“He who conquers himself is greater than he who conquers a city.”
That maxim has been attributed to several people, most notably Solomon, son of King David, from whose dynasty Christ the Lord entered humanity. The man who repeated the saying to me was an old spiritual director, after I’d gone to him seeking ways to overcome what a Kempis called “the wretched slavery of sin.” Now I’m feeling the need to look him up again.
Easter is only a month away and I wonder whether I’m going to make it. Two weeks into Lent and it seems I’ve given up, that my efforts for holiness have been vanquished. I hardly put up a fight. Now more than ever I know that there was a devil and that he wants me to quit.
My natural inclination — fight or flight — led me here. I came to this monastery in the Berkshire Mountain Region in Western Massachusetts for renewal and recovery. The seminary is on break and I could have gone to Florida or visited a classmate in Washington, D.C., but I wanted to regain momentum lost since Ash Wednesday. The idea was to prepare for Easter through more prayer and fasting and to become as pure as snow.
Simple, but not easy. There is more than snow drifted against my door. God the Father himself said: “Sin is a demon lurking at your door; his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master” (Genesis 4:7). Maybe that’s what my spiritual director meant. Satan is here. I can hear him clawing away. Nope, false alarm. That’s just Trooper, the monastery’s Labrador retriever, nosing around because he smells my bacon frying.
I could not have picked a more bucolic site, and the sport utility dog clinches it. From this mountain I can see the foothills chock full of Americana that artist Normal Rockwell once committed to the covers of The Saturday Evening Post. Nearby is Mount Greylock, the state’s highest peak, the humpback arching over the horizon that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. Maybe I can write my masterpiece up here as well. Funny, that’s what I planned to do last year.
Nothing comes to mind. Instead of poetry, an ironic saying leaps into my head: “No matter where you go, there you are.” Meaning: geographical cures cannot outrun the devil within. A year ago I visited an abbey in Connecticut. I drove from Boston through a blizzard for the same reason I’m in the Berkshires: a spiritual drying out, a renewal to lift my spirits during Lent. For that is my purpose in Lent: to gain a clearer vision of Christ on the cross and to witness the empty sepulcher at Easter.
When I arrived at the abbey I told the abbess of my plans: prayer, fasting, and silence. I was not to be disturbed. “Oh, no,” she said. “We’re an active contemplative order. Didn’t you read our motto by the entrance?
“Ora et labora?”
“That’s right — pray and work.”
I sighed. So much for my silent retreat. I spent the rest of the week shoveling snow and stacking firewood. The nuns kept me so busy that I forgot why I’d come to the abbey, which was a good thing. Forced hard labor — “Whoever does not work should not eat” — proved a delightful distraction. Perhaps I should try that more often. Instead, this year, I came to a cloister — but the forty-day desert blues have deepened.
When I got off retreat, I went to see my spiritual director, a religious priest from the sixties.
“O, Father,” I cried. “I can’t stop sinning. What am I going to do?”
“The easiest way to get rid of temptation is to give in to it,” he said.
Somehow I don’t think that was what the writer of Genesis had in mind.
One of the difficulties of Lent, I think, is the fear that I can’t win. The Church says that self-mastery is possible, that, with the help of God’s grace we can defeat the devil if we fight hard enough. I don’t doubt what Mother Church says, but I do underestimate my ability. Memory and imagination are the devil’s favorite weapons, and I spend too much time dwelling in the surreality of defeat. Saint Peter once wrote: “Stay sober and alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith” (1 Peter 5:8). Live in the solution, not the problem.
Few stories in the Old Testament excite me as does the story of David and Goliath. The young shepherd David defeats the giant Philistine using a slingshot and a stone. It is the classic story of good defeating evil, of mercy triumphing over judgment. By conquering Goliath, David fulfils God’s will for him and his potential.
The story is set at a critical moment in Israel’s history. The Philistine army is encamped against God’s people, led by a giant warrior in full armor, mocking the Jews, egging them on to battle. Not even King Saul, the largest man in Israel, will fight Goliath. Then David, a “mere youth,” volunteers. The same Lord who delivered him from the claws and jaws of marauding bears and lions will save him from the Philistine. When Saul offers David his armor, David refuses. Too clumsy, he says, and I don’t know how to maneuver. He goes with what he has: a shepherd’s staff, a slingshot, and five stones from the river.
David put his hand into the bag and took out a stone, hurled it with the sling, and struck the Philistine on the forehead. Thus David overcame the Philistine with a sling and a stone; he struck the Philistine mortally, and did it without a sword. (1 Samuel 17:49-50)
David had confidence in the Lord and he did battle against Goliath with what little he had because he believed that God was with him. His words to the giant are convincing and powerful: “You come against me with sword and spear and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the Lord of Hosts. … Today the Lord shall deliver you into my hands; I will strike you down” (1 Samuel 17: 45a, 46a).
Lent is a means to an end. It is a proving ground to condition ourselves against greater spiritual perils. The battle against temptation never stops. The sins we fight during Lent won’t vanish by Holy Thursday. If anything, Satan is plotting to go nuclear. He isn’t afraid of blue skies, warm breezes, and palm trees, nor does he fear any mountain.
David chose not to wear the king’s armor because it felt cumbersome and unfamiliar. Instead he stuck with what he knew would work and trusted the Lord would provide whatever he lacked. David’s victory over Goliath allowed him to fulfill God’s purpose for his life and prepare for the Messiah. God called David a man after his own heart, and no one knows our hearts like the Lord.
The Bible’s stories are populated with characters who sinned and were forgiven. God showed mercy on Cain even when Cain rejected forgiveness and spurned God’s advice. David was chosen by God to govern Israel but he did not lead a charmed life. He enjoyed the trappings of wealth, fame, and power, but when he sinned he humbly appealed to God who forgave him. (See 2 Samuel 11—12; Psalm 51). From a biblical perspective these characters seem larger than life but like us they are human beings created in the image of God. We must follow their examples. By overcoming temptation, we can awaken the giant within ourselves and defeat our Goliath.