Devil on My Shoulder

“You’re going to screw this up. You’re going to screw this up. Here it comes, get ready, you’re going to screw this up.”

The world of internal dialogue is a strange, strange place. Conversations that seem to last several minutes occur within the span of just a few seconds. I found myself in this world on Sunday. As I turned to the altar to chant the Lenten Preface, I preface I have sung many, many times, I heard those words. “You’re going to screw this up. You’re going to screw this up. Here it comes, get, you’re going to screw this up.”

I am not a trained singer and am, at best, a passable chanter. I don’t practice as I should, which is part of my fault, but the greater fault lies in vanity. I want to sound good. I want to be good. The voice in my head was telling me that I am not good and I am going to mess this preface up. Because I allowed it, the voice was right. I missed my note on “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” A passing error for most ears in the congregation, but an irritating and infuriating grievous for mine.  

I’d like to think that I don’t often have the cartoonish experience of the angel and demon on my shoulders, but the scenario is taken seriously by the saints of the Church, and therefore should be taken seriously by me. St Ignatius of Loyola writes that it is

 “common for the evil spirit to cause anxiety and sadness, and to create obstacles based on false reasoning, through preventing the soul from making further progress. It is characteristic of the good spirit to give courage and strength, consolation, tears, inspiration, and peace, making things easy and removing all obstacles, so that the soul may make further progress in good works.”

Very literally, at the altar of God, I heard two voices. One was creating anxiety by preying on a weakness and inadequate preparation and the other was encouraging me to trust in experience and to have confidence in what I have to offer. I listened to the wrong voice.

We might assume that the liturgy is our refuge from evil thoughts and distraction but that would be a dangerous assumption. The liturgy is oftentimes where those thoughts intensify. Remember the demonic Screwtape advising his nephew Wormwood on how to sabotage his new assignment: “All you then have to do is keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?’ You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and simply won’t come into his head.”

In the Philokalia, the wisdom of the Eastern Orthodox fathers advise us to reflect on what happened when we listen to the wrong voice. During temptation our intellect is clouded and we do not see what is happening to us. Upon reflection (self-examination) we are to retrace where we gave in to those thoughts and where the weakness lies. And when we find ourselves hearing those words again, we rebuke them and make them obedient to Christ.

As for me, my weakness was in pride. I was more focused on being seen as good than I was offering my prayer, as imperfect as it is, with my own voice. God wants our best and not our boast. He wants our prayer and not our performance.

When I hear that voice again telling me that I’m going to screw this up, I will turn my hear to the other voice telling me that I can’t screw it up. This is the Sacrifice of the Mass. This is the offering of Jesus Christ.