THE (sadly not) LAST TEMPTATION OF FR. JIM
Hi everyone, here’s my homily for the First Sunday of Lent, February 17, 2013. The readings for today can be found at http://usccb.org/bible/readings/021713.cfm . As always thanks for reading and for your sharing these posts, sharing feedback, etc. God Bless – Fr. Jim
One thing abut the devil – something I’ve learned from personal experience is how logical he can sound. No that he is logical, but he sure as hell can sound logical (pun intended). Taking something and twisting and manipulating it to the point that it almost sounds good, or reasonable or understandable…I’ve shared before a particularly rough time in my life, about 7 years ago I took a leave of absence from the priesthood. When I thought I was “done” with being a priest. And that’s a complicated, long story to be sure. (Available soon on paperback – haha) But with reflection I see a lot of things that happened in the years prior to that which contributed to that vocation crisis. And one part I wanted to share today is how I’ve learned how logical the devil can sound.
After the horrors of 9/11, and being at the funerals for men who were all around my age (I was 27 at the time) the reality of how quickly life can end for anyone of us and alter for so many others really became crystalized for me. Add discouragement or disillusionment that I was dealing with in things that were happening in my experience of the priesthood at that point; and then my taking shortcuts, or cutting back and finding loopholes to my own prayer life (saying things like “well my work is my prayer” or “well I’ve celebrated 2 Masses today – that’s prayer” – which are true, but no substitute to the personal holy hour that I need) It was amazing how I let the devil creep in. And how patient he was (and is…)
A couple of years later, with my prayer stagnant, and all those other issues I was frustrated with continuing to get worse (surprise surprise that would be the case with a poor prayer life) – this one day I read in the paper this advertisement for the FDNY (New York City Fire Depratment). They were accepting applications as long as you had not reached your 29th birthday by the application deadline. I was 28 — my birthday was after the deadline… One of several paths I had always thought about growing up (which being ordained now you would rightly think I had discerned and closed the door to) was being a firefighter. That day I cut the ad out. Focusing on that one line about the age requirement. I kept thinking about it. And the thought came -“it’s only $25 to apply to take the test – what’s the harm? You don’t even have to end up going to take the test… but if you don’t send it in by Sept 29th, you’ll never be able to do that. Your just keeping your options open.”
Yeah… keeping your options open, there’s nothing sinful about that, right? I didn’t even realize it at the time, but right there I let the devil in and allowing him to stick around in my head. Practically inviting him to manipulate things. And the more I kept my “options” open… and kept pursuing those open options, the more he would play with me. I ended up taking that written test, (what’s the harm, give it a shot just for a laugh and see how you would do) and I got 99% on it. HMMM – didn’t think I’d do that well… well maybe God was backing this “options open posture” (in case you can’t read that, that’s sarcasm… especially since my personal prayer life was so pathetic)
So then the next step was this physical test – what’s that all about? Can I do that? Can I pass that? Can I get into the shape for that? Can the kid who couldn’t play football growing up because of asthma get into condition to do a stairmaster for 6 minutes with 50 lbs of weight on you without breaking the maximum heart rate they had determined – followed by successfully completing a timed course of 8 different firefighting simulated maneuvers? All of these old pains and wounds of feeling “inferior physically”from my youth came up; all of these curiosities of “did I have what it takes” – yeah, all of a sudden, I wasn’t even thinking about my priesthood anymore. I had become fixated on passing this test. In occasional moments where I would hear the Lord slightly challenging me, I would answer “whats the harm? – best case scenario Lord, I’ll be in good shape.” – Good shape physically – and I never really thought about the worst case scenario.
Which was quite simply that I aced that part of the exam too.. A test that I saw a few of the most physically fit guys fail or struggle with. All this did was continue to be a distraction, an “alternative”; an “option” should my present situation not improve. Which how could it improve… I had already checked out mentally, spiritually. I just didn’t realize it.
Eventually I ended up being placed #2,363 out of the almost 20,000 people who took the test – which meant I was offered the job. The long form (or longer I should say) of this story is that one day all I had to do was sign the acceptance letter to be accepted as a member of the FDNY. I could feel the Holy Spirit just very gently nudging me to “not to do it today” and I listened and started listening again, praying again, and turning away from these temptations and thoughts. Finally I could see the mess that I was in (even while being in great physical shape) and I eventually find my way back.
And I look back with a great sense of thankfulness. Yes the devil was patient – but the Lord was even more so… Thank God. And I look back with absolute horror realizing how right to the edge I had become. How the devil and his cunning lies, his sounding logic (when in fact it’s twisted logic) can really entrap us in our moments of weakness, in moments where we’re vulnerable.
Which is why the Church wants us to focus on the fact that the devil is very real and what his ultimate desire is: to entrap us, and turn us away from God. Just think about this Gospel we just heard. The devil is arrogant enough that we see how he actually goes after Jesus. And being the devil he’s not creative… it’s the same MO – he tries to use his twisted logic in moments of weakness or vulnerability. Here Jesus has gone into the desert, to be away from the world, away from all its distractions desiring to be alone with his Heavenly Father – listening to His voice, he’s reflecting on what His Father was saying to Him. After those 40 days, there’s one of many contests between Jesus and the Devil – a showdown of good versus evil. The devil tries to be logical and clever with Jesus. Here Jesus emerges from these 40 days with a clear sense of what His Father was calling him to do. He emerges from the desert with a vision in His mind. He knew who He was – and He was prepared to accomplish the mission His Father had given Him. But as a human being, 40 days of fasting and praying is a LONG time. A difficult thing to do! For those who’ve given up drinking coffee or eating chocolate for these 40 days, we can only imagine… So here’s the Son of God, and He’s hungry. It’s probably going to be a little while before he gets back to town – to His family, His friends, His disciples. He’s probably wondering about getting something to eat. Maybe he’s thinking, I wonder if Peter was even able to catch some fish without my help… And so the devil starts putting these thoughts to him – you’ve spent 40 days with your Father – you’ve reflected on how you’re God’s son, right? You’ve grown – you KNOW he Loves you – You Love Him… so you’re hungry (you should be…) Go ahead – do one of your tricks – why don’t you just take that stone and make into some bread for yourself… what’s the big deal? What’s so wrong with fulfilling a basic human need? Jesus is able to recognize it immediately – that his power isn’t to be used for mere convenience, especially when he’s inviting his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him in a life of self-sacrifice and service…
The other two temptations are similar – they try to attack that same sense of vision, relationship, and understanding that Jesus had of what the Father was asking the Son to do and how to do it… The devil proposes to Jesus “You’re GOD’S SON – why not just be King – why do you have to answer to a bunch of purported religious authorities, debate them, be questioned by them… Who are they to tell you who YOUR FATHER is??? Here, you can be ruler, king over all of them…” When that didn’t work, the devil comes at it another way “Alright, alright you know what would really get these people’s attention… imagine you jumping from the highest height of the temple. You know God’s going to take care of you. Forget all this selflessness and service. You want attention – That would DEFINITELY create a buzz!”
My brothers and sisters – if the devil can be that arrogant to go after Jesus and to even present somewhat logical, persuasive arguments to try to even for a moment enter into His mind and twist it, how eager do you think he is to do that to each and everyone of us who are trying to follow Jesus Christ today? And he uses the same approach (like I said, he’s not creative). The guy or gal who has an extra marital affair never planned on it, and usually after it’s happened doesn’t know how they got to where they are. But if they look back, they see those moments where there was a slight whisper “what’s the harm in having a cup of coffee with that person?” The drug addict never ever would’ve chosen that life for themselves, but in a moment of weakness and vulnerability the promise that “you’ll feel better, just try it” seemed too good to be true. The student who cheats his way through school never imagined he would do that, but that one time when he felt frustrated or unprepared and that voice saying “hey everybody does it once in awhile” seemed reasonable enough for them to find a shortcut that seemed easier to give into with each new challenging course.
Which is why at the start of Lent it’s important for us to be clear about this enemy whose twisted logic continues to diminish and destroy so many. To identify that he is a threat and how he operates. Trying to sound so logical and persuasive. We have to recognize how the slight compromises to what is right that we make, the seemingly most insignificant “venial” sin isn’t slight or insignificant – they are openings, steps in the wrong direction to make us that much more comfortable with living slightly less noble, less righteous lives. “It’s only a ‘white lie,’” “Don’t be such a prude, it’s only a joke…” “What’s the harm, you’re not going to end up like so and so…” We have to identify all those lies, all those ways the devil slowly eases in to twist us with his twisted logic and persuasions.
Fortunately we have a savior who’s love defies all logic. Who’s love is assured on the cross for each and every one of us for all eternity. Who the minute we become aware of how we’ve allowed this enemy into our hearts and minds is instantly eager and ready to defeat him once again – particularly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation where we make a good confession and turn away from those lies and into his loving embrace. May we move forward these 40 days of Lent vigilant in our rejection of the devil and single minded in our following of Jesus Christ alone.