Immortal Combat: Confronting the Heart of Darkness, by Dwight Longenecker (160 pages, Sophia Institute Press, 2020)
It was, I believe, C.S. Lewis who said, speaking of the mediaeval mind and culture, that “the very air was thick with angels.” If, however, angels are real and not merely figments of the imagination, mediaeval or otherwise, the very air is as thick with their spiritual presence in our own time as in any other; and not merely in the physical air that we breathe but also in that much more important metaphysical “air” with which we think. Angels are everywhere and one suspects that our guardian angels know us much better than we know ourselves, which is not actually saying very much considering how woefully bad we are at knowing ourselves. It was Chesterton who said that the self is more distant than any star, which is why knowing ourselves is much more difficult than knowing our neighbor, and why we are much better at judging our neighbor, for better or worse, than we are at judging ourselves. We like to think that the reason we are commanded to love our neighbour and our enemy is that our neighbour very often is our enemy; and yet we are not quite so happy to think, and to be reminded, that we love ourselves in the wrong way because we are our own worst enemies.
Such thoughts are at the enlightened heart of Immortal Combat: Confronting the Heart of Darkness by Fr. Dwight Longenecker, who will need no introduction to readers of The Imaginative Conservative.
The first thing that might strike us about Fr. Longenecker’s book is that he understands not only that the very air is thick with angels but that the angels themselves are not always what they seem. Some of them are deceptive. They are angelic in the fallen sense of the word, which is to say that they are demonic. The “heart of darkness” of which he writes is thick with demons and, which makes what he writes very close to home, the heart of darkness is found in each one of us as is the immortal combat which gives the book its title. “This is total war,” he warns us, “and every human being, in one way or another, is caught up in the cosmic conflict, whether he likes it or not.” Or, one might add, whether he knows it or not. “Every human being will have to take sides.” There is no escape. We either fight for our eternal lives or we surrender to powers that will devour us. Doing nothing is not an option because it is the sin of omission which leads to hell. “We all must choose, and not to choose is to choose.” Those who “pretend the forces of evil do not exist,” who are in denial about the demonic nature of evil, are guilty of “ostrich-head-in-sand idiocy.”
Using his God-given imagination, as well as his God-given reason, Fr. Longenecker takes examples from Greek mythology, as well as from literary works, such as The Divine Comedy, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, and films, such as Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, to illustrate the immortal combat.
He takes Cerberus, the monstrous “three-headed hound of hell,” as a metaphor for three aspects of the evil which besieges our embattled hearts. The first howling head of Cerberus represents power, the second represents pride, and the third reveals prejudice. When we lash out like the hell-hound itself in unrestrained power, pride, and prejudice we unloose the seven deadly sins upon ourselves and then, as an inevitable consequence, on others also.
Staying with the ancient myths, Fr. Longenecker then drags up the three Gorgons from the dregs of hell, Medusa, Stheno and Euryale. “Rising from the stormy depths of the human heart, Medusa represents Resentment—the sullen beast that seduces humanity.” Resentment is defined by Fr. Longenecker as “the relentless restlessness and discontent that comes from our power, pride, and prejudice being frustrated.” Nor is resentment merely “the memory of a negative experience or emotion and the regret that accompanies that memory.” It is “the conscious, intentional, vivid reenactment of that negative emotion” which Fr. Longenecker calls “the Resentment loop”:
[T]he Resentment loop is like a drug . . . [b]ut like all drugs, the effect is not real. It wears off, and we need to go back more frequently and take a higher dose, and soon – just like an addict; we are enslaved.
We worship this Medusa as an addict worships his drug, says Fr. Longenecker, until “our hearts and minds really are hardened like stone.” At this point we start to live our whole life in this world of Resentment. “We become obsessed with our own unhappiness, and before long we are not only obsessed. We are possessed.” Related to Resentment, and represented by Medusa’s two sisters, are Rivalry and Revenge. These three weird sisters are the demonic presence in the destructive ideologies that have plagued the world in recent centuries:
Now we can understand all the revolutionary movements down through history, as well as “identity politics” of our day. All the angry little groups of protesters are driven by the three witches: Resentment, Rivalry, and Revenge.
It doesn’t matter what identity and ideology it is. It could be Marxism, Nazism, or feminism. It could be any number of religious ideologies: fundamentalism, modernism, or traditionalism. It could be a political, sexual, or economic ideology. But whatever form it takes, the inner dynamic is the same.
Never one to mince his words or pull his punches, Fr. Longenecker likens these ideologically credulous creeds to monsters from hell, “driven by an unholy energy”: “Like the living dead they stagger on, never stopping, never resting, always seeking Revenge.”
As one might expect from an author animated by a love of God and a life of prayer, it’s not all darkness. Although the first part of the book delves deep into the abyss of “the heart of darkness,” the second part of the book, “The Sword of Light,” shows us the weapons we need to win the war being raged for our immortal souls. These are “the Swords of the Spirit” with which, by the grace of God and with the help of the angels, we might overcome the Father of Lies and the hellish host of lesser liars which have laid siege to our hearts. This is, therefore, a book to take to heart so that we might take heart. All is not lost because Christ has already won the victory. All that we need to do is allow his light and life into the heart of our darkness.
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The featured image is a detail from “Saint Michael Vanquishing Satan” (1518) by Raphael (1483-1520) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.