Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Witchery of Paltry Things

There is a curious passage in the Book of Wisdom, rather poetic actually, that expresses a basic spiritual insight. “For the witchery of paltry things obscures what is right, and the whirl of desire transforms the innocent mind” (4:12). This occurs in the passage reflecting on one who dies “before his time.” When this book was written (perhaps 150 BC), the understanding that our souls are immortal was beginning to take hold, probably through Greek influence (this book was originally written in Greek). So the reflection upon someone who dies early is filled with hope for everlasting life, not sorrow at a promising life cut short, as we would find in earlier writings. Indeed, it is even seen as a blessing: “Snatched away, lest wickedness pervert his mind or deceit beguile his soul.”

The lament is not over one who would die early, but rather over those things that distort or pollute life in the meantime. We can be “bewitched” by paltry things, by passing fads, foolish pleasures, or corruptible goods. Such things “obscure what is right.” It seems like the advertising and entertainment industries see it as their task to bewitch us with paltry things, for if we could see clearly what is right, most of them would go out of business.

I often have rather weird dreams, and not long ago I had one that made me think of the above passage from Wisdom. I had come across a large serpent, which was quite unfriendly to me, and I engaged in battle with it, seemingly defeating it. But it somehow recovered from the wounds I inflicted upon it, and then it transformed itself into the image of a witchy-looking woman. I remarked (to no one in particular) that such an image wasn’t the least bit attractive to me. Then the demon revealed its tactic: “I can appear in any form that pleases you.” Suddenly, a priest who had been at the monastery many years ago, and who had subsequently renounced his priesthood, was standing next to me, and he followed after the image, which was evidently appearing in some form pleasing to him. I tried to warn him, but he went after it anyway…

So I learned a little something about the way idols and temptations beguile us. The witchery of the pleasing appearance obscures the reality of the evil behind it, and thus obscures our perception of what is good. We tend to forget that one of the effects of original sin is a vulnerability to deception, an inclination toward concupiscence, and a general tendency to take the path of least resistance, or the path that seems to promise some immediate and tangible benefit. Deceit beguiles our souls, and if we follow after the demonic chameleon, wickedness will eventually pervert our minds, and the serpent will have his victory.

That is why St Paul urges us to put on the armor of God (Eph. 6) and in many other places we are urged to be awake, sober, alert, able to discern the spirits, to distinguish between the true and the false, the authentic and the spurious, reality and illusion. It is in our best interests, to say the least, to be able to recognize paltry things for what they are, and to dismiss them in favor of what is really good, true, and beautiful, that is, what lasts forever, what is of God. There is a terrible price to pay for mindlessly following what superficially seems pleasing or attractive. Bewitched by paltry things, you could be playing the devil’s game. And everyone who plays that game ends up a loser.