Thursday, October 06, 2005

Dynamics of Temptation, Part One

This is a rather serious and important topic, and I’m going to take a few days to treat it, although it’s such a complex one that I’m only going to give you a few basics. See, I’m getting serious again after leaping and praising God just a couple days ago, but believe me, if you can learn how to overcome temptation, you’ll be leaping in praise of God all the time! Today we’ll mainly look at the situation we find ourselves in. It will be easier to understand what to do if we first see clearly what has been going on. The following description is from Fr Basil Maturin’s Christian Self-Mastery.

“There are many who have fallen from a childhood and early youth of spotless purity into a life of sin. There are men of business who have never diverged from the path of honesty until after middle life. There are men who knew nothing of intemperance until long after their characters and habits were formed and their position seemed well secured.

“To such persons the memory must still be clear of the first approach of the temptation that was later to take so firm a hold upon them, of the recoil of the mind from it, with terror and repulsion, and yet with a kind of horrible fascination. It came again and again and stood at the door of the soul, awaiting its admission with a kind of insolent assurance that if it waited long enough, it would have its way. By degrees, the mind was seized with a kind of tremulous excitement at its approach, and bid it begone in tones of less confidence. It gradually became habituated to its presence outside the soul, feeling its influence, although never yet allowed deliberately to cross the threshold. Then it seemed to gain a certain strange influence over the various faculties, exciting an unaccountable curiosity and forcing them, as it were, to look at it, if only so that they might realize how hateful it was. At last it pushed open the door in a moment when conscience was off its guard and entered, and in an instant demoralized the whole household of the soul, loosened the passions, won over the imagination, and hypnotized the will. And although it was driven out and the doors barred against it, in that moment of its entry, it had made allies for itself, and now the passions and the imagination would loosen the bolts and the will itself would open the door for it. So it entered without hindrance, with an ever-weakening protest from conscience, until at last it gained possession…”

Do you see yourself anywhere in there? The author must be a man of experience, for he articulates it very well! One thing I’ve noticed, however, in a number of spiritual books, is that the authors quite accurately and even eloquently present the problem, but the solution is not so clearly proclaimed, and often is rather vague or perhaps clichéd. In this book I find a similar situation (though it is quite detailed and practical in other areas). His main solution to dealing with temptations is that we have to crowd out the bad thoughts with good ones. It is not enough merely to try to empty our minds of evil (remember what Jesus said about seven spirits returning after one is cast out), but we have to overcome evil with good. This is true, but certainly not sufficient for the struggle. One way of augmenting this teaching may be to enter directly into dialogue with Jesus, reiterating that you love Him more than you love whatever you are being tempted with (thus also reminding yourself of your noblest aspirations), and that you belong to Him and are committed to doing his will. At least this way you open the door to grace—an objective help in your need—rather than trying to summon a subjective “good thought” that you hope will in some way be more attractive than the bad ones.

Another thing Fr Maturin suggests is self-discipline in small things, apparently unrelated to that by which you are tempted. Learning to say “no” in one area can strengthen you to say it in another, because it is the person who is being strengthened. Does the Church ask us to fast because food is not good for us? Of course not. But the discipline of self-denial will aid us when we are called to renounce something that is bad for us, something for which we may hunger as for food. Success in any endeavor begins with training, and the training for success in overcoming temptations is largely the practice of self-denial and daily faithfulness to the commandments of the One who loves you.

One thing to learn (and take warning) from the above passage is the way our thoughts and even our conscience can become habituated to what is bad for us, simply by small concessions, a bit of curiosity, or some specious reason for investigating the nature of the temptation. You could find yourself eventually in the quite unpleasant (and spiritually dangerous) situation of realizing that your conscience is losing its power to object to evil and is learning how to rationalize and compromise—if you realize it at all and aren’t completely blind to your falling from grace!

Tomorrow we’ll see more of how the tempter works and how to cut him off.