The Devil Isn’t Fair

One of the qualities St Benedict seems to have admired is fairness. The abbot is instructed to act fairly, not to make distinctions among the brethren; the monks themselves are not to allow previous rank in society or purely human considerations to affect how they behave towards one another. Then we come to the Mass readings for the first Sunday of Lent and realise, if we didn’t before, that the devil isn’t fair. If we’re fasting, he’ll tempt us with food, or at least whisper that it doesn’t really matter: God will provide what we need (which is true, but not in the way the devil suggests). If we’re giving alms, he’ll tempt us with the thought that if we give too much, we may not have enough for ourself — and look at all the things we could have if we didn’t give (all the kingdoms of this world, in fact). Finally, if we are trying to pray, the devil will tempt us with contemplation of how wonderful we ourselves are and the empty promises he makes to us, so that we end up worshiping self and the devil rather than God. Sound familiar? Then pity Eve, who did not have the experience of Jesus in the desert to guide her but faced the allurements of Satan alone and uncertain.

Most people, confronted with the narrative of Jesus’ temptations in the desert, tend to think they are so obviously wrong that no-one, least of all the Son of God, could fall for them. I am not so sure. The problem with temptation is that something in us finds it appealing. Take that first temptation. Jesus is in the desert, hungry, thirsty, worn out. He is no less a man because he is also God. There is no sin in him, but part of his humanity responds to the idea of bread or there could be no temptation. It is the same with us. It is precisely when we seem to be at our weakest that temptations crowd upon us. The devil knows how to play us. It may not be something as obvious as food that attracts us. It could be celebrity or fame or power over others. That is why the old monastic teachers lay great stress on knowing ourselves. They didn’t mean by that endless contemplation of ourselves, which can lead to narcissism, but something much more akin to what we call nowadays the process of discernment, discernment of thoughts. Seeing through our own justification for various acts, the ways in which we cloak our motivation, can be painful but is very necessary if we are to become truly free of the devil’s snares.

Fortunately for us, the devil does not have it all his own way. As St Paul reassures us in the Letter to the Romans, grace abounds. We have only to stretch out our hands to receive it. That is a heartening thought for the first Sunday of Lent. But I think there is something more heartening still. Jesus meets temptation with the Word of God. That is why familiarity with the scriptures is so important. Reading and praying the scriptures (lectio divina) is something we can all do, whatever our circumstances, and is particularly helpful in the matter of temptation. If we do nothing else this Lent, let us deepen our knowledge and love of scripture. It is our surest defence against the devil’s wiles, our passport to life.

Mass readings
Genesis 2. 7-9, 3.1-7; Romans 5. 12-19; Matthew 4. 1-11

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The Inner Desert

For many Benedictines the feast of St Antony is bitter-sweet. On the one hand there is the immense pull of the desert, the desire to live ‘alone with the Alone’; on the other, there is the recognition that St Benedict’s ambivalence about hermits is fully justified — especially in our own case. The eremitical vocation is rare and very far from being what many assume it is. Few can live it generously and well. The rest of us have to admit the gulf between what we would like to be and what we actually are. We are inspired by the one but wisely held in check by the reality of the other.

Athanasius’ Life of Antony can be read at many levels. One element often passed over by modern readers are the battles between Antony and the demons. Some smile over this evidence of ancient credulity; others explain it away with reference to psychology; comparatively few make the effort to understand its place in the narrative of the saint’s life or the spiritual life generally.

It is true, I think, that anyone who seriously attempts to pray will, sooner or later, encounter evil. How this manifests itself differs, but one predictable element is the way in which evil tries to draw an individual away from prayer and virtuous living and, ultimately, from God. Again and again, Athanasius insists upon Antony’s constancy and the cheerful serenity with which he met every attack upon him. He persevered in the discipline of the monastic way and eventually attained a freedom and joy that everyone remarked upon. Little by little, he was transformed by grace.

I think there is something here for all of us. There are books and blogs without number which will tell you that prayer is a great adventure and the Christian life a wonderful progression from glory to glory. That is true up to a point, but most of our lives are anything but glorious, and prayer, if we are honest, is often a hard slog. That time on our knees might be better spent doing something more obviously useful, mightn’t it? My own answer would be a resounding ‘no’. I can think of no greater tragedy than to have spent our lives avoiding God by filling our days with activity which allowed him no space.

The image of the desert is important in scripture and in the life of Antony. Most of us can resonate with the sense of bleakness and isolation it conjures up, also perhaps its beauty and variety. We know that the desert is a privileged place of meeting between God and mankind. Few of us will ever live in a real desert, but each of us has an inner desert, somewhere unknown to any but ourselves, where our deepest struggles take place. It is where we await the coming of grace, and, just like Antony, we must persevere if we are to experience grace in all its fullness. For most of us that will be the work not of a single day or year but of a lifetime. That is why we Benedictines make a vow of conversatio morum, promising to live each day as a monk or nun should live, in continual conversion to the Lord.

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