Temptation and Lenten Penance

During the Lenten season, we seek to turn back from sin and to God. Each of the practices of Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—helps us to do this. While Lent is not a season of merriment in the Church, it should nevertheless be a season of hope, and one of joy.

The Great White Fleet

Sin is a turning away from God. It is disobedience to His will for us, and it is the preference of something—anything!—else to God. Indeed, because God is not composed of parts [1], these three statements are in fact one and the same statement. In his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis gives an analogy of a good life and a good society to the sailing of a fleet of ships. To reach the fleet’s destination, the ships must be well-sailed; they must be well-coordinated so as to not interfere with each other; and they must have a clear destination and route to reach that destination. Sin in this analogy takes on three forms—the individual ships may be badly handled; or the ships are collectively poorly coordinated, so that they stray apart (or crash together) regardless of handling; or they have the wrong destination in mind, so that they do not end where they ought [2].

These three conditions for a good fleet correspond to three conditions found in a good life and a good society:

  1. The well-run ship is akin to person’s own self-mastery.
  2. The well-coordinated fleet is like the harmony between members of a society.
  3. The proper destination for the fleet is an analog to both the individual’s and the society’s being “ordered” to the good.

The first condition means that each man has developed the virtues so that his intellect (captain) governs his will (bosun or boatswain [3]) which directs his passions (crew) and can overcome his desires or appetites (fears, obstacles). The second means locally that men will help each other to increase in virtue, that they will work together towards common (and sometimes individual) goals; and on a larger scale that laws will be just, that they will enable each person to do what is right and inhibit his ability to do what is wrong. The third condition is the defining principle or “final cause” of a good society and a good life. It means that both man and society must seek (and be guided by) the highest good, which ultimately means to discern and pursue God’s will for each individual and for society as a whole.

In his Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, St. Thomas Aquinas describes three sources of temptation. These are the flesh, the world, and the devil. While these three temptations a can strike at any level, they correlate most directly to each of the three conditions of the good life and the good society:

  1. Temptations of the flesh strike at us directly attempting to ensnare us through the will, or indeed through the passions or the appetites. Saint Thomas Aquinas says that the flesh tempts us by seeking “its own pleasures, namely, carnal pleasures, in which often is sin. He who indulges in carnal pleasures neglects spiritual things.” These temptations put us in internal discord. Several of the deadly sins strike us here—in particular, lust and gluttony, and to some extent sloth.
  2. Worldly temptations are temptations towards a good which may not be ours to possess. According to St. Thomas, the word tempts us with “excessive and intemperate desire for the goods of this life,” and also with “the fears engendered by persecutors and tyrants.” These temptations put us at odds with our neighbors, with society as a whole, and even with the Church as a community. The deadly sins of avarice and envy are principally provoked by temptations of the world, and wrath may be our response to our neighbors when so tempted.
  3. The devil is the subtlest tempter, as St. Thomas notes.
    “The devil proceeds most cunningly in tempting us. He operates like a skillful general when about to attack a fortified city. He looks for the weak places in the object of his assault, and in that part where a man is most weak, he tempts him. He tempts man in those sins to which, after subduing his flesh, he is most inclined… he does not at once appear to suggest something that appears to us as evil, but something that has the semblance of good. Thereby he would, at least in the beginning, turn a man from his chief purpose, and then afterwards it would be easier to induce him to sin, once he has been turned away ever so little.”
    These temptations lead most directly to discord with God and his Church as Magister. The principal deadly sins which are associated with these temptations are pride and wrath, and to a lesser extent acedia.

Three more things should be said here regarding these three types of temptations. The first is, all three can tempt us to do evil or to avoid good. Both are forms of sin, which is why our confession asks for forgiveness both for what we have done, and what we have failed to do. The second is that all three temptations can work together [4]. The third is that any of the deadly sins may strike through any of these temptations or combination of temptations, even if some temptations lend themselves more closely to certain deadly sins.

Three Lenten practices

Just as there are three sources of temptation—the flesh, the world, and the devil—so there are three Lenten practices which combat these temptations. These are the aforementioned practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Each of these practices helps us to better resist temptation in general, but we can also see that each one is especially good at strengthening us against a particular type of temptation:

  1. Fasting helps us to gain mastery over our desires, and fights temptations of the flesh. Note that fasting here need not mean only “eating little” or even “eating less,” though this is the literal translation. It can mean giving up any thing which gives us pleasure, be it eating chocolate or spending time on facebook or reading dime comics and penny dreadfuls, etc. This is the reason behind the tradition of “giving something up for Lent.” This is also why giving up something innocuous is still beneficial to us.
  2. Almsgiving helps to order ourselves as members of a good society and fight temptations of the world. By freely giving away from what we have, we learn detachment from our worldly belongings, and are reminded that all we have—time, talent, treasure—are so many gifts from God. We become less covetous of that which we will give away.
  3. Prayer helps us to discern the will of God for us, and it also helps to fight temptations of the devil. In prayer we turn back to God, we praise Him for his goodness, we thank Him for His blessings, we ask Him for His grace, and we request His guidance in our lives. Indeed, we pray that He will “lead us not into temptation,” which is different from asking that we will not be tempted. We are here asking that God will not withdraw His graces from us, because it is when He does this that we are most apt to actually consent to the temptation rather than resisting it.

I think that there are two things which are left to be said in this brief essay. The first is that we should, when undertaking penances, bear in mind the difference between self-discipline and self-punishment; between mortification and torture. The second is related to this, which is that we should therefore approach the Lenten practices and penances with some sense of Joy. Venerable Fulton J. Sheen writes in his reflection on the Seven Last Words that

The Christian fasts not for the sake of the body, but for the sake of the soul… The Christian does not fast because he believes the body is wicked, but in order to make it pliable in the hands of the soul, like a tool in the hands of a skilled workman….

We are to mortify bodily hunger and thirst, not because the flesh is wicked, but because the soul must ever exercise mastery over it, lest it become a tyrant…. When such surrenders of the superfluous food and drink are made for the soul’s sake, let it all be done in a spirit of joy. ‘And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; that though appear not to men to fast, by to thy Father who is in secret; and thy Father who seeth in secret, will repay thee” [Matthew 6:16-18].

We are, in addition, to cultivate a spiritual hunger and thirst. Mortification of the bodily appetites is only a means, not an end. The end is union with God, the soul’s desire.

Far from being a gloomy rejection of our pleasures, the penances of Lent are a joyful movement towards God. Part of this is becoming masters of ourselves, including of our bodies, and another part is in becoming a good society. We are undergoing a sort of spiritual growth, and with this comes some growth pains. We will expect some struggles in this, and it takes discipline. We will fail, perhaps often: but we will also draw ever nearer to our heavenly home, which is cause for joy.

As for our failures, our sins: they may be many, they may be grievous, but God’s mercy is more abundant. As John Henry Cardinal Newman notes in his Meditations and Devotions,

“Lord, our sins are more in number than the hairs of our head; yet even the hairs of our head are all numbered by you. You count our sins, and, as You count, so can You forgive; for that reckoning…comes to an end; but Your mercies fail not, and Your Son’s merits are infinite.”

 

—-Footnotes—-

[0] Featured image is a photo of Ein Gedi, Israel, by Rob Bye, posted on Unsplash. I have cropped it slightly.

[1] That God is absolutely simple—and thus not composed of parts—is a doctrine of classical philosophy which has been adopted and expanded upon by the Church (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 43). The Fourth Lateran Council’s Confession of Faith begins, “We firmly believe and simply confess that there is only one true God, eternal and immeasurable, almighty, unchangeable, incomprehensible and ineffable, Father, Son and holy Spirit, three persons but one absolutely simple essence, substance or nature.”

[2] To this might be added another situation, that they know where they want to go but do not know where they are. Discernment means learning not only the desired final state or outcome, but the “initial conditions,” and indeed the correct path to get from the latter to the former.

[3] I suppose to extend the analogy further, when the individual goes bad, the will becomes like the quartermaster of a pirate ship, complete with veto power of the captain (intellect) on behalf of the crew (passions etc.)

[4] In his science fiction short story, “The Feeders,” Michael Flynn has this brief dialogue between two characters (Heinrich, the main character, and his former seminarian comrade, Georg) on temptation:

“What are they,” he [Heinrich] whispered.
“What are what?”
He had not realized he had spoken aloud. “The three sources of sin,” he said, casting the first random thought into his mouth.
“Oh.” They walked a few paces further. “The world is one,” Georg said. “It provides opportunity. A pretty girl. An unwatched billfold. A careless enemy. Then, the flesh provides weakness. We call that Original Sin. It makes us prey to the temptations of the world. Then, finally: the Devil.”
“And what does the Devil do?”
“Why, as we stand there weakening before temptation, the little pumper-nickle creeps up behind us and gives us a push.”

If this is a sightly different synthesis of the three sources of temptation from what is offered above (and by St. Thomas in his Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer), it is one which compliments rather than contradicts what has been said above.