The Power of Prayer

“Jesus Christ is the light of the world, a Light no darkness can extinguish.”

There is a little video going the rounds on Facebook which you may have seen. It purports to show the power of the Eucharist driving away the forces of darkness – or, at the very least, purple – in the guise of two young women wearing “Left Action” t-shirts. The women are strolling along a covered walkway, when they encounter a procession led by a crucifer and bearing the Host. The women balk, back off, and scurry away, while choirs sing, “Gloria,” and the subtitle shows a text from Proverbs 28:1: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion.”

I’ve had a tough last couple of weeks. Not that I’m complaining – much. Just that it is hard still receiving emails and messages from friends keeping me informed about the things that colleagues in medieval studies from around the globe now believe about me. That I “support racism, white supremacy, misogyny, etc.” because I am friends with Milo – that well-known black dick-sucking supposed white supremacist about to get married to his black fiancé, may they have many years of happiness together – and have been published in Breitbart, that alleged platform for the alt-Right staffed almost entirely by Catholics and Jews.

As one of my colleagues in medieval studies put it in a recent list-serve post:
Breitbart is a racist and white supremacist, as well as misogynistic and otherwise bigoted platform. This is widely known, and all writers for Breitbart are therefore knowingly associating themselves with those ideologies; when they choose a website like Breitbart as a place to associate with, feed, lend their names to, use as outlet for their own ideas, etc., someone pointing out that their actions support the website, and therefore support racism, white supremacy, misogyny, etc., is not “name calling”; it is analysis. And there really is only one word to appropriately describe a person who actively supports racism. Using that word is not “name calling”.
I am sure the editors at Breitbart, not to mention Milo, are used to this sort of thing, but it is wearing. I know I shouldn’t be, but I am actually truly shocked. Not that my academic colleagues around the country have heard such things about Breitbart or Milo, which they now attribute to me, but because hearing about me, knowing who I am and where I teach, they seem to have been not the slightest bit curious to read what I have written about Milo or to wonder how I, a scholar of medieval Christianity and the devotion to the Virgin Mary, ended up becoming his friend.

Surely, surely, there must be a certain disconnect. A moment when they think, “I’ve known Rachel for over ten or twenty or thirty years. She always struck me as thoughtful if a bit forceful in her arguments. Maybe I’ll go look at her blog and see.” One colleague, Jane Chance – may the Lord rain blessings upon her – did, and within hours changed her mind about what she had heard. She read my blog posts, read the screenshots I sent of her the longer conversations that had been going on about me for the past year and a half on Facebook, and even bought Milo’s book on Kindle and started reading it. And found it “in many instances perfectly reasonable, however controversial his public performances may be.”

This past week or so I have had the now-usual flood of Facebook friend invites from readers around the world, friends of friends who have seen my posts on Facebook that their friends have shared, people who have watched my interview with Jonathan Pageau or the videos my friends and I have made in our Three Kraters Symposium, people who saw the articles about me in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. Others have written to me directly, thanking me for being (as one alum of my own institution put it) “a voice of reason in a time of shallowness and insanity” and urging me to “keep up the great job and keep your standards high!”

And then there were the nearly 1,500 colleagues (I use the term loosely) who signed the Open Letter sent to my Dean of Social Sciences and the Department of History in which I am described as ignorant of “the discourses of structural racism and white supremacy,” not to mention employing “unconscionable and dangerous tactics in attempting to make [my] claims.” By which they mean, I am friends with Milo and tagged him in my Facebook post. Oh, and I used a naughty word in urging my medievalist colleagues to do their jobs.

I had a dark night about this time last week, when I knew the letter had gone to my chair of department and dean. I could feel the forces of darkness closing in, tempting me to turn to the dark. I wrote to one of my friends who has been stalwart throughout my adventures with Milo:
I am a little worried. Not that I did the wrong thing – I have well-meaning friends getting into my head, suggesting that if only I had been nicer.... But because I have touched evil, and I am scared of being sucked in.

I had a thought earlier this evening about how useful it might be to have amulets against the Evil Eye on me when I go into particular situations. The cross as a power against the Enemy, actually apotropaic, not just symbolic to remind myself of who I am. Needing to say blessings in order to protect myself against the onslaught of evil. 
This spiritual threat, I have never felt anything like it.  
I can't believe it is just in my head, just an effect of being so stressed and tired. There is a real force to it, that I have drawn Evil's attention. How can it be so powerful? Has Our Lord not defeated the Enemy? I understand that the demons get stronger the stronger you get, but that is partly a way of saying, the stronger you get, the greater the challenges you are able to take on. But this, this feels personal and alive and deadly, a force that would make everything I have ever touched or believed in ugly.

My well-meaning friends would say, you drew this to you, and they would be right. But also wrong: because their solution is to be mild, keep their heads down, and hope it passes them by. Let it work its slow poison, until everything is corrupted. As if, unless we fight actively, Evil will win. It tries to make us believe that we don't need to fight, but that doesn't mean it goes away. It just lulls us into apathy and inattention while it carries on growing and taking over our lives.  
Until this past week, I confess, I had thought that these forces existed mainly as metaphors. Now they feel very, very real. As if I have never been so alive before, so sensitive to what is really at stake. Awake into a new reality, just like in the stories of the saints or Neil Gaiman’s novels. My home is filled with images of Mary; it now feels like these are points of protection, guarding this place, but going out into the world, I need to arm myself with the cross – and it is NOT a metaphor. Not just a symbol. And that if I do not say my prayers... That I MUST say my prayers or risk attack. 
That evening I was also anxious for Milo, knowing that soon he was going to be risking a repeat of the violence he encountered last February at Berkeley. As it turned out, Free Speech Week was cancelled and all he was able to do was bring a few friends onto campus on Sunday, where a handful of followers had been allowed past the barricades so that he could sign autographs and give a short speech.

But of course, being Milo, he did something more. He knelt in prayer. He framed it as a response to the football players’ Take A Knee protest, but being as it were on the front lines with him, at least in my own small teapot of medieval studies, I immediately felt it as something more. Not just as a gesture to demonstrate that kneeling might mean many things, but as an actual exercise of prayer against the forces of darkness he – and I – somehow seem to have called forth simply by being willing to champion our culture and faith.

Milo said that he was praying for the protestors “who don’t know what they are doing” in calling for a socialism they don’t understand and “for each other for the strength and fortitude to carry on, to fight for free speech in the face of overwhelming odds, and for America, the greatest nation in the world.” As he knelt, the protestors kept screaming and his supporters started singing. But Milo stayed silent, his head bowed in prayer. Theatrical? Of course. But also humiliating in the way prayer always is. A little bit silly, not quite the thing you expect. But what else can we do?

That night, when I felt Evil tempting me, my friend wrote back:
War changes people, and culture war is war, in the psychological if not physical strength. Something to think about: For a million years of human evolution, the homo sapiens who was outcast from his or her tribe died. To be shunned by the group was a death sentence: ostracization was murder. Only with the rise of civilization, a fairly recent development, did it become possible for us to survive the exclusion from our close-knit groups, to move, to find a new group. But we still have a million years of evolution, deep traits embedded, that make us scream with terror and faint with stress from the pressure of our peer group. Psychologically, almost none of us can survive being truly alone.
I know that this is what my colleagues in medieval studies who circulated the Open Letter about me want to accomplish. They want to ostracize me, make sure that I have no village, no tribe, no home. They say so explicitly, that they want my department to somehow make sure that I am no longer part of the tribe because (they say) my words and friendship with Milo have placed others in danger. This is how the Devil works: by generating fear. (They are afraid of Milo, so they want me to be afraid as well.) It is also why the demon names itself Legion. Because the demonic is what drives human beings to act in mobs, to shout down the dissenter and drive him – or her – from their midst.

I understand now something that I have long prayed to understand. This – this evil – is what prayer is designed to counter. It is the darkness that Jesus, the light of the world, drives away. Because with Jesus Christ, none of us is ever truly alone, no matter how many voices may be raised against us, as Milo – kneeling alone in prayer – showed beautifully yet again.

“Jesus Christ is the light of the world, a Light no darkness can extinguish.”

That, my friends, is the real power of prayer.

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