Every proud man is an abomination to the LORD; I assure you that he will not go unpunished.Reading: Proverbs 16:5.
Meditation: The story is very long, but still, it is probably easier to include it in this post, as related in my forthcoming book rather than as related piecemeal over time on my Modern Mysticism blog, where I will continue with updates on the spiritual warfare saga of Goliath. I am sure, sigh, that it is far from over. In the interim, if you do not have time for a long story, skip on down to the "contemplation" section below. If you do, well, here is the story, so far:
At the time I met Goliath, I was volunteering at San Ignatio Shelter and Soup, often referred to as Triple S. Run by a Catholic non-profit foundation, Triple S provided beds and blankets to the homeless in San Ignatio, feeding them as well three simple meals each day.Contemplation: That is far as I can go with you this Monday morning. I now retire to private prayer to thank God for trusting me with Goliath (likely along with others about whose efforts I do not know). I will praise God for all he has taught me about pride, humility, love, and sacrifice. I will ask God to teach me more for surely I will need more. Finally, I will repent of my own moments of pride, which have done no one much good, including me. Then I will move on to contemplation, my favorite part of the day, letting God take over the direction in which my relationship with Him moves.
Not long after I began volunteering at Triple S, Goliath came into power as my shift leader. I welcomed Goliath, hoping to learn much from him. We held, by organizational policy, informal semi-monthly meetings to discuss how we provided our services and to learn more about how others elsewhere ran shelters and food programs. I welcomed that opportunity, too. These meetings were also intended as opportunities for faith formation and confirmation; we were, after all, a religious foundation. Therefore, we always opened and closed our meetings with prayer and, considering that the nature of our work amounted to being God’s hands in that particular Salts neighborhood, often shared spiritual experiences arising from our work in addition to discussing the more mundane rules, changing city regulations, requirements imposed by our Board of Directors, and service improvements in general.
Since four of the six volunteers on our shift lived in San Ignatio, with the two others living in the next town over, I offered my modest home as a convenient meeting place. In the style into which the Russians and Arabs have trained me, I provided snacks for meetings and, I hoped, adequate hospitality.
Later, Goliath had found coming to San Ignatio on the extra occasions of the meetings to be inconvenient. Our meetings moved to his house 20 miles away in Salts. Once we were inside his spacious, rambling house, however, he oddly ushered us into a small, windowless, upstairs room for the entire meeting.
Goliath is soft-spoken and portrays himself as a good listener. In reality, he listens but does not hear. His cognitive deafness was less troublesome than his eyes. Whenever I would bring up a spiritual topic, he would look at me with vacant eyes. Later, others corroborated my experience with their own.
While the vacant eyes disturbed me on a subconscious level, I initially paid scant attention. After all, this was Goliath. He touted himself as spiritually mature and experienced. He was in training to be a deacon. Are not all such people the chosen of God? How can there be evil inside the Church, I wondered at that time. Now I have seen that where Good treads, there also hovers Evil. One may not sense the conjoining of Good and Evil because Evil cleverly and quietly awaits its opportunity.
After a number of meetings with Goliath, we volunteers started comparing notes. It seems that all of us had been perturbed by the same aspects of our meetings: formulaic prayer in limited amounts as if God's presence was not really wanted; a sense of God's absence; a feeling of uneasiness; a shared sense of Goliath as condescending and arrogant. Clearly, he did not like poor people, an attitude that extended to our entire shift since we came from a small and financially struggling Mexican-American town. In addition to volunteering at Triple S, many of our shift volunteers routinely emptied all the change from their shallow pockets into the coffers of the church or handed out their last dollar to someone on a street corner. None of this mattered to Goliath. He perhaps did not consider that the poor are also made in the image of God and that “whoever mocks the poor has contempt for their maker” (Proverbs 17:5). In fact, he seemed to despise the kinds of generosity that the spirituality of a mission town brings. All he could see was how shallow the pockets of some of our volunteers were. What oozed from deep inside him seemed to be hubris and ambition. (One is reminded of the secular ambition that confused St. Augustine, as he related in his Confessions, and kept him from God for many years.)
The travel to Goliath’s house for the team meeting strained the finances of some of our volunteers. Goliath, who could well afford to make the trip to San Ignatio, knew this but insisted that his own convenience took precedence over individual volunteers’ sacrifice. His complacent attitude, vacant eyes, and vacuous smile reminded me of the insensitive nurse in the movie, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
At about this time, some of the volunteers began coming to me individually. Perhaps they sensed that as a manager in my professional life, I could provide some leadership skills they needed in dealing with Goliath. Perhaps it was because I drove them all to Salts. Perhaps it was all divinely motivated. I don't know. Knowing is not important.
The first to come was Eduardo. An emulatable example of humility, he scrambles to make a living. Taking time off for our distant meetings meant loss of pay, the greater distance to Goliath’s house adding up to more than an additional hour without pay. He accepted that sacrifice, but I felt it was unfair. His concern was the arrogant way in which Goliath interacted with us, as well as Goliath’s flippant remarks whenever Eduardo would relate a spiritual experience encountered while volunteering at Triple S. One can only guess at the reason for Goliath's condescension toward Eduardo—antipathy toward members of any but the upper socioeconomic classes, dislike of non-Caucasian ethnic groups, or simply discomfort with someone who is simple and close to God. The latter reason would get my vote, given Goliath’s shying away from spiritual discussions. Eduardo wanted me to go with him to talk to a priest we trusted. However, unfortunately, the priest ended up out of town for too long a period, and matters moved forward without what would surely have been a helpful consultation.
The next meeting Eduardo was unable to attend. Ditto for Nancy. So, of the four travelers from San Ignatio, Onyx and I were the only ones in the car. Onyx, also openly disdained by Goliath, likely because Onyx is a recovering alcoholic, unemployed, and still suffers from some aspects of a personality disorder, begged me to bring up the financial issues with Goliath and to ask him again to move the meetings back to San Ignatio. We all truly needed to attend team meetings and really wanted to do so, but the financial sacrifice was unbearable for most.
Unsure of how best to approach the situation, I pulled over and called my Bible Studies leader, who led a different Triple S shift. He, too, felt that I should raise the concerns to Goliath. He also felt that Goliath should be given the benefit of a doubt and a chance to rectify the problems. He offered to approach Goliath on our behalf, and in hindsight, perhaps I should have opted for that approach. However, at the time, I felt that Onyx and I could reason with Goliath. So, near the end of the meeting, I brought up our concerns.
The response shocked me. Goliath insisted that it was his right as the shift leader to have the meetings at a time and place that was convenient to him regardless of how difficult it was for others. He was the most important person in the group he repeatedly stated even though no one was challenging him over his importance. Then he suggested that if we did not like it, we could leave the foundation until we were ready to do things his way. He recommended that especially I leave. Well, there we had something to mull over.
A couple of days later, Nancy called me to find out what had happened at the meeting. Before I could tell her about the awkward discussion, she volunteered that she had not come with us because she was uneasy being around Goliath in his house. "Would you let your daughter go into his house?" she asked.
Practicing the presence of God in the vein of Brother Lawrence is something I do all the time. However, with Nancy’s question I realized the source of the uneasiness felt by all of us: God was not with us in Goliath's house. In fact, I lost the sense of God's presence when I opened the door to go into Goliath's house and regained it when I walked out of Goliath's house. What I was feeling while there, what Nancy did not want to expose her daughter to seemed to be a sense of Evil. I don't want to say that Goliath is evil since I doubt that it is so. Rather, his profound lack of humility, i.e. root sin of pride, may have allowed Evil to take up residence around him, if not within him, and lead him where otherwise he might know better than to go. Certainly, it seemed that Goliath was controlled by Evil: his spooky way of speaking in a soft, flat monotone, his empty eyes, and his avoidance of spiritual discussion (substituting for it discussions of "rules," "requirements," and his own worldly experiences). Nancy and I discussed whether or not to continue exposing ourselves to this unhealthy environment at the required team meetings.
Following this discussion with Nancy, I prayed for direction. I was puzzled by the response. A sharp image appeared before me: Jesus overturning the tables in the temple. What was that supposed to mean? I prayed again. The image repeated.
I left the question unresolved for several days, then once again turned to God for help. Again, that same image appeared. I did not know how to interpret it, and the priest to whom I would have turned was out of town. I shared it with our Bible Studies leader, but he did not know how to interpret the image, either.
That image brought not only puzzlement but also feelings of anger. They did not seem to be resident feelings but rather something that bubbled out of seeing that image. What I knew about anger did not seem to apply here. Rohrer and Sutherland in Facing Anger claim that anger represents a protestation against loss of self-esteem. Self-esteem was not at issue in the case of Goliath nor in the image of Jesus in the temple. Whitehead and Whitehead in Seasons of Strength define anger as both a feeling and a way of behaving. That latter attribute somewhat reflects the kind of anger that emanated from the temple image but still did not encompass a full explanation.
I continued to pray about the matter, and my next prayer brought another experience of the same image as well as something new: a sense of needing to do something. After all, the image and story were of Jesus doing something. So, I sent an e-note to Goliath, reiterating, perhaps too stridently—the influence of those feelings coming from the image—the requests that had been made of him at the previous meeting. He responded by phoning all the others in a divide-and-conquer, intimidate-where-possible, make-promises-in-other-cases power play that only drove them to me for help in combating what they had perceived as attempted manipulation. I wrote again and repeated, more stridently, my earlier requests and perhaps too forthrightly told him of our concerns—well, most of them: I hesitated to mention the sense I had of Evil surrounding him. Goliath continued to refuse to put anything into writing and asked for a phone call so that he could tell me how he expected me to behave. I countered by agreeing to discuss matters with him but only with all concerned present since his individual phone calls turned out, when we conferred with one another, to have relayed conflicting information. He demurred.
As a team, we decided to write a letter about our concerns to the Board of the Directors. I prayed about the letter. Again, I got the same image. Understanding by now that this was some kind of tasking being given to me but not understanding what the task was supposed to be considerably disconcerted me, and the priest to whom I would have turned was still out of town.
Nancy and I wrote the letter, trying to keep it objective, non-accusatory, and focused on resolution of the issues that were troubling us—all except the issue of evil, which probably was the core of the problem. We were hesitant to commit that to paper, but we knew we had to bring it up at some point. So, we asked for a meeting with the Board to discuss details more fully. Eduardo signed the letter but after overt intimidation from Goliath, retracted his signature.
Goliath knew about the letter to the Board because I had told him about it in an effort to be fair to him. Armed with this knowledge, he preempted action from his peers by going directly to the regional committee that provided oversight to our Board, presenting a biased case of what was going on, taking my emails but not the letter that requested a meeting with the Triple S Board of Directors and failing to disclose the content of his phone calls to others that prompted my emails. Of course, the regional committee knew nothing about the images I was receiving.
The regional committee wrote a letter to the local Board members with a cowardly cc to me, directing them to support Goliath and suggesting I be dropped from the rolls of volunteers, using a string of unflattering epithets to describe me even though they had never met me. They claim to have prayed about the matter before writing the letter, but the uncharitable words and lack of example-setting indicate to me that, like so many who ask God for help and then don’t listen for an answer, they went ahead with what they themselves wanted to do. Or, perhaps they were suffering from a form of illuminism: they considered that only they had a “special light” from the Holy Spirit and therefore they were right and I (and the other volunteers) wrong.
I assumed that deafness, arrogance, or illuminism, rather than the Holy Spirit, motivated them because it seems strange that God would have sanctioned such an ignorant and uncharitable response after having led me to do what I did. Even if I were mistaken in interpreting God’s will—which can always be the case, given that I am not capable of perfect discernment—their vicious response was not in keeping with anything biblical. As St. Paul cautioned the Ephesians, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up as fits the occasion that it may give grace to those that hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
Perhaps God allowed them to proceed in this uncharitable manner because, in the words of C. J. Mahaney (Humility: True Greatness), “there’s truth to be gained from an enemy’s critique. Humility doesn’t demand mathematical precision from another’s input; humility postures itself to receive God’s grace from every avenue possible.” I am now willing to consider that God might have meant to teach me a lesson concurrently with sending Goliath a message, considering that I could have better heeded St. Paul’s words in my choice of words in my notes to Goliath. I can be satisfied with that possibility, even receiving the lesson with gratitude. Were I to question the value of God allowing what could be looked upon as humiliation, the words of deCaussade (The Joy of Full Surrender) would cause me to question my questioning:
Those who are enlightened by faith judge things in a very different way from those who have only their senses to guide them. . . . the soul that recognizes the will of God in even the smallest circumstances, even in those that are most distressing and fatal, receives them all with equal joy, pleasure, and respect. That soul throws open all its doors to receive with honor what others fear and fly from in horror. . . . Those who have this disposition adore God with redoubled love and respect, even in the greatest humiliation. The louder the senses exclaim, “this cannot be from God,” the closer they press this bundle of myrrh from the hand of the bridegroom.
At the time, though, when I received a copy of the letter from the regional committee, I threw I away without reaction. Not addressed to me, it proceeded from false assumptions, including the statement that I was unwilling to obey God. (In this case, I feared that they were equating Goliath with God.) I had no desire to take them to task for their harsh words or even to respond to the mean caricatures of me. Had they deigned to talk to me, however, we could perhaps have clarified this ironic misconception. I may have not done things as skillfully as someone else might have done them, but I had definitely tried to follow Meister Eckhart’s injunction that “you ought to go wholly out [away] from your own will.” Failing to put truth before convenient assumption, the regional committee lost an opportunity to demonstrate Christian charity or to engender a mathemagenic discussion on the often inscrutable will of God.
Somehow, in this tussle, the letter Nancy and I had written had become misplaced. So, there was no meeting with the Board. Nancy and I talked about walking away, but that action did not seem to be the kind of response the image I was receiving would prompt.
Then, Nancy ran into one of the Board members, Laura, in a bookstore in another city. (None of us can convince ourselves that this meeting was coincidental.) Out tumbled Nancy's concerns, to which Laura told Nancy the history: Goliath had not been their choice to be shift leader but had appropriated the position for himself in a bullying manner that left some of the Board members appalled but without recourse. At least some of the Board members were as uncomfortable in Goliath's presence as we were! Here was news!
Laura asked Nancy to convince me to call her. I called from Washington, where I happened to be at the time, and we talked for more than an hour. Encouraged, I told Laura everything up to that point, including the image of Jesus overturning tables in the temple, sharing that I just could not make any sense of the image other than the feeling that I was supposed to do something related to it. Laura had an interesting interpretation: "I think it means that God does not like evil infiltrating His organization." That was the first time that the word "evil" had been spoken. Before Laura hung up, I had promised to meet with the Board.
Long after the incident with Goliath had reached a zenith and subsided, someone pointed out to me that when Jesus called the temple a “den of thieves,” he was referring to two things. First, selling animals for sacrifices was a desecration of the Lord’s house. Second, the poor, loved by Jesus, were denigrated in the temple sales for they could not afford to buy the kinds of “nice” sacrifices that the wealthy could. The latter thought made sense when it came to the aptness of the image to Goliath: Goliath recoiled from the poor and volunteered at Triple S from a sense of duty, not from a feeling of love.
After I hung up with Laura, I complained to God: "Lord, You know that I am a verbal learner. I need words, not pictures, to understand. I will try to grow in the ways you seem to want me to, but in this case, I really need verbal input. I suppose You know that. I just want to mention it in case you might think that I am smarter than I really am."
Then I drew bath water, the remaining ritual of the day. As the water filled the tub, I debated whether to take into the tub with me a book that I was partway through reading or the Bible.
"My Word." Out of nowhere came the Voice, startling me as usual.
So, the Bible it was. I haphazardly opened the Bible and found myself staring at a passage I had never read before: Ezekial 30. As I read through the chapter, a lament for Egypt and God's threat of destruction, I saw many parallels to my own situation. Once again, a prayer had been answered. I had words, not an image—except, uh-oh, as I read, I became less certain of my interpretation. Here was a tale of arrogance punished. Certainly, Goliath's arrogance deserved to be punished, but the adjective used in the verse was "her," referring to a nation, Egypt. Now, Goliath was definitely a "he," and I am definitely a "she," but in most historical documents, nations are frequently referred to as “she.” So, confusion appeared anew.
Once again, I cried out for help in exasperation at myself for not being able to understand what was apparently supposed to be obvious. "So, Lord, whom do You see as arrogant? Me or Goliath?"
And then, once again, I heard that Voice, which I have come to love and trust, yet which causes me to jump out of my skin whenever I hear it and which almost always sets me scurrying off for help to confirm authenticity. Only this time, I was far away from home and from anyone who could help. I did, however, get an answer to my question.
The Voice said, "Let Goliath know he cannot treat My people this way." As with other locutions, every single word is seared into my memory forever.
Now that I had what seemed to be clarity, I definitely had to let Goliath know. Whatever were to happen to me or my reputation (people tend to think you are nuts if you tell them that you experience locutions), I would carry out any tasking that so much effort had gone into making clear. Although I sincerely wished I did not have to do this, it would be, as the Russians say, skazano, sdelano (literally, said-done, i.e. no sooner said than done.)
When I returned, Eduardo, laboring under the misassumption that I might stop volunteering at Triple S, asked to speak to me urgently. He told me that he had been praying about the situation and was certain that I was supposed to finish what I had started. For some reason, Eduardo thought it meant I should stay long-term at Triple S, but I understood it to mean that I was supposed to see the tasking through to its finish: discuss Goliath’s maltreatment of God’s people with the Board.
The morning of the meeting with the Board, to which Nancy, bless her soul, accompanied me, I was understandably nervous, knowing that I would have to talk about things mystical and not knowing whether the other Board members would be as accepting of them as Laura had been. Nancy and I attended the same Mass that morning. There, the person leading the choir made a mistake (or was it a mistake?) and gave the wrong page number for the last hymn we were to sing. The song we ended up singing was "Be Not Afraid." Several of the powerful images in that song brought a sense of strength, comfort, and, most important, confidence:
Be not afraid.
I go with you always.
Come, follow me.
And I will give you rest.
Nancy asked me after Mass if I had picked up on the mistake and its possible significance. Of course! I also was aware that in Biblical times a message or task sent from God was usually preceded by the words, “Be not afraid!” from the messenger. Obviously, I am not the only one to experience apprehension when greeted with divine intervention.
I found that once we were at the meeting, with Goliath present as well, I was not afraid. I did not feel alone. Of course, the support of Nancy and Laura helped, as did the clear willingness of the other Board members to listen to our concerns, especially Rebecca, who had learned in advance of our concerns through Laura. Laura and Rebecca controlled Goliath admirably during the meeting. Even more helpful, I also felt God's presence (for the first time in the same room with Goliath), and I find God’s presence an incredible comfort. I methodically explained everything that had occurred: the discussions among the volunteers, the purpose of the letters, and the image I had been seeing in response to prayers. I told the Board about my plea for clarification and God’s words to me. Then, I paused to take a breath, and looking Goliath in his vacant eyes, I said, "Goliath, you cannot treat God's people this way. God tasked me to tell you this." There, it was said!
In that moment, a strange thing happened. Goliath's face went through multiple distortions. I am not talking about him changing expressions. Rather, his physical face contorted in ways I had never seen before except in movies: fluid morphing. I wondered if I was nuts after all. However, afterward, Nancy confirmed that she had also seen the morphing of Goliath’s face. I took comfort in the fact that we both had observed this seemingly impossible phenomenon. Later, I wondered if perhaps these facial distortions were a reflection of a fight within Goliath’s soul, hopefully nothing more than a reflection of human pride and Goliath’s efforts to contain it.
The outcome was definitely worth completing the tasking. I realized that our Board of Directors does accept mystical experiences as one way God chooses to communicate with some people. Goliath began conducting meetings in San Ignatio, and another shift leader came to the meetings to mentor Goliath. The following year, Goliath decided to step down as shift leader.
Afterward, though, I questioned whether I was right in my interpretation, understanding of being tasked, and manner of accomplishing the task. I wished I had had the opportunity to take this to a spiritual advisor who could test the authenticity of what I saw, read, and heard. In the end, everything seemed compellingly clear, but I suppose that could be a deception. Others agreed with my interpretation, but that, too, could be a deception. At least, though, what I had done—properly or improperly—did lead to a good result.
There was another positive outcome: Laura, Rebecca, Nancy, and I became friends. We now meet periodically for dinner. I have been blessed with a friendship that would not have formed had I not been willing to let Goliath know he cannot treat God’s people this way.”
Just when I thought my task was complete, I realized that I had no idea how I should relate to Goliath from then on. So, I asked God what to do. In response, I heard two words that absolutely flabbergasted me: "Love him."
Thereupon popped out my usual incredulous response, “Lord, You want me to do what? You must be kidding!”
Forgive him? Certainly! But love him? After everything I had been through? Love him when I seem to have been tasked to de-claw him? Love him when he wanted me out of the way, completely gone, and referred to me only in the most scathing terms, deliberately pulling the regional committee into his camp through carefully manipulated information and Pharisaic posturing? Love him when I feel Evil pulling at him to the point that I recoil? Lord, You are indeed inscrutable! First, You tell me to take him to task, and now You tell me to love him!
If God said to love him, though, I realized I would have to learn to do that. I began to pray for Goliath. I began to hug him even though from his side the response was always a cold, mechanical, public gesture. I hope that what I give is not the same, but it is admittedly not yet some kind of passionate embrace. Lord, how do you define love?
Yes, I know, in part, the answer to this question—agape, i.e. the pure love of God for mankind, which we are called to emulate. I know, too, as St. Paul told believers in Corinth, “These three remain: faith, hope, and love; the greatest of these is love.” I know these things. Bringing them to pass within myself, however, is often beyond my capacity. For that, I have to lean on God.
What I do know for certain is that God loves Goliath, just as surely as God loves my mother, so succinctly expressed in the words, “she lives in grace.” I suppose that is part and parcel of the new covenant, a pact of love and forgiveness, embodied in the life of Jesus. While a part of me would like to judge the fairness of God’s love shining on all alike, I will not. God has not asked me to give anything that I have not received. I look forward to the day that I can enjoy the “delightful peace” that deCaussade asserts will ensue “when we have learned by faith to find God through all his creatures as through a transparent veil.”
If the purpose of the task was to change Goliath’s behavior, apparently, it has succeeded, no matter how poorly carried out. Eduardo, who continued to attend team meetings, told me that the meetings improved and that Goliath is not the same person. Praise be to God if that is true!
In hearing Eduardo’s words, I felt a rush of love for Goliath and a great gratitude to God. I can lean on God, and I can learn to love those for whom I feel no natural affinity. And even if I fumble a task, God will use my efforts somehow to bring it to the desired closure.
One underestimates the tenacity of Satan, however, at one’s own risk. Our organization recently had a change in leadership, and, apparently feeling emboldened, Goliath reverted to his old ways. Satan seems to have gifted Goliath with the charism of deception so that those who do not know him well gravitate toward his dissemblance of meekness, allowing Satan’s purposes to be accomplished. Finally, I understand, at least in greater part, what is happening in our organization and why God pitted me (and, thankfully, a few other volunteers) against Goliath. There is a serious spiritual battle going on, not only among our local volunteers but also at higher levels of leadership. Satan is using Goliath as his local champion. Why? Because he can. Just as God can use me and others like me to combat Goliath.
I also understand now why God wants me to love Goliath. Goliath is not the evil one. Rather, his overweaning pride allow him, likely unknowingly and, I would guess, not by desire, to be used by the Evil One. Clearly, loving Goliath and praying for him is critical to helping him loose himself from the bonds of Satan and to returning our organization to spiritual health.
I imagine our organization is not unique. Otherwise, I would have spent fewer words relating the story of Goliath.
I will leave you now to your prayer and contemplation. First, though, I would like to bring to your attention a Monday morning prayer post that you might enjoy:
Fr. Austin Fleming, priest of the Archdiocese of Boston and pastor in Concord, Massachusetts, posts a prayer each Monday morning that he calls "Monday Morning Offering." I enjoy his prayers very much. I think you also will find them inspirational. He has graciously given me permission to include a link to his blog on my Monday Morning Meditation posts. (During the week, he also posts great homilies and other thoughtful discussions. I enjoy reading those, too, as do readers of this blog who have taken the stroll over to his blog.)
For additional inspiration throughout the week, I would point out two sets of blogs: (1) the list of devotional blogs on my sidebar and (2) my blogroll, where I am following a number of inspirational priests and writers about spiritual matters. I learn so very much from all these people. I highly recommend them to you.