The Temptation to Give Up
I’d frequently retreat for a day into the mountains. There the tempter would sometimes come with me. The typical approach of the tempter was to list my various failings. The list was sometimes extensive and at least partly true. However, the major one was the attack on my sense of call: To be of some use to the holy and the world. The temptation was to give up because one could not, with ones limitations, be of any earthly use.
At root all temptation is to forget who one is. Now I’m not talking about self-image, although that’s a place to start, it’s about the continual discovery of our relation to the life of the spirit, the holy divine, to the sacred and sacramental: for Christians their relationship with Jesus as person and Christ and Buddhists their relation to Siddhartha and the Buddha. In each of the temptations of Jesus and also with Siddartha, who later became the Buddha, an attractive alternative or attack or both attempts to divert each of them from the heart of things, to be of some use to the holy as well as to the world. At root, I suspect, all temptation is to get us to forget that we are the beloved of God or as another wisely put it, “It’s not who we are, but whose we are.”
A year ago I traveled in North India to Bodhgaya where the Buddha was enlightened. The town was adorned with Temples painted with murals of the life of the Buddha. The temptations of the Buddha are displayed in colorful murals in many of the temples. It is of interest to me that there are few churches I know that display the temptations of Jesus. What if we named a church the Church of the Temptations of Jesus? I bet it would get a lot of visitors.
All kidding aside, the temptations of Jesus who would become the Christ and those of Siddhartha who would become the Buddha were strikingly similar. Each had a tempter or demon. Satan for Jesus, Mara for the Buddha. Both were tempted by appetites, the hunger and desires of the flesh. Jesus who was hungry after his fast was tempted by bread. Siddhartha was tempted by the three beautiful daughters of Mara.
For Jesus the temptation of the loaves of bread was more than a sign that he would have to control his appetites if he was to fulfill his call and mission. It was a temptation to feed the hungering world. Later he would feed the five thousand and the four thousand. However, at that time, he freely chose to feed those numbers of people because of their need and hunger and not because of his hunger or because of a desire to save the world from hunger.
The second of the temptations were, for Jesus, the pinnacle of the temple where Satan challenged him to prove he was the Son of God. It was also the temptation to self harm, even to commit physical and spiritual suicide. For Siddhartha, Mara sent an army that threw spears and arrows at the master as he practiced meditation. The weapons turned into Lotus flowers before they struck the young man.
One has to be able to control one’s fears, including fear of failure, inadequacy, or conversely pride and hubris. Both overcame their fear by knowing the truth-that the real self cannot be harmed. Both refused to give life to the apparent evil and by doing so denied its existence. Jesus would face into his real fears as he rises up to go to Jerusalem where he understands his life is in danger, and yet he goes. Jesus, not denying his fears, refuses to let his fear control him.
The Final temptation of Jesus and Siddhartha is to become earthly rulers. It is the urge to make the world conform to our ideas of how it should be. Who better to rule the kingdoms of the world than a spiritual master and the son of God? Both turn their tempters away.
Probably the ultimate temptation is to keep spiritual awareness to oneself. Both Jesus and Siddhartha realize that what they experienced has to be shared, taught and modeled. Jesus very next act is to leave the mountain of temptation and call Peter, James and John. Buddha also draws a circle of five disciples around him. The truth of the inner life is that one is not only an individual being, one is also connected to all living things. That at the heart of the world for Christians is a God of Compassion who calls each of us to be a beloved person who is called to prayer and action on behalf of a God who “loves mercy and justice and honors humility”. Micah)
On the mountains where I’d retreat, I’d frequently encounter visitors who’d comfort me. Once a butterfly alit on my salty knee and stayed there while I remained still and watched, or a chipmunk begged a peanut. There were long vistas from mountain tops and the tiny alpine flowers that in summer covered the ground; the melodies of songbirds and the flight of red hawks that soared in up drafts of air and the music of the mountain stream that sang, and I would stop to play my flute and sing with her. All these visitations and many more were as reassuring as the ministry of angels was to Jesus at the end of his temptations.
Most of us who also have a longing for the spiritual life have given in to a myriad of temptations. We probably have learned that not only do we need to ask for forgiveness, we also need to recommit to our call and our mission which is for me today to live simply and at one with all things and creatures and to be thankful. I try to work it on a daily basis, but the tempter still shows up and as time passes I have more resilience to tell it to go away.
Ash Wednesday: March 5, 2014
“Remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” Book of Common Prayer
The infant had been born without a complete digestive track. The pediatric surgeon gave the news to the stunned father and grandmother. The priest listened. “Many surgeries, really that’s all”, the doctor said, “and months and even years of healing and recovery would be able to restore her functions”. “So it must be done,” the family and priest agreed.
And there were months of recovery, mother sleeping for weeks at a time in the clean and bright pediatric unit of the modern hospital and daily visits by father and grandmother. Step by step as the “Plumbing” was corrected, the child under went times at home and times of operations and recovery in the hospital.
The little child was slow to grow, but each tiny step was a victory. And she grew and grew and finally she had a functional digestive system, her survival a miracle of science and faith.
One Ash Wednesday when she was barely two years, she came up to the altar rail between her mother and grandmother to receive the ashes. The ashes are dispensed by the priest with the words” You are dust and to dust you shall return” The old priest used the old words that he had memorized from his youth. Now only two years since that life and death decision had been made in the hospital waiting room and many operations, the priest approached her. The child probably would not understand the profundity of the act, his hand with a slight tremor and his forehead beaded with sweat, he made the sign of the cross with the ashes, said the ancient words, and wept.
How many noticed, he didn’t know, couldn’t tell. He was long past the time when he worried about the tears that would sometimes flow. The experience shattered and informed him…one of the many breakthroughs that in his later years he called sacraments. The priest whispered into the child’s ear, “God give you a long and beautiful life”. He also said to himself, “may all her suffering be behind her,” knowing the impossibility of the prayer and offering it anyway.
“We are at once so incredibly durable and fragile”, he thought. “The ashes are reminders of our fragility, a confrontation with our tendency to live unconsciously.” The ashes reminded him of the ashes of the past year, ashes of family, of those dear to him, the ashes of our enemies and his own brokenness. It was a time set aside to be swept with tears of joy and of sorrow, the remembering of the child’s healing and the child’s fragility and his own.
Just a few days ago the priest told me that the girl’s mother called. She had to be taken back to the hospital where minor surgery was performed. It seems she took a pebble and put it up so far into her nose that her mother could not remove it.
The child is at home recovering and doing fine.
Transfiguration: Year A Frank* and I hiked Mt Moosilauke in New Hampshire’s White Mountains in late summer. We arrived at the top and were enveloped in cloud. Moosilauke means bald place in what I guess is Abenaki. The bald place with spectacular views was denied us. Our attention was drawn to plants, scrub trees and late flowers covered in hoar frost. Hoar frost is when dew meets freezing temperatures and laces whatever it touches with a crystalline layer of ice. The top of the mountain became an enclosure with permeable walls that breathed in and out with the movement of the mist and the light breeze.
The bald place became a tabernacle where earth, wind, fire and ice conspired to transform the space into its particular form and beauty. Each leaf, branch, sedge, rock, lichen, and vine invited us closer to witness its transformation into frozen garments of ice and light. On a clear day when you can “see forever”, you don’t often have the opportunity to notice what’s at your feet or in front of your nose. That day was a kind of transfiguration. Mount Tabor in Israel is one sight where pilgrims are told the Transfiguration took place. Today we may ride to the top where, wouldn’t you know, a church and convent have been built. The mount is smaller than Moosilauke and yet clouds from the Mediterranean and from winds drifting north from the Sea of Galilee carry much potential for transfiguration. Maybe Jesus had always been radiant, clothed in light
For me it’s totally real and present that Jesus would be in intimate conversation with his spiritual mentors, Moses and Elijah. Who would you and I invite to the mountain with us? Certainly a good friend and who else? Jesus, Mary, Abraham Heschel, Merton, Nouwen? It was almost 2000 years after the event that we were there. Diminutive nuns sold us beautiful carved olive wood crosses and we could see for miles over the valley. When Jesus is transfigured into light and holiness, the voice from the cloud announces, “This is my beloved son, listen to him.” Haven’t some of us in our revelry or madness heard a similar voice saying, “You are my beloved son or daughter?” The second part of the voice from the cloud directed to the disciples, “Listen to Him,” was absent in my times on the bald place and on Mt Tabor. It is not important that you listen to me. I am like the old monk who sits beside the river and hands out river water to anyone who would pass by. We point to Him. It is to Him where we attune our ears to hear the words that open the mind and the heart. And don’t stay on the mountaintop. Your transfigured self is needed right where you are in your everyday life, when clothed in light, you know your being is valued by God. *Frank Cloherty is a Roman Catholic priest who became a friend when we shared congregations adjacent to each other in Malden and Revere, Massachusetts. He is now living in Quincy, MA