John Conington wrote this paragraph to describe the challenges of translating from Latin into the English of his day (he died in 1869).
“Still, where it is almost impossible to walk quite straight, the walker will reconcile himself to incidental deviations, and will even consider, where a slip is inevitable, on which side of the line it is better that the slip should take place.”
From “The Satires, Epistles, and Art of Poetry” by Horace, Tr. John Conington.
Conington expected to miss the path, to fall short, to slip or trip, but he was prepared for that, prepared to get up and go on again, scratched, besmirched, weary; metaphorically speaking. Let us ask the Good Shepherd to guide us along the right path, and to give us the comfort of his crook and staff, as we make our incidentally devious way through Life.
In the war-against-drugs campaign, a popular slogan was used in commercials and billboards: “Just say no.” That is precisely the lesson the gospel reading today urges upon us. With each temptation the devil proposes, Jesus says no. What is suggested to us in this passage from Matthew is that we have the power to keep a lot of trouble out of our lives by the use of a very simple word. However, many of us tend to discount the power we have to resist temptation. We prefer to believe we are “victims” of circumstances, genetics, upbringing, or hormones. When we find ourselves beset with problems, we look for someone or something else to blame, like Adam and Eve in Genesis claiming, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate” – like saying “the devil made me do it”. The reason we don’t like to face our power to say no is that if we can say no, then saying yes is an admission of guilt. And not many of us like to admit that. The lesson we learn in today’s readings is not that there is serious temptation awaiting us in the world; we already know that. It is not, as Paul reminds us, that sin has serious consequences for ourselves and others; we already have experience of that. What we are hearing is a reminder that we are responsible for most of what goes on in our lives, and we can say no – to our bad habits, our laziness, our inclination to lay blame on others for our failings, our small-mindedness, our waste of time and energy in fruitless worry, our impulse to bring others down. We humans can be as resistant and stubborn as we want to be. We can say no to anything we want, and stick to it. Think about it! We have the power; we use it all the time with things we don’t like. The devil in today’s gospel displayed seductiveness by trying to get Jesus to consider values that were not in his best interests, but the greatest seduction of all is to make us believe that we are powerless over temptation, victimised by our weakness and failings. It is the ultimate deceit. Effective adult living will always require that we refrain from making excuses and blaming others and take full responsibility for what goes on in our lives. We are what we are, and face what we face today because of the decisions we made yesterday. Tomorrow will be what it will because of decisions we make today. All because of a simple yes or no. Lent has traditionally been a season of penance and self-denial. We mustn’t deny ourselves some good, but something bad – something that is preventing us from being the best we can be, something that is putting our spiritual growth on hold. It will come as a pleasant surprise how much freedom awaits us and how more productive life becomes when we learn to “just say no”.
Not long ago, we read John Wesley on the argument that slavers were using to justify procuring and abusing slaves: If it is not quite right, yet it must be so; there is an absolute necessity for it. Something along the same lines seems to be put forward to justify almost any environmentally destructive activity. Sin’s arguments are ages old: the Serpent in Eden had Eve believing that the forbidden fruit was absolutely necessary for her future happiness.
I needed a new phone: poor people dig out the scarce ores that are used for the inner workings; others in the manufacturing process are poorly paid, overworked and live in heavily polluted neighbourhoods. It must be so, or must it be so? I have two old phones that should be recycled to reuse precious metals.
Clothes: cotton production diverts water from growing food: ‘it must be so.’ Synthetic fibres cause pollution at every stage of production, use and disposal, even, apparently, poisoning fish in the open ocean. But ‘it must be so’.
Forests are destroyed, ‘it must be so’. Rivers polluted, flood plains built over: it must be so.
Well, no. Money need not rule. Time for some New Year Resolutions! Use less, discard less, waste less: reuse or recycle more.
And the feast of the Assumption being now come, Saint Francis began the holy fast with great abstinence and severity, mortifying his body and comforting his spirit with fervent prayers, vigils, and scourglngs ; and in these prayers ever growing from virtue to virtue he made ready his soul to receive the divine mysteries and the divine splendours, and his body to endure the cruel assaults of the demons, with whom he oftentimes fought in sensible form.
It befell on a time during that fast, that Saint Francis leaving his cell one day in fervour of spirit and going aside a little to pray in a hollow of the rock, from the which down to the ground is an exceeding deep descent and a horrible and fearful precipice, suddenly the devil came in terrible shape, with a tempest and exceeding loud roar, and struck at him for to push him down thence. Saint Francis, not having where to flee, and not being able to endure the grim aspect of the demon, he turned him quickly with hands and face and all his body pressed to the rock, commending himself to God, and groping with his hands, if perchance he might find aught to cling to. But as it pleased God, who suffereth not His servants to be tempted above that they are able to bear, suddenly by a miracle the rock to which he clung hollowed itself out in fashion as the shape of his body, and so received him into itself, and like as if he had put his hands and face in melted wax, even so was the form of the face and hands of Saint Francis imprinted on the rock; and thuswise helped of God he escaped out of the hands of the demon.
But that which the demon could not then do unto Saint Francis, to wit, push him down thence, he did a good while after the death of Saint Francis, unto one of his dear and pious brothers, who was setting in order some pieces of wood in the selfsame place, to the end that it might be possible to win there without peril, out of devotion to Saint Francis and the miracle that was wrought there, on a day the demon pushed him, while he had on his head a great log that he wished to set there, and made him fall down thence with the log upon his head. But God that had preserved and delivered Saint Francis from falling, through his merits delivered and preserved his pious brother from the peril of his fall; for the brother, as he fell, with exceeding great devotion commended himself in a loud voice unto Saint Francis; and straightway he appeared unto him, and catching him, set him down upon the rocks, without suffering him to feel or shock or any hurt.
Then the other brothers having heard his cry as he fell, and deeming him dead and dashed in pieces by reason of his fall from such a height upon the sharp rocks, with great sorrow and weeping took up the bier and came from the other side of the mountain for to gather up the fragments of his body and bury them. When they were come down from the mountain, that brother that had fallen met them with the log upon his head wherewith he had fallen, and he was singing Te Deum laudamus1 in a loud voice.
Devils in Canterbury Cathedral! Merely migrating to the mountain did not cut the brothers off from all cares and temptations. Francis here meets Brother Leo’s need for a physical token of God’s grace and Francis’s esteem and love for him. No telling him not to be silly or superstitious! Who does not have one or two personal relics like this? Grandfather’s spade, grandmother’s bedside table; a cup, a picture …
Brother Leo being assailed by the devil with a grievous temptation, not of the flesh but of the spirit, there came to him a great desire to have some devout sentence written by the hand of Saint Francis, for he thought that if he had it, that temptation would leave him, or wholly, or in part. Having this desire, yet for shame and reverence sake he dared not tell it to Saint Francis: but what Brother Leo told him not, that did the Holy Spirit reveal. Wherefore Saint Francis called him unto him, and made him bring ink-pot and pen and paper; and with his own hand wrote the praises of Christ, even as the brother had desired; and at the end he made the sign Tau, and gave it to him, saying, “Take this paper, dear brother, and keep it diligently until thy death. May God bless thee and guard thee against all temptation. Be not downcast, because thou hast temptations ; for at such time I deem thee a friend and a better servant of God, and the more thou art assailed by temptations, the more do I love thee, Verily I say unto thee that no man should deem himself a true friend of God, save in so far as he hath passed through many temptations and tribulations.”
When Brother Leo took this writing with great devotion and faith, straightway all his temptation left him and returning to his own place, he told his companions, with great joy, what grace God had shown unto him when he took the writing from Saint Francis; and putting it aside and taking diligent care thereof, the brothers afterwards worked many miracles by its means. And from that hour forth, the said Brother Leo with great purity and with good intention began to keep watch upon and to observe the life of Saint Francis : and for his purity’s sake, he merited to see Saint Francis full many and many a time rapt in God and uplifted from the earth.
Brother John was resplendent above all the rest that had more completely drunk the chalice of life, whereby he had the more deeply gazed into the abyss of the infinite light divine: and had learned therein of the adversity and the tempest that was to rise up against this tree and shake and toss its branches. For the which cause Brother John came down from the top of the branch whereon he stood; and going down below all the branches hid himself in the solid tree and was rapt in thought.
One of the brothers that had taken part of the chalice and part had spilt, climbed up on to that place, whence Brother John had come down, And the nails of his hands became iron, sharp and keen as razors: whereat he left the place to which he had climbed, and with rage, and fury sought to hurl himself upon the said Brother John for to do him hurt. But Brother John cried aloud and commended himself to Christ that sat upon the throne; and Christ called unto him Saint Francis, and gave him a sharp flint stone, and said: “Take this stone and cut off the nails of that brother, wherewith he would fain tear Brother John, so that he may do him no hurt,” Then Saint Francis came and did even as Christ had commanded. And this done, there arose a storm of wind, and shook the tree so violently that the brothers fell down on to the ground, and first of all they that had spilled all the chalice of the spirit of life, and were carried away by the devils to places of darkness and torment.
But Brother John, together with the others that had drunk all the chalice, were borne by the angels unto the place of life, and of light eternal, and beatific splendour. And Brother Jacques, that saw the vision, understood and discerned distinctly and separately all that he saw, touching the name and and condition and state of each one of them clearly. And so long did that storm beat against the tree that it fell, and the wind carried it away. When the storm ceased, straightway from the golden root of this tree sprang up another tree that was all of gold, which brought forth leaves and flowers and fruit of gold. Of this tree, and how it spread out its branches and fixed deep its root, and of its beauty and fragrance and virtue, it were better to keep silence than to speak.
I was weighing up a shard of flint in my hand this morning. It was a good fit for my hand, and quite sharp, even from the batterings received in its centuries as a stone. The idea of being chased by Saint Francis wanting to cut my nails is pretty scary but so is that of being chased by a maddened, jealous friar! Thirty years after the hurricane blew down trees in our street their replacements are tall and sturdy. They were paid for bby the residents and businesses along the road. Brother Jacques’ second tree would have shared that communal vigour, emerging as fire-tested gold. May we have the grace to pass through the flames unhurt.
While Jesus was in the Desert, the devil took him to the top of the Temple. I feel somewhat safer in the crypt of the Cathedral: there’s not so far to fall!
And he brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and he said to him: If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself from hence. For it is written, that He hath given his angels charge over thee, that they keep thee.For it is written, that He hath given his angels charge over thee, that they keep thee. And that in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest perhaps thou dash thy foot against a stone.
And Jesus answering, said to him: It is said: Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
I do seem to be dashing my feet against stones quite a lot these days; is that my lack of observation or the lack of footpath maintenance, or perhaps both? Anyway, the Crypt is my go-to desert place in the city. But there are other spots where the desert awaits; even passing through the old orchard grounds for instance, or seeing the hazel catkins in full bloom in various odd spots.
Forty seconds, not forty days, I spend enjoying them, but the resilience of those soft, dangling catkins in this year’s high winds has been an object lesson to me.
ABOUT the beginning of the Order of Saint Francis and while he was still alive, there came into the Order a young man of Assisi, the which was called Brother Simon: him God adorned and endowed with so much grace, such depth of contemplation and elevation of mind, that all his life was a mirror of virtue.
Brother Simon, when he set him down at table, before he took food for the body, would take for himself and for others spiritual food, speaking of God. Through his devout discourse on a time was converted a young man of San Severino, the which in the world was a youth exceeding vain and worldly, and was of noble blood and much delicate of body; and Brother Simon receiving the said youth into the Order, put his secular clothes aside in his own charge; and the youth abode with Brother Simon to be taught by him the rules of the Order. But the devil, that striveth to thwart all good, assailed him with so fierce a temptation and so grievous a thorn in the flesh, that in no wise could he resist the same; for the which cause he went to Brother Simon, and said unto him: “Give me back my clothes that I brought with me from the world, for I can no more endure this temptation of the flesh.” And Brother Simon having great compassion on him, said: “Sit here with me a little while, my son”; and he began to speak with him of God in such sort that all temptation left him: and when after a time the temptation came back and he asked for his clothes again, Brother Simon drove it away with speech of God. And when this had been so full many a time, at last one night the said temptation assailed him so grievously, even more than it was wont, that for naught in the world could he resist it, and going to Brother Simon, demanded of him again all his secular clothes, for that in no wise could he longer stay. Then Brother Simon, even as he was wont to do, made him sit down beside him; and as he spake to him of God, the youth leaned his head upon the breast of Brother Simon, for sorrow and distress of soul. Then Brother Simon for the great pity’s sake that he had, lifted up his eyes to heaven and prayed, and as he devoutly besought the Lord for him, he was rapt in God and his prayer was heard: whenas he returned to himself again, the young man found himself altogether freed from that temptation, as though he had felt it never a whit.
The fire of temptation being thuswise changed into the fire of the Holy Spirit, for that he had
drawn near unto the burning coal, to wit, unto Brother Simon, he became altogether inflamed with the love of God and of his neighbour; in so much that on a time a malefactor having been taken who was to have both his eyes put out, he, to wit, the youth aforesaid, for pity’ a sake went boldly unto the governor, and in open council, and with many tears and humble prayers besought that one of his eyes might be put out and one only of the malefactor’s, for that he might not be deprived of both. But the governor and the council beholding the great fervour of the charity of this brother, forgave both the one and the other.
Saint Francis promised Brother Ruffino that, “this temptation will bring to thee great profit and consolation, and very shortly shalt thou prove it”. So what happened after Ruffino was utterly impolite to the devil?
The devil being exceeding wroth, gat him away incontinent with so furious a tempest and shaking of the rocks of Mount Subassio, which was hard by, that the loud noise of the rocks that fell down lasted a great while ; and so furiously did they strike the one against the other as they rolled down, that the valley was lit up with horrible flashes of fire: and at the terrible din that they made, Saint Francis and his companions came out of the House, in great amazement, for to see what strange thing had befallen; and still to this day is seen that exceeding great ruin of rocks.
Then Brother Ruffino knew of a surety that it had been the devil that had deceived him. And going back to Saint Francis, he threw himself again upon the ground, and confessed his fault; and Saint Francis comforted him with sweet words, and sent him back full of consolation to his cell, wherein as he was most devoutly praying, there appeared to him Christ, the blessed One, and rekindled all his soul with love divine and said: “Thou hast done well, my son, to believe in Saint Francis, for he that made thee His sad was the devil: but I am Christ thy Master; and to make thee sure thereof, I give thee this sign: Whilst thou dost live, thou shalt no more feel sadness nor melancholy.”
And this said, Christ departed, leaving him in such gladness and sweetness of spirit and uplifting of the mind, that day and night he was absorbed and rapt in God. And from that time forth he was
so strengthened in grace and in certainty of his salvation, that he became altogether changed into another man; and would have continued day and night in prayer and in contemplation of the things of God, if the others had suffered him. Wherefore Saint Francis said of him that Brother Ruffino was in this life canonised by Christ, and that, save in his presence, he would not doubt to call him Saint Ruffino, albeit he was still alive on earth.
Our friend Christina Chase recently wrote that ‘Temptation lingers in desert spots‘ – which is perfectly true. It’s so easy to get things out of proportion.
But what did the children of Israel wish for, out there in the desert? The fleshpots of Egypt, not a closer walk with God.
And when they were in Egypt, they were oppressed so hard they could not stand – yet they’d rather go back to slavery than walk as free men and women with God. Of course spiritual slavery is more subtle than that. Who are the false gods we are tempted to put before the true One?
God heard his people, but did not answer their despair with thunderbolts to fulfil their death wish. No, he sent mercy, like the gentle rain from heaven, in the form of manna. He sustained them on their travels.
As we will be sustained:
It’s a scandal that Christians are not united at the Lord’s table.