“Many try to fly away from temptations only to fall more deeply into them; for you cannot win a battle by mere flight. It is only by patience and humility that you will be strengthened against the enemy. Those who shun them outwardly and do not pull them out by the roots will make no progress; for temptations will soon return to harass them and they will be in a worse state. It is only gradually—with patience and endurance and with God’s grace—that you will overcome temptations sooner than by your own efforts and anxieties . . . Gold is tried by fire and the upright person by temptation. Often we do not know what we can do until temptation shows us what we are . . . This is how temptation is: first we have a thought, followed by strong imaginings, then the pleasure and evil emotions, and finally consent. This is how the enemy gains full admittance, because he was not resisted at the outset. The slower we are to resist, the weaker we daily become and the stronger the enemy is against us.”
— Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
OK—so who was this writer, and why should I bother to quote him? He was a 15th century priest who was involved in what was then a new form of spirituality (appropriated called Devotio Moderna, or modern-style devotion). The Imitation of Christ is either his own work completely or a serious expansion/re-working of a text by the movement’s founder. That’s all you really need to know, except that this book has been for centuries one of THE most read and most influential of all spiritual writings. As just one example, the book was read, one chapter a day, for all his life, by Pope John XXIII. That’s good enough a reason, right there, to quote it!
But to the quote itself, and its fitting into the middle of our Lent—it says much to us (to me, anyway). Particularly, it reminds me that the sooner I deal with a temptation the better (even easier) it is to be overcome. Temptations can become sins in the same way that an unwatched pressure cooker can become a bomb.
It’s also true that we never know what we can do until we are faced with the need. In this regard, preparation is crucial, and the disciplines of Lent are all about preparation, after all. In the words of Preface III for Lent, our self-denial has as its ultimate purpose making us people who imitate the Lord in kindness. St Paul suggests a different metaphor: that of the athletes who deny themselves all sorts of things so as to win the prize in the race (I Corinthians 9:24-25). Finally, James (4:7-8) offers the same advice: resist the devil, and he will take flight. Thomas à Kempis here reminds us that the way to overcome temptations (and possible resulting sins) is not to run away from them but to face them from the get-go; to stand “toe-to-toe” with them and defeat them. These are battles we will sometimes win and sometimes lose. But the Sacrament of Reconciliation is there to heal us when we take an “8-count,” and to encourage and strengthen us for the next round in the fight (I’m adapting St Paul’s additional metaphor in I Corinthians 9 here).
No one wants to be a loser. Too often, though, according to Kempis, we think that in the option of “fight or flight” the only good choice is #2. He and St James assure us that by choosing #1, we will find that the tempter (the “enemy of our human nature,” as St Ignatius Loyola—himself influenced by The Imitation of Christ–calls him) will soon enough choose #2 himself.
As we begin our parish’s Lenten mission this weekend, let’s pray for the spiritual strength to be winners! After all, Satan is the great loser already; let’s help him keep his title.