No one experiencing temptation should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God is not subject to temptation to evil, and he himself tempts no one. Rather, each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.James 1: 13-15
In the program in Rome in which I am participating, there are three languages involved: French, English, and Spanish. So, we rotate the language in which we together celebrate the Eucharist. I have noticed that in French the words of the Our Father have changed in accordance with the recommendation of Pope Francis. The former phrase “et ne nous soumets pas à la tentation” has been replaced by “et ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation.” In translation the change is from “and do not submit us to temptation” to “and let us not enter into temptation.” As we well know in English, when we pray “and lead us not into temptation,” we seem to be suggesting that God would “tempt” us to sin. The change is intended to make clear that we are praying that God help us ourselves not to enter into temptation. As the letter of James tells us: “God himself tempts no one.”
Today’s reading from James tells us that it is desire that “conceives and brings forth sin.” Given the complexity of human nature and personality, our desires must also be multiple and complex. Our life of desire is constituted by the energies of each of the form levels of our personalities. And so, we desire what the pulsations of our culture draw us to, what the impulses of our bodily dimension seek, what ambitions fuel the strivings of our rational-functional dimension, and the aspirations and inspirations of our transcendent and pneumatic dimensions. The first three dimensions are pre-transcendent and the latter two transcendent. It is through our rational-functional dimension, the “organizational” dimension of our personality, that we choose and act. The critical choice in the organization of our personality is whether our rational-functional dimension primarily serves our pre-transcendent or our transcendent dimensions. Temptation for us is to give form to our lives based on the pulsations of our culture and the impulses of our bodies, rather than to allow those strivings to be permeated by the aspirations of our transcendent dimension and the inspirations of the pneumatic.
In other words the form we give to our life is our own choice. We are always being strongly tempted to be less than we are, to settle for a life of conformity, comfort, and success as the world measures these things. God does not lead us into this temptation. Rather, God summons us in our deepest aspirations and in the inspirations of the Holy Spirit who dwells within and among us to, as Adrian van Kaam says, give form to our lives in ways that “are more in tune with the divine form at the core of our being.”
A late confrere and friend, with a powerful sense of irony, used to speak of God as “whimsical.” It is actually quite easy to conclude this given the way life seems always to thwart our own desires. In truth, we all live a variant of the myth of Sisyphus. We push the rock up the hill every day attempting to get it to the summit, but as we approach the summit, gravity and the weight of the rock take over and the rock rolls back down to the foot of the hill. Perhaps a positive way of thinking about God’s whimsicality is in light of the teaching of Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” (Isaiah 55:8) Even our attempts to do God’s will are influenced by the power of our cultural pulsations, our vital impulses, and our functional (egoic) ambitions, which can lead us to be mistaken about the will of God.
So, it is very appropriate and wise that we pray that God keep us from entering into the temptation of settling for less for our lives than the summons of “the divine call at the core of our being.” A late pastor of my former local parish would often say, “Prayer changes things.” The “thing” that prayer most profoundly changes is ourselves. When we truly pray we dispose ourselves to God’s inspirations that we live more fully in accord with the truth of our divine originality. In the course of our lives our current and apparent forms of life become deformed, that is dissociated from our divine core. It feels as if the rock is constantly falling back down the hill because, to some degree or other, our exertions are not in service to God’s thoughts and God’s ways for us. As Thomas Merton put it: ““In order to become myself I must cease to be what I always thought I wanted to be, and in order to find myself I must go out of myself, and in order to live I have to die.” (New Seeds of Contemplation) The human way is the way of change, physical, emotional, and spiritual.
A problem with speaking of a “true self” is that it seems to imply the possibility of grasping and maintaining such a self. But this is not the case. Van Kaam says that we know our life direction through the experience of violating it. We can realize when we violate our true direction, our true call, but we can never fully grasp it. We are always “on the way” to the place where Jesus is going. To follow Jesus is to strive to give form to our lives in accordance with the unique task, assignment, and mysterious call that is ours alone.
Because of the pulls of the cultural pulsations, vital impulses, and functional ambitions in us, we, or at least I, think that the more we live in the truth of who we are the more we shall be accepted and appreciated by others. That is, we want to bring together all of our human strivings in such a way that we can experience gratification at the level promised by our culture and our unconscious desires. The message of the cross, however, is quite different. “In order to live, I have to die.” The temptations to conformity, acceptance, approval, and comfort are great. We don’t want to “cease to be what [we] always thought [we] wanted to be.” We, rather, want to realize what we always wanted to be.
So we must pray to God that God may keep us from entering into the temptation to serve lesser gods, gods of our culture, of our need for gratification, of our own ambitions. As I was doing an internet search for Merton’s exact quote, I came across reference to an article that asserted that Merton suffered from narcissistic personality disorder and melancholia and that “contemplative prayer disabled Merton from working through his melancholic condition.” As a result, hypothesizes the author, Merton committed suicide. Now I haven’t read the article and so am in no position to appraise its value. However, there is a long tradition in psychology of pathologizing spiritual life and practice. Contemplation is not an impediment to true self-knowledge, reformation, and transformation. In fact, it is precisely the opposite. The temptation is to live as if we are not spirit as well as flesh, transcendence as well as pre-transcendence. And if we are, then we can never truly be well until we realize, integrate into our own flesh and formation, the one we are in our original divine calling. This is why prayer, meditation, and contemplation are requisite for a fully human life, to incarnate the inspirations of the Spirit in our current and apparent forms of life.
The crisis of our divine origins means that God prepares us for a parting of the ways of our life direction. The option lies between directions of our formation that are less and those that are more in tune with the divine form at the core of our being. Crisis implies stress and uncertainty. An originality crisis may make us tense and anxious It means that God asks us to give up a life form we felt at home with and to let him form us into one that seems at least initially foreign to us. In fact God wants to bring our life more in harmony with our original calling.Adrian van Kaam, Religion and Personality, p. 184