BEASTS IN THE NIGHT



For it is dangerous to isolate oneself completely, relying on one’s own judgment...and it is equally dangerous to live with those who are inexperienced in spiritual warfare…Thus a man should try to live with those who possess spiritual knowledge, or at least to consult them continually, so that even if he is still spiritually immature and childish and does not himself possess a lamp of true knowledge, he can travel in company with someone who does. Then he will not fall prey to the demons who prowl like beasts in the dark, seizing and destroying those who grope there…
MARK THE ASCETIC (early 5th cent)


I had gone to the stadium to run on a hot, sunbaked, summer afternoon. The temperature was in the nineties. The heat shimmered off the track.
Generally, people don’t run on such afternoons, in the heat of the day. It’s uncomfortable; and it can be dangerous. I didn’t see anybody in the stadium, and I presumed I had the place to myself, as I usually do on such days. I set out at an easy jog, my mind elsewhere. I soon settled into the comfortable, trance-like state runners find. But on the second lap, I realized that at the far end of the track, half a lap away, was a runner I hadn’t noticed.
It was only on the third or fourth lap that I realized that the man was wearing a full plastic suit, with long sleeves, from his chin to his shoes. And then I started to worry about him. After another lap, I realized I needed to stop and speak to him about the danger into which he was putting himself.
This man’s understanding was that by running in the plastic suit on a sweltering hot day, he would lose weight. He believed he was sweating off pounds of fat. Well, this was his idea. This was his understanding. But as a physician, I knew that his understanding was incomplete, and, in an important way, very wrong.
Indeed, he would lose pounds of weight. This is true. But that weight would not be fat—at least not more than a couple of ounces, at most. This man was sweating off water and minerals that his body needs to live. If he weighed himself after his run, he might well be twelve pounds lighter. But 11.9 of those pounds would be water—water weight that, over the next forty-eight hours, he would re-gain as he re-hydrated.
And at what risks did he put himself for the few grams of fat he burned off? He put himself at risk of heat stroke and brain damage and death. It’s not uncommon, in the emergency room, in summer here in the South, to see such events.
Now, why do I relate this vignette to you? I tell it to you because it illustrates, in a concrete way, something that’s crucial for us as Christians—and particularly as Orthodox Christians—to understand. It’s important for us as Christians, living in this modern Western culture, this bizarre and confused culture, to understand this thing.
It’s important because there’s a teaching, a doctrine of the contemporary worldview, that’s very much at odds with our Christian understanding, with the understanding of the Church. But for most people this contemporary doctrine is hidden. It’s unnoticed by most people, and so they may fall prey to the lie upon which so much of the modern worldview, modern culture, rests.
The lie is called “relativism;” and it says that any man’s understanding of reality, any man’s “truth,” is as good as any other man’s.
Relativism was articulated by Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher who lived in the nineteenth century, and whose thinking has been immensely influential.
Relativism says that there’s no final standard of truth: there’s no final reality. It says that there’s no real truth. That there’s no transcendent beauty. That, ultimately, life is without meaning. So we’re all free to interpret the world in any way that seems good to us.
Further, because life is meaningless, Nietzsche says—and he says this very plainly—while morality and religion are okay for the little, inferior people, to keep them complacent; the superior man, the man who really understands life, is not bound by such foolishness. Such a man ought to spend his life in pursuit of the expansion of his personal power and the gratification of his desires. Because that’s all that’s left to us in a world that’s meaningless and, finally, absurd.
Fr. Seraphim Rose, a contemporary Orthodox monk, wrote a strident little book about this whole topic, about Neitzsche and his teachings and their vast influence on this culture in which we live, and the damage they have inflicted on people.
Nietzsche, incidentally, died by suicide.
Today, in this relativistic culture, in which all sorts of worldviews coexist; in a culture that has become an emporium of world views—just pick the view that suits your fancy, or make up your own—we are expected to tolerate (and even encourage) all sorts of things that (to speak plainly) are outrageous and foul. Things that are forbidden by our Faith. Things that our Faith tells us are abhorrent and damaging to our souls. Things that have been understood in our Tradition from the beginning, for thousands of years, to darken our souls and dull our spiritual vision.
We’re taught by contemporary culture that our lives are about the gratification of our desires: about gratifying our acquisitiveness and our lusts. And about honoring the choices of others who elect to live in these ways. The culture scoffs at, mocks the wisdom of the ages, the wisdom of the Fathers, the wisdom of the Church.
And the culture is very persuasive. The agreement of the herd, the attractiveness of the images of the electronic and printed media, have an effect upon us. We must be aware of these effects. We must be conscious of both the power these ideas have upon us, and the damage they can do to us.
Well, let me return to my companion at the stadium who was running around the track in the heat, in a plastic suit.
He had a view of things that he took to be true. He accepted the idea that he’d burn off pounds of fat in his plastic suit, and be better off for his run. He had enough faith in his personal “truth” to undertake action—uncomfortable action, even some suffering—to gain a good, as he thought.
But, in this case, I will profess a different truth, a contradictory truth. I will go so far as to say, I profess a superior truth. I will say that our two truths are not equal. I will even go so far as to assert that my truth is true, and that his is false. And more than false. It is dangerous. It puts his brain, his life, in danger. For no chance of the benefit he’d anticipated.
And I will say, further, that the same can be said, with confidence, about the things of the spirit. I say to those who profess relativism, that their “truths” are not true. And that lives lived according to their precepts place souls in grave dangers. They damage souls, darken them; and, in the end, perhaps kill them.
And so, my friends, I commend to you, the words of Mark the Ascetic, one of the ancient Desert Fathers. About one thousand, six hundred years ago, he cautioned us not to wander the world trusting our own judgments; but to proceed in company with those who are experienced in spiritual matters—with the Church, with her wisdom, with her Traditions. For, as he said, the inexperienced man who proceeds alone, easily falls prey to the ravenous beasts who roam in the night, seeking the destruction of souls.
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy upon us.


The above address was delivered by the author to an Orthodox Christian group at a federal prison in North Carolina in 2014.
All chapters copyright © 2014 by author N. M., c/o St. George’s Church, P.O. Box 38, Edenton, N.C.
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