By Fr. Thom Hennen
Each year as Lent begins I always have such high hopes that it will be a time of great grace and spiritual renewal for me, sort of a 40-day retreat to prepare for Easter. But usually I find that Lent is, in fact, a time of even more intense spiritual struggle and often great disappointment as my good resolutions quickly crumble and I am faced with my weakness. Then again, maybe that’s the point.
We are, after all, going into the “desert” with Jesus, and the desert is not a comfortable place. It is a place of desolation and temptation. Of course, God himself does not tempt us or make us desolate, but that is not to say that God might not allow some period of desolation or even temptation (as he did for his own Son) for some greater spiritual end. And so, it may be precisely because Lent is a time of great struggle that it is also a time of great grace. It is in this time that we learn, often through failure, to rely less on our own strength and more on the grace of God.
Also, we need to remember that we are not alone in this struggle. We go into the desert with Jesus. We enter this time of Lent with Jesus. And there is much that we can learn from his own desert experience, particularly from his temptations and how he responds to those temptations. I would like to concentrate especially on the first temptation, because it is often the first temptation that we face at the outset of the Lent and in the spiritual life in general, namely, temptation of the flesh.
“If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” Jesus is fasting and he is tempted to fulfill a simple bodily desire for food. In the Incarnation the Son of God took upon himself our humanity in its totality, including the experience of hunger. The “enemy of our human nature” (as St. Ignatius of Loyola called him) knew this well and took it for a weakness that he could exploit.
As with Jesus, often our struggles begin in the body. Don’t get me wrong, the body is by no means bad in itself. And no institution on the planet has proclaimed this better or more consistently that the Catholic Church. We exalt the dignity of the body and can even take a kind of holy delight in the good things of this earthly life. Moreover, we look forward to a bodily resurrection. Our bodies, with all of their needs and desires, are not just husks to be shed at life’s end, but are integral to our humanity. We are body and soul.
That being said, the desires of the body can slowly start to take precedence over other aspects of our lives; they can become inordinate (“out of order”) either in their quantity or in their timing or according to our particular situation.
And so, in this first temptation the enemy takes something that is a natural good, food, and offers it in a way and at such a time (while Jesus is fasting) that it would be sinful to partake of it. In the same way, often natural goods, like food, drink, rest, recreation and the physical expression of love are offered in ways or at such times or circumstances that to partake of them would indeed be sinful, and ultimately not in the best interest of our life in relationship to God. It is necessary for us then to discern carefully and choose that which helps us most along the path to holiness. And that might mean turning down (at least for a time, in a certain quantity or according to our particular circumstances) some natural good.
Jesus deftly responds to this first temptation by quoting Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” (Dt 8:3). In other words, food and the other necessities of the body are good, but in their proper measure and time. They are not the sum total of human existence.
As we begin this discipline of Lent, we would do well to remember some of these things. It may not make the struggle easier, but maybe it will give the struggle greater meaning for us. Maybe by remembering that we “do not live on bread alone,” we can at least embrace the struggle of these days with greater fervor, meeting each temptation with Jesus and overcoming them by his grace.
(Fr. Hennen is director of vocations for the Diocese of Davenport.)
By Fr. Thom Hennen