A spirit haunts the
year's last hours
Dwelling amid these yellowing bowers:
To himself he talks;
For at eventide, listening earnestly,
At his work you may hear him sob and sigh
In the walks;
Earthward he boweth the heavy stalks
Of the mouldering flowers:
Heavily hangs the broad sunflower
Over its grave i' the earth so chilly;
Heavily hangs the hollyhock,
Heavily hangs the tiger-lily.
This poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-62) evokes the nostalgia many of us experience at this time of year - when the "yellowing bowers" we see around us seem poignantly symbolic of "last things".
This year a loss in our family - the death of my mother this summer (on the solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul) - gives this sense an even sharper edge than usual. (My mother was an artist, whose paintings of Kansas landscapes often included the "broad sunflower", as well as a gardener and farmer's wife, who well knew the burdens of "the heavy stalks of the mouldering flowers" around Michaelmas season.)
A few weeks ago I was working on pages for Saint Augustine and his mother, Saint Monica, for our web site's Liturgical Calendar, and I re-read the 4th-century Doctor of the Church's powerful reminiscence of his mother - who spent years in prayer for (and shed copious tears over) her brilliant and beloved son, who not only lost his faith but joined a heretical sect when he went away to school at the age of nineteen. Augustine's Confessions, written 1600 years ago, are as fresh, powerful, and compelling to readers today as when they first appeared. The account of his difficult and wayward youth - and his very moving account of his mother's last days - comprise the first six books of the Confessions. Its remaining books contain such penetrating theological insights that they have profoundly influenced the entire Church up to and including our own time. As a youth, Augustine writes, he was in love with Truth - though his pursuit of truth mired him in a fashionable anti-Christian movement, Manichaeism, a form of Gnosticism, which claimed to be a "religion of reason" as opposed to Christianity, and aimed to synthesize all known religions. Augustine remained enmeshed in this "religion of reason" for almost a decade, growing progressively estranged from his roots and from the faith he was taught as a child - and more and more restless and dissatisfied. (Meanwhile, his mother prayed and wept and prayed and wept.)
Sound familiar? Many of us recall that fall when we entered the university and discovered that encountering new ideas (or at least new to us) was as breathtakingly exhilarating as it was (too often) perilous to our faith. Many mothers today who send their children to school - "into the world", a world increasingly hostile to Christian faith - know the uneasiness and distress that Monica experienced while her son was away at school. (He announced his renunciation of Christianity when he returned home during a school vacation.) Many, too, know the anguish of seeing a precious child lose their Christian faith as they pursue knowledge, often led into spiritual peril by attractive teachers who convincingly question every truth of the faith.
But it is not just young people who stray from the faith. Sometimes it is the parents. Saint Paul expressly warned about false teachers who tickle the ears of the unwary (II Timothy 4:3). No one would have believed, half-a-century ago, that the Catholic Church could be threatened by the ancient Gnostic heresies - yet neo-Gnosticism now infects so many spirituality programs that is impossible to keep track of them all. The Gnostic virus permeates "religious" feminism (among this summer's tainted offerings was The DaVinci Code, a fantastic novel claiming that a male conspiracy from the apostles to the present, banished Jesus' wife, Mary Magdalene, and child, has kept women oppressed and eradicated the "feminine principle" from the Church. Less dramatic but as dangerous are attractive feminist-inspired study programs. (The enclosed booklet, "About Local Groups", was developed this summer to help provide an alternative to these problematic programs - and to encourage sound, faithful efforts.)
"Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord!" Augustine's heartfelt cry, I think, contains a message of genuine comfort and consolation to mothers and fathers who watch helplessly as children lose their faith. God awaits those "restless hearts" - to find rest, peace, truth and real freedom in Him. Monica's example of unflagging faith and tireless prayer is timely, too. And it seems apparent that Augustine's genius for transmitting the Truth - a God-given power undiminished by Time - was deepened by his personal understanding of doubt and spiritual seduction.
At the Michaelmas season, when a "spirit haunts" most palpably, we do well to pray to the Archangel Michael for all who are tempted or led astray, "Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the Devil"
Oremus pro invicem,
Helen Hull Hitchcock
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