Magazine article The Christian Century

Teatime with My Demons: Why I Welcome Them

Magazine article The Christian Century

Teatime with My Demons: Why I Welcome Them

Article excerpt

MY FRIEND Brother Bede likes to tell a story about the Buddhist saint Milarepa. When demons came to his cave to torment him, Milarepa said to them, "How kind of you to come. You must come again tomorrow. And from time to time we must converse." And Milarepa invited the demons in for tea.

The story surprised me the first time I heard it. When I think of saint-plaguing demons, I picture Anthony the Great battling in conflicts so loud that passersby think he's being attacked by a band of robbers. Like everyone, I have enemies: people who wish me ill, or who have hurt me deeply whether they meant to or not. But my worst enemies dwell in the cave of my own heart. "Love your enemies," said Jesus, "and pray for those who persecute you." In addition to loving and praying for those who hurt me, might Jesus mean these inner enemies of the heart--my personal demons?

My demons manifest themselves in forms so familiar I don't even recognize them when they come to call until it's too late and I've lost my equilibrium: anxiety, perfectionism, the sweet savor of annoyance over another's bad habits, self-loathing, secret schadenfreude, guilty liberal acquiescence to the consumer culture. I wear my own unique and delicate scent of sloth--a mix of busyness, industry, accomplishment and avoidance. My subtle demons often mask as virtues in a greedy society, blending with patterns in my holier-than-thou nonexploitative clothing, sitting in the backseat of my compact car and lurking behind my uneco-friendly plastic recycling bins.

There was a time when men and women left the cities to encounter God in the desert. But memories, experiences, habits, prejudices and irrational fears came with them, clashing with silence, starkness and solitude. Extracting themselves from the demons camouflaged within their culture, they found concentrated phantasms erupting from their own thoughts, unhealed personalities and broken selves. Seeking purity of heart, the desert mothers and fathers had to face the demons erupting from their own hearts.

Once, after a particularly exhausting confrontation, Anthony complains, "Where wast Thou? Why didst Thou not appear from the beginning to cease my pains?"

"Anthony," the Holy One replies, "I was here: but I was waiting to see thy contest."

This has never been a satisfying answer to me. It reminds me of a legend about St. Teresa of Avila. When she was thrown off an oxcart into an icy arroyo during a rainstorm, she heard the voice of the Beloved: "Teresa, this is how I treat my friends. …

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