Note: This essay comes from a larger work that narrates experiences I had while I lived alone in a midwestern farmhouse. During that time, I also worked as a caregiver for disabled adults who live at a group home I call Tappan. (Tappan is the name of the house’s street.) In the next few pages, you’ll read about Silas the Barber. He is an autistic, semi-violent resident of Tappan, who tried to shave himself, in the bathtub, after irritation and fatigue had diverted my attention elsewhere. Among other things, Silas tried to shave his head, and he ended up looking as if he had hacked at himself with a cheese grater.
Part IV. Conversation
Indian summer ended, and so did my patience with the rooftop snake. The mice came back, so I re-baited the traps. Their hinges had gotten old, and they snapped shut on their own. In the morning, if I found a closed trap, I would hold it next to my ear and shake it. I knew I had a mouse if I heard scurrying. Other times, I opened the trap to nothing–and the only sign of any mouse, past or present, was a gnaw mark in the plastic.
I suspected the mice were coming, in part, from the corncrib. The building stood behind my house, about a hundred yards away, pitted with so much rot that, to discourage entry and accident, the landlord had surrounded it with a barbed-wire fence. The corncrib pitched at a twenty-degree angle, toward my yard. And whenever the wind blew, I expected to hear a crash.
So far, I had let the corncrib alone, as if it were something on the periphery of consciousness. It sat in its pen, collecting shadows at twilight. Lewis told me he once found a bull snake out there that was big around as a rolling pin.
It was on a crisp day after I had lost patience, that I dumped the kibble from my boots, grabbed a walking stick, and hopped the fence that divided my yard from the fields. The prairie grass came up to my shoulders. I couldn’t see the ground. I stepped on mounds and branches.
Once again I couldn’t tell you why I was doing such a thing. What ever accounts for aggressive exploration? The answer is curiosity, I guess–mystery, a fascination with danger. When I was twelve, I attended a nature camp, where we would wrap milk snakes around our necks and gulp enough to feel them squeeze.
The corncrib was the color of an old dock. It seemed bigger up close, and older. Bird dirt washed the southern face. I stood near the holes, and they smelled of rain. The crib’s interior had slats that crossed from corner to corner, so that all of it looked something like the hull of a boat. The light inside made puddles and beams–and for a moment, it seemed as if the light was what had blown the holes into the wood. All of it appeared as a shipwreck.
Just before Jesus meets the demoniac of the Gadarenes, he calms the storm for his disciples. They wonder at his authority over natural catastrophe. Then the Legion story arrives as a means of increasing the challenge to the unnatural.
I found a spill of gravel near the corncrib’s northern end. The stones had gone white in the sun. The corner nearest the gravel had rotted away, leaving open the slant of the corncrib’s nearest rib. Within the alcove, I discovered a belt of army canteens. There was a rusted shovel. I started at a molded rope in the alcove’s weeds. The alcove’s ceiling was about four feet off the ground. It held all but the head of my shadow.
I stepped away. The gravel clicked underfoot. Around the corner, there was a metallic smell. Through a spray of grass, I found a metal feed basin, three feet deep and as big around as a baby pool. The sides had rust blotches and dents. The basin held a reddish soup that looked granular and thick. An owl skeleton, half clean, bobbed against the far side of the rim. Red flakes caked the sockets. The water bristled with feather.
I thought of Silas, mute and thoughtful, with cuts all over his head. I left. I walked just slowly enough to fight my nausea. I hadn’t checked the corncrib’s alcove to see if there was a mark in the wood.
When I got home from the fields, I took a shower, and settled. In retrospect, I’m sure there weren’t any marks on the corncrib’s wood. I’m sure that rainwater filled the basin, and then oxidized the metal into layers of flakes. The owl could have misjudged an opening in the corncrib, stunned itself against the side, fallen, and drowned in the soup. And as far as the junk was concerned, it was just junk–and old junk, at that. If anyone had been living out there, it had been long ago. I knew this.
Still, I no longer wanted my fields to be a sea, or even a wilderness. Discerning the existence of Satan is exhausting and disturbing. And in the end, you still don’t know if you’ve come across something real, or if you’ve just wandered into the weeds and scared yourself into a blather. Life–as inheritance, wager, and consequence–does show traces of what could be a Satanic agent. But then, there is a mundane answer to most demonic phenomena. This is comforting. And yet, we have to recognize that biblically speaking, the cosmic has a long history of functioning through the ordinary.
Jesus himself was ordinary. Jesus entered history in a time crowded with messiahs. And whether the Romans were killing martyrs or not, they crucified as many as 30,000 people in a single day. Jesus, of course, is both ordinary and not ordinary. This is my point. He can, for one, withstand the singular. In fact, Jesus has, from my vantage, an unguessable appearance–except that in a way, he must look seared. He is the only one to withstand God’s direct light–which is the heightened version of the very experience from which the serpent may have offered us relief. Jesus is also the only human whom scripture mentions as speaking with the Devil himself. And what’s important here is that he alone remains as the form of man un-fallen.
In light of the scare at the corncrib, and in light of the scare inherent in everything else, this protection is helpful. And it is perhaps a grace that, regardless of such arrangement, we still catch glimpses of conversations that divinity has with the Devil. Scripture affords us these insights from time to time–breaking point of view to do so. No human recorder witnessed, say, the temptation in the desert, but we receive the scene as an opportunity for wisdom nonetheless. And it is from the safety of this distance that we see how the Devil moves.
After Jesus waits in the desert for forty days, the Devil approaches. From here, Satan’s first attack uses the same bait he employed in Eden–namely the lure of food–or as Chrysostom calls it, “incontinence of belly.” Adam and Eve ate; Jesus does not.
The Devil’s second attack also parallels a type of move that we saw in the garden, where Satan forces his victim to test her conception of God. “If he truly loves you, let his angels catch you from this cliff.” Jesus resists. “If he truly loved you, he wouldn’t lie about the fruit.” Adam and Eve gave in.
The third temptation is something we have never seen before–at least not in scripture. As Bonhoeffer describes it, Satan discloses himself. He drops the pretense. Satan is no longer an inquirer, or even a troublemaker. He is the Prince of the World. He is perhaps the hole that was once the center of the earth. What he demands in the desert is complete apostasy. He gives Jesus a view of the earth spread before him. “Give me your worship,” he says, “and I will give you the world as your kingdom.” This is depraved. It is a twisted version of what God promises Abraham, and of what God shows to Moses as a place where his people will dwell. Granted, Satan offers Jesus a bribe, while God gives his chosen a gift. But the implication is the same: Your people will become my people. Let us make a covenant. Whether such an outcome would happen immediately, or through an ordeal, isn’t clear. But what Satan is offering is the very destruction of the universe.
There is another word for the Devil: Abaddon–The Destroyer. And the more I think about it, the more I decide that once the Devil has both the will and the opportunity to disclose himself at the height of his power, he is exactly this thing. He is no longer the tempter or the prosecutor or the liar or even the fiend. He is naked destruction. He isn’t death; he is unmaking. And this means that the stakes in Jesus’ desert are as high as anything that the Bible has ever disclosed.
Jesus dismisses the wager with a single command. And Satan, famously, “leaves him until a more opportune time.” I don’t know what Bonhoeffer would say about the Devil’s parallel with the Abrahamic covenant, but I do know that he declares the third temptation to be the very thing that we should pray to avoid–the very thing that Providence’s protective arrangement allows most everyone to avoid. We pray, that is, that when the Devil is unfettered, we do not find ourselves alone in a room with it.
When he wrote his book on exorcism, Dr. Peck used “it” as the pronoun that best describes the force with which he dealt. There isn’t anything human inside of it. There isn’t anything as dashing as Milton’s Lucifer or pathetic as Dante’s Satan. Aquinas once suggested that humans most often commit evil when they mistakenly attempt to achieve a good. Sociologist, Jeffery Burton Russell, interprets this to mean that few humans are nihilists. Few of us truly and entirely oppose life, growth, or love. A person does not knowingly and consistently embrace a creative evil that goes beyond self interest or energy–beyond any need for vengeance or self defense. Even Himmler took off his jack boots when he got home, because he didn’t want to awaken his canary. True nihilism is not self love, even at the height of prideful hedonism. It is more like prideful hedonism’s very own punishment. It rarely–if ever–belongs in the human repertoire. This is what I told myself as I recovered from both the corncrib’s bloodbath and the resurfacing of everything connected to Silas. We are never alone in the room with It.
The fact of our very survival shows that Satan, as purposeful nihilism, is constrained from humanity. Whatever we can manage to attract, we cannot completely summon this thing through fear, sin or even apostasy. Whatever the nature of possession, the ungod does not fully climb inside of us.
Maybe our fallen-ness is what such a boundary. Maybe our infirmity clothed us, the way Cain’s mark both branded and protected him. I suspect, however, that if Satan were ever given full access to humans, there wouldn’t even be an exchange–not tempting, no bargains, just Abaddon’s voracity. And if this is true, Robert Johnson taught himself guitar. Luther threw his inkwell at a shadow. And if Dr. Peck indeed spoke with the Devil, he spoke with something divinely compromised. Because if Satan ever got to a person without restraint, there would be nothing left–where the truest part of the Faust excursion is the brains dashed along the walls where, in the end, the poor man hid.
Even the Devil’s own church doesn’t approach the Nihilist. High Priest Peter Gilmore, of the LaVeyan Church of Satan, told interviewer, J.C. Hallman, that his church is “atheist, even humanist.” The Church of Satan practices a ritual, where they do call to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, just in case something like Cthulhu might be listening. But the group acknowledges the self more than any other entity. They emulate Satan–in his Miltonian sense–instead of invoking him. The holiest day for each Satanist is, in fact, his own birthday. And in short, members of the Church of Satan follow the way of Nietzsche (among others), where they strive to depend on no one. If, therefore, they call to Darkness, and Darkness doesn’t answer, I am not surprised. After all, I don’t think they’re plumbing the deepest pits. And really, if Satan functions more from nihilism than a need for adulation, Satan wouldn’t answer anyway.
This is the point: If Satan lives, Satan doesn’t answer. Not us. Not in full. And this means that the question of attraction–summoning–does nothing to inform either the Devil’s existence or his essence. Theology blogger, Ben Meyers, quotes Barth as saying that we can’t give credence to “the devil, since the devil deserves only an attribute of utter disbelief–we do not believe in him, but against him.” We, in our love for goodness, attempt to hold up the universe. We attempt to stay above the Devil. And if, in the meantime, we learn anything of Satan’s absolute self, we learn it the way the crew of Moby Dick’s Pequod peers from the decks at the squid that the ship knocks against. It is white as the whale, all cord and hooks–silent, strange, from the core of something we skim across with our ambition and our oaths. We learn that we know nothing–nothing of what lives in the abyss. So all we can do is give thanks that whales eat squid.