Friday, January 20, 2012

The Temptation of St. Us

The Temptation of St. Antony
Martin Schongauer 

As I mentioned recently on the Parabola Facebook page, it seems difficult to see how fantastic images of temptation like the one above emerge as visual understandings gleaned from the ascetic experiences of the Desert Fathers. Unless, that is, we understand them as chaotic and amusing abstractions of the terrible mess we are in, both inside and outside.

The most famous story of temptation from the Judeo-Christian tradition is, of course, the temptation of Christ in the Desert. Christ was tempted by Lucifer personally–this wasn't a job Satan felt comfortable delegating to the colorful pack of demons St. Anthony encountered. We can reasonably suspect that this specific encounter between what one might call the highest and lowest representatives of God lent a great deal of color to later Western visual traditions on this subject.

Temptation, however, isn't out there in the desert.  Most of us are not, furthermore, likely to take off into the desert to find ourselves. (To be sure, there are those that do, but in modern society, this is overwhelmingly a matter of weekend trips.) Temptation is ubiquitous. We can find it–and it can find us–anywhere. The question of how to combat temptation–or desire–is one of the central questions of Hesychasm, a practice which has had more than a passing influence on Gurdjieff's work.

The subject of temptation is one of the central questions Christ gives us in the Lord's prayer. The word itself derives from the Latin temptare,  to handle, test, or subject to trial.

Rather than the obvious meaning of "trial," the image of temptation as something that handles, or touches, us is for me perhaps the most apt metaphor, because temptation is something that arises in the most intimate part of human beings. It may appear to come from “out there–” arise from some external source or agency (usually, in religious practices, personified as a demon or the Devil) which we can blame for its existence. But that's not the case at all. Temptation belongs to us, it is in us, and we touch ourselves with it. The temptation to assign it to an outside agent is strong, because in doing so, we need not take responsibility. In a certain way, it's not our fault we are tempted. We are, one might argue, built that way. Man is made to fall from Grace, and return to it.

  This leads me to a fundamental thought on the matter, and the central point of this essay: temptation, like practice, is intimate.

Resistance to temptation alone isn't enough; to "just say no" leads me to no real understanding of what is taking place in me. It's important I see I have a wish to avoid responsibilities; that I have a desire for desire. Another way of saying it is that I must begin to understand I have willful impulses that do not apply to any higher part. They aren't integrated into a whole understanding of what I am; I am locked in a struggle with them, but temptation is an inner struggle with myself, not between me and the suggestions of an external Devil.

This harkens back to earlier posts investigating the question of the devil as being ourselves. The image that comes to mind is that of the proper British schoolchildren, stranded on a desert island, who morph into pagans chanting “Kyrie Eleison” (Lord have Mercy) as they hunt down their fellow schoolmates to kill them in Peter Brook's famous film production of Lord Of The Flies

Perhaps the greatest danger that religious fundamentalism, in all its  Hindu, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim forms, poses to modern society–and to healthy inner work–is this consistent externalizing and blaming of a forceful weakness that originates in each of us, as was pointed out in the recent essay escape from conditions.

In the Lord's prayer, when we invoke the words, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, the trespasses may be seen as representing the debts and transgressions of temptation. We may conceive of “those” who tempt us– yet "they" are not other people, rather, parts of ourselves that lead us astray in every action, word, and circumstance. The prayer, in other words, indicates a need for us to forgive ourselves: a point that Sogyal Rinpoche made in  the Tibetan book of Living and Dying

 To depict ourselves as innocent– or wishfully innocent– beings at the mercy of demonic outside agents is to cast ourselves in the role of victims. This is way too easy... it's far more difficult, I think, to see that we ourselves own every demon that torments us. We may think we understand this, but our understanding on the matter is largely intellectual, theoretical. Getting up close and personal with it is scary... remember the famous words of Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

There needs to be an intimate seeing of how every temptation that arises in us belongs to us: a colorful circus occupying much of our thoughts, our imagination, and coloring our ideas about life in general. Endlessly, we tempt ourselves.

The devil didn't make me do it.

 In seeking an intimate practice that involves organic sense of self, we begin to touch questions like this more directly–in an inner sense, in places that can never be translated into essays or discussed in exchanges with other people.

Temptation is not alone within us in its intimacy. Each man and woman also has his or her own part that touches heaven; and although everything touches heaven, nothing ever touches heaven in exactly the same place as the rest of creation.

Part of the practice of intimacy is to become responsible for that contact; that particular most sacred contact which has been vouchsafed to us in our own intimate work.

 I respectfully ask you to take good care.


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