Posted February 14, 2013
The first temptation of Lent comes round about 10.55 am on Ash Wednesday when you open the fridge and there, confronting you, at eye level, is the last remaining portion of Tuesday’s chocolate cherry gateau, cherries still glistening seductively amidst the dark crisp chocolate shavings sunk in cream. You slam the door in horror, of course. But then in the course of the day you find yourself inexplicably gravitating towards the fridge again and again until eventually, in a manner known only to yourself, the last remaining portion of Tuesday’s chocolate cherry gateau vanishes without trace and only guilt remains. It’s a familiar pattern: temptation, fall, guilt. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak.
I don’t mean to trivialize temptations by suggesting that they are only to be found in the fridge. You’ll find them elsewhere too, of course, and they can lead to far worse things than your breaking your Ash Wednesday fast. They can also break your marriage, and many other beautiful things in life as well.
But the good thing about temptations is that they are normally recognizable as temptations. You may not find the devil himself peering out from among the cherries and devilishly quoting Scripture at you, but you are always more or less aware that you are approaching the sin zone. You know it’s red alert.
We Catholics, given our education, are much preoccupied with the subject of temptation, with avoiding it, or resisting it, or succumbing to it. It was the subject matter of so many sermons when I was a child and a teenager that I don’t actually remember anyone preaching about anything else.
But the trouble is, as it seems to me, that this whole topic of temptation does not go deep enough into the subject of sin. For there is a form of sin that operates at a deeper level than any mere surrender to temptation. The awful thing about this form of sin is that it doesn’t need any temptation to set it in motion, for it is self-motivated. Also, it’s insidious. It has no psychological impact on the person it controls, unlike the temptation-induced kind of sin, where you first suffer a kind of crisis and then comes a feeling of guilt. With this more sinister kind of sin, there is no preliminary period when a person says to himself: ‘Shall I or shan’t I?’ And there’s no aftermath of guilt-feelings. You can’t explain this kind of sin on the principle that the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak, for in this kind of sin not even the spirit is willing except in the sense that it is a willing slave.
When the guards in the concentration camps tortured and gassed their victims or burnt them alive, was there ever a point when they had asked themselves ‘Shall I or shan’t I?’ Does it make any sense at all to say that they ‘succumbed to temptation’? No of course not, for this kind of sin doesn’t fit into the pattern ‘temptation / fall / guilt’. It’s there all the time. It’s the sin St Paul was referring to when he said: ‘sin was in the world before anyone actually transgressed’. It’s sin in its essence.
This kind of sin doesn’t have to be anything like as spectacular as the example I’ve quoted. It might not reveal its hand at all in any very noticeable fashion, or all at once. It can take many different forms. It might be a silent pride, a deep-seated mendacity, a hidden state of denial, a concealed bigotry, a chronic self-righteousness, an irrational hatred, an obsession with self. And it can be present even in religious people. It can be present in us. It surrounds us and, unbeknown to ourselves, it may invade us and get a foothold in our souls.
During Lent we must not be so preoccupied with our Lenten exercises, our little resolutions, our temptations, our falls and hopefully, on occasion, our little victories – we must not be so preoccupied with such things that we don’t try to come to terms with the deeper issues. Lent is a time for confronting deep realities; for taking a long, hard look at what is really at stake. We are up against something far more sinister than any of the recognizable temptations that confront us, as par for the course, in our daily lives. We are up against evil. Only in God’s light can we recognize its ways; only when we are flooded with God’s charity can we be sure of shutting it out of our souls.
Sincere, earnest prayer is the one means by which God’s life in us is released and sin is ousted by love. By ‘prayer’ I don’t mean just reciting prayers: I mean a concentrated turning of the mind and heart to God, to give God’s light access to our souls: to give us the opportunity for discernment and self-knowledge. ‘Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.’ Go regularly to some nice quiet church in a nice quiet cul de sac and spend quality time there. In prayer we shall experience truth; and the truth will set us free. That is what Easter, and Lent, are really about.
Fr Tom Deidun