Speaking of temptation...
Over the Christmas break, I was given some insights but little joy in my spiritual reading. The emotions we experience in prayer and spiritual reading are, of course, incidental; it is the insights (and the transformations occasioned by them) that are important. And when I say I was given little joy, I mean that my greatest insights so far during this Christmas Season have been insights into the nature of sin—including, above all, my own sins.
The first and most telling of these leapt out at me when reading the last chapters of St. Matthew’s Gospel. You may well take me for an idiot; surely I should have been reading the early chapters of the gospels at this time of year. But I am content to leave this to Providence; for whatever reason, that’s where I was in my reading and rereading of Scripture. Therefore, I call your attention to chapter 26, verses 14 and 15: “Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I deliver him to you?’”
How many times have I heard or read this passage? And yet on this occasion the nature of all temptation suddenly became crystal clear to me. For each temptation represents the possibility of gain in return for a betrayal. And each time we entertain a temptation, we ask the same question as Judas: What will you give me if I deliver him to you?
This is not just a matter of money, though it can be about money. Perhaps I have an opportunity to ridicule someone else to make myself appear superior. As I look at this possibility, I ask in effect, “What will you give me if I deliver him to you?” Or maybe, without being detected, I can shirk some responsibility in favor of enjoying some recreation. “What will you give me,” I ask of this situation, “if I deliver him to you?” In exactly the same way, when I entertain a temptation against purity, I am really asking the question once again: “What will you give me if I deliver him to you?”
For Judas, “you” stood for the group of chief priests, who were a temptation to him; but we can take “you” to refer to any temptation. The nature of temptation is always personal, exciting our wayward desires. There is always something we hope to gain from it. And the requirement to obtain this gain is always the same: The betrayal of our Creator and Lord.
A Second Insight for the Righteous
Since this insight brought me so little joy, I sought relief in a little book with a highly encouraging title, A Little Garden of Roses by Thomas à Kempis, the famous fifteenth-century author of The Imitation of Christ. It seems that in addition to the Imitation, Thomas wrote two small collections of meditations on virtue for the monks of his community. A Little Garden of Roses was followed by a similar work entitled The Valley of Lilies. Both have been published anew in a single volume from Ignatius Press, Bountiful Goodness: Spiritual Meditations for a Deeper Union with Christ. You can see from the titles why I turned here for encouragement.
Imagine my horror, then, when I came across a particularly painful passage in the eleventh meditation, so promisingly entitled “On Having Trust in God in Difficult Times.” This sweet and apparently innocent meditation took Psalm 37:3 for its inspirational verse: “Hope in God and do good.” But in it Thomas blasts and blisters the pious reader with these words: “He is accounted a foolish and unfaithful servant who, because of his master’s wealth, puts on airs and despises all others. Whoever despises his fellow servants and considers himself better offends God and all the saints.”
And so I reflect again: How often, in my very piety, do I ask, “What will you give me if I deliver him to you?” How often do I cling to the satisfaction I find in my own “pure” Catholic identity? How often do I look down on others who know less of the truth than I? How often, to make the matter clear, do I thank God that I am not like other men (Lk 18:11)? Each time I do this, I am really asking the same old question, prompted only by the more subtle temptation of spiritual pride: What will you give me if I deliver him to you?
It is, of course, the height of folly for Christians or Catholics to “put on airs” because of their “master’s wealth”! This calls to mind the important point that Pope Francis made in a controversial homily at daily Mass back on May 29th, when he cautioned against the temptation of triumphalism, “the temptation of a Christianity without the Cross, a half-way Christianity” in which we want to enjoy a feeling of “triumph now, without going to the Cross: a worldly triumph.” He went on to say:
Triumphalism in the Church impedes the Church. Triumphalism among Christians impedes Christians. A triumphalist, half-way Church: That is a Church content with what it is or has—well sorted, well organized, with all its offices, everything in order, everything perfect, no? Efficient. But it is a Church that denies its martyrs, because it does not know that martyrs are needed for the Church’s journey towards the Cross. A Church that only thinks about triumphs, successes, does not know that rule of Jesus: the rule of triumph through failure, human failure, the failure of the Cross. And this is a temptation that we all have. [emphasis added]
Of course we may not want this of the Church, as long as we can enjoy the feeling of superiority ourselves!
So let me offer these points in review: First, each temptation we entertain is really a question: “What will you give me if I deliver him to you?” Second, even as we cling to Christ, we can permit our resolve to be twisted into something base. We need to understand that “whoever despises his fellow servants and considers himself better offends God and all the saints.” There may be no joy here, at least not in the short run. But the insight cuts hard. The insight pierces the soul.
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