The Desert and Temptation (Part II)
Human life is marked by constant conflict. We can’t just float through life. We have to confront the temptations that life brings with it. And there will never be a time when we can rest on our laurels. Temptations will be with us till the point of death. In another passage Anthony says: “No one can make it to the kingdom of heaven untempted. Take away the temptations, and no one will find salvation.” Anthony obviously saw temptations as the condition for entering the kingdom of heaven.
Through temptations people get a sense for the true God. Without them we would be in danger of diminishing God or taking God over for our own purposes. In temptation we have an existential feeling of our distance from God and of the difference between humans and God. The human being always has to struggle, while God rests in himself. God is absolute love, whereas humans are constantly under assault by evil.
The monks saw temptations in a very positive light. One of the fathers put it this way: “If the tree isn’t shaken by the winds, it doesn’t grow and it bears no roots. It’s the same with the monk: if he is not tempted and doesn’t weather temptation, he will never become a man.”
It’s like the parable of the palm tree: an evil man became angry with a beautiful young palm tree. In order to damage it, he put a large stone in its crown. But when he passed by some years later, he found the palm tree had grown larger and more beautiful than all the others around it. The stone had forced it to send its roots more deeply into the earth. And thus it was able to grow higher. The stone became a challenge.
Thus temptations are challenges for the monks. They force the monks to send down their roots more deeply into God, to put their trust more thoroughly in God. They show them that they can’t get rid of temptations on their own. The constant confrontation makes them stronger inside and lets them mature into adulthood.
The struggle with temptations and trials is an essential part of being human. We must deal with the fact that we are tempted by our passions. The monks speak of demons fighting with us. By that they mean the forces that emerge in us, that pull us one way or another that we do not consciously want. They focus on the experience that we are not simple and straightforward, that we are tossed here and there by various thoughts and feelings. And they use those terms to describe the forces that we have buried in our shadow side, the unconscious. Despite our attempt to be decent, the thought occurs to us to throw everything overboard, to simply dispense with the commandments. For all our amiability we sometimes think that what we’d really like to do is kill our neighbor.
It would be naive to say that it’s enough to keep the commandments and to will the good. There is a raging conflict in our heart between good and evil, between light and darkness, between love and hatred. For the monks this is perfectly normal. It’s not wrong; it’s the test that makes us tried and true. Nowadays we might say that it’s a way to live with greater awareness. The monks know about their shadow side; they come to terms with the fact that their unconscious harbors forces that they do not know yet, that they have to be careful with.
~Adapted from Anselm Gruen, Heaven Begins Within You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers