By Jon Chalmers
When we say the Our Father in the Mass, we close our communal prayer with the phrase, “But deliver us from evil,” and then the priest continues with a prayer that expands on that last petition. The celebrant prays:
Deliver us, Lord, we pray from every evil
graciously grant peace in our days,
that, by the help of your mercy,
we may be always free from sin
and safe from all distress,
as we await the blessed hope
and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Those 47 words are followed by the Doxology but we want to focus a moment on the particularity of what is being asked. This prayer is called an embolism, which is funny if you are familiar with the medical meaning of the same word, but in the liturgy the embolism has been present in Catholic prayer since the first century. Which is to say that this expansion of the Lord’s Prayer is part of how the Church in its tradition understands being delivered from evil, something that is as pressing to us now, despite the progress of civilization, as it was then.
Like many prayers and much of scripture, the important part is what happens in the center, between the bookends, if you will, of the introduction and ending. We pray to be free from sin and safe from all distress. You probably remember the older, less literal translation asks us to be free from sin and protected from all anxiety. In the Latin of the source language, regardless of the translation, there are these two words about sin and disquiet or anxiety that are important for us to hold in tension this day.
As Catholics, we are very familiar with sin but it strikes me that we don’t talk as often about anxiety; and that is unfortunate because we can’t fully understand the dark forces in life without understanding that these are distinct but also very much related concepts. And aside from our ancient prayers, the gospels themselves name the forces of hell in two very different ways: they speak of the Devil and they speak of Satan, of the diabolical and the satanic.
In the way we use language, we think of these as being the same: some guy in a red suit and tail goading us into doing that which is bad or wrong. But that’s not right. They have two different meanings. The devil, the diabolical, means to divide and to tear apart. Satan, or the satanic, means the complete opposite, a sort of frenzied group-think that makes us do stupid actions. In essence, the gospels tell us that the forces of hell work in two different ways: they divide us from God, from what is good in each other, and from what is good within us; and they unite us to each other in sick and perverted ways. So we might well understand sin that separates us from God as the work of the devil; it is equally important to remember those times when we come together in evil ways, like lynch-mobs that lead to crucifixions, as the work of Satan.
These forces of hell enter us through the same door, the path of envy and anxiety that reduces our spiritual immune system and allows evil inside. I’m not a psychiatrist, obviously, but the works of anxiety and discontentment have spiritual as well as emotional effects. We’ve known this for a long time. Remember that envy is so important that it is mentioned twice in the Ten Commandments, the only repeated admonition. And we see it all around us today. We come to sin when we are most afraid, most anxious, most stressed. We know this from our experience while driving on the highways, in our personal lives when under duress, and in our communal lives when under stress and depression. Sin, the effects of the forces of evil, affects us most when we are most anxious and there is a connection between health and healing, and between wholeness and holiness.
We need to remember this when pondering the readings for today.
In the passage from Corinthians, Paul makes reference to anxiety five times. The passage comes in the midst of an extended answer to an unknown question the Corinthians posed to him about marriage. And while it is touching that Paul expects spouses are anxious about pleasing the other (we’d have a lot less divorce in the world if this was true) the important element is to note that all people suffer from unease, all suffer from anxieties, and Paul wishes it just wasn’t so. He is asking what we pray in the embolism of the Our Father, that we may be safe from distress because that is part and parcel to how we are delivered from evil.
In the Gospel account, Jesus conducts a teaching and a healing at Capernaum. Where scribes used to only appeal to Scripture and reasoning, Jesus obviously taught with boldness and confidence. And then he turns his attention to the man with the ‘unclean spirit.’ It is an interesting turn of phrase and one that requires us to think it through. The purpose of the phrase is to note that the man’s problem is not a matter of ritual purity or impoliteness but rather an evil force possesses him. The man’s behavior was due to an outside force under the direction of Satan. And in the first chapter of Mark we know that Jesus contends with Satan, with the force that causes us to align with our most self-centered inclinations. The fact that Jesus was able to cure the possessed man by word alone and without ritual or magical displays heightens his power. And we see the intrinsic connection between the word and healing, the authority of Jesus teaching made manifest even to the unclean spirits.
So we should be very aware that sin and distress are both related to evil. We should know that sin and distress are the mutually reinforcing cause and effect of that which is unhealthy and unholy.
This past week marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. We have no greater example of the evil that occurs when a national community is gripped with anxiety about its place in the world. Closer to home, the plague of domestic violence occurs most often when the abusers are insecure and in distress. The causes of violence in our homes are often envy, jealousy, and anxiety; the very distress we pray to be safe from. Even on the roadways, rage and bad choices are made in when we are most stressed, most anxious.
The forces of evil in the world are not just the choices we make, those decisions we call sin. The forces of evil are also in the distress, the anxiety that leads us to those choices in the first place. And despite the technological progress of our civilization there is still no better antidote, no better medicine, for these evils in our lives than cultivating what Jesus taught 2000 years ago. He taught with authority, he healed people both physically and spiritually, and he reminds us all that our wellbeing in the present and our expectation for the future are grounded in faith, hope and love.
The Rev. Jon Chalmers is president of Christo Rey School in Birmingham, Alabama and pastor of Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Gate City, Alabama.