It is Wednesday, the day Judas betrayed Jesus, and thus a fitting time for our weekly examination of conscience. For those late to the party, we are using the talk the Pope gave to the Roman Curia before Christmas. Some saw it as a biting indictment of 'those men in Rome'; I choose to receive it as a good examination for any of us.
We are at number six of the fifteen spiritual ailments. This one is “a ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s disease.’ It consists in losing the memory of our personal ‘salvation history’, our past history with the Lord and our ‘first love’ (Rev 2:4).
“It involves a progressive decline in the spiritual faculties which in the long or short run greatly handicaps a person by making him incapable of doing anything on his own, living in a state of absolute dependence on his often imaginary perceptions. We see it in those who have lost the memory of their encounter with the Lord; in those who no longer see life’s meaning in ‘deuteronomic’ terms; in those who are completely caught up in the present moment, in their passions, whims and obsessions; in those who build walls and routines around themselves, and thus become more and more the slaves of idols carved by their own hands.”
Well nobody will ever say the Pope does not have a knack for a lively turn of phrase. ‘Spiritual Alzheimer’s’ – that alone is a phrase to meditate on for some time. And his whole description of this ailment is vivid: caught up in the present, building walls and routines, slaves of idols carved by their own hands, and so forth.
The use of the word ‘deuteronomic’ in this context threw me for a bit of a loop, I have to say. I just haven’t run across that word the way the Pope is using it. I know that the ‘deuteronomic’ theology of the Bible (found, inter alia, in the Book of Deuteronomy) is concerned with the interpretation of history as essentially being about the encounter of God and his people, God and the human heart, and that all of the events of life are to be interpreted as flowing from the choices we make to say yes or no to God, to enter the land and be secure, or to turn from him to idols, and so turn from life to death.
It is the keeping of this intense deuteronomic focus that is the very opposite of the spiritual Alzheimer’s we are all prone to. The biblical lament is so often, ‘the people forgot about YHWH, and each went their own way.’ We are a people prone to forget; this is something we have to guard against continually.
This is why the reading of scripture can never be neglected in our spiritual life. God knows that we have great difficulty holding onto the truth of His love and His action in our lives; He has helpfully given us a very large book full of that Truth to remind us of it.
Other books may be helpful as well; times of personal reflection, retreat, always serve to remind us of what we may have lost sight of. There is always something there to remind us, if we want to reminded, that is.
The tragedy of human life is that there is a little shadow side to us that in fact would prefer to forget about God. Something in us welcomes Alzheimer’s of the soul, welcomes the sweet oblivion of never having to think of God again. This is the genuine darkness of our humanity, and we have to be vigilant about it.
Of course God is the One who is perpetually messing us up, interrupting our agendas, asking us to turn from our ‘passions, whims, obsessions’, calling us to a deeper and higher, bigger and more beautiful, and very demanding vision of life. We would rather, at times, forget about all of that and just play with our little toys in the mud of our little world. God who? Jesus who? And we consciously stamp out of our memories the real graces we have received, the real interventions of the Spirit that have interrupted us on our way.
So often the real betrayals of God in our lives are not spectacular sins of one kind or another. Most of us are not that imaginative or flamboyant. The betrayal of God is the forgetting of God, the choice day by day to simply not think of Him, to persistently choose to put our energies, our thoughts, our attention on everything and everyone else. To live so in the present that eternity cannot have a look in on us, and so gradually become spiritually vacant and lifeless.