Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “…of all a Christian's conflicts, the most difficult combats are those of chastity; wherein the fight is a daily one, but victory rare…and St. Isidore declares that ‘mankind is subjected to the devil by carnal lust more than by anything else…’”
The temptations of the Saints by the devil are retold in the numerous hagiographies of those who were such afflicted. The violent assaults on many of the early Desert Fathers is also well known, most famously perhaps were the many encounters endured by St. Antony the Abbot. This little monk from Egypt who wrestled physically with the devil in his desert hermitage gained great fortitude in these battles with the flesh. Girded with the armor of Faith, St. Anthony was strong enough to take on the heretics of Arianism who rocked the early Church.
Cut from the same cloth, but born over 200 years later, St. Benedict dealt with his own personal demons. It should be noted that the common thread that weaves throughout these stories of temptation is the devil’s constant use of lust as the greatest incitement towards sin. Our Lady of Fatima said to the three innocent shepherd children: “More souls go to hell for sins of the flesh than any other reason!” Of a particularly virulent attack on St. Benedict, St. Gregory wrote:
“On a certain day when he [St. Benedict] was alone the tempter presented himself. For a small dark bird, commonly called a blackbird, began to fly round his face, and came so near to him that, if he had wished, he could have seized it with his hand. But on making the sign of the cross, the bird flew away. Then such a violent temptation of the flesh followed as he had never before experienced. The evil spirit brought before his imagination a certain woman whom he had formerly seen, and inflamed his heart with such vehement desire at the memory of her that he had very great difficulty in repressing it; and being almost overcome he thought of leaving his solitude. Even though the weapons used by the Saints to combat the temptations of the devil are sometimes varied in the specific details of approach, they all have in common the continuing reliance on the Lord as the last refuge for sinners. Remember, the battle is usually won or lost in the chaos of the initial skirmish. What St. Benedict did was so simple that it escapes most of us: he just made the Sign of the Cross. The most beautiful and easily recited prayer. (St. Bernadette was often disturbed by the sloppy way in which some performed the Sign of the Cross.)
On another occasion, under even greater temptation and duress, St. Benedict fought the devil with intense determination:
Suddenly, however, helped by divine grace, he found the strength he needed, and seeing close by a thick growth of briars and nettles, he stripped off his garment and cast himself into the midst of them. There he rolled until his whole body was lacerated. Thus, through the bodily wounds he cured the wounds of his soul.”Although an extreme example, St. Benedict was correct that the best way to relieve oneself of serious temptations is to distract the mind away from lustful thoughts that eventually lead to lustful acts. St. Francis also practiced the same form of self-castigation when the devil tempted him with lustful thoughts. After scourging himself, Saint Francis “opened his cell and went out into the garden and cast himself naked into a deep pile of snow.” The devil then departed the Saint in confusion.
The most powerful evidence I have read of the devil’s tenacity occurred at the deathbed of St. Louis Marie De Montfort. A witness to his passing reported: “Suddenly Father De Montfort began to tremble violently. ‘No, no!’ he cried. ‘It is useless for you to attack me. Jesus and Mary are with me. I have come to the end of my life. It is over now, and I shall never sin again…’” Other Saints also found themselves attacked at the final hour. Most touchingly, and probably the most horrifying, was the devil’s final attempt to corrupt the virginal St. Bernadette. The night before she died, Bernadette was heard from the infirmary screaming: “Get out, Satan…! Get out, Satan…!” The next day, she told her chaplain that “The devil had tried to hurl himself on her, but she had invoked the name of Jesus and had regained confidence.” If these incredibly resolute Saints, who had been forged by God like tempered steal, were targeted by the devil in their physically weakened states, what easy marks all of us must be for the master of the weak and the lost.