Letters to Peregrinus #58 - On the Rule of Eight

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902), The Swine Driven into the Sea (Les porcs précipités dans la mer), 1886-1896. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, Image: 10 3/16 x 6 11/16 in. (25.9 x 17 cm). Brooklyn Museum. See Mark 5:1-20, but verse 13 in particular.
“For a word to be spoken,” Ged answered slowly, “there must be silence. Before, and after.” [Guin, Ursula K. Le. A Wizard of Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle Series Book 1), p. 194. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.]

“For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing.” [Guin, Ursula K. Le. A Wizard of Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle Series Book 1), p. 54. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.]

Genesis 218 The Lord God said: It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him.* 19 So the Lord God formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each living creature was then its name. 20 The man gave names to all the tame animals, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals; but none proved to be a helper suited to the man.[1]

Mark 59 *Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “Legion is my name. There are many of us.”b [2]
Dear Peregrinus (Saturday in Mother’s Day Weekend):

I greet you warmly and acknowledge how it is likely true that you and I will be remembering our mothers this weekend. I still find it fascinating that I call my mother “mom” and never by her first name, Doris. She was not a “role”, such that I would want to keep her locked inside it; she was far more than a role. She was a presence. That is different. I am convinced that even in Heaven, when I meet her again, I will greet her the way that I always did: “Hey, mom!”, and not with “Hello, Doris.”

My mom died in November 2009. I presided and preached her funeral at the Church of St. Aloysius in Spokane, WA (where I did the same for my dad[3] in March of 2004). My siblings looked after the eloquent eulogies (through which I learned things about my parents that I did not know until then). They also worked hard at the works of hospitality for all who came to pray with us and to remember.
After the funeral, still rattled by having led the Ritual, I saw approaching me an elderly woman, a doughty[4] woman bright with forthrightness. Her name was Dory. She grabbed my hands into hers and looking up into my face (she was much shorter than I), said this, “Rick, I hope that you are looking forward to a profound development in your relationship to your mom.” I still search the depths of that comment, the single most important remark that I have ever heard about death, but also about the “communion of saints”.[5]
How, Peregrinus, has your relationship with your mom grown and deepened over the years since she died?

The Watchful Emptiness

Years before I gained insight into Mark 5:1-20, I felt its power, its effect in me.
How often God has worked in this way, opening a way in us with His words and deeds (in the biblical texts), creating a “space” within us for a much-later reception of a particular divine teaching.
Hebrews 412 Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.f[6]

This availability to be taught, which the Spirit creates in us – “a vacancy for God”[7] - is at least as important as the understanding that comes later, when God knows that we are ready for it.
We may wait a long time for that understanding,[8] but God is never bothered in the least by our time-lines. God is not in time; God is on time.
1 Corinthians 2 – For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God. 11 Among human beings, who knows what pertains to a person except the spirit of the person that is within? Similarly, no one knows what pertains to God except the Spirit of God. 12 We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we speak about them not with words taught by human wisdom, but with words taught by the Spirit, describing spiritual realities in spiritual terms.* [9]

A great Teacher always knows about both the emptiness that he or she needs to open in his or her students,[10] and about timeliness, about when they have become ready for a particular insight. I like to think of God, the Master Teacher, as possessing “a watchful, elegant mind” (an expression from a poem by Gary Snyder[11]).

The Man with too Many Names

The opening scene of Mark 5 concerns a man of frightening reputation, of repulsive manners, a suppurated[12] wound of a personality. He was, we might say, “acquainted with grief.” [13]
Isaiah 53 –
He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye,
    no beauty to draw us to him.
 He was spurned and avoided by men,
    a man of suffering, knowing pain,
 Like one from whom you turn your face,
    spurned, and we held him in no esteem.c [14]

Such terrible grief! Just being seen by the “normal” people was for him trauma. He could not bear to see the look on their faces as they looked at him, reacting to what they saw.[15]
The insight came when, finally, I paid attention to what specifically Jesus did when He came to a stop in front of this man, standing His ground even when the man charged at him wanting to scare Him away. What was it?
Jesus, the Master Teacher, opened within Himself an emptiness so vast – what the divine compassion causes in all who feel it – that even this man of too many names could enter there. And when he entered that profound stillness, he could hear for the first time in so many years someone saying his name, his true name – the one Jesus selected out of the hundred names - speaking it quietly into the space between them.
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.[16]
Of all the things that Jesus could have done, He did the one elegant, piercingly accurate, and necessary thing: Jesus asked the man his name (I will call him John), though the Lord already knew it.
Mark 5 9 He asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “Legion is my name. There are many of us.”[17]

I heard Jesus saying, “Quiet, John! Be still now.” and then this: “I know you, friend. My name is Jesus. But I think that you sense that I am something more than my name … and so are you. Take my hand and see that you need not fear Me. It is time for you to come home.”

The man with too many names, and too many years, had been haunted by the sound of all the ugly, hateful, ignorant, mean-spirited, mocking, cruel names that he had been called, those names multiplying out there the more broken he became.[18]
Over time, he became the names that he was called.[19]
“You are ugly, scary, smelly, violent, gross, not-us, not-needed, not-wanted, a blight on the neighborhood, a fool, a failure, dangerous, a man of no expectations, an object-lesson about who not to become, dumb, of no worth to any of us, a man repulsive to God and an embarrassment to your family….”
The vast loneliness of this man! And to this vast loneliness Jesus gives a vast and watchful emptiness – a welcoming vacancy in Jesus’ heart to receive him.
Peregrinus, this is what I came to understand.
Jesus deliberately chose to cross the Sea of Tiberias that day. He had heard report of this man, whose personal name no one seemed to know. Unknown to His disciples, Jesus had inquired about him, asking whether anyone knew from what town he came and of what family there, and as to his personal name. No one else had cared to find out. Why should they? They already knew what this man was – a demon-possessed man, an aggressive ugliness to be avoided.
Jesus found out. He gained knowledge of his town, of his family, and of his personal name. It was time. The Lord went out to find him.
Luke 154 “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? 5 And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance. [20]

(I was struck by the number one hundred (Latin “legion”) that structures this famous parable.)

Jesus called His disciples into the boat and asked them to set out for that farther shore. They had no idea why or what He intended there. But the Sea knew it; the Sea knew Him! (Remember that the Sea, the deep waters were at that time and in that culture a place where the untamed evil powers operated.) Violently, the Sea arose (Mark 4:35-41), doing all it could to stop Jesus’ progress across its roiling surface towards “the Gerasene demoniac”[21] who dwelt nearby the opposite shore (close enough for the pigs to rush into the sea [Mark 5:13]).
And to this violence, the Lord spoke.
Mark 4 39 Jesus woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!”* The wind ceased and there was great calm. 40 Then he asked them, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?”[22]

The Sea expresses externally what the man on the farther shore had experienced internally for years. Jesus’ word addressed to the Sea is the same word that He spoke to the man … and with the same result – “and there was great calm”.

Mark 515 As they approached Jesus, they caught sight of the man who had been possessed by Legion, sitting there clothed and in his right mind. And they were seized with fear.[23]

The Rule of Eight

Name-calling is far more dangerous than, apparently, we believe in our national moment. We call each other names all the time.[24] Daily I hear examples of it. It has become an American habit, and it is hurting us badly.

 “Quiet! Be still!”
When a habit is a bad one, it damages relationships, makes us far less able, or willing, to trust each other. And a cultivated unholy habit such as this, one that we train and strive to get good at, is what we call a vice.[25] And vices make people vicious. [26]
So, then, the Rule of Eight – “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16; or Deuteronomy 5:20).[27]
About this command, one source writes:
2468 Truth as uprightness in human action and speech is called truthfulness, sincerity, or candor. Truth or truthfulness is the virtue which consists in showing oneself true in deeds and truthful in words, and in guarding against duplicity, dissimulation, and hypocrisy.
2469 “We could not live with one another if there were not mutual confidence that we were being truthful with one another.”263 The virtue of truth gives another his or her just due. Truthfulness keeps to the just mean between what ought to be expressed and what ought to be kept secret: it entails honesty and discretion. In justice, “as a matter of honor, one person owes it to another to manifest the truth.”264 [28]

Name-calling (as well as its malign[29] twin gossip) is an unholy habit that the Rule of Eight names and against which it warns.[30]
But what is one to do?
The way to defeat a bad habit (a vice) is not simply to stop practicing the habit.[31] Instead, a person must begin to train himself or herself in a good habit that counters the bad one. When a person through long and diligent effort cultivates that good habit, its power and effect in us dulls and dissipates the seductive “pull” of the bad habit it opposes.[32]
Good habits drive out bad ones.
What would America be like over time if we Christians (but also those of all the great Religions), person by person, group by group, trained ourselves in the habits of holy gossiping and true witnessing – getting really good at these habits?
What if we became adepts[33] through grace at discerning quicker than anyone else the falseness in false-witness and the guile[34] in gossip?
What if we found it so much more gratifying to be perceptive, delighting to know what is real and then enjoying our ability to give real things their right names?
What if we ceased to tattle[35], or to prattle on[36] about, the obtuseness of a person or thing and, instead, with eloquence, we magnified the goodness therein, helping all of us see that more clearly?
Peregrinus, I feel hope kindle in me when I know that we can be good to and for and because of one another, losing all taste for the dark flavors enjoyed at the table of false witness.
A human being is essentially
a spirit-eye.
Whatever you really see,
you are that.[37]
Well, old friend, it has now become Mother’s Day, this second Sunday in May. I wanted to complete this Letter on this day, and now I have. I am grateful to your mom and dad for saying “yes” to the great Mystery, with the happy result that you came into the world and became so dear a friend of mine.
I am with you in Christ,


* Helper suited to him: lit., “a helper in accord with him.” “Helper” need not imply subordination, for God is called a helper (Dt 33:7; Ps 46:2). The language suggests a profound affinity between the man and the woman and a relationship that is supportive and nurturing.

[1] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Ge 2:18–20.

* Legion is my name: the demons were numerous, and the condition of the possessed man was extremely serious; cf. Mt 12:45.

Mt 12:45; Lk 8:2; 11:26.

[2] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mk 5:9.

[3] Hmm. Actually, I did the funeral for my family (not “for” dad) and for all those who came to pray and to remember. Perhaps it is much closer to the truth for me to say that I did that funeral with my dad and for my family and all who attended it.
[4] The Oxford English Dictionary at the adjective “doughty” – “Of a person: possessing courage and determination; brave, bold, resolute. In early use also as a general term of approbation: †good, worthy, noble (obsolete).”

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church - 957 Communion with the saints. “It is not merely by the title of example that we cherish the memory of those in heaven; we seek, rather, that by this devotion to the exercise of fraternal charity the union of the whole Church in the Spirit may be strengthened. Exactly as Christian communion among our fellow pilgrims brings us closer to Christ, so our communion with the saints joins us to Christ, from whom as from its fountain and head issues all grace, and the life of the People of God itself”: We worship Christ as God’s Son; we love the martyrs as the Lord’s disciples and imitators, and rightly so because of their matchless devotion towards their king and master. May we also be their companions and fellow disciples!” [Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 249–250.]

Wis 18:15–16; Is 49:2; Eph 6:17; Rev 1:16; 2:12.

[6] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Heb 4:12.

[7] I am quite sure that I encountered this lovely expression in St. Thomas Aquinas, OP, but where it is in his writings I cannot recall. I believe that it was his way of articulating something central about his experience, and understanding, of celibacy – “the state of living unmarried.” All human beings must learn, over time, how to be, and to achieve a steady-state habit of chastity. Far fewer practice chastity as a Vow through a sacrificial commitment to live unmarried and without children of his or her own. The great challenge of celibacy does not consist in “no sex”; rather it is being compelled to live among people who have significantly damaged capacities for friendship among themselves. (This is a generalization, which means that it is generally the case, but with a few exceptions.)

[8] It is not uncommon in my experience that the greater understandings take ten to twenty years for me finally to receive. This may be an uncomfortable acknowledgement of my exceptional denseness! But the main point: the understanding that God gives to us is not merely the answer to questions that we pose to God – “I have this question,” to which God responds, “Well, Rick, here is the answer.” No, the great understandings include, must include, time for me, in this case, to grow up, to have gained more experience. If we have not grown up enough, then we will misunderstand what God means by a particular teaching. Remember how often in Mark’s Gospel Jesus commands his disciples not to tell others about what they were seeing Jesus do. Jesus knew, as a great Teacher knows, when his or her students need to grow up more in order to understand what just happened.

* In spiritual terms: The Spirit teaches spiritual people a new mode of perception (1 Cor 2:12) and an appropriate language by which they can share their self-understanding, their knowledge about what God has done in them. The final phrase in 1 Cor 2:13 can also be translated “describing spiritual realities to spiritual people,” in which case it prepares for 1 Cor 2:14–16.

[9] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), 1 Co 2:10–13.

[10] It is way beyond the power of even the greatest teacher to open such an emptiness in his or her students. Only the Spirit can do that. But a great teacher learns to wait for that to happen, to recognize the signs in his or her students that it has come about. What is in the power of a teacher to do is to stop such an emptiness from happening, to ignore its importance in the work of teaching. In such a case, it would be my conviction that the person standing up there in front has ceased to be a Teacher. He or she is merely more Noise in the world – 1 Corinthians 13: If I speak in human and angelic tongues* but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. [10]

[11] Gary Snyder, “What You Should Know to be a Poet.”

[12] The Oxford English Dictionary at the verb “to suppurate” – “transitive. To cause the formation of pus in or the discharge of pus from (an area of the body); to ripen (an abscess).”

[13] My Lord, I have met such persons far more than I ever guessed that I would! We human beings are, at times, a very rough lot. A wag I knew well once described many in his Religious Order as “wounded wounders” (a riff on the title of a famous book by Henry Nouwen – The Wounded Healer).

Jb 19:18; Ps 31:11–13; Mk 9:11.

[14] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Is 53:2–3.

[15] “To look at” someone is not the same thing as really “seeing” him or her. I remember my mom’s remonstrance, “Rick, don’t gawk!” (“To gawk” means “to stare or to gape stupidly” at someone.)

[16] George Herbert (1593-1633), “Love III” – the opening lines of this magnificent poem.

[17] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mk 5:9.

[18] It took me years to get free of a name that I was called by a bully when I was in first grade: “Egg head”, he called me. Apparently, my head, in his estimation, was overly big for my boy-body. The way that he said that name – Egg head! -  and loudly in front of my boy and girl peers, shamed me. I believed that I was misshapen. That name took on the force of a “demon” operating like a vandal inside of me. I could not get rid of that sound for years – his voice; the cruelty in it.

[19] The text speaks of “demons”. The man owns up that he is home to one hundred of them. I think it useful to consider the way that names that we call others can become “forces” or “powers” – destructive powers - operating inside the scorned person’s personality. The Greek root of the English word “demon” means first “a power”, which later became associated with evil powers. My point is that name-calling is a doorway that we tear into the personality of another, through wound which evil can enter. A person can begin to believe that these cruel names are who he or she is. Bearing false witness is a habit with lethal consequences, which is why God, and why we, need to be especially resistant to name-calling or allowing others to do so in our presence.

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

[21] The man dwelt in a cemetery located nearby the shore, close enough for the pigs to rush into it (Mark 5:13).
* Quiet! Be still!: as in the case of silencing a demon (Mk 1:25), Jesus rebukes the wind and subdues the turbulence of the sea by a mere word; see note on Mt 8:26.

[22] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mk 4:39–40.

[23] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mk 5:15.

[24] Or we take from a person his or her name, a person about whom we have heard report but whom we have never bothered to befriend, turning his or her personal name into a slogan.

[25] The Oxford English Dictionary at “vice” – “Depravity or corruption of morals; evil, immoral, or wicked habits or conduct; indulgence in degrading pleasures or practices.”

[26] The Oxford English Dictionary at the adjective “vicious” – “Falling short of, or varying from, what is morally or practically commendable; reprehensible, blameworthy, mischievous.” I think that this definition as applied to humans is too soft, too genteel, for what a vicious person is and does to others, and to himself or herself. For this reason, I prefer that it be applied to humans how this same dictionary applies this term to animals: “Of animals (esp. horses): Inclined to be savage or dangerous, or to show bad temper; not submitting to be thoroughly tamed or broken-in.”

[27] In the Catholic counting of the “Ten Commandments”, this is the 8th Commandment, while in other enumerations, this is listed as the 9th Commandment (in lists that combine the 9th and 10th Commandments into one command against ungoverned desire controlling a person – covetousness. In the Jewish understanding, what Christians all the “Ten Commandments”, they speak of as the first ten of the 613 Commandments of God – “The Ten Commandments are the first ten of the 613 commandments given by God to the Jewish people. They form the foundation of Jewish ethics, behavior and responsibility. These commandments are mentioned in order twice in the Torah - once each in the Book of Exodus and the Book of Deuteronomy.” See: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-ten-commandments.

To see how the different Jewish and Christian traditions number the Ten Commandments, see the helpful Table given here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Commandments.

*263 St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II–II, 109, 3 ad 1.

*264 St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II–II, 109, 3, corp. art.

[28] Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 592. A point of concern that I have with the Catechism’s emphasis is that it consistently interprets the Ten Commandments as being about God, about how we humans are expected to treat God and to preserve the truth that God has given us to honor, to guard. My view is that the Commandments are primarily about how we treat one another; clearly this was God’s point. God began to teach His people how to exist together harmoniously – “living in non-manipulative relation to one another” as, I think, Norman Gottwald put it.

[29] The Oxford English Dictionary at the adjective “malign” – “Of a thing: evil in nature and effects; baleful, gravely injurious. Of sin: †heinous (obsolete).”

[30] The original meaning of the word “gossip” (an early 10th century noun) is a “godparent”, a fellow parent chosen to stand with the parents of a newborn being baptized into Christ through the water and by the saying of the words! A gossip was a person so trusted by the baby’s parents that should the parents suffer an untimely death, the godparents committed themselves to raise the bereaved children as their own, teaching them truly and well about God. How this English word drifted so far away from its original meaning is hard to guess! The Oxford English Dictionary at “gossip”, at definition #3 (the 16th century): “A person who indulges himself or herself in idle talk; in trifling or groundless rumour; who is a tittle-tattle.”

[31] I have heard those in Alcoholics Anonymous say that a person is not “sober” when he or she simply quits consuming alcohol. The word for such a person, if he or she is actually “successful” at not drinking alcohol, is a dry-drunk.

[32] When a human vice has had the time to become deep-set in a personality – addictions of different kinds – the person suffers changes in his or her body chemistry and even in how his or her brain functions. As a result, that person’s experience of the “pull” towards that vice can remain active in him or her throughout his or her life. It takes great courage, and close attachment to trusted friends, to maintain sobriety. In Alcoholics Anonymous, and all the related groups related to AA, there stands in highest esteem a “sponsor”: the name given to a person who helps an addict to stay free and honest and “working the program”. If you want to hear affectionate speech, then listen to someone in recovery speak of his or her Sponsor.

[33] The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “adept” – “A person who is highly skilled or proficient at something.”

[34] The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “guile” – “Insidious cunning, deceit, treachery.”

[35] The Oxford English Dictionary at the verb “to tattle” – “To utter small talk; to talk idly or lightly; to chatter, babble, prate; to chat, gossip.”

[36] The Oxford English Dictionary at the verb “to prattle” – “intransitive. To talk in a foolish, childish, or inconsequential way; to chatter at length, esp. about unimportant matters. Now frequently with on.”

[37] Barks, Coleman. A Year with Rumi, p. 154, on May 10th. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

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