St Michael and the Presence of Evil

Purgatory by Carracci

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most of us prefer to dismiss unpleasant subjects from our minds. If we can find a specious reason for doing so, so much the better. Evil? An outmoded concept, surely? One which our clever theologians can wrap round with weasel words until we deny not only its existence but the very possibility of its existence. Then we look at the broken body of a child from Aleppo and are forced to admit: this is evil, not an abstraction we can dismiss as a figment of an over-heated imagination or simplistic reasoning. There is something more terrible here than blasphemy: a deliberate rejection of God, delight in destruction, a darkness of mind and soul so absolute that no chink of light can penetrate it.

The Catholic Church has never wavered in her understanding of evil; and in her advocacy of the the old prayer to St Michael, whose feastday this is, has expressed both her awareness of the presence of evil and her reliance on heavenly help to combat it:

St Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defence against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

Most of us can see the evil in Aleppo, but are we quite so alert to the evil in, say, Sam Allardyce’s defence of his own conduct, when he claims to be a victim of entrapment rather than a man prepared to break rules and denigrate others for the sake of money? Greed can be evil; fudging the rules can be evil; treating others with contempt can be evil; but we tend to make excuses for ourselves. It is a white lie we are telling, an understandable little human frailty that doesn’t matter very much. I’m not so sure. Every time we choose to be less than honest, less than straightforward, I think we are colluding in some degree with the crookedness of evil; and it changes us. Today it would be useful to spend a few moments thinking about some of the habits we may have fallen into and the way in which they blunt our sensitivity to good and evil. It can be a salutary shock to realise that, without being what others call wicked, we may have drifted into a state that is far from being what it ought to be. Let us ask the prayers of St Michael and All Angels to help us see what we must change and grant us the courage to do so.

Note on the illustration
St Michael rescuing souls from Purgatory — a reminder that God is more interested in saving us from evil than in condemning us.

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Watchfulness and Humility

St Benedict ends his discussion of the first step of humility with a reprise of what he said at the beginning: we must keep constant guard over our desires (RB 7.24–30). Not, you notice, over our actions alone, the concrete deeds we think of as sin, but also over our attractions and appetites, the concupiscentia that draw us from God. Benedict here confronts us with a very important truth. We sin in the will before we do or say anything sinful. We consent to that which is less than God, and that is the only chink in our armour that evil needs. Most of us probably tend to gloss over that. We don’t commit the big sins; ours are more like endearing little foibles. Only they aren’t. Compared with the infinite holiness of God, any sin, no matter how trivial it may seem, is horrible. That shouldn’t make us scrupulous in the bad sense, but sometimes we do need to cultivate an awareness of the moral significance of our thoughts and actions. We don’t occupy neutral territory.

Today is the feast of St Michael and All Angels. We usually think of St Michael as our great defender against evil, God’s champion; and so he is. But the role Benedict assigns the angels in today’s portion of the Rule is one of surveillance. They are constantly reporting on us to God, a kind of heavenly GCHQ. It is an uncomfortable image, and I think it is meant to unsettle us. Good and evil, wisdom and folly, life and death: these choices confront us every day in the detail of our lives. Only at the end will we see the whole pattern, but God sees the pattern now and he waits, tenderly, patiently, as only a loving parent can, hoping that we will amend. Our first step in humility is to become aware of God and it is only possible because he is so keenly aware of us.

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St Michael and All Angels

Many people smile when one speaks of angels. I am surprised they do not fall to the ground in terror. Angels are not the chubby putti beloved of renascence artists and sentimental Christmas cards, they are mighty spirits, messengers of God. Fire and flame attend them; they are truly awful.

‘War broke out in heaven.’ With those terrible words we enter into a spiritual reality with immense consequences for us all. The battle between good and evil, the thrusting out of Lucifer, the triumph of Michael, are events that can be understood figuratively yet at the same time make sense personally. We all know the war between good and evil in ourselves and what a close-run thing it is at times. One of the reasons I am a Catholic is that the Church is clear-eyed about this struggle and encourages everyone to hope without presuming. Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and death, once and for all, but each of us must make his triumph our own, and that is the work of a lifetime.

Today, let us pray for all who struggle; for all who believe that love and goodness are better than hatred or selfishness; who want to be what, as children of God, they are called to become; and let us ask the prayers of St Michael and all angels to defend us in the conflict that will assuredly be ours.

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