I apologize if I don’t have the right image here, when reading about Jesus’s many temptations in the desert, where he fasted for 40 days. For my Christology class back in college we were assigned to read Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and watched Martin Scorsese’s film (“The Last Temptation of Christ,” which, as you know, was nominated for an Oscar!).
What’s worse is that I’m confusing the scenes from Scorcese’s movie with that of the 2000 flick “Bedazzled” where Elizabeth Hurley plays the devil. All I can think about is this supermodel in a scarlet bikini with a serpent around her neck. And yes, the typical insecure woman I am, I’m wondering if there was ever a chance in hell of my looking like that, or if breastfeeding ended any chance I had.
Ahem. Back to scripture. This week, the First Sunday of Lent, we read in Matthew 4:1-11:
Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply, “It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
Then the devil took Jesus to the holy city, had him stand on the wall of the temple, and told him to throw himself down because the angels would undoubtedly come to his rescue. But Jesus, recognizing the cunning operation of the devil, told him, “It is written: You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
Finally the devil took Jesus to a tall mountain and showed him all of the kingdoms of the world, as he bragged of their magnificence. “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostate yourself and worship me,” the devil promised Jesus.
“Get away, Satan!” Jesus said. “It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.”
Finally, the devil left him alone and the angels came to his side.
My question to you about his whole thing, God: Why?
What was the purpose of this Door-Number-One, Door-Number-Two, Door-Number-Three exercise? Because it didn’t look half as fun as “The Price Is Right.” The devil ain’t no Bob Barker.
I know what the holy people say about temptation: that it’s supposed to strengthen our character and refine our souls. Saint John of the Cross, who had his fair share of “The Price Is Wrong,” moments in that Spanish prison of his, wrote this:
That highest union [between a soul and God] cannot be wrought in a soul that is not fortified by trials and temptations and purified by tribulations, darknesses, and distress. … By these trials the sensory part of the soul is purified and strengthened and the spiritual part is refined, purged, and disposed. … God allows them to be tempted in order to elevate them as high as possible, that is, to union with the divine wisdom.
Yada yada yada. Tell me something new. I’m sorry, but lately that argument doesn’t fly. Remember, for Lent this year I gave up self-loathing. So I’m approaching things a little differently than I have in the past.
Yes, I used to believe that if you stuck your arm in boiling hot water, that you’d appreciate more the tepid temperature of your bath. Now I just think that person who flirts with boiling water is an idiot. Uh oh, maybe I’ve been reading too much of Larry’s blog right before I go to bed, and it’s seeping into my subconscious.
I mean, God, I understand the whole premise of fasting. I understand that by not drinking alcohol, I seem to hear You more clearly, that the reception between us went from two bars (think AT&T, not watering holes) to five bars: that I moved from somewhere in the middle of a Kansas corn field to Rockefeller Center in New York.
I comprehend what Rumi meant when he wrote that “Burdens are the foundations of ease and bitter things the forerunners of pleasure,” and what Kahlil Gibran was talking about when he said “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”
In fact, my mom and I were just talking about that last night.
“I can see now why you had to go through your hell,” my mom told me, “because with all your experiences–on so many medicines, and hospitalized twice–your story is that much more interesting and appealing to those without hope.”
Yes and no.
I’m uncomfortable with the philosophy that you led me into the desert, like the Spirit led Jesus, to be confronted by Satan. Granted, I thought the shrink who tried 14 different medications in three months should be nominated for the Beelzebub Award of the Year, but was that really what was going on? Were you directing me into the furnace’s fire so that I could write about it later?
I sure as hell hope not.
So then what purpose does temptation and pain serve?
Because ever since I can remember, I’ve been surrounded by it and running from it, rejecting it not as successfully as Jesus, I might add. The manifestations are plentiful: disordered eating, alcohol abuse, toxic relationships, suicidal idealizations. They are all part of the Dark Side, as we would say in “Star Wars” language. All my Elizabeth Hurleys involve slippery and sly, manipulative voices telling me that in them is an end to my pain: that with a shot of vodka my thoughts will quiet; that through an unhealthy relationship I will find the unconditional love and acceptance I am looking for; that if I lose enough weight I will be beautiful, and (the scariest of all) that in taking my own life I will find repose and peace.
When I’m strong–in a good and stable place–I can easily recognize the many beasts of temptation in my life. Like Jesus (okay maybe not just like Jesus), I say, “Elizabeth Hurley, Get behind me!”
However, it’s during my more vulnerable moments, I fall prey to the seduction of the Dark Side. The more desperate I am to find quiet or acceptance or love or peace, the stronger my urge to join forces with Darth Vader.
According to John of the Cross, I should be thanking you for such moments. He wrote:
The combat of trials, distress, and temptations deadens the evil and imperfect habits of the soul and purifies and strengthens it. A man should hold in esteem the interior and exterior trials God sends him, realizing that there are a few who merit to be brought to perfection through suffering and to undergo trials for the sake of so high a state. . .. For God repays the interior and exterior trials very well with divine goods for the soul and body, so that there is not a trial which does not have a corresponding and considerable reward.
Is that so? If you are nodding your head yes, well, I just don’t really get that. If you are shaking your head no, well I don’t really get that either. So here’s my plan: I’m not going to precipitate any more suffering in my life than is absolutely necessary. (No PTO meetings, thank you very much!). I might even extend my Lenten exercise of loving myself past Easter.
What do you say? Will you help me?