A comical, but illustrative, story shows us how adept we are at succumbing to temptation and then rationalizing our actions: A very overweight man decided it was time to shed a few pounds. He went on a new diet and took it seriously. He even changed his driving route to the office in order to avoid his favorite bakery. One morning, however, he arrived at the office carrying a large, sugar-coated coffee cake. His office mates roundly chided him, but he only smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said, "What could I do? This is a very special cake. This morning, out of my forced habit, I accidentally drove by my favorite bakery. There in the window were trays of the most delicious goodies. I felt that it was no accident that I happened to pass by, so I prayed, 'Lord, if you really want me to have one of these delicious coffee cakes, let me find a parking place in front of the bakery.' Sure enough, on the ninth trip around the block, there it was!" Temptation is strong, but we must be stronger.
An amusing article appeared years ago in a local paper in Houston, Texas. There had been a rash of incidents in which dogs attacked small children. As a result, the newspapers ran several stories about the attacks some of which were pretty gruesome. There was one, however, involving a little boy called D.J. that was not so tragic. A reporter asked D.J. how he managed to come away for a recent dog attack unharmed. You can almost picture the serious expression on the little guy's face as he said, "Well, right in the middle of the attack, the Lord spoke to me." "Oh, really," asked the reporter, "And what did God say?" "He said, 'Run, D.J., run!'" the young man reported. There may have been times in your life in which God has whispered, "Run, Jim, run!" or "Run, Sally, run!" Particularly is this a valuable message when we are facing temptation.
But there is another option. In Greek mythology the sirens are creatures with the heads of beautiful women and the bodies of attractive birds. They lived on three small rocky islands and with the irresistible charm of their song they lured mariners to their destruction on the rocks surrounding their island (Virgil V, 846; Ovid XIV, 88). They sang so sweetly that all who sailed near their home in the sea were fascinated and drawn to the shore only to be destroyed. When Odysseus, the hero in the Odyssey, passed that enchanted spot he tied himself to the mast and put wax in the ears of his comrades, so that they might not hear the luring and bewitching strains. But one King chose a better way. He took the great Greek singer and lyrist Orpheus along with him. Orpheus took out his lyre and sang a song so clear and ringing that it drowned the sound of those lovely, fatal voices of sirens. The best way to break the charm of this world’s alluring voices during Lent is not trying to shut out the music by plugging our ears, but to have our hearts and lives filled with the sweeter music of prayer, penance, the Word of God, self-control, and acts of charity. Then temptations will lose their power over us.
Lent has been described over the centuries as a time the faithful give something up. Deprivation is a tool to keep our temptations in check and force us to cling closer to God. Letting go of some of the excess in our lives is not a bad idea, but I want to suggest that we can also grow closer to God and God’s will for us by taking on some things that we know are good for us, things we have neglected all too long. Filling our lives with, say, the fruit of the Spirit [love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (see Galatians 5: 22-23)] will over time crowd out the alluring negativity and deceit of the world.
One theme of Lent can be that of fasting and feasting. In that vein I want to pass on to you a little anonymous ditty I came across some years back:
Fast from judging others; Feast on Christ dwelling in them. Fast from emphasis on differences; Feast on the unity of all life. Fast from apparent darkness; Feast on the reality of all light. Fast from thoughts of illness; Feast on the healing power of God. Fast from words that pollute; Feast on phrases that purify. Fast from discontent; Feast on gratitude. Fast from anger; Feast on patience. Fast from pessimism; Feast on optimism. Fast from worry; Feast on God’s providence. Fast from complaining; Feast on appreciation. Fast from negatives; Feast on affirmatives. Fast from bitterness; Feast on forgiveness. Fast from self-concern; Feast on compassion for others. Fast from personal anxiety; Feast on eternal truth. Fast from discouragement; Feast on hope. Fast from facts that depress; Feast on verities that uplift. Fast from lethargy; Feast on enthusiasm. Fast from suspicion; Feast on truth. Fast from idle gossip; Feast on purposeful silence. Fast from problems that overwhelm; Feast on prayer that sustains.
Lent doesn’t always mean forbidding ourselves pleasure; it can be an opportunity to seek the pleasure of God’s love and presence. Lent is all about finding greater opportunities to bring the Divine into our daily lives. Hopefully we can flood our lives with the love and grace of Jesus this Lenten season. Let that be ourdiscipline.