The Great Temptation

The Great Temptation

First Sunday of Lent

Each year, as we enter the holy season of Lent, Holy Mother Church invites us to turn our attention to our Blessed Lord as He spends forty days in the desert, fasting and waging war with the devil. Our Lord’s fast was total. He ate nothing during those forty days and forty nights. Let’s not forget to thank our blessed Lord for offering this fast for us. He was truly man, and truly felt the hunger pangs and weakness. For Himself, He had no need of such mortification, but He offered it up for each one of us, so that we would have the grace to resist temptation. Indeed, at the end of the forty days, the Tempter, that is to say the Devil, approaches and cunningly makes suggestions to our Saviour. He tempts Him to greediness for food (concupiscence of the flesh), to vain glory (pride of life) and to coveting power (concupiscence of the eyes).

It is sometimes difficult for people to understand the relevance of these temptations to our own lives. Indeed, Satan is not going to appear to you as you leave church today and suggest that, supposing you have given up chocolate for Lent, you change the pebbles in the driveway into chocolate candy. Nor will he take you to the top of Sydney opera house and suggest you jump to the ground to prove how holy you are. Nor will he tempt most of us to covet the prominent roles that the world looks upon as being those of pride and glory, such as being the king of England or the President of the United States. Nevertheless, these temptations of Our Lord are paradigmatic for us, that is to say, they are the model of all kinds of temptation. Our Lord endured them precisely to obtain for us the grace to resist.

So what are our temptations? How does the enemy seek to trip us up in our daily lives? He takes different approaches to different people. The temptations of children differ from those of adults. Those of men differ from those of women. But in the end, those three areas of concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes and the pride of life lay traps for us every day of our lives.

God knows that it is good for us to be tried, to be tested. The archangel Raphael tells Tobias: Because thou wast acceptable to God, it was necessary that temptation should prove thee (Tob 12:13). Temptation, far from being a sign of reprobation, is actually a sign of God’s favour. If God did not love us, He would not allow us to be put to the test; rather, as any parent who wants their child to mature into a good, responsible adult, so God wants us His children to mature spiritually, to learn how to fight the ancient enemy and to overcome his wiles. To so protect one’s children that they never have to struggle and compete is to condemn them to a life of mediocrity. That is why God allows us to be tempted. He does not want us to be mediocre, but strong in virtue.

Most of us have to struggle, in varying degrees and forms, with the lusts of the flesh. Men are attracted by feminine beauty which is often a stumbling block to them. Women know this, and when they are not virtuous, they can easily catch men in this way. St Alphonsus Liguori, the patron saint of moral theologians is clear on this point: sins of the flesh are the cause of the damnation of the greatest number of souls. The temptations of excessive food and drink are also regular means the enemy uses to weaken our spiritual drive, whence the need, during Lent but also at other times of the year, to deprive ourselves even of things that would be suitable in order to atone for past negligences and strengthen our souls and bodies against all other forms of temptation.

The concupiscence of the eyes takes different forms for men and women, for children and adults. Whenever we find ourselves indulging in whatever makes us feel special, or gives us a feeling of power and success, we are following that path. Its cure is what we call modesty or custody of the eyes, refusing to indulge in dreaming that we are someone special and not consenting to do things so as to be seen by others. To do so is to open up a path for the tempter.

The pride of life consists in putting ourselves before others, thinking that we are better than others. This temptation is one that pious persons, especially in traditional circles, are prone to fall into. Imagining that we are better than others just because, for example, we go to Mass, or just because we know our catechism or our canon law, or because we are familiar with any other number of observances and customs that many in the Church are not even aware of today. It is easy to become self-complacent and scorn others in our heart if we are not careful. It is also easy to judge and condemn others, to find fault with their every word and deed, to criticise them, even in our own heart, as if everyone had to be brought before our own tribunal. Another form the pride of life takes, especially in periods of Church crisis, as today, is the tendency to establish oneself as the norm of what the Church should be doing, and that temptation can even go so far as setting oneself up as if one were the Church, forgetting that the Church is not ours, it is Christ’s who remains its head, and who has given it its form and structure, indestructible till the end of time.

An even more subtle form of temptation that so many have fallen prey to in modern times consists in wanting to make ourselves into something we are not by nature. This has reached its delirious climax in the gender ideology which is now corrupting our youth into thinking they can change their sex, but its roots go way back and affect many people without them even realising it. The plan of the enemy is to overthrow God and the order He has instituted. This means overthrowing the God-given authority of the priest in the Church and the father in the family. It means, in the Church, substituting for that God-given order the disorder of everyone being responsible for what the Church teaches; it means, in the family emasculating the man and de-feminising the woman, each forgetting their God-given role and trying to find a way out of it. It is the priest refusing to teach and to lead; it is the faithful refusing to be taught and led. It is the father refusing to be the head and the mother refusing to be the heart. It is the great temptation. Sanctity consists in accepting things the way they are, not foolishly trying to improve God’s creation, but humbly playing one’s role in it. That is humility, that is virtue, that is sanctity. The world was lost when Eve, from helper became seductress, and when Adam refused to lead and let things go. The world is only restored when a new Eve comes along in the person of Mary who submits entirely to the initiative of the new Adam.

Whatever our temptations, it is crucial to be aware that temptation itself is not sin. Our Lord endured it and did not sin. St Gregory had already pointed out that there are three levels in temptation: the suggestion, the pleasure and the consent. The suggestion or the thought of committing a sin is not sinful in itself. It is not uncommon to encounter souls who are trying to be good people but who are tormented by temptations. They imagine that they must be terrible people because of the awful thoughts that run through their minds, when in reality all those thoughts means is that they are a son or daughter of Adam and Eve. It is important to keep in mind that temptation is not sin, and no matter how evil the though that occurred it does not soil us if we reject it. The second step is pleasure. An impure thought for example comes into our mind and can quickly lead to a certain pleasure in our flesh. That pleasure can quickly become a venial sin if we do not reject it. The third step is to consent to the thought, to act it out in our mind or desire to accomplish it if we could. That is where the mortal sin comes in, at the moment of consent. This is why it is important to exercise ourselves at warding off all the bad thoughts that come to us. If we do so right away, they do us no harm. If we delay and allow the bad thought to trouble us, it becomes harder and harder to resist.

In all our temptations, of whatever kind, let us ever keep in mind that it is for our good, for our sanctification, and that our Blessed Saviour won for us the grace to overcome, if only our will remains with Him. The secret to that is prayer. Let’s conclude with the exhortation to prayer of the French Jesuit Fr Xavier de Ravignan (1795-1858) that I have quoted here before but which we will do well to meditate this Lent:

“Believe me, my dear Friends; believe an experience ripened by thirty years in the Sacred Ministry. I affirm all deceptions, all spiritual deficiencies, all miseries, all falls, all faults and even the most serious wanderings out of the right path — all proceed from this single source: a lack of constancy in prayer. Live the life of prayer; learn to bring everything, to change everything into prayer: pains and trials, and temptations of all kinds. Pray in the calm; pray in the storm; pray on awaking and pray during the daytime. Going and coming, pray! Tired out and distracted, pray! Whatever your repugnance may be, pray! Pray, that you may learn to pray. Teach us, O Lord, how to pray (Luke 11:1). ‘But I cannot pray!’ That is a heresy. Yes, you can always pray. If you feel a disgust for, nay, a horror of prayer, pray on, pray in spite of yourself, against yourself. Beg for the courage in prayer that our agonising Saviour merited for you by His pangs in Gethsemane and upon Calvary. Pray, for prayer is the strength that saves, the courage that perseveres, the spiritual bridge cast over the abyss that joins the soul to God.”