Temptations as Hunger Pangs

Some thoughts as the Orthodox Christian Church finishes the second week of Lent.

As a youth I was heavily influenced by the parachurch organization, The Navigators. For the Navs, the solution (the very good solution, I will add) to most spiritual problems was to pray, memorize scripture, and get together with your trusted group of like-minded people to tell them what was going on. (The sensibility of small, trusted groups and how they are supposed to function is a de-clericalized Protestant version of Orthodox confession, so they were certainly on to something in their disciplines.)

I don’t know the precise theology of why it is they recommended prayer and scripture to counter temptation and various spiritual problems; I don’t even know if there was a singular theology behind the practice, but the way I came to understand it was that scripture and prayer were a sort of inoculation against temptation. The basic framework with which I approached the whole problem was war or battle. There was a good side and an evil side. Prayer and scripture strengthened the good side in order that the evil side could be defeated.

As I was reminded by Michael Gillis this week, St. Isaac the Syrian offers much the same advice but his reasoning is a bit different. We are, in Isaac’s world-view, primarily spiritual creatures who are hungry for spiritual things, although in our sinful state we may not recognize this underlying reality. When we are not feeding our true inner being with true spiritual things that satisfy, we become spiritually ravenous, and anything will do. We attempt to feed that deep spiritual hunger with worldly things rather than spiritual things: money, sex, power, recognition, etc.

Whenever temptations arise and we find ourselves in a cycle of temptation, yielding to temptation, and then increasingly stronger temptation, it is evidence that we are spiritually hungry and we need to be more mindful of our proper spiritual disciplines that provide spiritual nourishment. Doing these things will feed our hungry soul and the temptations will retreat and not be so bothersome.

I like St. Isaac’s imagery because it puts the world and its temptations into the proper perspective. To think of this struggle as a war is to give the world system and its temptations far too much significance. They are defeated. One of my favorite Karl Barth arguments is that sin and evil have no actual reality because they are non-being: they don’t do battle with God’s reality, they merely negate it. When handled properly the passions are simply a nuisance … a nuisance we must be mindful of and guard against, but still, a nuisance, and not an undefeatable enemy.

Conversely, it would be unwise to underestimate the power of temptation. Such things can ensnare us, addict us, and drag us down so far that we cannot even imagine loving God and honoring God’s good creation any longer. Nuisances can become very powerful and very dangerous when not attended to. But that being said, the solution is not to give them more reality than they have by battling them, the solution is simply to feed our soul with what it is truly hungry for. Over time this diet of true food, of Living Water and Life-giving Bread, will satiate our soul and the passions will slowly dissipate.

Scripture is not a talisman and prayer is not an incantation protecting us from evil. Rather they are food and through them we can be led to the true source of true satisfaction.

Imagined Burning Desire vs Actual Burning Bushes

A couple of quotes from today’s readings that the Australian Anglican Board of Mission put together.

The devil sometimes puts ambitious desires into our hearts, so that, instead of setting our hand to the work which lies nearest to us, and thus serving Our Lord in ways within our power, we may rest content with having desired the impossible – Teresa of Avila in Interior Castle

Resting content with merely having desired the impossible instead of actually accomplishing anything.

Ah, if only I could earn a million dollars a year. Then I would have the resources to serve God properly.

Everyone around would probably recognize that as mere pride and ambition shrouded with false humility. I, on the other hand, might be deluded into thinking it is a holy desire … and be so satisfied with such “holy ambition” that I never actually sense God’s actual desire for me.

On the flip side is the reality that the truly great thing (in God’s eyes) that we do is merely considered mundane by everyone else.

Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God; / But only he who sees, takes off his shoes. / The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries. – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Not taking the big dollar promotion so that I still have time to pray and help Mrs Berhane, the Eritrean Muslim lady with the angry 14 year old boy living a couple doors down, with her driving skills so she can let a driver’s license. That may be my burning bush if I only have eyes to see, and sense enough to take my shoes off.

Probably Most of Us Should Stay Away from the Desert

I love the desert and I love desert spirituality: the hope of meeting an indifferent desert-dwelling God, the beauty of grotesqueness, and all the other contradictions the desert offers. Having grown up in what many folk of more pleasant climes would call a desert, I also have a natural affinity that only comes from having left that which I once took for granted. One of the best essays I ever posted on this site (in my opinion) is on this very subject. But this being said …

Probably most of us should stay away from the desert if we want to take those next difficult steps toward becoming one with God. The desert is a dangerous place. Instead of the Church, the Body of Christ, in the desert we find jackals and scorpions and all those other symbols of demonic power that live in the ragged edge between creation and chaos. Instead of God (because God, in the desert, is surprisingly indifferent) we find our own egos and the demons, whispering on the wind about our own grandiose thoughts, “Yes, this is God, this is revelation, this enlightenment!”

God has given us a place where we can journey toward union with him: the Eucharistic Community. It is sometimes boring, almost always annoying, it is full of sinners and hypocrites, and in the midst of struggling with all this, we receive the gift of his very being, his very life, and make it our own. In the midst of everything that is wrong with life all put together in one sanctuary, we can discover True Life and transformation.

The desert is for those who have advanced far in the community. The desert is for those who are already intimately familiar with the voice of God – the true voice of God – and have been given the tools to find it and hear it amidst the jackals and scorpions and demons whispering in the wind. And when the voice of God does not come, the desert is for those who already have a measure of patience to wait on the utter silence of God.

Chances are, that is not a description of you and me. For you and me, the desert is an excuse to escape the Eucharistic Community and all the annoyances it entails.

For the Orthodox, Lent is just beginning and we have seven long weeks until Pascha. I am in a similar mood to a loved one who, after Divine Liturgy last week, said, “I think I’ll give up church for Lent.”

Leanne, over at the This Much I Know blog recommended the Lenten daily guide produced by the Anglican Board of Mission in Australia. It turns out to be a wonderful guide that is using the desert as the basis for its meditations. Ironically, it is in the form of an Android or iPhone app. (And you should also check out Leanne’s blog, which is a great mixture of spiritual and down home stuff.)

But as nourishing as this desert spirituality seems to be, this year I am left wondering: is it a true pilgrimage or just an escape?

Or possibly we need six weeks of jackals and scorpions and demons whispering in the wind to drive us back to the Eucharistic Community, and the words of the hymn, as we make the profound pilgrimage from pew to chalice: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.

Once I truly grasp that, maybe I’ll be ready for the desert.

Sheep and Goats

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

I saw this Fr Stephen Freeman’s blog, Glory to God for All Things