The small road had been leading steadily upwards, switching back and forth to even out the ascent, which made the walk easier but much longer. The scrubby trees and underbrush kept me from cutting off any of the switchbacks. The whole morning I could see nothing but road and small trees: fog cut me off from the valley. The cool damp had been a welcome chill when I first set out in the early morning darkness, but dawn had come and the humidity was becoming oppressive.
Finally I came to a little path that left the road, just wide enough for one car, and unpaved. “This could be the place”, I thought to myself. I had to look three times until I noticed the sign I was told to look for, a little stone gargoyle, no taller than my knee, leering at the morning fog. When I was told to look for a gargoyle I had imagined something much bigger; this one was little more than an ugly little puppy.
The path was framed on both sides by trees. The arrangement gave the distinct impression that some land had been borrowed temporarily from the forest and would be returned to the forest as soon as it was no longer needed. I half expected to see deer crossing in front of me, but all I saw was a space in the forest, and all I heard were the songs of little birds.
After a few minutes I came to two stone gateposts, and the iron gate between them was half closed, half open. A shiny chain and a new lock hung on the side of the gate that was open. Ahead of me was stone building. The path led around the building to the right, but in front of me was a pair of steps, leading up to a small stone porch with a heavy green door. There was no knocker on the outside of the door and only a wrought iron handle for pulling the door shut: no door knob or key hole. I pushed on the handle but the door was locked.
Where the doorbell should have been, a string with a button tied to the end was hanging out of a small hole in the doorjamb. I pulled on the string but nothing happened. I looked around. Above the door was written something in a language I could not read, “Portæ Inferi non Prævalebunt“. I imagined to myself that the inscription said, “Speak, friend, and enter”. When I pulled on the string a little harder, a bell inside rang “ding ding”. After a moment I could hear footsteps coming, and a key turning in the lock.
The door opened a crack, then it opened wide. Inside was a short little monk, dressed in sandals and a black robe and hood. He had a white beard, that was not long and flowing but instead a little rebellious. His head was missing about half the amount of hair that would have covered it, and the hair that remained had turned white. “Welcome, James”, the monk said.
I followed him into a short hallway, and into the first room on the right. It was a plain and simple room with one window. Clean and nearly empty, it was home to only a small table and four chairs, and a cross hanging on the wall.
“I am Brother Azariah”, the monk said. “Would you like something to drink?”
“Yes”, I said.
“We have our own secret recipe for an ancient beverage that will give you energy”, the monk said with a tinkle in his eyes.
He disappeared out the door and in a moment I could no longer hear his footsteps. The quiet was nearly overwhelming, like an empty church, or perhaps a tomb to a god who had died 300 years ago. After what seemed like a long time, although it was probably only a few minutes, the monk returned with a tray.
There was a full mug of what smelled like coffee, covered by a saucer, and a little plate hidden under a napkin. Before I could touch the food the monk bowed his head and prayed something in Latin, then made the sign of the cross with all attention and seriousness as if the angels were watching him. Then, like a waiter in a fancy restaurant, he took off the napkin and saucer with a flourish. He had brought me a cup of coffee – strong coffee with what was probably heavy cream and a little bit of honey. Under the napkin was a pair of scones with walnuts in them.
The monk sat down across from me and immediately began talking in a serious voice, “First of all,” he said, “you may or may not be aware that were are in the middle of a difficult and dangerous campaign.” I nodded knowingly without understanding what he was talking about. “Our opponents are trying to enslave the town below us by any possible means. They are using drugs, prostitution, a lot of propaganda, and money at the moment. If it falls, and it is very much in danger of falling, the people and their children will suffer a lot.”
“I know about the drugs,” I said, “and it seems like everything is turning into pornography.”
“Yes, we are at a very critical point,” the monk said.
“I don’t understand,” I said, “are you part of some sort of resistance movement? Do you put on a cape at night and go into the city?”
“Yes, to the first question,” the monk said, “no to the second.”
“How long has this ‘campaign’ been going on?” I asked.
“From the very beginning,” he said.
“The beginning of the town?” I asked, trying to remember when the town was founded, some time in the 1800’s I thought.
“No, the beginning of time”, he said.
“How do you know what happened at the beginning of time?” I asked.
“Our intelligence sources go back that far. Actually, they go back farther, before time began.”
I looked down at the scones. This was not quite connecting in my head and so I took refuge in something that seemed real. The monk kept talking.
“Before time and space existed, there were powerful spiritual beings living in a realm that we can barely imagine. When I tell you that this world was filled with light, you have to remember that this light is similar but different from anything we experience on earth. It does not shine on the surface, but inside. It penetrates and fills everything, like water fills the ocean and everything in it. The light filled and penetrated all these beings, making them radiant and beautiful.”
“Like the sun?” I asked.
“Like the sun and the stars,” he said, “and just like each star has its own particular spectrum, each one of these beings had a particular radiance all their own. The greatest of all was a being named Lucifer, which means ‘bearer of light’. He tried to nominate himself as lord and ruler, and organized a rebellion. Since none of these beings can die, the battle cannot end the way our wars do, but it did have an end. A powerful leader named Michael organized the resistance and expelled the rebels from their world.
“What happened next was more terrible than I know how to describe. These beings were brilliant in every way, that is, they were more intelligent than we can imagine and extremely powerful and beautiful, their brilliance came from God. By trying to become masters of the world, they had rebelled against God Himself and severed their connection to Him. They were cut off from the glory that had filled them. They lost their glory and became what we call demons. Like stars that have exhausted all their fuel, they have become the spiritual equivalent of black holes. They are pits of collapsing darkness, fuming and burning with hatred, even though they continue to be intelligent and powerful in ways we can barely imagine.”
“Did any of them return to the light?” I asked.
He shook his head, “No, as far as we know none of them returned to God. I believe the reasons is that in order for them to return to God then need to repent, but repentance demands humility and none of them will lower themselves.”
“But they didn’t see that they would be completely cut off when the rebelled?”
“Only God knows all things, so they certainly did not understand the full impact of their decision, but they were aware that this was a possibility when they made their decision.”
I munched on one of the scones and reflected on what I had just been told. It was a little difficult to imagine.
The monk continued, “I don’t think they realized how empty and starving they would be if they were cut off from the light of God, because they had never existed without this light. Remember, they cannot die, so they can suffer more than anything that is possible for us on earth.”
“The story does not end here, though,” the little monk said, “because there was another realm which was filled with God’s light, not in the pure and intense way of the Heavenly realm, but in a muddy and murky kind of way, like being reflected in a pond. This realm is our universe, that we call ‘the physical world’ or ‘the world of time’.”
“Are you saying that the sun is God’s light?” I asked.
“No, it’s an image or God’s light, a reference point for human beings, but I am not talking about the sun. The light of God is present in our world in its purest form in the human soul. The light of God fills the soul, making it free and intelligent and able to love, and this light trickles from the soul into the body. In children and in some of the Saints we can see this light in its purest and most perfect form.”
I had a brief image, in my mind, of looked at the face of my nephew. When he wasn’t angry or upset, he had stared at me with the simplest, purest eyes.
“The demons hunger and lust for this light with an intensity that we cannot imagine, but at the same time they hate and despise everything that is marked with the presence of God. The demons want desperately to possess the radiance that shines in the human soul, but they cannot gain access to the soul as long as God is present.”
“Are you saying that demons are trying to possess us?” I asked.
“Yes, of course,” the monk said, seeming surprised, “what else did you think this campaign was about?”
“So a person is like this scone and the demons are desperately hungry?” I asked.
“In a way,” the monk said, “well…no actually, it is different, because the scone is substantial, but we are not substantial all by ourselves. You have to remember that all light – the spiritual light I am talking about – comes from God. As soon as the soul is severed from God it begins to collapse into a dark and crippled little pit, leaving nothing of value for the demons to possess.”
“Like a balloon that pops?” I asked.
“Think of a lightbulb. When it is taken out of the socket, the light goes out of it. It isn’t good for anything any more.”
“But why would they try to possess us if we give them nothing?”
“That is a very good question, but I think there are two reasons,” Brother Azariah said. “Controlling people are always like that. If they cannot possess something, they would rather destroy it. They hate the idea that someone else might have something that they do not have. But the demons also hate God, and they blame God for all their suffering, but they have no way to hurt God so they lash out against us, they want to crush God’s light wherever it shines.”
His voice dropped almost to a whisper, and he looked intently at me, “I also think that deep down they had the idea that, if they could hold us hostage, it would give them leverage against God; they could torture us until God capitulated to their demands.”
I shuddered. “That’s pretty horrible,” I said, “but..but you tell me they can’t possess us as long as God is present in us?”
“No, because they cannot stand His power and His glory.”
“So, it is like this scone,” I said, “but when it is in the oven, it’s too hot to touch?”
He smiled and nodded.
“So they have to lurk around the kitchen and wait for one of us to drop out of the oven?”
“You have the idea, but its actually just the opposite. There are really only a few of us who ware actually living in the burning oven which is God’s love. Most of us are already outside the oven, being warmed only a little bit or even very cold, already in the hands of demons.”
“When did we leave the oven?” I asked.
“We were born outside the oven,” the monk said, “Instead of being like scones that just sit there, we are more like rabbits. God began creating us with one pair, Adam and Eve. The demons saw that there would be a moment in time when there were only two human beings on earth, and so they entered at that moment when we were the most vulnerable and coaxed them away from God.”
“Why would God leave us so vulnerable like that?” I asked.
“God wasn’t really vulnerable to the demons, but to us, to our own free will. Creation is giving, and giving puts God in a vulnerable position.”
“I wasn’t concerned about God being vulnerable,” I said, “but about myself being vulnerable. I don’t like the idea that these collapsing black holes might be, you know, sucking me in.”
“But they are powerless as long as you are with God.”
“As long as I am in the oven?”
“Yes, as long as you are burning hot.”
“So how do we get back in the oven?” I asked.
“The important thing is to stay connected to God, and not to cut yourself off from Him. The good news is that God has already taken the most important step. Jesus Christ was God in human flesh and blood, so through that connection you can be connected to God.”
“Am I connected to God right now?” I asked.
“You have faith, don’t you? You believe in Jesus Christ, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do.”
“That’s the first step,” the monk said, “the second step is to live your life according to His teachings. It’s in the choices of your daily life when you decide to stay with Him or walk away from Him. When you reject His Words, you reject Him.”
“It’s not always clear what the Gospel says,” I said to the monk, “I try to explain things to people but they have their own interpretation.”
“That’s why we have the Church” the monk said. “The Church helps us weed out the false and deceptive interpretations so we have a clear idea of what Jesus asks of us.”
“Except for the demons part, and the whole thing about the oven, what you are telling me right now are things I already know. I was expecting something more,” I said.
“Fr. Kevin sent you up here for a reason,” the monk say. “You are very concerned about what is happening in the town, and so am I. When we first started talking you asked me if I was part of a resistance movement and I said that I was, even though I never leave this monastery. James, the monastery is an oven. Here we stay with God in prayer, and we allow Him to heat us to white-hot temperatures. This is not for our safety, but for yours: the town are being protected by the heat that radiates out of this monastery.”
“I never thought about it that way,” I said.
“You are very concerned with everything that is going on, and you should be, and you want the world to change, but you are missing the most important thing. You never spend time with God, because you are always distracted by everything that is happening around you. You let these things distract you, and the fire never stays burning for long enough to really get you hot.”
“Are you and Fr. Kevin saying I should be a monk?”
“No, not at all. You need to be with your friends, but you need to spend more time focused on Jesus and less time distracted with the things outside the oven. If you keep staring around you, you will end up outside the oven.”
With that the monk’s mouth shut and he was done talking. I sat staring out the window for a few minutes while Brother Azariah took the tray away. I don’t remember what I said as I left, but he only smiled and nodded. I realized that he had returned to the silence with his God. During the conversation I had felt a connection to him but now I saw how very different my life was from his. As I went down the road, I saw that the fog had cleared and the whole valley was stretched out in front of me. I could not remember now what I had wanted to ask the monk in the first place. He had answered my question, even though I had not known what I needed to ask. +