Most of the time they whisper, inaudibly but clearly all the same. But now and then their whispers become sounds. Sometimes they’re louder than anything else in your world, even your four decade-long tinnitus. If you’re alert to them, you know you’re in danger. If you’re not, the danger is incalculably amplified.
My hero C. S. Lewis described those voices memorably in one of his most brilliantly conceived passages:
What awaited her there was serious to the degree of sorrow and beyond. There was no form nor sound. The mold under the bushes, the moss on the path, and the little brick border, were not visibly changed. But they were changed. A boundary had been crossed. She had come into a world, or into a Person, or into the presence of a Person. Something expectant, patient, inexorable, met her with no veil or protection between. In the closeness of that contact she perceived at once that the Director’s words had been entirely misleading. This demand which now pressed upon her was not, even by analogy, like any other demand. It was the origin of all right demands and contained them. In its light you could understand them; but from them you could know nothing of it. There was nothing, and never had been anything, like this. And now there was nothing except this. Yet also, everything had been like this; only by being like this had anything existed. In this height and depth and breadth the little idea of herself which she had hitherto called me dropped down and vanished, unfluttering, into bottomless distance, like a bird in a space without air. The name me was the name of a being whose existence she had never suspected, a being that did not yet fully exist but which was demanded. It was a person (not the person she had thought), yet also a thing, a made thing, made to please Another and in Him to please all others, a thing being made at this very moment, without its choice, in a shape it had never dreamed of. And the making went on amidst a kind of splendor or sorrow or both, whereof she could not tell whether it was in the molding hands or in the kneaded lump.
Words take too long. To be aware of all this and to know that it had already gone made one single experience. It was revealed only in its departure. The largest thing that had ever happened to her had, apparently, found room for itself in a moment of time too short to be called time at all. Her hand closed on nothing but a memory. And as it closed, without an instant’s pause, the voices of those who have not joy rose howling and chattering from every corner of her being. “Take care. Draw back. Keep your head. Don’t commit yourself,” they said. And then more subtly, from another quarter, “You have had a religious experience. This is very interesting. Not everyone does. How much better you will now understand the Seventeenth-Century poets!” Or from a third direction, more sweetly, “Go on. Try to get it again. It will please the Director.”
But her defenses had been captured and these counterattacks were unsuccessful.
Their voices rise with the sense that your soul might elude their grasp. Their volume is a measure of their fear – the fear that you, their target from the moment of your conception, might be lost to them. And in their moments of greatest fear, you can hear them as plainly as if you were wearing a pair of headphones connected directly to Hell.
Holy Week is when they’re most likely to become audible to the sincere Christian.
The liturgical calendar is replete with feast days, holy days, and holy seasons. Each day brings a fresh reminder of eternity to those who pay attention. The most devout, for whom the heart of the day is prayer, gratitude to God, and good will toward men, probably hear the voices of “those who have not joy” quite often. For the rest of us who are more deeply immersed in temporal things, they remain subaudible whispers, mere suggestions of sound, though their import comes through even so.
They become most detectable during prayer of any kind. Often they manifest as irrelevancies, distractions from the prayerful state to mundane things of no consequence. The disruption of prayer, our surest route to the grace of God while we wear the flesh, is among their highest priorities.
The specifics are unimportant. Perhaps you become too conscious of the noises around you. How often, really, is any man’s environment truly silent? Or perhaps some tactile sensation pulls your attention toward some physical element of your surroundings. Is your chair not adjusted quite right? Does the rosary keep slipping through your fingers, as if it couldn’t wait to be free of you? Or do you keep wanting to change your posture, or cross or uncross your ankles? Or perhaps you suddenly think of some obligation or necessity to which you must attend that day. Anything that intrudes upon your consciousness while you pray can serve the purposes of the ones who whisper.
Anything, that is, but this: that you become fully aware of their intentions for you. That, they fear more than anything but the loss of your soul. Even so, when their fear is greatest they cannot help becoming too audible to be dismissed as phantasms.
Owing to events in Ukraine and the foolishness of several governments, the world may suffer another devastating war. No one knows whether the tide of madness will broach the nuclear threshold. The missiles and bombers may yet fly; the submarines that normally strive only to be hidden may yet surface and launch. Those of us without influence on such things can only wait, watch, and pray.
Yet even should the worst arrive and the world be set ablaze, what seems a cataclysm will be mainly a skirmish. The greatest war of all has been raging for far longer. The stakes are far higher. The combatants want exactly and only one thing: you.
It’s in the war for your soul that you can take an active hand. Indeed, you must. And Holy Week is the best of times to get to it.
Pray: for your loved ones, for our nation, for our world, and of course for yourself. If it causes the voices of “those who have not joy” to rise in volume, be grateful! It’s an infallible sign that you’re doing what you’ve set out to do: drawing nearer to God and opening the channels of His grace. Laugh at them, for “The devil…the prowde spirit…cannot endure to be mocked.” (Saint Thomas More). Then make use of the blessing of your good spiritual hearing: thank God for the warning and get back to your prayer.
May this Holy Week bring you the greatest intimacy of all: the grace God has promised to all who approach Him humbly and sincerely. And may He bless and keep you all.
I do hope I manage to avoid even meeting St. Thomas, much less refuse to accept either of his choices. Heaven and Hell are such entirely boring places. I want to play with reality for a while before I merge in part of it.