This may seem to be one of the most enigmatic sayings of the Gospels, just at a time when the Pope wants to rid the Lord’s Prayer of the notion “et ne inducas pas in tentationem“. What of the temptations of Job? As I explore the philosophical writings of the Romantics, I also see another way to read the Gospels, like the Old Testament, through allegory and analogy, through a spiritual Ungrund to steal a word from Jakob Böhme. Without being too dualistic, I distinguish an inner and mystical way from the social and political understanding. After all, Christianity has to be incarnate – but how?
This first Sunday of Lent is the day to resume the central theme of Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor, this very narrative of the three temptations. He saw them as different phases in human history from material needs to raw power. They can indeed be interpreted as describing how the Church became institutionalised and corrupted – and how our geo-political world increasingly enslaves us. Ivan Illich blamed the excesses of education, technology and medicine, and incurred the wrath of Rome under Paul VI.
It is perhaps arguable that these temptations were not to sin (I’m hungry and see some food that belongs to someone else, so I am tempted to steal it). They are perhaps different ways of understanding one’s vocation and mission. Then the temptations would have been “I was called to enslave people through their need for food”, “I am called to bring people to God through performing magic tricks”. The possibilities of interpretation are endless. We feel the weight of the Welfare State on our finances to such an extent that we can no longer save for a rainy day or exercise our own responsibility. The century when I was born knew several examples of totalitarianism, all calling themselves “socialist” or evoking socialist themes to get votes. From enslaving us through our need for food, shelter and medical help, Jesus might have been tempted to see his mission as one of having political power to convert the masses by force. Christ seems to be forced into a dilemma of being uncaring whilst the institutional totalitarian pretends to be enslaving the population for its “own good”. What is this good? Material help and toleration of cultural diversity? The idea of offering a way of life that transforms from the inside and brings happiness? I often agonise about this notion of the Church’s mission. Do you remember the film The Mission, and how a single Jesuit priest climbed up the waterfall precipice to a jungle tribe in what is now Brazil – and played music by Händel on the oboe? Even Cardinal Altamirando asks himself at the beginning of the story whether it was the right thing to go to those lands in the first place. The result was that the Guarani were enslaved by the Spanish and the Portuguese for pure profit.
Even Jesus blamed the Pharisees for their proselytism:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.
Were not the lives of indigenous people in South America and Africa more human and civilised than we Europeans killing each other for wealth and power? The Christian missionary has to destroy their culture to sanctify it. Something is wrong here. Our own culture isn’t that of the Pharisees. Perhaps it would be “poetic justice” for us to be subject to the Islamic Caliphate and Sharia Law. Some people believe that!
Churches are now left without political power, that power having been transferred to the secular world of politics and business. The United States is now doing what the Church was doing three hundred years ago in Paraguay and Brazil – policing the world and waging interminable wars. It is no different from their involvement in World War II: “We get rid of the Nazis for you, but we also destroy your cities and lend you the money to rebuild them”. Something like that?
I find the same temptation in any expression of abdicating one’s conscience in the name of some magisterium that dictates for every case of human morality. I know that I am going to be accused of defending the man with a gun who believes that robbing a bank isn’t wrong! The capacity of choosing evil, our very freedom, is one of the most painful aspects of our human condition.
Jesus chose another way and the Temptor left him. What is this way? This is what I am presently studying and thinking about. It is the notion of the person’s desire for the object of love. This Sehnsucht is at the centre of the rejection of the excesses of the Enlightenment and the ceaseless wars following the French Revolution. The Kingdom of God is within, as we will understand through the many Gospel parables.
And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
How frustrated they must have been, because only one who has suffered, loved and yearned may find the key to that elusive Kingdom:
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.
This is essentially the temptation we are all called to resist and reject. Our great institutions, beautiful churches and Christenheit are dying and being replaced by their moralising secular equivalents. We are not going to succeed by being door-to-door salesmen, gimmicky magicians and healers, even helping the poor and homeless wearing a cassock to say “we’re doing this in the name of Christinaity and the Church – hint, hint…”.
Is it time to give up and let it all go? Is no further influence on the godless of this earth possible? This is possibly an agony we will suffer until the day we die. I think we can work to enhance and purify our own cultures, putting love and beauty in the place of the struggle for status, class and power. The “old days” were no different. Human sin remains the same throughout history and only appearances change. One thing about Romanticism I love is that it is not made for this world. It is not “realistic”. There is so little we can do in this world, at least on a large scale. When we come to the help of a person is distress, it is Christ, it is the whole world, if that has come from love and pure concern – with no ulterior motive.
I am a priest without political power or the status given by a mainstream Church to claim the authority of the parish priest of the village. I am not prepared to engage in activities that have the ulterior purpose of getting people into my chapel. Thus the chapel will only last as long as I do or the furnishings will get moved elsewhere when I move away for whatever reason. That is the fragility of it all. But, at least I know in my heart that I will have not used the gift of the priesthood for any of these three perversions, temptations or sins, whatever you want to call them. Perhaps I will die with regrets, having left a person in distress without knowing that something was wrong. I pray to know the truth, and I know I will only find the answer within me, not from other people.
Something still isn’t right, and I share the condition of us all in this dilemma of Cardinal Altamirando and the little priest in the jungle playing his oboe. Ultimately, he was there in atonement for the previous priest who was tied to a cross and thrown over a waterfall in a parody of Christ’s crucifixion (the natives would have got the idea from their catechism). Is that not a parable of the entire history of the Church?
So, your Holiness, now your priests are dead, and I am left alive. But in truth it is I who am dead, and they who live. For as always, your Holiness, the spirit of the dead will survive in the memory of the living.
The noble souls of these Indians incline towards music. Indeed, many a violin played in the academies of Rome itself has been made by their nimble and gifted hands. It was from these missions the Jesuit fathers carried the word of God to the high and undiscovered plateau to those Indians still existing in their natural state and received in return, martyrdom.
The priests in question were not martyred by the Guarani but by the Portuguese colonising armies (the king of Portugal at the time was anti-clerical and a Freemason, just interested in power and money).
If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that.
Nor do I.