My hands were crucified, I cannot do what I like. My legs were crucified, I cannot go where I want. Thus was I likened to Your Son, so that in me might be born a new person who will not fulfill his own desire, but who seeks Your desire. Hence I am suspended on this cross, but salvation quickly approaches me.
~ By Ladislav Záborský (poems written from prison)
translated from Slovak by Harold B. Segel
Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread and to worship the forces of evil in order to acquire an earthly kingdom.
At the beginning of Macbeth, as Macbeth and Banquo are riding home from war in the flush of victory, three witches greet Macbeth with three titles. The first is his own title, “Thane of Glamis.” However the other two, “Thane of Cawdor” and “King hereafter,” belong to other men. Then the witches vanish into thin air. As Macbeth and Banquo continue their journey, a messenger from the King meets them upon the road and bestows upon Macbeth the title “Thane of Cawdor” as reward for his valor in war. Macbeth is confused; he knows that the Thane of Cawdor lives. But when he learns that the King intends to execute the Thane of Cawdor shortly for treason, Macbeth begins to tremble.
Why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs
Against the use of nature?
Why does Macbeth’s murderous ambition to become king awaken? Since the witches’ first prediction has come true, he sees the second as a real possibility. Possibility is the form of all temptation. We are not tempted in our weaknesses but in our strengths and talents. The charming are tempted to seduce others by their wiles because they know that they are likely to succeed; the knowledgeable are tempted to make an impressive show of their knowledge; bullies or those with strong personalities are tempted to intimidate others. Those who know how to manipulate another’s guilt are tempted to make people do their bidding….
None of us has ever been tempted to turn stones into bread because we don’t have the power to do so. It is not a possibility; therefore, it is not a temptation. The particular forms of Jesus’ temptations are not our own, but what he was tempted with is the same — the abuse of power.
In one sense, all temptations are temptations of power, for power provides us with what we want, be it wealth, pleasure, possessions, prestige or revenge. Nothing entices us more than the possibility of getting our own way. But nothing corrupts us more than its pursuit. For the insatiable lust of getting what we want will not be satisfied until it devours our mind, heart, and will.
God is not garden any more, to satiate the sense with the luxuriance of full exotic wilderness. Now multiple is magnified to less. God has become as desert now, a vast unknown Sahara voicing its desert cry. My soul has been arrested by the sound of a divine tremendous loneliness.
I write anathema on pool, on streams of racing water. I bid the shoot, the leaf, the bloom no longer to intrude. Beyond green growth I find this great good, a motionless immensity of oneness. And Him I praise Who lured me to this edge of uncreation where His secrets brood, Who seared the earth that I might hear in silence this infinite outcry of His solitude.
~ A poem by Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit (Jessica Powers), O.C.D.
“Listen to God’s speech in his wondrous, terrible, gentle, loving, all-embracing silence.” Catherine Doherty
John the Baptist’s disciples approach Jesus with the objection, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus responds that it is not appropriate for his disciples to fast while he is still among them.
Today’s gospel seems to focus on fasting, but it concerns itself more with two other issues. First, why do we engage in any particular behavior? Second, is the behavior appropriate? Let us take each issue in turn.
Why do we engage in any particular behavior?
“Why do we and the Pharisees fast often but your disciples do not fast?” This is not a question but a criticism that smolders with anger. Ask yourself this question. Why would you be angry with people who do not practice a form of asceticism that you do, since their choice has no negative consequences in your life? It neither imposes upon you nor deprives you of anything. So why be angry?
One possible answer is that when we feel forced to do something that we really don’t want to do, we envy others who are not burdened by the false sense of obligation that weighs us down. This is akin to workaholics who resent people who are not driven. In their hearts, they condemn the less-driven as lazy and irresponsible. But in truth, workaholics are envious. They cannot relax without feeling guilty or feeling afraid of having their image as indefatigable workers tarnished. Likewise, some people engage in spiritual devotions simply because someone else has recommended them highly. They do not want to lose the esteem of these people, so they bind themselves to devotions that do not fit the unique contours of their souls.
All of us are unique and must follow our own path. When Saint Thérèse was novice mistress, she described working with her novices in this fashion: “It is absolutely necessary to forget one’s likings, one’s personal conceptions, and to guide souls along the road which Jesus has traced out for them without trying to make them walk my own path…. There are really more differences among souls than there are among faces” (238-40).
In the same vein, Abbé de Tourville wrote, “Thomas Aquinas says that the angels differ as much from one another as if they belonged to different species. This is equally true of each one of us…. One of the hardest but one of the most absolutely necessary things is to follow our own particular line of development, side by side with souls who have a different one; often one opposed to our own… We must be ourselves and not try to get inside someone else’s skin. David could have done nothing in the armor of Saul; he refuse it and ran to fetch his sling…. We must follow our own light as though we were alone in the world … we must never be deflected from our own path” (26-28).
The Appropriateness of our Behavior
“The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?” It is neither appropriate nor proper to fast at a wedding. To do so not only would indicate inordinate attachment to one’s ascetical practice, but would also be rude. Thomas Aquinas asks whether a lack of mirth can be sinful. His response is, “Yes.” Thomas writes that such a person becomes “burdensome to others, by offering no pleasure to others, and by hindering their enjoyment … they are boorish and rude” (II, II, Q. 168, art. 4).
The appropriateness of our behavior is a matter of charity, as this story from the desert illustrates. “Once two brethren came to a certain elder whose practice it was to eat every other day. But when he saw the brethren, he joyfully invited them to dine with him, saying: ‘Fasting has its reward, but he who eats out of charity fulfils two commandments, for he sets aside his own will and he refreshes his hungry brethren’ ” (Merton 77).
The appropriateness of when, where, and how we exercise any ascetical practice or virtue is important in the spiritual life. Francis de Sales wrote, “To insist on performing acts of a particular chosen virtue on every possible occasion is a great defect, as in the case of certain ancient philosophers who wished to be always weeping or always laughing; and still worse, to criticize and blame those who do not do the same. But Saint Paul says, ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with the mourners’ ” (85).
Jesus commends us to fast, to pray, and to give alms but cautions us not to perform these actions for the sake of acquiring a reputation for holiness.
In T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas à Becket is accosted by a temptation to martyrdom, that is, to win fame and glory by his death. When he realizes the nature of the temptation, he exclaims, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason… A Servant of God has a chance of greater sin and sorrow, than the man who serves a king. For those who serve them” (44-45). Becket’s words go to the heart of today’s gospel. Giving alms, prayer, and fasting, all good deeds, may be done for the wrong reason. Acts meant to serve God may also serve our egos.
Deeds that serve God differ from those that serve our egos because of the motive that underlies them. As John Chrysostom comments upon today’s gospel, “Since even if you should enter into your closet, and having shut the door, should do it for display, the doors will do you no good” (“Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew” 132). We can draw as much attention to ourselves by standing in a corner as by basking in the limelight. In this regard, Jerome warns us, “Don’t seek the fame of avoiding fame. Many who avoid having witnesses of their poverty, their tenderness of heart, their fasting, desire to win approval for the fact that they despise approval” (160-61). The motive out of which our choices arise is all-important because it determines the nature of our actions. If we give alms in order to be known to be generous, then our action is not a deed of generosity but of pride.
It matters little what we pride ourselves in because the lure of pride does not lie in the object of our pursuit but the distinction that it confers upon us. But, ultimately, the distinction that pride bestows betrays those who practice it. For whenever our pretense has evoked the praise of others, we become enslaved to the admiring audience that we have created. The Greek word translated in today’s gospel as hypocrite (hypokrites, meaning actor) is instructive in this regard. Every actor knows that he is only as good as his last performance and stands in dread of a bad review. The more our self-esteem depends upon the opinion of others, the more insecure we become.
Being insecure in self-esteem is the core dynamic of what psychologists call a narcissistic personality disorder. This might strike us as strange because narcissists often project a grandiose persona of self-assurance. But their personas are fragile. Narcissists easily become depressed and full of self-doubt when they receive less than rave reviews for their performances. They are like kites. When the winds of approval and applause are favorable. narcissists fly high; when the winds of acclamation subside, they fall into the doldrums of despondency and despair.
Most of us have a narcissistic wound, for we are insecure in the knowledge that we are loved. So we go through life wearing masks, conning parts, playing roles, giving performances in the hope of winning love or at least curtailing disapproval. In this regard, we are all frightened hypocrites.
There is nothing wrong with receiving praise, but the more we seek it, the more we become addicted to it. Jesus is straightforward in what we must do. We must fast from any behavior that is designed to win the approval of others. Jesus’ counsels to “go to your room and pray in secret … keep your deeds of mercy secret … groom your hair and wash your face when you fast” are but three examples.
Augustine writes that when we fast from our play-acting, we are “cleansing the eye by which God is seen” (“The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount’ 92). We cannot see our Father who dwells in secret if our minds are preoccupied with our performance. Saint Teresa tells us, “All harm comes to us from not keeping our eyes fixed on [God]” (“The Way of Perfection” 97). As we begin Lent, let us direct our gaze inward, to the God who dwells in secret and who loves us.
How often must I forgive my brother? ~ Matthew 18:21
Perhaps the “work” that best expresses faith is — forgiveness.
Jesus clearly saw that lack of forgiveness was one of the most blatant characteristics of the people around him, and he seemed to appreciate how hard it is to forgive absolutely and forever.
This is because we have no real grasp of what God has done and continually does for us.
Our lack of insight makes us critical, intolerant, unforgiving. We tend to think we have been splendid when we have taken a snub silently, overlooked what seemed like hurtful behaviour on the part of another.
It isn’t like that at all, Jesus says. You are bound to have pity and to forgive. It isn’t a work of supererogation but sheer bounden duty.
Think of the little things I take umbrage at, react to, or perhaps cope with quite virtuously according to my own estimation . . .
Now Jesus isn’t saying: ‘I understand, my poor dear; yes, you have been badly treated and you did very well not to lose your temper or answer back.’
On the contrary he is saying: ‘It is unthinkable that you should take any notice whatever of such things, and you wouldn’t if you had the slightest idea of what your heavenly Father is always doing for you. What if he were to treat you in that miserable, miserly, unloving way!’
~ A Meditation by Sister Rachel of the Quidenham Carmel (Ruth Burrows) O.C.D.
“I cannot believe that a soul which has arrived so near to Mercy itself, where she knows what she is, and how many sins God has forgiven her, should not instantly and willingly forgive others, and be pacified and wish well to everyone who has injured her, because she remembers the kindness and favors our Lord has shown her, whereby she has seen proofs of exceeding great love, and she is glad to have an opportunity offered to show some gratitude to her Lord.” — St. Teresa of Avila
“Pardon one another so that later on you will not remember the injury. The recollection of an injury is itself wrong. It adds to our anger, nurtures our sin, and hates what is good. It is a rusty arrow and poison for the soul. It puts all virtue to flight.” — St. Francis of Paola
“‘If he trespass against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to you, saying, I repent; you shall forgive him’ (Lk. 17:4). As the Searcher of hearts, the Lord knows that men are liable to very frequent trespass, and that, having fallen, they often rise up again; therefore He has given us the commandment to frequently forgive trespasses, and He Himself is the first to fulfill His holy word. As soon as you say from your whole heart, ‘I repent,’ you will be immediately forgiven.” — St. John of Kronstadt
May we always ask the Lord for the grace to forgive and to be forgiven!