Superb guest post from John Carmichael: The Grace of Forgetfulness and the Healing of the Imagination
The Reverend Father Chad Ripperger, P.hD., is a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, and a Doctor of Philosophy.
In 2007 he published an 800-page tome audaciously entitled: Introduction to the Science of Mental Health. I call it audacious because, after all, why would a Catholic priest with a doctorate in philosophy, not psychology, dare to title a book promising a comprehensive treatment of the human psyche?
But of course his rhetorical challenge to the fiercely materialistic and reductive status quo of modern psychology is intentional. You see, Father Ripperger is also an exorcist, and he knows from experience there are more things contained in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in the average secular psychologist’s philosophy.
The Reverend Father describes the deliverance part of his priestly ministry as “being stationed at the outlet of a sewer pipe” where sometimes amidst all the filth spewed forth from the mouths and bodies of the diabolically afflicted, one finds a “lost diamond ring” in the form perhaps of a reluctant demonic admission of some sacred truth that confirms Catholic theology and blows through all the smokescreens erected by secularism and false religion.
Father Ripperger said that performing the rite of exorcism is like having a bucket with a glass bottom: one may know from faith there are fish (demons in this analogy) running next to the boat, but when one lowers a clear-lensed bucket in the water (as through exorcism), one can actually see them flitting about.
An exorcist’s visceral encounters with demons help inform not just his understanding of their very real operations on the human psyche, but also that of the angels, including our guardian angels and others. Without this understanding, any view of the human psyche and that which influences it is necessarily incomplete, Father Ripperger argues, and dangerously so.
Many human actors ridicule such an understanding of reality as mere magical thinking from a primitive time, long overturned by physical science and the modern, appropriately limited understanding of the psyche: Angels and demons, pshaw!
But Father Ripperger, with his Thomistic formation and pastoral experience, has the courage—and perhaps the responsibility in this age of diabolical disorientation—to assert supernatural truth over and against an army of scoffers, many of whom have academic letters after their names and enjoy the comfort of human respect.
Thus, in Introduction to the Science of Mental Health, he proclaims the following, resting on Saint Thomas among others, including without limitation Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ:
Because modern psychology does not understand its material object (the human person)…it has failed to arrive at what mental health actually is and this makes it impossible really to know if the average man is doing what is right. Just because everyone in a society is engaging in certain types of behaviors does not make those behaviors psychologically good. It is only within the context of understanding the nature of Original Sin grasped through revealed theology, and the nature of man as such grasped by philosophy, that we arrive at the explanation of the difference between what the average man does and what constitutes the norm.
Father Ripperger restates the Catholic truth that man is a composite of body and soul and that any valid psychology must be subordinated to both a valid philosophy of man (which modern psychology lacks because it denies the soul) and to metaphysics.
We are reminded by Father Ripperger that the word science, hijacked as it has been by materialists, simply derives from its Latin root to know, or knowledge, and that physical science (biology, chemistry) was traditionally regarded as but one way of knowing, theology and philosophy comprising two valid and necessary metaphysical sciences, or put another way, two valid and necessary ways of knowing that which is beyond-the-physical.
After living on planet Earth for forty-plus years under the ferocious tyranny of materialists, I can only regard the trashing of Catholic metaphysics as a direct and vicious act of spiritual warfare against the children of God.
As it turns out, a kitschy advertisement that pictures a homemaker with an animated “angel” on her right shoulder and a “demon” on her left—the former encouraging her to stick with her healthy diet while the latter entices her to gobble down the devil’s food cake—is not a tired comic trope after all, but a true illustration of the challenge we face from moment to moment.
As C.S. Lewis put it, [E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.
In my book, Drunks & Monks, I describe the direct, concrete way in which my submission to the ministry of the Catholic Church—not some vague, amorphous form of “spirituality” or mere Christianity—broke the back of my seven year bout with drink and a hex of rotten things that went with it. Chiefly the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, a 54 Day Rosary Novena, fasting, a general confession, and a minor exorcism all served to deliver me from a quicksand I could not even identify let alone haul up and out of under my own power.
Those interventions accumulated for me over a period of a couple years, with the confession and deliverance taking place about five years ago. Drunks & Monks chronicles the bracing relief and astonishment of my newly converted soul, and stops the narrative there somewhat breathlessly.
But now, after five years living as a disciple of Christ in His one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, I can report that the honeymoon is over.
Our Lord spoke of the way of salvation as a narrow path that few would find—not as a one-time event. (Matthew 7:13-14) Having now attempted to trudge this narrow path post-conversion through five liturgical years, I certainly hold to this truth easily seeing how His divine teaching matches my common experience and the writings of so many of our great Saints including, of course, Saint Augustine, who in his Confessions foreshadowed in 399 Anno Domini what Saint Thomas and others would further systematize in the high and late middle ages. Saint Augustine reflected:
My lovers of old, trifles of trifles and vanities of vanities, held me back. They plucked at my fleshly garment, and they whispered softly: ‘Do you cast us off?’ and ‘From that moment we shall no more be with you forever and ever!’ …What filth did they suggest! What deeds of shame! …[it was] as if they were muttering behind my back, and as if they were furtively picking at me as I left them, to make me look back again. Yet they did delay me, for I hesitated to tear myself away, and shake myself free of them, and leap over to that place where I was called to be. For an overpowering habit kept saying to me, ‘Do you think that you can live without them?’
Saint Augustine was speaking clearly of his formerly habitual sins against chastity and corruption of the imagination, but he provides a glimpse into the interior struggle one might have against falling back into any prior sin, particularly a habitual one.
Holy Writ duly informs us that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and nowhere perhaps is that more clearly illustrated in its temporal sense than in the sins of drunkenness and illicit drug use. I certainly hope God is merciful to the addicted, and I do not pretend to draw the line between what constitutes a sinful consent of the will and the subjugation of the alcoholic whose will has been overcome. In that regard the old phrase comes to mind: “First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man.”
Since it is so often deadly, it is deathly important for the alcoholic or addict to avoid relapse, whether “relapse” is understood in purely medical or spiritual terms. All of us who are now sober know of a person who relapsed and died. If we help other alcoholics, we often end up attending some funerals. Any right thinking person commends the deceased alcoholic to God’s mercy. I attended such a funeral once and wondered, What led the departed to drink again? And, How can I make sure it doesn’t happen to me?
I spoke recently with a man who works with alcoholics and addicts in recovery. He’s a spiritual seeker, a man who patronizes all religions, and betrays his penchant for that which originated in the East before he carefully considers his birthright and storehouse of Christian truths.
But even this man who does not subscribe to Christian orthodoxy, said he is struck by what he perceives to be a seemingly very clear struggle for the recovering alcoholic—a struggle which he perceives to take place even outside the alcoholic—as though, he told me in conspiratorial tones, there really is a supernatural tug of war in which the alcoholic in recovery finds himself.
My friend was fascinated to learn that a first century physician (among others) had already written something on the subject, recounting Jesus Christ’s teaching on what is known as The Return of the Unclean Spirit:
When an unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first. (Luke 11:24-26)
I have often thought of this passage in the face of the horror of the relapsed alcoholic, especially the chilling final line, And the last state of that person is worse than the first. So often this is the case in relapse. So often relapse is absolutely devastating or even fatal.
In order to convey a spiritual truth, Our Lord spoke to us perhaps with a bit of a metaphor, referring to waterless places. Saint Luke did not see fit to express it any differently. It is only natural that subsequent souls, theologians and commoners too, would wonder about this teaching and ask not out of idle curiosity but in self-preservation, precisely how do the unclean spirits return?
Is there something about the person to which Christ refers who, having been relieved of the presence of an unclean spirit, allows its horrifying return plus seven more evil than itself?
Father Ripperger, relying on the vast body of Catholic theology, tells us something interesting which may apply:
In the psychological realm, the primary way the angels and demons affect man is by moving his imagination. St. Thomas observes that this occurs by the angels and demons forming an image in the imagination by moving the bodily organ. Yet, they can only cause a phantasm which has something prior in memory, i.e. they must use prior sense data. As for the angels, it is a way to incite us to do the right thing by moving our memory to place something in the imagination which corresponds to joy or something of this sort when we experienced doing the right thing. Moreover, the angels can help us remember what we have been taught so that we will be moved to do the right thing. This is why devotion to the guardian angels and to angels in general must be fostered...
With respect to the demonic, our memory is a mine field, so to speak. The demons can use our past experiences against us by moving the memory to recall past sins so that they can be a form of temptation for us. [I]t was often said that it is easier for a man who has never had any sexual experience to maintain a celibate life than for the man who has had sexual experience. Two things must be done to block the demonic in this respect: (1) avoid sin as much as possible so that they do not have the sense data to use against [us]; (2) do those things which will merit the grace of forgetfulness.
It would seem in this formulation that one of “those things that will merit the grace of forgetfulness” is simply to “avoid sin as much as possible.”
But since “forgetfulness” is referred to as a grace, it is something that must be ultimately granted by God for His purposes.
It is important to point out that the grace of forgetfulness and the healing of the imagination and memory apply not just to our own past sins, but also to traumatic memory and the absorption of societal evils. On these points Father Ripperger writes, [T]he more violent the society becomes, the more the sense data will affect the mental stability of its members and the more they are able to be preyed upon by the demonic. Those who have suffered something traumatic will be easier for the demonic to affect since the sense data of the trauma is available. For this reason, directees must consign the care of the body daily and devoutly to the care of their guardian angel so that the angel is given more dominion over the body and therefore is more capable of protecting it from demonic influence.
I can’t help but think both of Saint Augustine and Saint Paul in this regard, prolific sinners both, but each in their own way seemed able to ultimately to move forward in time, toward the moment when they would take that great leap from time to eternity. And in both cases, seeking the grace of forgetfulness, well, they asked for it, they expressed their will to move forward rather than to be drawn backward. First, Saint Paul, writing shortly after Christ’s life, death and resurrection:
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of His resurrection and participation in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:10-14)
And then Saint Augustine, writing a few hundred years after Saint Paul, whose prayer for the grace of forgetfulness was so fervent, so anguished, so desperate, and so like my own:
‘And you, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Remember not our past iniquities.’ For I felt that I was held by them, and I gasped forth these mournful words, ‘How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not in this very hour an end to my uncleanness?!’
And then the two of them together, as Saint Augustine was aided by Saint Paul across time, in that famous passage from Augustine’s Confessions:
So I hurried back to the spot where Alypius was sitting, for I had put there the volume of the apostle (Saint Paul) when I got up and left him. I snatched it up, opened it, and read in silence the chapter on which my eyes first fell: ‘Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in strife and envying, but put you on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences.” No further wished I to read, nor was there any need to do so. Instantly, in truth, at the end of this sentence, as if before a peaceful light streaming into my heart, all the dark shadows of doubt fled away.
I would do well at this point, five years into my discipleship such as it is, to very sincerely pray for the gift of forgetfulness, not just of my own repented sins, but also of my traumatic memories and the grotesque evils in the world that I have had the misfortune to witness. As a life in Christ fortified Saint Paul and allowed him to forget what was behind him and move forward, and as Saint Paul fortified Saint Augustine with his exhortation, Saint Augustine fortifies me with his example.
May those most in need of it receive the grace of forgetfulness and the healing of their imagination and memory.