Last week I was invited to go into St Bride’s primary school to speak about a favourite book. If you have children at school, you will know that during last week it was World Book Day on Thursday 7thMarch – each year on this day, World Book Day, we encourage the young to begin reading or to continue reading. The book that I chose to speak about was the Lord of the Rings. It might be a book that you have read, or you may have saw the films. It was a favourite book of mine when I was young, and I have read it a number of times.
It's written by JRR Tolkien, who was himself an eminent Oxford scholar/professor and interested in language and ancient tales. The story that he creates takes place in a land called middle earth, in every sense identifiable as our earth but populated by creatures called hobbits, elves dwarfs and men. There is a backstory of a ring which was found by a Hobbit, but in this story the identity and the nature of the ring and its owner becomes clear. The owner is an evil ruler, who if he gets possession of the ring in which all his power resides it will give him the ability to cast middle earth into great darkness. The story becomes the tale of those who possess it and their journey in which they are attempting to destroy the ring. The tales finishes with what seems an impossible outcome, the ring is spectacularly destroyed in the fires of Mordor.
As the story unfolds, it appears that the ring has power. It tempts those around it, who come close to it. It tempts them with a feeling that they also could be powerful or wealthy or happy or be the most important person. The temptation is often irresistible, and it seems that people will kill to possess or wear the ring. Even in the end it doesn’t seem that the person charged to destroy the ring will be not be able to do it, so powerful is the force that it holds over him.
Today at Mass, that same word, temptation, appears in the Gospel reading. It seems that even Jesus is tempted by the devil in the wilderness. The difference is that he doesn’t give into it and sees though the emptiness, the vanity, the foolishness of the things that devil tempts him with.
When temptation come to most of us it is hard to resist some things. Temptation can be very powerful. Before temptation our will can seem very weak. We say that we won’t give into it but before we know it our sense of self control buckles.
Temptation has a way of getting into our brains: what harm, we think, would it do us to give in. The thing that we are being tempted with will make us satisfied, we think, happy, fulfilled. Before we know it, we give in only to be disappointed. It is not all that is promised.
We tell ourselves we won’t be fooled the next time, we will be stronger and more resolute. But so often our will is weak and our ability to resist temptation is low.
The book of Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve found the fruit of the tree that they were forbidden to eat, irresistible. The serpent tempts them, saying that they will be like God if they eat the fruit. They succumb to the temptation and eat, only to find that it gives nothing that it promises.
Temptation is the theme of one of my other favourite books – the Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde. If you know of that book it is the story of man called Dorian Grey who has his portrait painted and somehow enters into a pact with the painting that he will engage in every vice and remain young, but the picture will take on his real age and vices. He remains young and the picture becomes hideous to behold, storing and retaining his evil deeds.
The lush Dorian Grey, unlike the Lord in the Gospel, says the only way to give into temptation is to yield to it. He appears alright in the surface, beautiful, handsome and young – but the picture represents what he really like inside and where his vices have led him, he is hideous, dark and twisted – he can barely look at the picture to see what he has become. The end of the book he tries to stab the painting and destroy, wishing to release himself from the pact, but he ends up killing himself. The people find an old twisted, gnarled man who at first they cannot identify but are only able to identify by him by Dorian Grey’s rings that he is wearing.
The story is about a modern-day parable about how avarice and pride can destroy a person. Dorian enters into a pact with the Devil, he looks alright on the surface but within he is trapped in the ugliness of vice.
Jesus in the Gospel refuses to enter into that pact with the Devil. He does not make that contract with him that Adam and Eve did, and Dorian Grey did. He knows his lies, his deceits and his dishonesty. He is not taken in by evil or vice, or the lure of power and possessions. He remains free from it and out of this wilderness that human beings very often find themselves in he offers a path, a way to freedom. They are not offered unsatisfying bread. They are not offered shining cities and kingdoms that don’t exist. They are not offered power that is empty.
During Lent we are reminded of that daily struggle of our temptations. Don’t give into them, don’t be mastered by them. We have a breastplate, a helmet, a sword in our had to go out and do battle with the enemy that is within us.