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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Screwtape, Distraction and a Weekend with the Boys...

It is commonly suggested within Christian circles that the Devil will not attack humanity with horns, a pitchfork and flames burning within and around him (outside of Tim Curry in the Hollywood flop, Legend).  Instead, he attacks in the temptations we are prone to covet and in the subtleties and distractions that keep our focus away from God and on the mundane and quotidian. 

C.S. Lewis' fictional character Screwtape, the senior demon writing to his apprentice and nephew Wormwood, in The Screwtape Letters, got it right when he wrote, “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”  

Not to belabor the point, but, as I wrote in my last blog, the last few months have been a bit hectic for me, to say the least.  At times, I've felt like I've been treading water, just trying to keep my head afloat, with the day-to-day grind of work, the stress and anxieties that come with the demands of a rigorous work schedule, and, thus, the distractions that ensue.

In other words, my mind has been more preoccupied with the temporal, mundane and quotidian than the eternal.

Unfortunately, it couldn't have come at a less opportune time (Then again, it all depends on what side of the opportunity you're on!).

Several months ago, I was selected to lead a spiritual retreat to help bring men closer to God at my parish.  At about the same time, I took on a new role at work and, let's just say, work won!  I let my job consume me,  affecting, not only my spiritual life, but my home life in the process.

Yet, to be honest, I didn't see it until a few weeks ago, as we were fast approaching the retreat weekend and I was telling a good friend about how busy I had been and how difficult it was for me to concentrate on preparing the topics for discussion for the men and even praying. 

In 2009, when I led the same retreat, I was in a zone.  I was reading the Bible every morning, praying from almost the time I woke up until I went to bed (Not continuously, but in an open-ended conversation with God), going to Confession every two to three weeks, reflecting and giving thought to the meeting topics and partaking and receiving the Eucharist on a daily basis.

This time around, it was a challenge.

I was so absorbed with my job that, while I was praying every day, it was not as deep or with the same intensity as I was doing the first time around.  I wasn't reading scriptures on a daily basis.  I went extended periods, at times eight to ten weeks, without going to Confession, and aside from Sundays and Fridays (when I lector), I was finding it difficult to make it to daily Mass.  Moreover, there were many weeks (if not most!) when our meeting topics were decided on the morning of! 

It was a bit discouraging because I felt like I was failing the men, who entrusted me to lead the retreat. 

In any case, before I carried on about all the things that were happening at work, my feelings of dejection and hints of fear and anxiety that were enveloping me (And, to think, he was only calling to say he couldn't make it to an upcoming meeting and asked how I was doing!), my friend stopped me in my tracks and said, "Carlos, you know you are under attack, right?" 

Say, what? I thought.

"You're leading this retreat and the Devil knows it," he went on.  "Remember, when I led?  I had a fire and flood at my house!"  How could I forget?  Some of the guys joked that the locust and frogs weren't far behind! 

His words resonated within me.  It was like the heavens opened and the choir of angels sang.  I hadn't even realized it.  In fact, I was too engrossed to realize it!  It all suddenly made sense; the busyness, the stress and sleepless nights, the constant turmoil at work (and sometimes at home).  They were all distractions!  I was being led astray without even knowing it.

As C.S. Lewis' Screwtape would write, “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” 

Sin separates us from God, as another friend pointed out the first night of the retreat, and when we're not focused on God, it is easy to fall into sin.  We are sitting ducks to the temptations of life, just waiting to be shot down. Now, fortunately for us, there is no sin that is greater than God's love.

As I told a friend on the way to the retreat house, "It's amazing how every time I go to Confession; no matter what I do, no matter how many times repeat the same sins and no matter how I feel, the priest always forgives me!" (As long as I'm repentant!)

In a nutshell, that's the message we conveyed to the seventeen men that attended the retreat for the first time. 

It's the story of The Prodigal Son, who betrays his father by asking for his inheritance before his father's death, moves to a foreign land and blows it on a life of debauchery, only to find himself in a famine and working in pig slop.  He comes to his senses, repents and heads back home to ask for forgiveness.  If you think about it, it's the story of every one of us at one point or another.

His father, not only forgives him but, throws a huge celebration upon his return because, "This son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found."

After the conversation with my two-Egyptian-plague friend, by the time the retreat came around, I was finally in that spiritual zone that had eluded me for months.  Our team of over twenty-five men came together, as we always do, and we had a wonderful weekend of bonding, camaraderie and goodwill.  In the full sense, it was a true demonstration of loving God through loving our neighbor.

Author and Boston College Professor, Peter Kreeft once wrote, “Our culture has filled our heads but emptied our hearts, stuffed our wallets but starved our wonder. It has fed our thirst for facts but not for meaning or mystery. It produces "nice" people, not heroes.”

While, most of the men on the team would balk at being called heroes, heroic is what they do every six months at the retreats.  With God's help, they have changed lives, including mine and most of the men who are involved year after year.  They have saved marriages and restored families. 

But, it all starts with each man, who at times, like me, may not be "feeling it" because of distractions, or, may even, be feeling the full weight of his own cross, but grinds it out and is obedient and faithful to God, in spite of it.

As Screwtape acknowledged, “Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy (God)'s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”...


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