Venomous and Poisonous

My wife is reading a novel — a novel about Scots and the English.  So, the author cares about language and along the way he makes some pretty fine distinctions.  One of them, she tells me, is the difference between venomous and poisonous.

They might appear to be the same, but they aren’t.  If something bites you and it makes you sick, it’s venomous.  If you bite into something and it makes you sick, it’s poisonous.  In one fairly humorous passage a snake escapes into the privy and there’s a fairly lengthy exchange about who’s going after the snake and the possible consequences if no one does.

But there’s a spiritual point here as well.  It occurs to me that there are two spiritual perils in life.  Some dangers lie in the things that bite us.  Some dangers lie in the things into which we bite.

The spiritual perils that both the venomous and the poisonous present can make us all a bit OCD.  Arguably there are entire approaches to the spiritual life that are so completely devoted to the task of fending off dangers of one kind or another that there is almost no element of joy and freedom in them.  That can be destructive in and of itself, but anyone who ignores spiritual perils is a “fool” (i.e., someone hopelessly unaware) — as wisdom literature from Aesop’s fables to the books of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs makes clear.

So, wherein lies the solution?  Spiritual awareness — the basic awareness that attends gently, but wisely, to the possible consequences of biting into things and of letting ourselves be bitten.

Many times, the snake and the poison are outward and inner expressions of the same thing:

Selfish people who model selfishness and the selfishness within

Callous people who treat others with contempt and the contempt within

A narcissistic culture that rewards narcissism and invites us to be equally self-absorbed

Other times, the thing that bites, is the thing that invites us to bite:

Like a Facebook post or a comment section that invites nasty responses, one after another, eliciting gang-like abuse

The difference between our world and the world of snakes is that we almost never consider biting back.  But in our own world, the thing that bites us is often the mirror image of the thing we’ve been eating.  When we convince ourselves that it doesn’t matter what we are eating and that we don’t need to be alert to the things around us that might bite, we aren’t nurturing freedom.  We are exposing ourselves to venom and poison.  The models of spiritual freedom are those who know both perils.

There have been countless systems developed for detecting the presence of spiritual venom and poison.  The problem is that it is almost always easier to recognize a snake than it is to name a demon.  And unlike the natural world, there is no fixed number of vipers out there to worry about, let alone the poison within.

The One who exhibited the greatest freedom knew the presence of both venom and poison — not by being overly occupied with the threats, but by being deeply, intimately familiar with God.  And therein lies the ability to be alert, without being OCD.  Evil doesn’t have power of its own.  It gains power through absence of the Divine.

The more we know God and understand God, the easier it is to avoid biting and to avoid being bitten.


About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.