31 August 2008

What tempts a saint?

22nd Sunday OT: Jer 20.7-9; Rom 12.1-2; Matt 16.21-27
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

None of us will blame Peter for his outburst. Jesus has just finished telling his friends how he must suffer and die at the hands of his enemies in Jerusalem. And how, after he has been dead and buried for three days, he will rise again. Peter, the Rock of the messianic faith and keeper of the kingdom keys, pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter rebukes Jesus! Peter denies the truth of Christ’s impending passion, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” For our own love of Christ, none of us will blame Peter for his unfaithful outburst; however, Jesus not only faults Peter for his passionate denial, but returns his rebuke with a curse: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.” Jesus names Peter “Satan.” Adversary. Accuser. He also names Peter “Obstacle.” Scandal. An obstructing stone on the path. Not for the last time does Peter fall for a demonic temptation. If you were asked to pick out the temptation that traps Peter, what name would you give it?

In a prose poem his translator* has titled “[The temptation of the saint],” Rainer Maria Rilke meditates on an unnamed painting of an unnamed saint tormented by lust. Rilke, describing the saint in agony, on the verge of surrendering his battle against temptation, writes, “His prayer is already losing its leaves and stands up out of his mouth like a withered shrub. His heart has fallen over and poured out into the muck. His whip strikes him as weakly as a tail flicking away flies.” Why has this saint fallen? Rilke does not say. His meditation on the painting concludes with a meditation on the contemporary usefulness of paintings such as this. He notes the two extremes of our longing for the divine: “I could imagine that long ago such things happened to saints, those overhasty zealots, who wanted to begin with God, right away, whatever the cost. We no longer make such demands on ourselves. We suspect that he is too difficult for us, that we must postpone him, so that we can slowly do the long work that separates us from him.” Longing for God and zealous, we start with God, unready; or, longing for God but anxious, we defer and break ourselves with work and worry.

Which is Peter’s principle fault? Eager and too quick? Or fearful and delaying? When Jesus rebukes Peter for his unfaithfulness, he says, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Peter must have stared at his Master with complete incomprehension because Jesus turns to the other disciples and explains, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Is this what Peter fears when Jesus reveals his fate in Jerusalem? Is Peter quailing at the inevitable pain and desolation of not only losing his beloved Master to their enemies, but knowing first hand what it the scourge and the nails feel like? Peter surrenders the Lord’s passion before it has begun. Unlike the saint in Rilke’s painting who surrenders after a great battle, Peter surrenders at the first sign of trouble. Peter’s rebuke is heated but it comes out of a “heart fallen over…”, a heart fatally wounded by created love rather than a heart eternally healed by the Creator’s love. Peter does not think as God does.

What would you name Peter’s temptation? Pride could work. Fear. Yes, fear plays its part. How about ignorance? He is tempted to rebuke Jesus without knowing the Father’s mind? Yes. Could we say that Peter has been inordinately distracted? Remember: Jesus does not say that Peter has been an obstacle for Peter. Nor does Jesus say that Peter has accused Peter. Jesus clearly rebukes Peter for obstructing his path to the passion that the Father has ordained. Peter has accused Jesus of lying. God has ordered the Passion. How then can Peter exclaim: “God forbid, Lord!”? To Jesus, Peter is Satan, accuser, adversary; to Jesus Peter is a scandal, an impediment. Peter is distracted by his created love, his natural affection and loyalty to the man, Jesus; forgetting entirely, even for just that moment, that this man he loves so furiously is also the Son who must suffer and die. Jesus will not be distracted, and so he turns to instruct his friends—with Peter’s anguished denial still ringing in his ears—that to follow him means not only loving him as Master but becoming him as Christs.

We might say that Peter is both eager and too quick AND he is anxious and delaying. In his love for Jesus he is eager to see him triumphant over his enemies. But this is not the triumph that the Son has come to bring. Now, knowing that his Master is fated to suffer and die, Peter, in a fit of anxious terror, elects postponement of the inevitable for his Master and for himself, and he succumbs to the distraction of his all too human love. This is why the Lord must be so fiercely clear with the other disciples in prophesying for them what lies ahead of them as his friends. Make no mistake, brothers and sisters, as Paul will later write to the Romans, we are called in baptism “to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, [our] spiritual worship.” We must love as God does—sacrificially, wholly giving over—and not as man does—possessively, longing for completion.

In the first paragraph of his prose poem, Rilke surveys the painting of the saint writhing in temptation, noting that works like this one, these “strange pictures,” make the ordinary things of our counted days “stretch out and stroke one another, lewd and curious, quivering in the random lechery of distraction.” Having confessed his own anxieties about the difficulties of surrendering to divine love, preferring instead to postpone with arduous spiritual labor the inevitable union, Rilke acknowledges that delay in work is no relief: “Now,…I know that this work leads to combats just as dangerous as the combats of the saints…” Isn’t this what Jesus prophesies for all of us who will reach down, heft up a cross, and walk behind him to suffering and ignominious death? Our devotion is never simply about zeal or comfort, heated assent or cool contemplation; our devotion, the devotion that grounds us to offer our bodies as spiritual sacrifice—as Christ himself did—that devotion is always the denial of self, resistance to and defeat of the temptation to see oneself and one’s imagined needs as the index of Life’s Book. Peter attempts to distract Jesus with his immature love. He throws before Jesus an undeveloped chunk of affection, a glob of emotion. The point of Peter’s rebuke is to draw attention to his own despair at losing Christ to pain and death. Peter makes Peter the point of reference; he shouts his unwillingness to take up his cross and follow Christ to his.

What “random lecher[ies] of distraction” cause you to withhold your sacrifice? What distractions betray your conformity to this present age? How daily, hourly do you fail to be transformed by God’s love and thus fail to be renewed? Do you pull at Jesus’ cloak, hoping to keep him from pain and death? Or do you push him ahead of you, carrying your own cross as he carries his? How do you postpone following after the Lord? Perhaps, like Peter, you hope to deny the inevitability of having to follow him by denying that he must first lead.

Get behind him, Satan! You cannot obstruct what is.

*from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge in The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke; ed and trans. by Stephen Mitchell, Vintage International, 1989, 105.