Letters to Peregrinus #36 - On He Bent Down

They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.[1]

“You're an interesting species. An interesting mix. You're capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you're not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we've found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”[2]
Dear Peregrinus (Tuesday, 3:30 PM):

One nice result of my being away this summer for the sake of some hard work on capacity-building is that you – thank you! – graciously received Letters from two people I trust, Tara and Mary,[3] whose souls are good, and who demonstrate a willingness to accept the challenge of genuine depth. I mean by “depth” that location within each of us where God is unceasingly active and powerful “underneath” the cacophonous[4] foolishness[5] that we all, and more often than we should, allow to gain our attention, and to hold it.

Thank you for the kindness of writing to ask me how I am doing in the midst of new ugliness, not just in the Church in which I have dedicated my entire adult life, but literally everywhere, in all sectors and institutions in America. Each time such things come to light in the Church, I feel a post-traumatic shock roll through me, a replaying of horrors I myself have had to live and to fight my way through. Your gentle way of being aware of me in this really matters.

It is an insight so old in our Christian tradition that we ought to have learned it by now. It is this. If we were to hunt down and purge all evildoers from among us – getting every one of them (but then none of us would be left except the self-righteous who just aren’t that bad) and filling prisons to overflowing (but we have already done that)…. If we were to do this, we would not have come one step closer to eradicating evil in the Church? We have come not one step closer to being healed. Yet healing is what we need.

 A Jesuit who was an exceptionally wise and skilled Spiritual Director for most of his life, as well as an accomplished Systematic Theologian, once said to me: “Oh Rick, I have learned that people do not want to be healed … they just want the pain to go away.”[6]

Don’t we see that it is Evil that wants us to get rid of people, not God? Don’t we see that the danger of having really bad people to hate gives us cover to hide from the truth that such people had their formation inside our community (Church, family, banking system, Religious Order, government, sub-cultures of hate, etc.)? Evil people are not born that way; they learned how in a community that excused evil behaviors –“not that bad”, that thought evildoers were the problem when we caught them, rather than the evil that took one(s) of our own into deepest trouble.[7] Evil’s purpose is gloriously fulfilled, not God’s, when we throw away people, and then imagine that we as a community are now better because we did.

Consider Christ in sharpest contrast:

Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that he may give eternal life to all you gave him. 3 Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.[8]

“I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me,[9]

and I guarded them, and none of them was lost except the son of destruction, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled. [10]

I particularly fear for the Church, and in all is institutional manifestations, because I think that it reacts to the evil that gets exposed, and then acts against the evildoers, leaving the malignant presence of Evil unexposed. No “administration of justice” (and certainly not by the civil authorities)[11] will “out” the evil, but only “out” the one who got caught.

 Christ did not come to “administer justice” in the way of the world; Christ came to destroy Evil, and even Death itself. This is what the Church must learn to understand in all this mess that we have brought upon ourselves. We have the spiritual weapons given us to use, but we act as if we have forgotten what they are, or we have concluded that they are of no practical value. I fear that we have lost our nerve.

But in all of this that I have experienced happening, especially in the Church, since I was six years old (when I first began to notice such things), I fear that we scapegoat[12] our evildoers, getting rid of them, and giving Evil a pass to remain unexposed within each of us, and in our communities. And a proof of this is that our motivation was not love in our actions taken against evildoers in our midst; rather it was fear, resentment, impatience, and even more darkly, a kind of delight that those evildoers got what was coming to them. Scapegoating. St. Paul says at Galatians 5:21 – “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

 But here, Peregrinus, is my main point. When we (or an institution) react to evil, we overlook how evil has organized our reaction and has manipulated the words and actions we choose as we set about turning our reaction into action. Then, we fail to recognize how evil has penetrated from the start both our reaction and our consequent actions, filling both with a significant degree of its malignant intention. Our reaction is like the evil that catalyzed it. We go after people and seek to blot them out, erase them, remove them permanently … which is exactly what Evil does. And we let Evil remain untouched, unexposed. There must be another more excellent way.

There is another way – “But I shall show you a still more excellent[13] way,” as St. Paul then describes in the famous verses that follow.[14]

4 *Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated,d 5 it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,e 6 it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.f [15]

Healing is what we need, and the unmasking of Evil hidden in institutional habits[16] and attitudes, in the ancient and repeating traumas still affecting us, and in the deep wounds torn into our souls by leaders fallen under the power of those malignant three: riches, honor, and pride. No administration of justice outside of the way Christ exercises justice will get us these – the healing of all of us, and the unmasking and eradication of Evil itself.

 What it comes down to for me is this, old friend.
  • If we are not about the same thing as Jesus – the profoundly challenging work of praying for and seeking to save even our enemies, those who have with impunity wrecked people, wrecked us, and who then used their power to ruin reputations and to distort Institutions sourced in the lives and actions of saints (!) – then, frankly, we have no part in God’s purposes. Period. We are healed of nothing.
  • And if we are not about teaching victims to forgive those who have damaged them, because we ourselves are credible in our insistence about this through our own experiences of being victimized, knowing what it costs a victim even to want to forgive those who hurt him or her, then, frankly, we have no part in God’s purposes, Who said, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” We heal no one and are not healed.
  • And if we are in the business of making sure people get what they deserve (oh how insidiously this motivation hides itself in the self-righteous!), rather than being skilled in the work of shattering the hardened hearts of evil-doers, and permanently, by giving them instead what they could not possibly deserve, then we have, and without a doubt, set ourselves directly against the heart of God.

In conclusion, this. At the root of all that I have shared here lies the story of Jesus narrated by John between verses 7:53 and 8:11. Evil came that day, hidden in the moral failure of a woman (but where is the man with whom she acted?) and in the men ablaze with all the righteousness of the Law and the stones the Law allowed them the use. Evil was manipulating everyone in this terrible scene, because Satan (the fool!) was set on trapping the Christ. All in the scene, other than Jesus, are responsible for what they have done or what they are about to do. They must be held accountable, or they will not see the Evil that is using them. Traps are everywhere laid. No way out. But then Jesus is sitting there. So much is given us to conclude in the deep stillness in Christ who seeing all of this, sensing the presence of Evil, recognizing the trap laid for Him too, “bent down and began to run His finger in the dirt.” The Christ is refusing to react to evil that demands that He do so – 5 Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say? …. They continued asking Him.” (8:5 & 7). Instead Jesus is entering into communion with His Father – “Father, help me. They do not know what they are doing.” And from within that communion the divine solution emerges. Jesus will not settle to save just the victim, but He will act to save everyone! “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7) It is a magnificent, completely unexpected solution! All traps left shattered; every person in that scene released from the Evil that was manipulating him and her; Death’s opportunity deftly taken from it. “Father, not one of those you gave me did I lose.”

This is what I want; the “more excellent” way. This is what I want the Church to become. Everyone set free in Christ who loves us. Everyone wiser, humbler, and forgiven.

Remember me, old friend, in your good prayers. And if you have time, then would you get right back to me that you have received this?

Rick, SJ


 [1] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 8:6.

[2] The movie Contact – see  https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118884/. This word spoken by a Being to Ellie Arroway when she has been transported to the star Vega, about which star Wikipedia notes: “Vega, also designated Alpha Lyrae, is the brightest star in the constellation of Lyra, the fifth-brightest star in the night sky, and the second-brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere, after Arcturus.”

[3] Each in turn, Dear Peregrinus Letter #34 and #35 at https://faberinstitute.com/writings/.

[4] The Oxford English Dictionary at “cacophony” – “The quality of having an ill sound; the use of harsh-sounding words or phrases. (The opposite of euphony.)” This noun sounds like what it means; that is, the word is “onomatopoetic – “The formation of a word from a sound associated with the thing or action being named; the formation of words imitative of sounds. Occasionally: the fact or quality of being onomatopoeic.”

[5] The Oxford English Dictionary at “fool” – “One who is deficient in [good] judgment or [common] sense.” Note that a “fool” often is used to describe or to characterize a person, when in fact it is a word meant to indicate a deficiency in the intellectual powers noticed in what could be an otherwise good person. Little children are often “foolish” because their cognitive capacities are still undeveloped and still untrained.
[6] This Jesuit was Fr. John Hickey Wright, SJ, who was the Director of my Licentiate thesis on Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, but who was a deeply valued friend of mine – a man who accepted that Deep Way that any who would become wise must go.
[7] Coach Lou Holtz once quipped: “Don’t tell your problems to people. Eighty percent don’t care, and the other twenty percent are glad that you have them.”

[8] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 17:1–3.

[9] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 17:6.

[10] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 17:12.

[11] We fully grasp when civil crimes are that – crimes. And that any criminality among us must submit to civil authorities. My point here is that the Civil Authority does not understand Evil, and so has no power to eradicate it. Rather the Civil Authority suffers the effects of Evil’s influence on people and acts to protect people from one particular manifestation of it – manifested in a particular person.

[12] Rene Girard, the French literary critic, whose thoughts about “scapegoating” are of exceptional and wide-ranging significance, fully elaborates how human beings, in order to avoid having exposed their own complicity in the banalities of evil, will find one person, one group of people, one nation, one race, and blame them for the evils we suffer, and then to punish or destroy them as a “solution” to our unsettled conscience. The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “scapegoat” – “In the Mosaic ritual of the Day of Atonement (Lev. xvi), that one of two goats that was chosen by lot to be sent alive into the wilderness [to die], the sins of the people having been symbolically laid upon it, while the other was appointed to be sacrificed.”

[13] The Oxford English Dictionary at “excellent” – “Of a person or thing: That excels or surpasses in any respect; preëminent, superior, supreme. Of qualities: Existing in a greater, or an exceptionally great, degree.”

[14] See 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.

* This paragraph is developed by personification and enumeration, defining love by what it does or does not do. The Greek contains fifteen verbs; it is natural to translate many of them by adjectives in English.

d Eph 4:2 / 1 Cor 4:6, 18; 5:2; 8:1.

e 10:24, 33; Phil 2:4, 21; 1 Thes 5:15.

f Prv 10:12; 1 Pt 4:8.

[15] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), 1 Co 13:4–7.

[16] Clericalism is one of these habits that has always been possible when both clerics and all the rest of the non-ordained Church collaborate in establishing it and sustaining it. The abuse of power in our leaders fallen for that lethal three, that has destroyed so many formerly good and well-meaning people: riches, honor, and pride. Sexism is another attitude spawning so many ill habits.

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