The perils of adulation - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

The perils of adulation

Matthew 4: 1-11

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Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
    and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

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There was a time during my student days, when my friend Jenny and I became obsessed with the novels of Iris Murdoch.   Having finally read our way through all 26 of them, we began filling the resultant gap in our lives by sending each other spoof plot summaries parodying her distinctive style, called things like The Pond, The Pond; The Nice and the Nasty; and The Time of the Anglers.  (Any of you who know her books and their titles, will get the references.)  Incidentally, dear friends, this was in the days before mobile phones and e-mail, when one used to write actual letters to one's friend's on real paper ...

There is a theme that recurs in several of Iris Murdoch's novels, in a variety of guises, which was always of particular interest to me because it was something that I recognised from my own experience.  It is this: the life of one of her central characters has been dominated by a highly influential figure from their youth: it may have been a teacher or a mentor; or an early romantic attachment.  The loss of that significant individual has overshadowed everything else.  Many years later, the character is finally reunited with that lost person, only to discover that their great love or mentor is actually very ordinary, and rather disappointing, and has a completely different recollection of the significance of their shared past.  In short, Iris Murdoch is very interested in the de-bunking and de-mystifying of our heroes and heroines. 

And it is indeed the case that it can be incredibly difficult to have all your illusions about someone you have greatly respected and admired shattered, when the truth about who and what they really are eventually comes to light.  And how much more devastating it is when the individual concerned is a religious authority; someone you have regarded as a source of great wisdom on spiritual matters, who for you has exemplified how the Christian life should be lived.

The Church has been rocked by some terrible examples of this recently.  The scandal of Bishop Peter Ball, regarded by so many as a model of holiness, who turned out to be a serial sexual predator of vulnerable young men, being a particularly appalling example.  Last week shocking revelations came to light about a man whom many have regarded as a modern saint, the Canadian Roman Catholic priest and founder of the L'Arche community, Jean Vanier.

Vanier, who died last May, transformed the way in which many of us regard and relate to people with developmental difficulties, by founding communities where they lived together on equal terms with those who cared for them.  The experience of L'Arche was life-transforming for all who took part - above all for those who discovered just how much they had to learn and needed to receive from human beings who in any other context would be ignored, patronised, or regarded as problematic.  It was devastating to learn that Vanier had conducted what were described as 'manipulative and emotionally abusive' sexual relationships with six women in France, mostly within the context of spiritual direction.

Doesn't this highlight the dangers of putting any human being on a pedestal, particularly a holy one.  Indeed, powerful and charismatic gurus, who attract adoring and committed followers, have a habit of being exposed as fraudulent.  The historian Diarmaid McCulloch is astute in his definition of a saint as being 'a person whose story has not yet been fully investigated'.  And the dynamic is, of course, most perilous of all for the recipient of such adulation, particularly within a religious context.  Success and power can so easily distort our sense of our own importance and self-righteousness - and when you add a large dose of spirituality to that toxic mix, the consequences can be unthinkable. 

Conversely, I find it very revealing that those people whom I have had the privilege to get to know on my own journey of faith whom I would genuinely describe as holy, have been those who not only actively shunned the limelight, but who were also most painfully aware of their own failings and shortcomings.  It has been observed of some of the saints of old that the closer they were to God, the greater their awareness of their distance from him, and of their own frailty and sinfulness.  Because the brighter the light, the deeper the shadows.

Today's gospel reading makes for interesting reading in this context.   In Matthew's Gospel, immediately after the baptism of Jesus, when a voice from heaven identifies him as the Son of God, revealing his true identity, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he spends 40 days undergoing the most severe form of testing.

The desert is a place of extremes; a place where there is nowhere to hide; all the normal distractions of life are stripped away, leaving us with no option but to face the reality of who and what we are.  It is a place where the truth of what is written in our hearts is exposed, and our true priorities are laid bare.

It has never been my spiritual discipline to undergo complete fasts, but I do occasionally do light fasts - which is where you eat just one meal a day of very simple food.  The reason I do it is because I find that it really does clarify my mind, and focus my life of prayer.  But the kind of fasting that is being described in our Gospel reading - an extreme fast, over a lengthy period of time, can leave you weak and suggestible.  Which is why what unfolds there for Jesus is so significant.

The temptations set before Jesus are very revealing.  Knowing the powers given to him by God, how is he going to use them?  The first temptation is to turn stones into bread - to use his power for his own benefit and comfort.  The second is much more subtle, and the more dangerous as a result: the temptation to put God to the test, which is, of course, not merely profoundly self-centred, but also represents an arrogant attempt to control the will of God.  And the third temptation is for power and adulation.  One of most insidious temptations of all is to persuade ourselves that if only we had power, we would of course only use it for the good.  But as we all know, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Which is why the price tag attached to that particular temptation is to fall down and worship the Prince of Darkness.

It is only when Jesus has faced these temptations squarely and survived them with his single-minded commitment to God fully intact, that his active ministry can begin.  Therein lies the source of all that separates Jesus Christ from the Peter Balls and the Jean Vaniers of this world.

I like Lent.  I like the fact that for a finite period of days each year, I am invited to set aside my normal, unthinking pattern of daily life, in order to look squarely at my life and its priorities, and to discover what is truly written in my soul.  I do normally observe a Lenten discipline - there are things that I give up for Lent.  But I always remind myself of what the true purpose is of doing so, because it is so easily misunderstood.  Most people assume that giving something up for Lent is either a kind of self-imposed punishment, or a test of the will.  Whereas I don't think it should be seen as either of those two things.

Our main Lent book this year is by Christopher Jamison, who was Abbot of Worth Abbey when that remarkable TV series The Monastery was filmed in 2005.  A disparate group of young men, some with no particular religious involvement at all, lived as part of that monastic community for a period of 40 days.  In one episode, a couple of them decide to do a bunk and sneak down to the local shop where they stock up on fags and chocolate.  When this comes to light, the Abbot asks to speak to them.  But far from telling them off like naughty schoolchildren, as they were expecting, his response was much more measured and wise, and the gist of it, as I recall, was this:

The monastery isn't a prison, he said.  You are not behind bars here.  If you choose to go down to the shop and gorge yourself with chocolate, nobody is going to stop you.  But you need to think very hard about what this says about you.  Are you in control of your desires?  Or are they in control of you? 

That is the point of a Lenten discipline: to discover what it is that is really in control of our lives.  Lent is an opportunity for us to grow in self-awareness; to understand ourselves more fully, to set aside all our self-delusion, and to recognise those parts of ourselves that are in need of God's healing.  That is why it matters.  And the one person to whom we can look with total confidence as our guide; our one model of truly fulfilled humanity, is our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ - the one who was tempted as we are, yet without sin.

And thanks be to God for that.


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