There was a remarkable man at the bus stop last week. You couldn’t miss him: He wore a hat adorned with a racoon tail and at least a dozen buttons connected to various veterans’ groups. In spite of the cloudy day, he donned dark glasses, and around his neck hung two thick necklaces decorated with an array of pendants, most of a religious nature. He smiled when I spoke to him, which I had to do because the thing that made him most striking was the large, metal crucifix laying across his lap. My first thought was that he didn’t have a wall upon which to hang it and my second was that it must get heavy carrying it around. How could I not have questions for a man like this?
He identified himself as an ordained monk, and the gravely shakiness in his voice reminded me of many recovering alcoholics – smokers all – with whom I often share the bus. Years lived in the bottle with drinks spaced by cigarettes have permanently affect their vocal quality even though they are 12-stepping their way through days now.
“A monk?” I raised my eyebrows and cocked my head.
“The priests out at St. David’s did it for me.”
Pronouncements like this make me happy for my background reporting on the Catholic Church. Most folks would have written this man off as crazy as soon as he announced his monk-ness. But I know of the place of which he spoke, know that not all monks are ordained, understand Third Orders and ascertained, after a few more questions, that what he considered being “ordained as a monk” was almost certainly him becoming an Oblate of the Order of Saint Benedict. Or, perhaps, he never actually became an Oblate, but thought he did because of how the welcoming, loving treatment he no doubt received out in St. David’s.
His hands shook slightly, so the crucifix did as well, rubbing against his jeans. It seemed like it would be uncomfortable lugging it around, but he said it wasn’t. He explained that he needed it with him for protection against evil.
“You know,” he said, “you can be under attack. Spiritual attack. I’ve had that. This protects me.” He lifted the crucifix slightly before launching into a monologue about demons and the devil that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Then his bus came and I thought that would be that. But luckily it wasn’t because the next day – different bus and different time – he was there again.
So I asked more questions and discovered he was injured in Vietnam when his forehead met the butt-end of a shotgun carried by enemy forces. “My head was just bashed in. The guy left me for dead.” He smiled and shrugged. “But I didn’t die.”
He did, however, suffer for nearly two decades with horrific migraines, dreadful neck and back pain, blackouts and the particular type of mental misery that affects people in chronic discomfort, the kind that makes suicide look like the light at the end of a dark tunnel. He tried many cures and none worked until 1998, when doctors finally found a drug that replaced whatever had been lost in his brain. The medicine makes him shake, but he’s been free of pain and blackouts since, and he hasn’t been in the hospital for more than a decade.
“Used to be I’d wind up there for a month at a time,” he said. “Now, they gave me these pills and it makes things work in my brain. Miracle of modern medicine,” he said, raising his gold Jesus crucifix in my direction. “You just gotta be grateful.”
But if he’s cured, I wondered, why still carry the heavy crucifix?
He shook his head the way a professor sometimes does when a student just doesn’t get it.
“Evil is still out there.”
Indeed, one glance at the headlines confirms that. And like second-hand smoke, we’re affected by what surrounds us. It doesn’t have to be huge life-and-death evil. In fact, most evil isn’t. It is the little things that build up into a habit. Little white lies. Little “God really doesn’t care” excuses. Little rationalizations leading to larger ones. I’m pretty sure the guys who brought us the banking crisis didn’t start out a liars and cheats. They slowly were tempted, one tiny step at a time, toward the evil of greed. Maybe if they’d been carrying around a big crucifix they would have been less tempted?
Temptations are everywhere. Maybe your temptation is pride, or sloth, or envy, or fear. Temptation is like a spiritual and moral virus — and like a physical virus it strikes at a person’s weakest point. Which is why the disciplines of Lent can actually be a pretty cool deal. They are like carrying around a large metal cross. They are a reminder that evil is out there and we should try to keep ourselves spiritually fit so we can fight against that evil (or be offered protection from it).
You give up sweets and every time you’re tempted and say, ‘I gave that up for Lent,’ you’re leaning toward God — even if you don’t recognize it. You give up gossiping and every time you walk away from the water cooler negative chat, you’re walking toward God. The final line in last Sunday’s gospel about Jesus being tempted in the desert was, “When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time.” The emphasis is mine and, in 50 years of hearing that gospel I’ve never noticed them before. Then I met the man with the crucifix at the bus stop and the words rang true. We don’t conquer evil once and for all. We conquer it a little bit every day, with every good deed we do, every prayer we say, every cross we bear, every virtue we practice as we fight our vices. And when we do, the devil departs — for a time.