Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Gates of Hell are Stormed

Today's gospel is a good example of a phenomenon which I find understandable, but one which I think Catholics need to reexamine. For lack of a better term, I will call it 'Unintended Apologetic Eisegesis' (I'm not good at coining neologisms or phrases--please help!). This happens when some isolated phrase gets used as part of an apologetic strategy and its plain sense gets lost.

An example happens to the following saying of Our Lord to Peter:

"the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it (the Church)"

Taken at face value, the invocation of 'gates' normally gives rise to defensive imagery. A gatekeeper is a typical defender of the city, for example. The gatekeeper is not one who crashes somebody else's gates. Those gates, too, are defensive, guarded against the scouts, the vanguard, the frontal assault of an enemy. Taken at face value, it would appear that the netherworld's gates are under attack by Christ and the Church, and that they "will not prevail" indicates that hell is not safe from the saving power of Christ.

Traditionally, but in recent centuries particularly, this passage has taken been used against those who call into question ecclesial institutions, especially the 'Catholic Church' understood more perhaps in its human dimension, and certainly the papacy. When someone in the Church does something foolish or seems ineffective against hostile propaganda, this is quotes. But notice that now the Church has been put of the defensive. It is as if the gates of the netherworld somehow got up and started moving toward the Church. What began as the attack of the Church against the forces of evil has been reversed, and we are now as a Church in a defensive posture. This should sound familiar: it is the old problem of the pope as prisoner in the Vatican, of Peter's barque and all the rest. This isn't to say that popes haven't been trapped at the Vatican or that the Church needn't worry about the poisonous air in the world today. Rather, adopting a stance only of defensive concern and the shoring up of heaven's gates seems less Biblical and frankly not aggressive enough against evil.

We at the Monastery like to say in our promotional material things to the effect that while early monks did withdraw from the world as a certain kind of defensive against the distractions of secular concerns, withdrawal into the desert or into Benedict's Sacred Cave was also a provocative gesture. St. Antony the Great stormed the stronghold of Satan by going into the desert, and lo, the gates of the netherworld could not withstand his assault.

To draw out one more possible moral from this re-reading, we can take heart during Lent ino our struggle against sin. We should actively uproot sin from our lives. It is not easy, and we suffer many setbacks, but the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail. We should never give up, cut our losses and say, 'Well, I guess I'll always fail at...' that is, we should avoid a merely defensive stance vis a vis our vices. What I am suggesting here might help us to make sense of some of the Patristic writers who were very concerned for the fostering of virtue and out of context might sound like Pelagians.

I propose this reading aware that it is a bit simplistic. Jesus has just called Peter "Rock," and this is surely a defensive sounding designation. Nevertheless, the traditional Harrowing of Hell also suggests that the Church from a very early age understood our redemption as a trouncing of the powers of evil in a terrible battle. Why not take up 'the shiny weapons of obedience and fight for the true King," as St. Benedict asks?

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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