The tempter combines cunning with violence: we must meet him with prayer and vigilance
THE devil has little hold on souls that are given to prayer and mortification. The most common temptations hardly affect them, since they forbid them entrance. Should they be occasionally taken by surprise, it is because they are momentarily off their guard; and as a rule there are no grave consequences. And it is not the devil who is the principal instrument in such cases, for every man, says St. James, is tempted by his own concupiscence, being drawn away and allured. [ ] Such souls are thus only usually exposed to these temptations in so far as God permits them in order to purify their conscience, exercise their patience, deepen their humility, increase their merit, and add brightness to their crown. It is of such temptations that I now propose to speak.
In the first place, I think we are unnecessarily afraid of them. It would be presumptuous to defy the devil, but it is a sign of weakness to be afraid of him. As St. Augustine says, he is a chained dog, who can bark and worry, but he cannot bite if we keep out of his reach. Such lively apprehension may arise from different causes. The imagination has a lot to do with it. We are struck by what we have read in the lives of certain saints, and fancy we are going to pass through the same experiences, and be driven, as they were, to the last extremity. Take courage, timid soul! Great temptations are only for brave hearts; do not be so vain as to suppose that God is going to treat you as He treated such chosen souls, who are very few in number.
This fear may also arise from a craven spirit. Such hearts are narrow, wanting in generosity, and incapable of great sacrifices. They tremble at the least danger; all they ask for is a sweet and untroubled piety, sheltered from the storms and blasts. No sooner do the winds blow, the skies darken, and the thunders roll, than they imagine the whole of their spiritual edifice is about to totter. Faint-hearted soldiers, indeed! You would like to conquer, but you do not want to fight. The mere sight of the enemy puts you to flight. Complete victory is reserved only for those who resist unto blood.
This fear also arises from a want of trust in God. If we trusted absolutely to His strength, we would have nothing to fear; for what have we to be afraid of, if God the all-powerful is on our side? The Lord is my light and my salvation, says the Psalmist, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the protector of my life, of whom shall I be afraid? ... If armies in camp should stand together against me, my heart shall not fear. If a battle should rise up against me, in this will I be confident. [ ]
But instead of keeping our eyes on Our Lord, we look only at ourselves. We measure our strength against that of our tempter and, being only too conscious of our weakness, we lay down our arms and turn our back before the battle has even begun. We pretend that this is humility and a prudent distrust of self, but it is not. It is self-love and presumption, which attributes success to our courage, instead of expecting it from God alone. In our blindness, we do not reflect that God's time for helping us is when the testing comes. Before that, it would be useless and dangerous to deem ourselves strong, as St. Peter did. But when the moment arrives, God will help us, and will do so the more, the more we put our trust in Him.
And why should we fear temptations? Do we not know that they are necessary for us, since without them we can make no progress in the way of perfection? Of course they are necessary to strengthen us in the very virtues which they assail. We will never reach a high degree of purity, faith, hope, or love for God or our neighbour, unless we are strongly exercised in these virtues. Our Lord taught that it is the storm that proves the stability of a house; [ ] that if the house be built on a rock, far from being overthrown, it will be all the stronger. The temptations by which the devil seeks to rob us of our virtues, render those virtues all the dearer to us. We make greater efforts to retain them, and quicken and multiply our prayers that God may be pleased to preserve us from their loss.
Temptations, moreover, are necessary in order that we may know ourselves as we really are. What doth he know that hath not been tried, says the son of Sirach. [ ] We must have faced the enemy, and that more than once; have experienced the force of his stratagems and of his onslaughts; have been tempted again and again to give in, before we can appreciate that we can do nothing without God, and all things with Him. [ ] Before the battle, we are either cowardly or presumptuous; it is only in the thick of it that we learn really to know ourselves. Should we be overcome, defeat brings with it humility. If, despite all resistance and foresight, we feel ourselves on the point of giving in, we realize better the greater need to call upon God for help. If, just when we think we are irrevocably lost, God suddenly delivers us from our peril, the very risk we have run forces us to realize that it is to Him we owe the victory.
Temptations are necessary in order that we may learn not to trust in our own strength. When the violence of the temptation is extreme; when our strength is exhausted through long resistance; when we see no way of escape and nothing seems left to us but to surrender: then, seeing no hope in ourselves and having no further defence, we must needs throw ourselves into the arms of God. This is just the moment God has been waiting for, and never more than now shall we receive His help. He has forced the issue, precisely to show us that He alone can save us from destruction, even though it seems inevitable. He loves to bring us back from the very gates of death. The Lord killeth and maketh alive, it is written, He bringeth down to hell, and bringeth back again. [ ]
Finally, temptations are necessary to bring us into closer union with God. When do we call upon Him with greater fervour than when 'our feet are almost gone, and our steps have well-nigh slipped'? When do we hide in His bosom, if not when the enemy threatens to deprive us of the life of grace? When all seems well, we forget to think about God. It is only when temptation recalls us to Him that we cling to Him, and will not let Him go.
As for those whom God has destined for the guidance of others, temptations are essential for them, since there is no better teacher than experience. They are able to feel more compassion for those who are tempted, and are more patient with them. They understand the tactics of the devil, they dread neither his deceits nor his open attacks. They know with what weapons to oppose him, and how to prevent and frustrate his plans. They are in a position to encourage others, and to give them salutary advice. A director who has not passed through similar trials has not the same advantage. He is timid, hesitating, uncertain how to decide. He bewilders those who apply to him or, what is worse, he misunderstands their state, judges them culpable and treats them harshly; he repels them, and drives them almost to despair.
You fear temptations? But God is faithful, Who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able; but will make also with temptation issue, that you may be able to bear it. [ ] Let us ponder a moment on these words of St. Paul.
God is faithful. That is to say, He always does what He promises. He wills that the love of His children should be put to the test, and so allows the devil to tempt them. At the same time, He has promised to come to our aid. And what can all the efforts of hell avail if God is with us? [ ] If we turn to Him with confidence in our hour of need, and do not abandon Him He will never abandon us. The devil wants to harm us and turn us away from God; God's intention is to strengthen us, and make us advance in virtue, by the very things in which we are tempted. The devil can do nothing of himself, and can only tempt us with God's permission and within its limits. Moreover, as St. Paul reminds us, God will not allow us to be tempted beyond our strength. His justice, His faithfulness, His loving kindness are all opposed to such a thing. Therefore, before allowing us to be tempted, He waits until we have attained a certain degree of strength. He does not bring us face to face with the enemy right at the beginning of our course, while our efforts are still weak and hesitating, and the least rebuff might be too much for us. He prepares us from afar for the combat; He forms and inures us before confronting us with the enemy.
Besides this, He gives us the help we need at the time: He is at our side. Not only does He inspire us with courage, but He fights with us. The grace He gives us then is always sufficient to assure us the victory, and even make us always superior to the enemy, unless, by our presumption or want of trust, by our negligence or infidelity, we are ourselves the cause that it becomes a sufficient help and no more, with which God foresees that we shall fall.
For God is always faithful. And even when we refuse the special grace of which we have shown ourselves unworthy and with which we would have been victorious, He gives us an ordinary grace, but one strong enough to save us from a fall, although in fact it does not do so through our own fault.
When, therefore, we are faithful on our part; when we have not done anything to deprive ourselves of His special help, God will always see to it that the temptation serves for our advance, the struggle being followed by victory. This is what God wants, and He will, on His side, do all that is necessary to assure our victory, provided we place no obstacle in His way.
Let me add that the goodness of God is so great, as well as His power, that He wills to, and can, make our very reverses turn to our spiritual advantage, if we turn to Him with a sincere and loving repentance, to which He invites us with the strongest advances and the most pressing motives. Thus even the falls of David and St. Peter, being turned to good account, contributed to their sanctification.
Why then, need you fear temptations, if your trust in God is all that it should be? You complain that these temptations beset you during your time of prayer and at Holy Communion; that the devil chooses precisely these times to attack you. Say rather, that God permits you to be tempted just when you are best prepared to resist evil; when your immediate intention is to unite yourself to Him; when Jesus present in your heart will Himself repel the assaults of the devil.
But, you say, this deprives me of peace in prayer. Very probably your soul may then be agitated and troubled on the surface, but it depends on yourself whether its depths are calm. It is not in the devil's power to touch the depths of the soul, which is the true seat of peace. You may lose the sense of calm, but that does you no harm. It is for you to hold on to the reality.
But, again you will say, it keeps me from going to communion. Why should it? You have only a more pressing reason for going. The devil insinuates the feeling which would keep you away, only because he knows what strength you obtain from it, and how certain is his defeat if you meet him in that strength. Indeed, the most violent temptations subside and fade away the moment we receive the adorable Body of Christ. I do not know that it ever happened that immediately after receiving Holy Communion anyone, no matter how tormented by the most frightful thoughts beforehand, did not find himself relieved from them
Again you say: the devil suggests images, thoughts; desires, that fill my mind with horror. So much the better, if his suggestions do fill your mind with horror, for then it is a manifest proof that you reject them, and that God rejects them in you. Do you not recall that Our Lord said: From the heart come forth evil thoughts? [ ] That means that our thoughts are only evil when the heart conceives, encourages and takes pleasure in them. How, then, can your thoughts be evil when your heart abhors them? Sin lies, not in having an object present to the mind or impressed upon it, but in the consent given by the will; and nothing is more opposed to this consent than such a state of mind as yours.
'But I seem to have no strength whatever to resist such temptations'. Since they fill you with horror, and you would rather die than take the least pleasure in them, you do resist, and that with all the strength of your will. You may not realize it, but your will is in spite of everything, most active. Judge for yourself by the result. God has reasons for not letting you know that you are resisting, as you are in fact doing, because He does not want you to attribute the victory to your own efforts, and grow vain and self-complacent on the strength of it. He does not want you to say: 'I was tempted, and I resisted' but 'it was not I who fought, but God, Who fought and gained the victory for me'. Are you not glad that the honour should be given where it is due, and that God has placed you in the happy position of being unable to deny it?
'Yet it seems to me that I have given my consent'. On what grounds? 'Because the temptation lasted so long'. That is not a reason. It merely proves that it was a long testing time for you. Or is it because you thought you took pleasure in it? There is such a thing as involuntary pleasure, an impression on the senses, which is the natural effect of certain temptations. A heated imagination may be the cause, or it may be the devil. But the pleasure felt and the impression made are not the same thing as consent. However, decide nothing on your own. You are in no state to make any decision while you are disturbed. And once the temptation has passed, do not think about it any more. It is very dangerous to go over the whole thing again, and masters of the spiritual life are unanimous in forbidding it. Refer the matter to your confessor, and once he has given a general decision, and if necessary repeated it, be perfectly at peace.
The Christian's arms against the devil are watchfulness and prayer. Watch ye, and pray that ye enter not into temptation. [ ] Our Lord does not say: in order that you may be kept from temptation, but in order that it may not enter your heart, and that you may not succumb to it. Vigilance is necessary against an enemy who is as clever as he is violent; who, as a roaring lion goeth about seeking whom he may devour. [ ] Vigilance is necessary for everyone, no matter how holy. Anyone not on his guard, therefore, is for that very reason in danger from temptation, and the danger is greater for a good man who presumes on his strength than for a sinner who dreads the consequences of his weakness. Remember Our Lord's words when He recommended vigilance to the apostles: What I say to you, I say to all: Watch! [ ] Vigilance is necessary always. The enemy is ever lying in ambush, and never sleeps. He awaits the moment to take us off our guard, and he is as quick to do so as he is clever to know the moment.
This vigilance consists in the first place in avoiding occasions of temptation. One must never wilfully expose oneself to temptation, under any pretext whatsoever. In ancient times, the bishops were not at all anxious for Christians to expose themselves to martyrdom, nor even to declare themselves without necessity.
Several were known to have renounced their faith when under torment, having thus declared themselves through an indiscreet zeal. If, therefore, holy prudence did not allow them to seek martyrdom, even more so were even the most holy among them forbidden to venture on any deed fraught with peril, without being assured that it was God's will. And even when it was clearly God's will, they had to place all their trust in Him, so that the fear of danger might not weaken their resolution.
In the second place, vigilance consists in a humble distrust of oneself. The Lord is the keeper of the little ones, says David: I was humbled and He delivered me. [ ] He who is lowly in his own eyes, and relies on God alone, will as surely not fail, as he who trusts in his own strength is bound to be discomfited. To the latter, even victory would be harmful, because of the presumption to which it would give rise, and it might even lead eventually to an irretrievable fall. No man shall prevail by his own strength, we read in the Book of Kings. [ ] If God, then, is our strength, equally must our trust be in Him.
But do not confound, as many do, mistrust of self with faint-heartedness. A faint-hearted man looks only at himself and, comparing his danger with his weakness, turns his back on it, when what he should do is to face it. The true Christian distrust of self, while being aware of its own frailty, looks to God for its strength, and when God calls it to battle fears naught. Indeed, on the contrary, the more it feels its own incapacity for resisting, the more certain is it that the divine strength will sustain it. When I am weak, says the apostle, then am I powerful. [ ] And again: I can do all things in Him Who strengtheneth me. [ ]
Vigilance consists, moreover, in a constant fidelity. Never give up the practice of interior prayer and mortification. Follow exactly the guidance God has given you in this matter, even in the smallest things. Observe in every particular the rule laid down for you, or that you have embraced. Allow yourself no wilful breach of it, and the devil will have no power over you. His very assaults will turn to his own confusion.
Above all, try always to remain calm in time of temptation. Do not let your mind dwell on what is passing within you, and never argue with the devil. You will only be entangled with your own thoughts if you do, and you will be caught in his snares. Keep close to God and let the storm pass. Your anxiety and arguing will only increase the tempest and make it last longer. And when it has passed, quietly continue on your way, without scrutinizing yourself to see if you have taken any pleasure in it, or given your consent.
To vigilance Our Lord would have you join prayer; and both must be continuous. We ought always to pray and not to faint, says St. Luke. [ ] This continual prayer is, as has been said elsewhere, but the directing of the heart towards God, and the heart's secret cry for help. The devil cannot harm a soul thus disposed, and ever shielded by the buckler of prayer.
Besides the general attitude of prayer, however, which should be the soul's habitual state, it is a good practice, in times of temptation, to take refuge if possible in your oratory, or in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. If that is not possible, then at least have recourse to ejaculatory prayers, which are as so many arrows wherewith to wound the foe. And let these prayers be calm and submissive, and full of trust. Do not ask impatiently for the temptation to pass, for such a request may come from self-love. You are humiliated at being subjected to such horrible thoughts, and you would like to shake off the feeling. But humiliation is one of the best effects of temptations, and that is why God permits them. Yield yourself up wholly, therefore, to God, and bear with the temptations as long as God wants you to. He alone knows what good is wrought by them. He has a fixed time for relieving you of them, and that will take place as soon as you have profited by them as fully as it is His will that you should. Three times St. Paul asked to be delivered from an annoying temptation, which God permitted in order that he might not fall into the sin of vainglory, because of the greatness of the revelations given him. And what was Our Lord's answer? My grace is sufficient for thee; for power is thus made perfect in infirmity. [ ]
For temptations are the counterpoise of graces received, and our graces are always in exact proportion to our temptations. We delight in graces that raise us up, and we fear temptations that humiliate us. But such humiliation is itself a grace, indeed a greater grace than that which we previously enjoyed, for it shields us against those dangers to which we might otherwise be exposed. That is why God allows us to be tempted, and His infinite power is all the more apparent by reason of our weakness.
Now however horrible and humiliating our temptations, we must never hide them from our spiritual guide. We must open our heart to him, and keep nothing back. God will bless such frankness, which is in itself a great act of humility to which many graces are attached. It will also inspire the director to strengthen and encourage us as he sees fit. The devil will do all he can to silence those he tempts, confident that he will succeed if only he can persuade them to say nothing about the matter.
Be faithful, then, and from your guide you will receive peace and light and strength. His decisions will calm you, his counsels bring you light, and his exhortations give you fresh courage. Having explained your case to him in all simplicity, abide by his advice with complete confidence. Do not allow yourself to judge otherwise than he has decided, not even in thought. Do not say: I did not make my case clear; or, he did not understand me. There is no end to that kind of argument. Acquiesce and submit. Moreover, be strictly faithful in observing all he tells you, whether it be to help you to avoid temptations, or to weaken or overcome them altogether.
Ps. xxvi. 1-3
cf. Matt. vii. 24-25
Ecclus. xxxiv. 9
2. cf. John xv. 5 and Phil. iv. 13
I Kings ii. 6.
I Cor. x. 13
cf. Rom. viii. 31
Matt. xv. 19
Matt. xxvi. 41
I Peter v. 8
Mark xiii. 37
Ps. cxiv. 6
I Kings ii. 9
II Cor. xii. 10
Phil. iv. 13
Luke xviii. 1
II Cor. xii. 9
Work of God Apostolate