Matthew chapter 4 verses 1 – 11
Did Jesus win the battle with Satan when he was tempted in the desert? No he didn’t. Not if you think of dealing with temptation as the kind of warfare so much in the news. To get nearer the truth we must borrow from Japanese martial arts techniques. Here strength is not met with opposing strength but with a cunning yielding that uses the opponent’s physical impetus. By going with the flow of the assailant’s attack he is taken off balance and floored. Most of us know from experience that resisting temptation, fighting it, seems only to increase its power. We lose the battle too often and get discouraged. If you find the image of ‘spiritual warfare’ helpful, think less of nuclear strikes and more of ju jitsu.
Yet again we find hints, hidden gems suggesting this approach, in the Christian contemplative tradition. The anonymous author of the 14th century spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, (one of the earliest books written in the then emerging English language) speaks of ‘looking over the shoulder’ of temptations. Thomas Keating http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Keating is an American monk who has helped to recover this ancient Christian tradition of contemplative prayer. Using The Cloud of Unknowing he advises us to welcome temptation. Each distraction, every tempting thought is an opportunity to return to ‘the Presence at the heart of the universe that therefore is at the heart of each one of us,’ (to use the words with which I ended my previous blog post). With others Fr. Keating developed Centering Prayer – a 21st century adaptation of the approach adopted in The Cloud of Unknowing. In designated times of contemplative prayer the advice is to remember the four ‘R’s:
Resist no thought.
Retain no thought.
React emotionally to no thought.
Return ever so gently to the sacred word (a Christian version of what Buddhists would call a mantra).
We have all forgotten who we are. Fr. Keating suggests that we are all the victims of ‘programmes for happiness’, devices designed to prop up who we think we are – the false self. Happiness, we fondly imagine, depends upon us satisfying three sets of needs:
I suggest that these three pairs of needs correspond to the three temptations in Matthew’s story of Jesus in the desert.
Which of these is uppermost for each of us depends on our unique history and make-up as well as the demands of each present situation. Spiritual ‘warfare’ is mostly a patient training (like attending a martial arts class) to learn how to spot our own personal version of these programmes for happiness. With practice we learn to see the temptation coming and welcome it as yet another opportunity to return to the truth about who we are. So, the advice goes: temptation? Bring it on! It’s a reminder to return to that Presence at the centre of our being that is also the centre of the universe.
You can read an extended exploration of all this in Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, chapter 9 http://www.contemplative.org/books.html or in Thomas Keating’s book, Invitation to Love http://www.amazon.com/Invitation-Love-The-Christian-Contemplation/dp/082640698X