One who is subject to temptations and yet desirous of being saved attaches himself more closely to God and is excited to greater vigilance over himself — two great means of advancing rapidly in the path of sanctity.
He sees in his heart a number of enemies; he knows his own weakness; and although he feels that with ordinary grace he has sufficient resolution to overcome some, yet against others to which he is more violently drawn and in certain occasions of greater peril, he is convinced from his own weakness, from a sorrowful experience, and from a knowledge of the principles of his religion, that without special graces, he will not have the courage to resist successfully.
Knowing these things and alarmed at the unequal struggle, what is he to do? He must seek help powerful enough to sustain him against his enemies and particularly against those whom he most fears. Faith teaches him that this assistance is to be found only in God, and that to obtain it he has only to implore it fervently and perseveringly. To Him then does he turn with entire confidence.
At the first movement of the temptation, he says with the psalmist, “I have lifted up my eyes to the mountains from whence help shall come to me” (Ps. 120:1 [RSV = Ps. 121:1]); he solicits it by his prayers; he attracts it by his desires; all the aspirations of his heart are eloquent to obtain it. The more the temptation presses him, the more he attaches himself to God. He is like a child walking along the edge of fearful precipices or surrounded by ferocious beasts of prey. He clings to his Father for protection whenever the path grows slippery and dangerous or when the fierce growl or the fiery eye warns him of mortal peril.
Under the protection of God, like the royal prophet, he ceases to fear enemies who are powerless against a strong faith pointing to eternal happiness and a firm hope that gains those special graces promised to implicit confidence. He no longer regards the enemy whom he had thought well-nigh invincible; he despises him or attacks him with confidence, and in such dispositions he meets with an easy victory. This grace, frequently renewed, teaches him all the more the extent of God’s goodness and mercy in his regard, and in return his love grows fervent and strong.
Temptations then, properly understood and met according to the spirit of religion, attach us more closely to God by the great virtues of faith, hope, and charity, to the frequent exercise of which they oblige us.
On the other hand, the conviction of our weakness inevitably excites us to greater vigilance. A weak man is a timid man — timid in proportion to his weakness. That weakness makes him very careful not to make to himself enemies and to avoid the anger of those whom he has already made. He is attentive to his own behavior and weighs every word. Doubtful of his own strength, he seeks to attack no one.
This conduct is but a figure of the precaution that a Christian should take. He avoids with care whatever may excite the temptations to which he is subject, whatever may give rise to new and untried dangers. He knows who it is that says, “He that loveth danger shall perish in it” (Ecclus. 3:27 [RSV = Sir. 3:27]). In the fear of being left to his own weakness by rendering himself, through presumption, unworthy of the assistance of heaven, he is all attention to what passes in his mind and heart, lest some new enemy should creep in, or lest those already there concealed, taking advantage of his negligence, should take him by surprise, gain him with the poisoned sweetness of passion, and force him to the precipice.
Vigilance is the more necessary, because the temptation is not unfrequently disguised. It uses strategies; it alleges false pretexts; it takes upon itself the appearance of virtue so as to draw the soul quietly to the fatal trap. Passion often conceals itself, lest it should be recognized. It will insinuate itself insensibly into the heart and disguise itself so as to enter unperceived. He who is inattentive to its approach gives it time to fortify itself or fails to erect a barrier strong enough to resist its attack.
On the contrary, he who is exercised in the spiritual warfare and aware of the danger of new temptations or of giving the slightest way to the old, is always on the alert to detect the slightest movement of his heart. He examines the nature of his feelings and no sooner does he perceive the enemy than he challenges him and stands to his own defense.
And this vigilance is an assured bulwark against temptations, whether from without or from within. With it there can be no surprise, and the enemy finds the garrison prepared at all points.
In time of peace and calm, precaution is regarded as superfluous. But in time of war or in the midst of the tempest, we must be vigilant to escape shipwreck or defeat. And so it is that frequency of temptation begets vigilance, and vigilance causes a stricter union with God, and from this union springs docility to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, and docility leads us in the path of perfection.
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Temptations: Where they Come From, What They Mean, and How to Defeat Them, available from Sophia Institute Press.