Circular Letter: Summer 2000

Lead Us Not Into Temptation!

1. How prone we are to Temptation!

In all we do we search for happiness. Whereas in God alone is this to be found, we, short-sighted and short-winded as we are, so often seek happiness where it cannot be found, namely, in created things. Some seek it in God, without, however, making the complete gift of themselves in perfect love.

Instinctively we know that the search for happiness is the search for the supreme good. This offers two things: delight and permanent, secure possession. The world (lust and avarice) promises these, but cannot deliver. Pride of life is the illusion that happiness can be achieved in a “Gimme, gimme” approach to life without ever giving wholeheartedly in love.

St. Augustine exposes these two errors, observing: “All perversity consists either in seeking beatitude in things that are meant for use, or in using things that are the object of beatitude” (On Christian Doctrine, Bk. I). In other words, it is perverse to seek final happiness in creatures (e.g., wealth or fame), which are given us as means on our way to final happiness; and again, it is perverse to ‘use’ God in such a way that we are really seeking ourselves (e.g., false piety ostensibly honors God, but actually seeks self).

Adam and Eve, in a way, had it better than we do. God created them with the singular grace of integrity by means of which all the lower faculties of our nature — the appetites and emotions — were made completely docile to reason and will. They and their descendants should have remained in this paradisiacal state on the condition that Adam and Eve perpetually submit their reason and will to God in a covenant of faith. Failing in this, they sinned and lost for us too sanctifying grace, paradise, immortality and the grace of integrity. From that hour on all man’s passions were freed to run riot; our passions, no longer docile to intellect and will, are constantly leading us into temptation. Mankind’s only hope was in the promise of a Redeemer (cf. Gen 3,14).

By his death and resurrection, Our Lord restored us to grace and divine friendship; the gates of heaven were opened anew. The grace of integrity, however, was not restored. Consequently, our life continues to be embroiled in numerous passionate temptations and trials that threaten to lead us from the path of life into perdition. Sts. John and Paul reduce all our disordinate cravings to love of the world: “The root of all evil is avarice” (1 Tm 6:10); and, “All that is in the world is the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 Jn 2:16f).

We are surrounded with the enticements and scandals of the world, — “my feet almost wavered, my steps almost slipped, for I was envious of the ungodly, seeing the prosperity of sinners” (Ps 72:2f). Moreover, our spiritual foes conspire against us. We cry out to Our Lord, “Keep steady my steps according to your promise, and let no iniquity get dominion over me” (Ps 119:133), and, “Incline not my heart to any evil” (Ps 141:4).

The devil gets involved, not as an object of our temptations, but as an instigator; through his envy death entered the world (cf. Wis 2:24). He is the liar and the murderer from the beginning (cf. Jn 8:44). He seduces with bread and circuses — (cf. the temptations of Jesus; cf. Mt 4:3,6; Lk 3:9f) — and where these fail, with threats and persecutions (cf. Eph 6:12; 1 Pt 5:8f; Job 1:12ff; 2:6ff).

We blush at our own foolishness, for we cannot blame the devil for all of our faults, … our own sensuality and self-love provides ample occasion for many falls (St. Thomas. Summa Theol. I.q 114, a.3,c & 3m). “As fish are taken with the hook, and as birds are caught with a snare, so men are taken in the evil time [of temptation] “ (Ecc 9:12). Rightly do we cry out to God, “abandon us not to our evil ways”, “lead us not into temptation.”

2. The Paradox of this Petition

Why did Jesus express this petition so paradoxically? Surely, “God is no tempter to evil and he himself tempts no one, but everyone is tempted by being drawn away and enticed by his own passion” (Jas 1:13-14). The Catholic Catechism explains: “Do not lead” means both “do not allow us to enter into temptation” and “do not allow us to yield to temptation.” What we are imploring is “the Spirit of discernment and strength” (CCC 2846, cf. Mt 26:41).

Linked to this is the biblical perception of divine providence and the subtle nature of temptation.

a. Providence and the Freedom of Creatures

Divine providence extends over all things, including the freedom of creatures. God is the ultimate cause of our goodness: He “gives us the will and the deed” (Phil 2:13). Isaiah exclaims: “You have wrought all our works for us, O Lord” (26:12). Truly, without Christ’s help we can do nothing pleasing before God (cf. Jn 15:5).

God’s grace works as an empowering invitation to which we are free to respond or resist. The sinner does not fall outside of God’s Providence; rather — should he remain obstinate to the end — he falls out of the plan of God’s mercy and into the plan of his justice. In the interim, God is patient in view of our conversion (cf. 2 Pt 3:9).

b. The Snare of Temptation

As creatures with limited knowledge we can only focus on one point at a time. This limitation is compounded by our senses which further narrow our vision. Evidently, we can only make a decision (choice) ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about something we are actually considering. Therefore, an important part of self-discipline consists in mortifying the senses and roaming thoughts, for “death enters by the windows” (Jer 9:20). By a kind of pre-moral choice, inasmuch as largely unreflected, we allow our thoughts to be led in a particular direction, to a particular object. Given our fallen nature’s penchant for evil, we are often unwittingly attracted to evil under the superficial appearance of the good.

Temptation is, first of all, a seduction that claims to hold the key to happiness, it is a sleight of hand which tricks us into focusing on the wrong thing, it is a camouflaged snare which threatens death. “Each one is tempted by his own desire. Then desire, when it has conceived, gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (Jas 1:14f). The bait of temptation is either gratification or some desirable possession. These alienate from God, for “love of this world is enmity with God” (Jas 4:4). Accordingly, “they who want to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare. … it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (1 Tm 6:9-10).

The moral death caused by sin takes two basic forms in this life. The one kind of mortal sin comes from pursuing in a gravely disordered manner the goods of this world; sanctifying grace and charity are herewith destroyed. This kind of sin consists in a disordered turning to the world. While souls in this state are spiritually dead, they still have faith and hope. For this reason their reconciliation with God is more easily achieved. The second kind of mortal sin consists in directly rejecting supernatural faith and hope. By consciously turning away from God the sinner destroys the very roots of faith and hope. Such a sinner no longer knows or desires the kingdom of God. Such a soul evidently needs a double conversion in order to be saved: conversion away from the world and back to God.

The world and the flesh are like baits in the trap that leads to the first degree of death. The devil’s ultimate goal, however, is apostasy from Faith, the second degree of death mentioned. Once this is clear we can better understand the idiom, “enter into temptation” and “lead into sin.” Behind these expressions lies the image of a trap or snare, to which St. Paul expressly adverts in the verse already cited: “They who want to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare. … it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith” (1 Tm 6:9-10). This same image of a trap stands behind St. Paul’s assurance: “God is faithful and will not permit you to be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also give you a way out that you may be able to bear it” (1 Cor 10:13). First comes desire and gratification in little things; this becomes disordered and leads to grievous sins of concupiscence. Obstinacy in these leads then to the loss of the faith, so prevalent in the modern world. A life of gratification and pleasure is a slippery, snare-filled path that leads eventually to the death of faith, as it is impossible to serve both God and mammon (cf. Mt 6:24).

c. Threatening Temptations

When seduction fails, the devil turns to torments and the fear of death (cf. Heb 2:15). In this way Peter was sifted by Satan (cf. Lk 22:31) and found wanting out of cowardliness. Later, confirmed again in grace, he warns: “Your adversary the devil roams about like a roaring lion [in order to frighten us], seeking whomever he may devour. Resist him strong in the faith” (1 Pt 5:8-9). Had not Christ prayed for Peter in his trial that his faith not fail (cf. Lk 22:32)?

The devil, who does not usually succeed in the destruction of faith, turns and wages a withering attack against hope through the passion of fear. Fear is the enemy’s principal weapon (cf. Heb 2:14ff). By threatening the loss of the goods of this world (wealth, health, honor, life) he cudgels souls into submission; by militating against their moral well-being with tormenting thoughts about guilt and damnation and by parading the intransigent justice of God, he tries to drive delicate, sensitive souls into a state of depression and apathy (cf. St. Theresa of Avila, Autobiography, ch. 30,8ff.). This is followed by temptations of despair and even temptations of blasphemy wherein the soul is angry with God (thinking his justice so hard and salvation so impossible). In the petition “deliver us from evil” we are actually praying, as St. Augustine shows us, for the grace of perseverance, the triumph of hope (cf. St. Augustine. Treatise on Perseverance, ch. 9-11).

d. Temptations to False Piety

St. Theresa of Avila also notes how the devil does great harm to pious souls by leading them to believe they have virtues which they do not in fact possess, at least, in the degree imagined. “For when consolations and favors come to us, we feel that we are doing nothing but receive [from God], and have the greater obligation to serve [him]; but when we suffer from this other delusion we think that the Lord will be obliged to reward us; and this, little by little, does us a great deal of harm. Humility is weakened [and]… we fail to cultivate that virtue, believing that we already have it. … This temptation is full of peril. What can we do about it? To me the best thing seems to be what our Master teaches us: to pray and to beseech the Eternal Father not to allow us to fall into temptation (Way of Perfection. ch 38).

3. Resisting Temptations and the Enemy

“No one need fear any battle or temptation of the devil that may come,” our Lord taught St. Catherine of Siena, “for I have made you strong and given your wills power in the Blood of my Son. … If you refuse to consent to the [devil’s] tempting and troubling, you will never be hurt in any temptation by the guilt of sin. Indeed, temptation will strengthen you, provided you open your mind’s eye to see my charity, which lets you be tempted only to bring you to virtue and to prove your virtue” (Dialogue, ‘The Bridge’, nr. 44).

The Apostle James tells us to resist the devil and he will flee; to draw near to God through prayer so that he will draw near to us (cf. Jas 4,7. 8). St. Paul exhorts us to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God [with which] you may stand against the wiles of the devil, … above all, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. …Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Eph 6,10-11, 16, 18).

St. Theresa of Avila recommends contempt for the enemy: “These accursed spirits torment me quite frequently, but they do not frighten me in the least, for I am convinced that they cannot stir except by God’s leave. Let this be known well, that every time we make them the object of our contempt, they lose their strength and the soul acquires over them greater ascendancy. They have no power except against cowardly souls who surrender their weapons. Against such they do show their power” (Autobiography. ch.31). This strategy was exemplified by St. Anthony of the Desert when he was accosted by a hoard of ferocious wild beasts (demons) threatening to tear him asunder. They appeared before him, gnashing their teeth, pawing the ground and raising hell. St. Anthony, undaunted by the show, challenged them: “If you have any power, it is from God and will serve his purpose! So do what you can! But if no permission has been granted to you, then put an end to this display and begone!” With howls and wailing they fled, routed in utter humiliation.

a. Prayer, the universal Means of Preservation

“Prayer,” writes St. Alphonsus, “is the most necessary weapon of defense against our enemies; he who does not avail himself of it is lost. Adam’s fall was because he did not recommend himself to God when he was tempted” (Great Means of Salvation. I,1,2). Surely, no one falls into sin, but that he first chooses to desist from prayer; whoever perseveres in prayer will not fall in temptations.

St. Augustine points out that the only grace that is always offered to us is the grace of prayer; through prayer we have access to every other grace necessary, not only to avoid temptation but also to achieve heroic sanctity (On Perseverance. ch. 39. 12ff).

b. Humility leads to Victory and Glory

The second great weapon against temptation is humility. St. Peter, who learned the hard way, exhorts us: “‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in the time of visitation; cast all your anxiety upon him, because he cares for you” (1 Pt 5,5-7). Similarly, when St. Paul suffered humbling temptations of the flesh, he took recourse to prayer: “I thrice besought the Lord that it might leave me. And he said to me, ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the strength of Christ may dwell in me. … For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12, 8ff). Our Lord permitted those temptations in view of the greater good St. Paul would merit through collaboration with divine grace. Not least in this was St. Paul’s growth in humility: “Lest the greatness of the revelations should puff me up, there was given me a thorn for the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to buffet me” (2 Cor 12,7).

Hence, St. Thomas concludes, “we do not pray not to be tempted, but rather that we not be overcome by temptation, which is what ‘to lead into temptation’ means” (Summa II-II 83,9c).

4. The Angelic Help in Temptation (Trial)

a. Their Intercession and Mediation

The holy angels are the proportionate response and help against all temptations and every machination and hatred of the devil. They know the weakness of our soul, they can see the tempter whereas we cannot. They admonish us in conscience to serve God and to avoid sin; they strengthen us to resist temptations and to practice virtue; they enlighten us regarding the truth and expose error. The guardian angel at our side, whose very title attests to his divine mission to watch over and protect us against evil, is a constant source of help in every circumstance and need. Thus, St. Raphael informed Tobit and Sarah that he had brought their petitions before the throne of the Most High (Tob 12,12); he had himself been sent by God in answer to their prayers (Tob 3,16). He helped them overcome the evil spirit through prayer and upright intentions (Tob 8,2ff) and prospered all their endeavors (Tob 12,3).

St. John of the Cross teaches: “The angels are not only our messengers to God but also God’s messengers to us. They feed our souls with sweet communications and inspirations from God – they are the means by which God grants them – and they protect us from the wolves, which are the devils” (Spiritual Canticle 2, 3).

b. Help in Trials of the Flesh

In temptations arising from the world and the flesh, the angels strengthen us and focus our gaze on God; when need be, they remind us also of judgment for infidelity. In the choice between heaven and earth, “Your guardian angel urges you with all his power [to choose heaven], offering you on God’s behalf a thousand graces and a thousand helps to assist you in the ascent” (St. Francis de Sales. Introduction. I, ch.17). What are some of these graces? In the case of zealous souls, “the role of the good spirits”, St. Ignatius explains, “is to provide courage and strength, … to remove all obstacles, to enable the soul to progress in virtue” (Spiritual Exercises, 315).

If we would imitate our guardian angel, who never takes his face off the face of God, we would easily overcome every temptation (cf. Mt. 18,10f). Indeed, the very reminder in the hour of temptation that the guardian angel is present and a witness to our moral choice will help us resist sin, for sin is generally something that wants to be done in darkness, hiding and alone.

“Our Lord revealed to St. Catherine of Siena that during a cruel temptation she had [against chastity], he was deep within her heart to defend her like a captain within a fort, and that without his help she would have been lost in the battle. It is the same for all the mighty assaults our enemies hurl against us. We can well say with Jacob, that it is ‘the angel who protects us from all evil'” (St. Francis de Sales. Treatise III,3).

Related to this, St. John of the Cross notes that the devil has the power to provoke many images in the imagination and movements in the sensual part of the soul; ‘it is not in a person’s power to be free of these until the Lord sends his angel, as it is said in the Psalm, round about them that fear him and delivers them” (Spiritual Canticle 16,2; cf. Ps 33,8).

c. Against the Duplicity of the Devil

How can the holy angel help us, when the devil comes presenting himself as an angel of light in order to deceive the elect (cf. 2 Cor 11,14)? In such temptations, the “evil spirit first prompts thoughts which are good and holy, harmonious with such a faithful person and then manages, little by little, to step out of his act and lead the person to his hidden falsehoods and perverse designs” (St. Ignatius. Spiritual Exercises, nr. 332).

In such temptations, the holy angel can only act with great reserve, addressing his light and admonitions to the conscience, recalling to mind the basic truths of our faith and the law of God. At times, he arouses “certain fears and terrors amid unknown dangers so that we may call upon God and remain on guard” (Treatise on Divine Love, II, 15). He is so restricted in these circumstances, since, when the devil himself is simulating a good angel, spiritual communications are in serious danger of misinterpretation. Souls who are looking for lights, signs and consolations are too easily deceived by the devil, since they mistakenly attribute his false light to the good angel. This is why the holy angel directs the soul at such times to simply walk by obedience, fidelity and humility, for in these the soul will be more securely anchored in the mystery of the Church (the Kingdom) where our salvation lies and from which the devil wishes to separate it at all costs.

5. Obedience founded in Christ

The danger of deception is overcome by obedience to the Church, where the path is clear and well marked by Christ who by his obedience redeemed us. This is why St. Francis de Sales, a great friend and advocate of intimacy with the guardian angel, counsels: “If you want to set out earnestly on the path of devotion, find some good person to guide and direct you. This is the most important advice. The devout [St. John of] Avila writes that in whatever way you search ‘You will never find the will of God with such certainty than by following the path of this humble obedience so much recommended and practiced by all the devout persons of the past”’ (St. Francis de Sales. Introduction, I,4).

And again, he counsels: “The sovereign remedy against all temptations, great or small is to lay open your heart and communicate its suggestions, sentiments, and affections to your director” (Introduction IV,7).

Such obedience puts an end to all entangling discussions – whereas the devil absolutely delights in discussions, since he can only gain from the soul’s willingness to dialogue. Our Lord insisted greatly on obedience with St. Margaret Mary: “Know that by no means do I feel offended by all the battles and counter-efforts against me which you undertake out of obedience, for which I did give my life. But I want to show you that I am the absolute Lord over my gifts and my creatures and that nothing can hinder me from realizing my plans. Therefore, I not only want you to do everything that your superiors tell you, but further, from what I command you, you do nothing without their consent. For I love obedience, and without it, one cannot please me” (Autobiography). This doctrine, old and new, is repeated more recently by St. Faustina: “A soul which sincerely wants to advance in perfection must observe strictly the advice given by the spiritual director. There is as much holiness as there is dependence” (Diary, 377).

This explains why the holy angels desire to work so closely with the ministers of the Church, for in this submission to the Magisterium and to the visible ministers of Christ in the Church, their wards cannot be deceived nor fail to please Christ, which is the holy angels’ principal goal. By prayer and humble obedience the soul will be protected in every trial. In this way, moreover, a felicitous union with the holy guardian angel can really flourish.

Fr. William Wagner, ORC

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