Today’s Gospel is not really a story for sunny Summer mornings. It is a winter evening horror story. It takes me right back to childhood: Hammer horror films, Quatermass, and episodes of Doctor Who, set in lonely houses, with an old man next to an open fire, with a ticking clock and a noise at the window.
Every culture has its place of horror. Haunted houses, empty churches. For me growing up it was Bolleskin house, a deserted place on the shore of Loch Ness which we visited once on holiday, a place of low mists and dark deeds, where Alasteir Crowley, the Satanist.
But nearer to home, the cupboard under the stairs. Some fool had given me a poem by Vernon Scannel when I was young. It’s about a boy who kills a cat, and hides the body in the cupboard under the stairs. (quoted in full for the blog)
They should not have left him there alone,
Alone that is except for the cat.
He was only nine, not old enough
To be left alone in a basement flat,
Alone, that is, except for the cat.
A dog would have been a different thing,
A big gruff dog with slashing jaws,
But a cat with round eyes mad as gold,
Plump as a cushion with tucked-in paws—
Better have left him with a fair-sized rat!
But what they did was leave him with a cat.
He hated that cat; he watched it sit,
A buzzing machine of soft black stuff,
He sat and watched and he hated it,
Snug in its fur, hot blood in a muff,
And its mad gold stare and the way it sat
Crooning dark warmth: he loathed all that.
So he took Daddy’s stick and he hit the cat.
Then quick as a sudden crack in glass
It hissed, black flash, to a hiding place
In the dust and dark beneath the couch,
And he followed the grin on his new-made face,
A wide-eyed, frightened snarl of a grin,
And he took the stick and he thrust it in,
Hard and quick in the furry dark.
The black fur squealed and he felt his skin
Prickle with sparks of dry delight.
Then the cat again came into sight,
Shot for the door that wasn’t quite shut,
But the boy, quick too, slammed fast the door:
The cat, half-through, was cracked like a nut
And the soft black thud was dumped on the floor.
Then the boy was suddenly terrified
And he bit his knuckles and cried and cried;
But he had to do something with the dead thing there.
His eyes squeezed beads of salty prayer
But the wound of fear gaped wide and raw;
He dared not touch the thing with his hands
So he fetched a spade and shovelled it
And dumped the load of heavy fur
In the spidery cupboard under the stair
Where it’s been for years, and though it died
It’s grown in that cupboard and its hot low purr
Grows slowly louder year by year:
There’ll not be a corner for the boy to hide
When the cupboard swells and all sides split
And the huge black cat pads out of it.
Still gives me the shivers. For the Jews, their place of horror was the desert. The desert was the place where the demons lived; evil spirits who sought for souls to devour. And that was where John the Baptist spent most of his life. John was almost certainly one of the Essenes, an order of hermits, who went into the wilderness deliberately to confront their demons.
They lived in caves, to escape the blinding heat andlight, in a place called Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea; so called because nothing could live in the sulphurous water. Those who drank from it in desperation were driven mad. And that is where John went, to battle the powers of darkness. Alone, but for the demons who rose to challenge him. It must have sent him to the very edge of sanity.
And then there was Herod. A person of luxury and comfort and indolence. Herod was rich, powerful, and paranoid. He killed anyone he was afraid might challenge him. Like all paranoid dictators, he was eventually deposed, but that doesn’t come into our story. He married his brother’s wife, and eventually killed his brother, out of guilt, perhaps, fear for his throne, who knows.
But John rose out of the desert. It excites me to think that some of the scrolls of Isaiah which were recovered from the Quran caves, hidden in clay jars, which exist to this day, may have been the very scrolls he read from. John read them, drew their words out of the desert. John was the last of his line, the last of the prophets; he dressed like them, he spoke like them, and he challenged as they did. Herod was frightened by his challenge. And so he imprisoned John in the Black Fortress at Machaerus.
Herod does not seem to have been truly evil, although he did evil things. He was perplexed by John, confused by him. But Herod was frightened, by the indolence and lust and greed which consumed him, and his demons eventually got the better of him. We all know the story of Salome, Herodias’ daughter, who asks for the Head of John on a platter. Driven by wine and lust, he was too proud to go back on a public promise. And so John’s life was ended in a prison cell and that was that.
Two men; one of whom confronted and defeated his demons, and one who was consumed by them. I found myself asking, which of the two was the prisoner?
John may have been imprisoned by Herod, but Herod could never escape his demons, his monsters in the cupboard under the stairs. They were always there, however distracted he made himself by wine and food and entertainment. When he spoke to John, I can only imagine John’s eyes of pity, as he regarded this man tormented by his own evil.
You know, In traditional horror stories, you always have a hero. Every Moriarty has a Holmes, every Dracula has a Van Helsing. These days, super heroes are making a comeback, Superman, Spiderman, fantasy figures who defeat fantasy evil.
I always preferred my heroes like Doctor Who, or Sam Gamgee, eccentric people, who didn’t carry guns.
Because there’s a disturbing similarity between super-heroes and villains. When I was at school, I found people liked either being very very good, or very very bad. To do either was a sort of thrill, being either Dracula or Superman.
Playing with ouija boards like Alistor Crowley, or fantasizing about being Luke Skywalker, the desire is the same. What you actually want, is power. People want to be powerful.
Most, if not all, the people who have done the greatest evil are those who have sought power as a way of doing good. Hitler, Stalin, Herod, they didn’t try to be evil. Even Crowley, dubbed the most evil man in the world, thought that, under his control, the world would be a better place. And all were consumed by their ego, their paranoia, their vanity. Defeated by their own demons.
Whereas it seems to me that John the Baptist, were powerless. What frightened Herod, was his lack of need. Herod had so many needs, John had none.
Those would-be dictators and rulers for good, failed to realise that power, and the desire for it, is just another one of those demons with which we all have to battle with; which Jesus and John did in the blinding sun of the desert.
I don’t believe in evil spirits and demons. I don’t believe in that sort of horror. I believe in a different sort of horror.
The real horror of this world, the horror that Herod could never escape, which grew like the cat in the cupboard, are the demons people make for themselves, prisons of anxiety or guilt or fear or desire or lust for power.
People think that empty churches or caves or deserts are scary, because they think that is where ghosts and demons are. But that’s not where the demons are. They are here, in us, always. That is where they are created, where we nurture and give in to them. Churches and wildernesses and quiet places are scary, because they are quiet, and we are afraid of allowing our demons that space. But they are also, deerts and churches, places where we find God, who will allow us to see our demons as they really are; small and pitiable and defeatable. Churches and wildernesses are places of challenge, and places of hope.
I met a man like John the Baptist once, during my time in a Franciscan Friary. He was an itinerant monk, not a romantic figure to look at, an odd, disturbing character, a sort of Christian Vagabond. He said he had started life wanting to be the next Benedict, and found monasteries and create a religious revival. But, he said, Jesus had instead given him the ability to defeat his pride. He was a failure, he rejoiced. He also said one thing which has stuck with me every since.
The gates of Hell are locked from the inside. And the key is humility.
Our God is not a God of closed doors and growing menace. Our God is the one who enables us to open those closed doors wherein our demons lurk, and to face them with the only weapon which casts out all fear. Perfect Love.