on my terms, what I am owed, or retribution then I will follow an apparent angel of light who is a deceiver. Without such child-like vigilance, I easily can reecho the cry of Lucifer, I will not serve. This cry would later be reechoed by the satanist Alister Crowley as well as modern relativism, woke culture, the heresy of modernism so rampant in our society and even corners of the church. This demonic prideful cry can be heard as I will do as I want as the whole of the law regardless of the eternal consequences on myself or others. Such a cry often comes from a wounded, hardened heart and can lead one subtly down the road to scandal, apostasy, and destruction. For the Lord to heal and to rip this spirit from our hearts, we must be willing to be stripped of this pride so that the love of God may be fully perfected in us. Saint John of the Cross speaks of the reality of this necessary purification and how it leads each disciple to a share in the cross of Jesus through the contemplative life:  

People must be emptied of all such things, insofar as they can, so that however many supernatural experiences they may receive, they will continually live as though denuded of them and in darkness. Like the blind, they must lean on dark faith, accept it for guide and light, and rest upon none of the things of what they understand, experience, feel, and imagine. All these perceptions are darkness that will lead them astray. Faith lies beyond all this understanding, taste, feeling, and imagining. If they do not blind themselves in these things and abide in total darkness, they will not reach what is greater: the teaching of faith. (Ascent of Mount Carmel 2.4.2).

Such prideful clinging onto things in the mold of the Assyrian can only be overcome by the surrender and love of Jesus on the cross. This stripping of the heart is also prophesied by Isaiah when he says, “Therefore the Lord, the LORD of hosts, will send among his fat ones leanness, And instead of his glory there will be kindling like the kindling of fire.” The leanness and kindling of fire he speaks of is the purifying grace of the interior life foreshadowed by the dark night of the senses and dark night of the soul. These purifications allow the love of God to be truly perfected in us by His grace so that we can love Him, his graces, and the gifts of his creations according to His divine order as He desires it. This is so important as disciples of Jesus and members of Apostoli Viae that we remember that the blessings and gifts that God gives us in the interior life only have value insofar as they perfect in us the spousal love of divine union. Insofar as they turn us inward and puff us up, such things can become dangerous distractions that lead us to the demonic pride of the Assyrian. This purifying grace in the often dark walk of the interior life is exemplified by Jesus’ cries on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” (Lk 23:34) and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Lk 23:46) In these acts and ultimately in his laying down of his life and shedding his blood, Jesus delivers all things, even our hopes and darkness to the Father for our salvation. 

Jesus also gives us the Immaculate Virgin Mary under her title of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Saint Joseph as intercessors and aids.  Our Lady in her fiat, her yes, had many expectations fill her heart. She always allowed the way of prayer, trust, and love to anchor the desires of her heart. Her hopeful trust and surrender allowed her to fulfill the divine expectations of salvation history in her call to be the Mother of God. This humble docility and receptivity was the anchor that gave her strength and light amidst the darkness as she assisted her son in his early life and public ministry, stood by him at the cross, held him in her arms before his burial, and awaited in hope for his resurrection. These dispositions are what the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel represents – a shedding of our expectations and desires and a putting on the desires of Jesus through the intercession and care of His Mother Mary.

Saint Joseph also fulfilled this role in his presence, his prayerful attentiveness and willingness to act from his prayer. In this disposition of faith, he would be blessed to accept a sacred trust, a stewardship of fatherhood and faith. This is seen in the blessing bestowed on him by God to behold with his eyes and to hold and guard in his arms Jesus, the Eternal Word, the Son of God as his own son and to love and protect Mary as his wife. This role is what Saint John also was entrusted with when he stands in for Joseph at the foot of the cross and takes Mary into his heart and home to be his mother. (Cf. Jn 19:25-27) This role like our living out of the Charism of Apostoli Viae is what binds our community together as a family of faith that is a new expression of the spirit of Carmel in the life of the Church. This great gift from God is a mystery that does not entirely belong to us.  It is a grace freely given by God to us and His Church we are called to embrace, faithfully guard, and cooperate with according to His will. This is so that we might do the one thing that is necessary in His eyes – enter into the heart of Jesus our beloved through Our Lady and His Cross and love with His own Sacred Heart through our daily living out of the interior life.

We now pray to Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Saint Joseph, Terror of Demons and Guardian of the Redeemer, that at this mass Jesus in the Eucharist may give us anew the grace of childlike faith and trust to embrace anew the call to live, light, and lead the way of union with Him. We also pray that Jesus may purify our hearts of the demonic pride of the Assyrian so that both in prayer and works, no matter how messy or imperfect they may be, we may be purified and truly focused on his call to divine union that he offers through the charism of Apostoli Viae. Through this Charism of Apostoli Viae, may we always abide in His love of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus no matter what we may face on the road before us.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

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