There is no need for me to explain temptation to you. It is something that comes to all of us, every day, in ways corresponding to the particular quirks of our own, fallen, individual selves. It seems certain that we will not be set free from daily temptation on this side of death. How then to cope with temptation? How are we to approach it?
I’d like to approach that question by first looking at this image, Martin Schongauer’s Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons.
We see Saint Anthony (of Egypt, not Padua) suspended in air, beset by a swarm of grotesque demons. The shrieking fiends claw, pull, scratch, taunt, and buffet the old man, but to no avail. Saint Anthony placidly looks out of the scene, as if he were somewhere much more serene than his current pandemonic predicament. Though he puts up no visible struggle against the onslaught, the frustration of the devils at their ineffectiveness is palpable. From where comes Saint Anthony’s help? I think you know the answer.
I lift up my eyes to the mountains;
from where shall come my help?
My help shall come from the Lord
who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1-2)
[T]hus said the Lord God,
the Holy One of Israel:
By waiting and by calm you shall be saved,
in quiet and in trust shall be your strength. (Isaiah 30:15)
Saint Anthony’s ability to withstand his assailants does not originate within himself. He relies on the grace of the Lord to see him through, not trusting in his own abilities.
It is well for us both to be certified by actual experience, and also to be instructed by countless passages of Scripture, that we cannot possibly overcome such mighty foes in our own strength, and unless supported by the aid of God alone; and that we ought always to refer the whole of our victory each day to God Himself. (St. John Cassian)
God’s grace can touch even the times when we feel most oppressed. Temptations reveal to us weaknesses where we may have thought we had strengths. When tempted we can take the opportunity to grow in humility, acknowledging that whenever we do triumph over the urge toward sin it is a result of the gift of God’s grace.
There is a certain usefulness to temptation. No one but God knows what our soul has received from him, not even we ourselves. But temptation reveals it in order to teach us to know ourselves, and in this way we discover our evil inclinations and are obliged to give thanks for the goods that temptation has revealed to us. (Origen)
So we have been convicted of our own weakness and our radical dependence on grace in order to defeat temptation. We see the need to trust in God’s help. How then can we grow in this trust?
Such a battle and such a victory become possible only through prayer. It is by his prayer that Jesus vanquishes the tempter, both at the outset of his public mission and in the ultimate struggle of his agony. In this petition to our heavenly Father, Christ unites us to his battle and his agony. He urges us to vigilance of the heart in communion with his own. Vigilance is “custody of the heart,” and Jesus prayed for us to the Father: “Keep them in your name.” The Holy Spirit constantly seeks to awaken us to keep watch. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2849)
By prayer, then, by regularly recalling the presence of the Lord, how he always sees us, holds us in existence (even when we sin), and even dwells within us when we are in the state of grace—only by drawing near to this presence can our trust in God grow strong. When we encounter temptations, the worst thing for us to do is panic, tense up, try to muscle our way out of the situation by confronting the demons head-on. We are too weak for that, and we know where that path leads. Rather, let us remember from where comes our strength, and Who ultimately holds power in the cosmos.
Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall. No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it. (1 Corinthians 10:12-13)
Remember also that we have a most powerful intercessor in Our Mother, who is aware of our weaknesses and all of our foibles, and who gladly extends her mighty aid to us whenever we turn to her.
Let not your heart be disturbed. Do not fear sickness, nor any other anguish. Am I not here, who am your Mother? Are you not under my protection? Am I not your health? Are you not happily within my fold? What else do you wish? Do not grieve nor be disturbed by anything. (Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego)
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
Image: Martin Schongauer, Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons