On spiritual evil

Evil is cheap.

I’ve written before, the common quip about evil is that it’s “live” spelled backward. Dictionary.com lists its proto-Indo-European root as upelo, meaning “overreaching bounds,” in the sense of uppity folks. Evil is that which crosses boundaries, turning the sacred order of the world into chaos.

Evil is traditionally seen as a spiritual force, in the sense that it derives from incorporeal beings: the demons that afflict the unwary Renaissance sorcerer, Satan in Abrahamic faiths and Angra Mainyu/Ahriman of Zoroastrianism. As such, the concept is likely more prevalent in dualistic faiths, in which the world is divided into two oppositional poles struggling for dominance (rather than the complementary poles of Wicca, Taoism, etc., in which the poles interact in constructive systemic ways).

Evil in Pagan systems is more complicated. The Irish Fomhoire, Norse Jotun and India asuras can be viewed as evil forces in some senses, in that they contribute to disorder and chaos. But these same beings intermarry with the Gods, the defenders of said order; they have a role and place in the overall cosmic system. While Other, they are not forces or beings to be obliterated, although they’re not invoked, either. You give them their due — the outsiders’ offering, as they say in ADF — in the hopes that they’ll leave you be. Evil, in this context, is not ultimate, not simply a question of category, or a matter of unending, winner-take-all war. 

But evil — the overall concept — is cheap. By attributing the reasons for suffering or tragedy to evil, we are essentially washing our hands as rational agents and relinquishing authority to the arcane. What can we know of spiritual matters, of cosmic forces vastly greater than mortal lives? Perhaps we are simply pawns on the cosmic field of war, where the God is pitted against the Anti-God. Evil is the great unknowable Other, whose machinations we cannot fathom or guard against.

Oh, there is spiritual warfare: the correct prayers, thoughts, customs thought to ward off malevolent spirits. And the funny thing about spiritual warfare is that when it fails, you can always blame the practitioner for some unseen lapse. Since spiritual matters are, by definition, unseen, it’s easy to say that the failed practitioner’s hearts, faith, prayers were not suitably pure. It’s a hell of a lot easier to pray than actually analyze complicated issues and seek equally complicated solutions.

Evil is, essentially, laziness: moral, intellectual and, yes, spiritual. It reduces a variegated world not to grayscale, but instead a cartoon of black and white with nothing in between.

The latest perpetrator of a mass shooting wasn’t some sort of mythical being — a monster, as we so often bandy about the term. He wasn’t a devil, a demon or Ahriman. He was a human being — as am I, who type these words, as are you who read them, as were all the children in the classroom. By invoking the name of evil, we erase that crucial fact: that this was a crime committed by a human being on other human beings.

If we want to prevent such brutal acts, we need to put aside the concepts of good and evil. Instead, we must be willing to ask the questions: the murky, complicated mass of interlinked whys and wherefores. We must be willing to put aside preconceptions and listen to the equally murky, complicated mass of interlinked answers. We must be willing to give up the artificial simplicity of black and white, pro-gun and anti-gun, red and blue. We must work for our answers, and accept that the work and the answers both won’t be easy. It will involve sacrifice. It will shake who we are.

So, if you define yourself as spiritual, offer your prayers for peace and healing, yes. But do more than that. Put aside the armor of good and evil, of spiritual warfare, and make yourself vulnerable to the pain. Lean into it and feel the loss, knowing that it’s not even the slightest shadow of those who are grieving. Feel the fragility of everything, like a dewdrop trembling on the tip of a leaf. 

There’s a poem I share every time one of these things happen. I wrote it after Virginia Tech. I’ve had to share it too many times, but I offer it again. It’s called “A Prayer to Brighid in Times of Violence.”

Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those who hear the crack of thunder from a gun in a place of refuge, who see the sunlight glint off its barrel.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those where shots are as common as the cries of sparrows, where each step on the crumbling walk is taken with held breath and a prayer half-believed.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those who put the softness of their own flesh and the strength of their bone in the path of the bullet or the blade.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those with the swift feet or the limping, who flee pain to preserve life.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those sheeted in red, the wellspring of their blood spilling words and meaning on the ground.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those whose bodies are unmarred, but whose minds bear the scars of their witness.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those who stand confused on the shores of the Sunless Sea, their lives the unplucked apples of the Western Isle, their farewells and jokes and love notes unsaid, unsent.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those whose tears bear the barge to the Otherworld, who hold memories in shaking hands and hearts webbed with cracks.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those who knit limbs, who tend to souls and hearts, who offer the bread of comfort and the milk of nurturance.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those who bear witness, who share the words of truth and so drive off the black wings of silence and its carrion crow with their telling.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those who fire the gun and loft the grenade, to those that maim and those that kill, so that the fire of their rage is quenched in your well’s sweet waters.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Let your waters pour out with the peace of the singing brook scattering sunlight, the peace of the roaring white-maned sea, the peace of the drumming rain and the lake ringed with reeds.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Let your waters knit wounds and quell the blaze of rage, of pain, the starless deep of despair and the gray slate of indifference.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Let us swim in your healing waters until we know that we are all enfolded in the same sea, that we are the sea itself, the sea coursing through the salt of our tears and of our blood, turned sweet by your palms into the deep well of compassion.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
A Bhrigid, scar os mo chionn do bhrat fionn dom anacal.

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About whitecatgrove

The musings of a Druid priestess, singer, poet and musician in Upstate New York.
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