Several of the sixteenth century frescoes of the life of St Benedict that are in the cloister at Monte Oliveto, the mother house of the Benedictine Olivetans, portray an easily identifiable devil.
He is brown, scrawny, with the regulation horns and dark pointed wings – not the beautiful rounded rainbow wings of the good angels; for all the world like a cockroach. He’s there in the stories to get in the way, be a nuisance, distract and generally disrupt the saint’s work both for the Kingdom and the growth of his monks.
The modern tourist stares blankly at these images for a few moments and moves on to the next and then, making the monks happy, to the monastic shop. The struggle to have a good time has long been superimposed over the battle between good and evil. It was different when the first pilgrims came to see these beautiful works. Overcome by piety, and if they could stretch far enough, they tried to scratch the devil off the fresco – leaving a mutilation of the original that the best restorers couldn’t fix, but also a testimony to a different age when belief was still heavily saturated with the mythic imagination.
The same forces operate on us but we represent them differently. In Denys Arcan’s film ‘Jesus of Montreal’ a group of unemployed actors get a commission to put on the Passion story in one of the city’s biggest churches. The story is however lived out in their own lives and a memorable non-mythic representation of the meaning of Christ takes shape through the events. One of these is the Temptation when a smooth talking publicist takes the Jesus figure up to the top of an office building and promises him wealth, power and fame if he will sign up and do all he’s told.
The BBC World Service represented the same force the other day in an interview about the financial crisis with a young New York trader: well-dressed, a frequent gym visitor, articulate, fast-talking, bright and cold as ice. To be frank with you, he confided, I dream at night of a recession or depression because these are the conditions when the most money is to be made. The world is not run by governments but Goldman Sachs. My job is to make money. Nothing will stop the crash so let’s profit now. These dismal truths were not laced with false humility or expressions of regret but with the smile of a victor who cannot feel the plight of the defeated.
I thought of the Albanian café owner whose delicious but high cholesterol menu I used to be a patron of, while I listened to his life struggles and hopes for his children. For some time I had sensed his growing anxiety about business and when I passed the place the other day I saw it close-up and the windows whited out. I also remembered film footage of soldiers herding people on board the cattle trucks for Birkenau, a terrible enough scene in itself, but the devil was there in the cruel smile of some of the officers and men as they saw the degradation and panic of their victims.
The poor we will always have with us. The question repeated in every telling of the same story is how far away do the rich want to be from them?
In the exchange of goods and services that has ever made up most of human activity there should be more to find than lust for money. There should be a sense of purpose behind the trading, conviviality, time to think of people and how they are doing and how the wealth can be justly distributed. In science rather than trade a more cold and clinical eye might seem normal.
Yet the horizon-stretching march of science better conveys the meaning and joys of humanity. The world awaits verification of the tests of the Large Haron Collider at Cern, suggesting that the speed of light is not, after all, the fastest thing in the cosmos; and if so Einstein needs to be revised. If proven, we will see the world and ourselves (literally) in a new light: the mechanical limitations we have taken for granted since the first human tool was made will be exposed to new dimensions of consciousness.
Demonic fear and greed are driving the markets, herding us all towards the cliff-edge of civilized behaviour and decency. Maybe a new horizon in science will send the mystical and the physical off on a new waltz together. Maybe then we will see the cliff-edge itself as an opportunity to transform the values and goals we live for and the devil will, as always, be baffled by human goodness and creativity.
Laurence Freeman OSB
The World Community for Christian Meditation, of which Laurence Freeman OSB is director, has recently opened a new outreach program – “Meditatio” (www.wccmmeditatio.org)