For decades, Mahatma Gandhi led the Indian people in a struggle, eventually successful, against British rule. Despite his beefs with the British, Gandhi once said, "My first fight is with the demons inside of me, my second fight is with the demons in my people, and only my third fight is with the British."
In the same vein, Pogo, the comic strip character, once quipped, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Or, one can draw similar insight from St. Thomas Aquinas' contention that not all temptations come from the devil; many proceed from the worldly desires in our own nature.
Sin has a bad name in today's culture. It's not a topic for discussion in polite company. We can rail about the structures of social injustice and how they might be defeated. But when was the last time you took part in a discussion about personal sin and how to resist temptation? In the confessional, perhaps.
Yet, if one wants to make any progress in the spiritual life, any progress at all, one will have to regularly confront one's own responsibility for evil and develop clear strategies for resisting temptation. And if you want to build a just society then, as Gandhi noted, you should first drive the demons out of yourself.
Our goal is to lead a new life in Christ. But we won't even begin to get there if our lives are bogged down by habitual sin, even if that sin is relatively minor.
Dominican Father Jordan Aumann distinguishes three sources of sin: the devil, the world and the flesh (Spiritual Theology, pp. 157-175).
The world, Aumann suggests, is not in itself an obstacle to our growth in holiness. But it becomes one when we get so attached to the world that it diverts us from loving and serving God. A person infected by the worldly spirit is one who seeks only to enjoy life now and to enjoy what he can of wealth, power and prestige.
The worldly spirit ridicules those who strive to lead good lives and makes a virtue of rejecting all authority and objective morality. One with a worldly spirit displays a lack of control over appetites such as sex, food, alcohol and gambling. And when the worldly spirit rules a society there is the constant presence of scandal and bad example, even among those who ought to model virtue.
Combatting the temptations thrown up by the world is relatively easy compared with those hailing from within oneself, Aumann writes. "The world can be conquered with relative ease by disdaining pomps and vanity; the devil cannot withstand the supernatural power of a little holy water; but our flesh wars against us without ceasing.
"It wages war against us in two distinct manners: by its instinctive horror of suffering and by its insatiable desire for pleasure. The first is an obstacle to sanctification; the second can compromise our eternal salvation" (pp. 165-66).
One needs more than a strong will to overcome these temptations. On a purely natural level, one must be vigilant in keeping "custody" of one's senses -- arousing the senses can lead to their seeking more and more simulation. One can also practise self-denial and avoid idleness.
But more than this, we must rely on God's help in the battle against temptation. It can help to recall periodically that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, places of great dignity. "Glorify God in your body," St. Paul exhorts us (1 Corinthians 6:20). As well, one can reflect on Christ's Passion -- Jesus suffered to overcome humanity's slavery to sin. We share in his dignity by likewise refusing to "gratify the desires of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16).
Mary, the Mother of God, can also be of help both as a model of virtue and as an intercessor on our behalf. Mary is called the refuge of sinners because she is an aid to those who seek her help in the battle against temptation.
And one can also seek God's graces through the frequent reception of the Eucharist and Confession. The sacrament of Reconciliation has fallen into disuse perhaps because we have forgotten that not only is it a place of forgiveness of sins, but also a source of strength for the battle against sin.
We live in a prosperous society with great material comforts. These can be of great benefit but they can also lure us into an excessive concern for our own pleasure. Physical hardship is that much more difficult to endure if one rarely experiences it. And so our very wealth makes us more inclined to indulge our desires. But following the path of desire will lead us further and further from God.
A life focused on pleasure is a shallow one. It is beneath our dignity as children of God. To live with depth, one must take concrete steps to overcome selfish inclinations. One must pinpoint those cravings which draw us into a dissolute life. And then one must slowly and inexorably drive out those cravings and begin to live a full and integrated life.
This is a difficult process. But silencing the call of temptation is a crucial step to creating the space within our souls for God's Holy Spirit to abide.
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