A Bit of Deconstruction
Second Sunday of Advent. Fr Aidan Nichols preaches on the inner life and the call to prepare for Christ.
What a contrast between on the one hand the magnificent rolling titles of the men of power listed in today’s Gospel – emperor, governor, tetrarch, pontiff – and on the other the simplicity of the reference to John the Baptist, in the wilderness! Our religion does not begin in palaces, with potentates, or in universities, with academics, but in the desert.
What is significant about that? It’s significant that the environment where our faith took its rise was the sort of place where people tend to feel most exposed, vulnerable, on the knife-edge of existence. Many people cannot stand being alone; they have to be accompanied, even if only by a disembodied voice from a radio set or over the Internet. And this is strange, because there’s nothing necessarily boring about being alone, at least for quite long stretches of time.
The reason why is that, as older Catholic works of spirituality used to take for granted, we each have an ‘interior life’. The idea of the ‘inner life’ has rather fallen on hard times: chased out of Church usage by the emphasis on practical Christianity so typical of modernity. Oddly enough, though, there are plenty of people out there in the wider society who, thanks to a varied set of influences – from New Age, the Oriental religions, and a preference for spirituality rather than institutional religion – have absolutely no problem with it. But sermons are for those within the household. So, surprising as it would seem to some earlier generations in the Church, I think I need to explain what the ‘interior life’ might be.
Each of us carries about an interior world which is alive with memories, impressions, feelings, attitudes, arguments, dispositions towards other people, and all the rest. What at any given moment each of us is doing in the outer world is likely to be duller than that inner world with all its inheritance from our personal past as well as the power of thought to range across time and space.
So why is it that we shudder at the idea of a summer in the Sahara, or a crash-out in the Kalahari? Is it because we have a shrewd suspicion that, in a place like that, a desert place, a John the Baptist sort of place, we would have to come to terms with ourselves in a way we wouldn’t much care for?
This is very much a John the Baptist kind of prickly proposal. Plainly enough, he was a person who made others uncomfortable. John the Baptist belongs with what the German philosopher Hegel called the ‘practitioners of the negative’. Sometimes, negatives – negations – are needed in order to clear a way for what positives – affirmations – really mean. That is as true in its own way of living as it is of thinking. Sometimes, or indeed often, and in a fallen world this may even mean habitually, we need to clear out junk to make way for true goods. In biblical language, then, the job of the holy Forerunner of the Lord was to ‘preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. That was obviously intended to have positive consequences. But nonetheless it was still primarily a negative undertaking. John’s task was to place his finger on people’s weak spots and keep it there until they noticed.
It’s not just a question of identifying our bad deeds, our obviously blameworthy deeds. It’s also a matter of our good, apparently praiseworthy deeds, since these too can have an uninspiring background. In his monastic Rule, St Augustine notes how frequently pride steals in to ruin even good deeds.
There must be some labour of the negative before we can be ready for the ultra-positive, the Gospel of the Kingdom. We have to go in for a bit of deconstruction, to clear away the rubble of complacency and self-deception. Otherwise we shall not have a path clear in our lives for the Incarnate One to come and enter where he is needed, and wanted, by those who should be waiting for him, yearning for him, rather than reassuring themselves that they are alright as they are.