Sunday March 10
Scientists tell us that certain bacteria have the ability to adapt and learn how to defend themselves against the medicines we have created to attack them, one of the effects of which, as is well-known, is that antibiotics are less and less effective in fighting many diseases.
This is easily interpreted as one of the consequences of original sin, and the author of that sin, Satan himself, shows a similar skill in today’s Gospel. By the third temptation he realises that Jesus has overcome him in the first two not by a clever answer of his own, but by the simple expedient of quoting Scripture. So the Devil does the same: Scripture says God will send his angels to look after you, so jump off from the parapet of the Temple to demonstrate that. As Shakespeare said in the Merchant of Venice, the devil can cite Scripture for his own purpose.
Shakespeare goes on to say that this is like ‘a goodly apple rotten at the heart. O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath.’ This is a profound observation that we do well to take to heart as the season of Lent begins and we follow Christ in confronting more openly our own temptations, all that can lead us astray from following him and fulfilling the unique mission he entrusts to each one of us.
When he tempts us, the devil doesn’t say, look how ugly sin is! Look how unhappy people are who let their anger or jealousy run away with them. Look how miserable you end up when you let your sexual urges dominate you, how much havoc you wreak in other people’s lives. No, he says, you are quite right to be angry – any reasonable person would try to take revenge. You are a free person, not bound by those antiquated rules about adultery and fornication – take your pleasure and demonstrate you’re a free adult, not a child any more. Even the great dictators – Stalin, Hitler, Mao – somehow convinced themselves that the terrible evils they inflicted on others were somehow good.
It’s significant that our Gospel reading today, before mentioning the devil, made two references to the Holy Spirit. After his baptism Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit who had just descended on him like a dove, and then this same Holy Spirit drove him into the desert where he was tempted by the devil. God is drawing our attention by this to the fact that we humans are spiritual beings as well as material ones: we do not live on bread alone. But in the spiritual realm we are rather low down in the pecking order. We are subject to spiritual influences more powerful than us, from angels or devils, and from God himself. Putting it simply, the ideas and suggestions that pop into our minds, apparently spontaneously, can come either from God or from the evil spirit, or of course, just from ourselves.
It is therefore a matter of great importance, to use the technical word of spiritual tradition, to exercise discernment of these thoughts, feelings and suggestions on a daily basis. Otherwise we can very easily convince ourselves that black is white and evil is good, and the devil is a highly intelligent being who knows exactly where our weak points are and where we are most likely to be led astray.
Our Gospel reading gives us two very practical tips on how to unmask and resist temptation. First, like Jesus, we have to let ourselves be led by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was given to us when we were baptised and again when we were confirmed, but do we believe he is really with us to help us and guide us? Do we believe that when we ask him he will help us? He doesn’t usually shout, so we have to be sensitive to the gentle hints he gives us of his guidance, but that help is real for all of us, as our second reading said, God is rich in mercy and helps anyone who calls on his name.
Secondly, as Jesus shows us, we have to be humble and seek the guidance of Scripture, the teaching of the Church and the advice of wise people. Some of the inspiration that seems to come from the Holy Spirit may in fact be the devil in disguise or just our own imagination.
There was a man in Egypt many centuries ago who was converted from a sinful way of life and joined a monastery in the desert. So what do I have to do here? he asked the Abbot. Just join in all our prayers and fasts, he replied, and one thing more: every day tell your spiritual father what has been going on in your mind, good or bad, and all you have done. That sounds easy, he thought.
Several years later he met the devil, full of rage. You have overcome me, you wretch, the devil said. ‘How have I done that?’ he asked: ‘by the fasting that we do in the monastery?’ ‘Oh no,’ said the devil – I don’t eat. ‘Then by the night vigils and prayers?’ ‘Oh no, I don’t need to sleep!’ ‘How then?’ he asked. By your humility, replied the devil. Pride was in fact the greatest temptation of the monks, those spiritual athletes who seemed so far above ordinary mortals. But by telling everything he thought, said and did to another monk, he was kept humble and overcame Satan.
Whatever fasts or prayer we undertake this Lent, let us remember that lesson: it is humility expressed in very concrete words and actions – caring for our families, tending to the poor, going to Confession – that overcomes the devil and fits us for the company of Christ in this life and for eternity.