There are certain passions that we can vanquish only by a direct attack — that is, by doing the reverse of what they suggest. Those that form the leading points of an unsubdued nature are of this number. Those who are subject to vanity, anger, susceptibility, quick and strong prejudices can surmount these passions only by practicing on occasion the virtues that are directly opposed to them.
They must not be satisfied with renouncing the feelings that those passions inspire, but they must mortify them by producing the opposite sentiments. If they seek only to avoid the occasions of their faults, they will not succeed in destroying the passion, and when they can no longer avoid the occasion, they will be almost certain to fall. It is by practicing humility and meekness, by self-renunciation, and by attentions to those against whom we have a prejudice that we give to those passions efficacious blows and ensure their defeat and the complete victory of him who is faithful in resisting every attack.
On the other hand, nothing is more damaging than the conduct of certain persons in the time of temptation. They believe that they are guilty of a fault in case they fail to exhaust themselves in reasoning down the suggestions of the temptation. They enter into a discussion with the passion that attacks them and that is never without a specious reason for its justification. They engage in a combat that is long and doubtful, and that need not have lasted a minute if they had refused to argue with their wily enemy or at least would have given them much less trouble to surmount.
This is especially the case in temptations against faith and hope, or in sentiments opposed to charity. They wish to assure themselves of their interior dispositions by going directly against the temptation, and they only involve themselves in trouble, doubts, and perplexities, and uselessly expose themselves to peril.
As soon as we reason with the temptation, particularly in difficult matters or where difficulties are easily excited and hard to answer for those who are not well informed in such matters, or in things that appeal to self-love, and that our natural malice approves, we are in the greatest danger of defeat. So it was that Eve fell.
Temptations that enter the soul through the senses and that offer a satisfaction that is in conformity with nature cause a very strong impression. That which we oppose to it, not being appreciable to the senses or affecting our nature, makes much less impression unless, indeed, it be strengthened by a very vivid faith. In the midst of our trouble, faith has frequently a difficulty in making itself heard, and our resistance to the passion becomes very weak.
Besides, in this sort of defense, the attention we give to the temptation keeps it alive and makes it more felt, so that every instant it seems to us that we have yielded our consent to its suggestions, and we become so troubled and dismayed as to be unable afterward to give a satisfactory account of our conduct.
In all such temptations, there is no surer way of defending ourselves than simply to banish the thought by occupying our minds with some pious sentiment. If thoughts can intrude themselves without the consent of the will, the will, on the other hand, can indirectly expel them by obliging the mind to occupy itself with other objects.
Nor is it necessary to select for this purpose such as are opposed to the temptation that assails us, it being sufficient to disavow or reject it by entertaining any thought or any act of virtue that may distract our attention, selecting in preference those that are to us most familiar or most striking.
Some, easily moved by the sufferings of the God become man for our sake, place themselves at the foot of the Cross of Jesus Christ, who, by the sacrifice of His life, expiated our sins. There they conceive a new sorrow for their faults and omissions and a new horror for whatever might crucify again in their hearts their dear Lord and Master.
Others, in imagination, fly for refuge within the Sacred Heart of Jesus, imploring His mercy and protection, and by penetrating into His goodness and compassion for them, excite within themselves a gratitude and a confidence that ensure their fidelity. These, moved especially by the love displayed by Jesus in giving Himself to them in the Holy Eucharist, make use of the sentiments inspired by His infinite mercy to withdraw their heart from everything that might offend so good a Lord.
Those imagining themselves at the moment in which they will be called upon to render an account to God dwell upon the thought of heaven and hell. They ask themselves, “If I were just about to appear before the tribunal of Jesus Christ, how should I then wish to have acted?” Occupying themselves earnestly with these objects so interesting to the Christian and so capable of withdrawing man from sin, penetrated with truths at once so touching, so striking, their hearts become insensible to the temptation, and their minds cease to entertain the thought.
There are few temptations that can persist long in the soul who, refusing to listen to or discuss the imaginary reasons of passion and animated by a lively confidence, turns to God in loving trust and implores His help through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. This exercise of love for God, during the continuance of the temptation, is the best safeguard of the heart. It can never be overcome so long as it sustains this sentiment. To render it stronger and more enduring, the mind should recall the motives that are apt to nourish and increase it; the enemy will soon retire in confusion. A renewal of the attack should be met with the same defense.
It is desirable next to banish entirely from the mind and the heart the ideas and feelings that beget the danger. We shall do it most readily and surely by engaging ourselves in some other thoughts or occupations.
Indeed, there are occasions, especially when the temptation is unusually strong and obstinate, when it is desirable to take up some entertaining author, to engage in some bodily exercise, or to occupy ourselves earnestly in business or the discharge of our household duties. Such occupations fix the attention and free the mind from the seductive pictures of the imagination. When peace and calm have returned, the mind and heart will be more at liberty to think of God and to attach themselves to Him more closely.
A capital point in these combats is not allowing ourselves to be troubled or to relax our confidence, and especially to resist the very first attack. When we are disturbed by fear, we know not where to turn for assistance, being, in a manner, struck with blindness.
We do not think of seeking assistance; the heart knows not on what to resolve, since the intellect presents nothing to prompt its action.
We may verify this in our daily experience, as well in temporal as in spiritual things. How often have we not beheld a man in sudden danger, palsied by fear, lose his presence of mind; in vain is a help tendered to him, he cannot see it; he has safety at hand, and in seeking it, he turns his back upon it.
Show a bold front to the enemy, and you can then take surer measures to parry his blows; you will more readily perceive the means of conquering; and being more at ease, you will employ them with greater confidence.
And, once more, what cause is there for fear?
The devil can indeed suggest the most horrible sins, but can he oblige you to consent to them? That depends on your will, not on his. Why then be frightened at a result that lies completely at your own disposal? Why fear a consent that, with the assured assistance of grace you can certainly refuse? Stand firm, and you have nothing to fear from an enemy who can conquer only by your permission.
This courage will spring from your confidence in God, which you must be careful to sustain. When one is discouraged in temptation, he is already half overcome. His efforts are feeble because they are unsupported by those graces that confidence attracts. How could they be granted when, through fear, there is no thought of imploring them? He no longer considers the goodness and power of a God who is able and willing to defend His child.
And yet were he to ask with trusting faith, that power and goodness would be soon made manifest. The confidence of the royal psalmist should be his: “I will call upon the Lord; and I shall be saved from my enemies” (Ps. 17:4 [RSV = Ps. 18:3]).
“But,” you may say, “how often have I not experienced my weakness in this temptation?”
Yes, because you have always been wanting in confidence. Be firm then, and you will never fall. St. Peter, walking on the waters at the command of Jesus Christ, began to sink as soon as he commenced to doubt; he was saved only by a return to confidence, which gained for him the protection of his divine Master.
In temptations, especially in those that are generally violent, be on your guard at the first attack and try to repress its first motions. If, by a feeble defense, you allow the imagination to become excited and the heart to be occupied, your negligence will serve to increase your weakness. A passion that is trifled with soon gains the upper hand. It was only a spark, easily extinguished; it becomes a flame that consumes all the faculties of the soul.
This advice is the more necessary in those temptations that are increased in violence by the impression they make on the senses. A special mercy is then required to preserve us unharmed amid the flames. Diligence in meeting the danger would either have preserved you from the temptation or would have assured you the protection of God, whereby you would have escaped without a wound.
When anything occurs that is strange to our experience, we should at once consult our confessor and make known to him the new temptation. He will teach us what means we must employ to resist and banish the adversary. This act of humility and Christian simplicity draws down special graces from heaven. Our Lord takes a special interest in the troubles of those who, according to the order of divine providence, seek to walk in the paths of obedience. It often happens that such temptations never attack us a second time, when revealed at once to the minister of God. If we conceal them in the hope that they will disappear, they gain time to fortify themselves and become more difficult to overcome.
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Fr. Michel’s Temptations: Where they Come From, What They Mean, and How to Defeat Them. It is available as an ebook and paperback through Sophia Institute Press. Image via jorisvo / Shutterstock.com.