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Monday, February 27, 2012

The Temptation in the Wilderness: This Sunday's Gospel


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The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, 
and he remained in the desert for forty days,
tempted by Satan.
He was among wild beasts,
and the angels ministered to him.

After John had been arrested, 
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
"This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel."

Monreale Cathedral mosaic
 

Jesus goes out into the desert. Why? Besides the obvious privations, as the passage notes, he risks being torn apart by wild beasts. And for what? For the opportunity of being tempted by Satan? Don't we pray, “lead us not into temptation?” Where's the upside here?

Yet all the prophets, up to and including John the Baptist, preceded him in this pilgrimage out into the barrens. So have many monastics after him, beginning with St. Anthony of Egypt. So, in fact, did the Native Americans—young men were supposed to spend a time exposed alone out in the wild on the cusp of adulthood.

Temptation of St. Anthony attributed to Bosch.

The first moral I take from this is that the religious are not, contrary to much popular misconception, the shy wallflowers of the world. They are not the Father Mulcaheys. They are not ignorant of evil, and they do not avoid evil. Instead, virtue is heroic. It is a matter of meeting with temptation, and battling it eye to eye and hand to hand.

This only stands to reason. If one does not sin simply because one is not tempted, one is not acting morally. It is only with temptation that we have the opportunity to be moral beings.


Accordingly, it is only after a heated struggle with evil, with suffering, and with temptation, that one is ministered to by angels. It is in this solitary setting, along with the wilder spirits, Lilith and her kind, that God himself speaks clearly. It was in Sinai, in the desert, and alone, that Yahweh spoke to Moses. Artists, too, commonly find themselves liberated, and their muses made chatty, by solitude, or exile. Our Christian Lent is a reflection of this, and the Catholic tradition of penance, and the Catholic tradition of “retreat.”

There's more. In order to come into proper contact with the spirit, we first need to shut out the incessant din, not just of the material, but even more, of the social. The world of spirits, which we then contact, includes beings and experiences both good and evil. Rick Santorum, as it happens, is right. There really is a Devil. That's rough; that's what happens when you have free will; but the good includes the Highest Good.

Saftleven, Temptation of St. Anthony

This uncovers a tragic problem with modern psychiatry. The last thing in the world any psychiatrist or psychologist worth their degrees will tolerate is a patient's solitude. All solitude or desire for solitude is thought pathological. Never having been to the desert themselves, the good doctors see it as the typical townsman sees it, only as a barren and dark place full of dragons. They do not know what happens if you ever slay those dragons. They themselves have never ventured out of doors.

The result, I suspect, is often if not always to turn what should be a life-fulfilling spiritual quest, indeed, the point of life itself, into a state of life-long torture. Get repeatedly yanked back into town, and you just get the monsters, again and again and again.

Grunewald, Temptation of St. Anthony

The best treatment for “mental illness” might also be the cheapest. Basically, let the poor pilgrims work it out on their own, and stop harassing them.Take the welfare cheque they would be due in any event, and use it to rent a simple cabin somewhere in the woods. Not hard to find such a thing in Canada, especially in the winter, when the tourists have gone home. Instead of an expensive physician, who knows not what he does, just hire someone local with a truck to deliver the necessities of life to the cabin door weekly. I'd suggest stocking the cabin with a little bit of reading material as well—such as, oh, I don't know, say, a Bible. No problem if you want to get non-denominational and add a Book of Mormon, a Qur'an, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Tao Te Ching. The more, the merrier. A few psychiatric pills would probably do no harm.

Then just wait until the blessed hermit phones and says he's ready to rejoin the world.

Wijnen, Temptation of St. Anthony

In Canada, what could be simpler?

I have heard former schizophrenics claim they actually cured themselves with a procedure like this. I have heard many people who were mentally ill pine for this, saying they thought this would be the way they might be cured.

Why not?

Better yet, perhaps we could prevent much “mental illness” in the first place if, like the Native Americans, we all did this at a certain point in our lives, as a matter of course.

Bosch, Temptations of St. Anthon

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