Last Sunday the Gospel for the Liturgy described the temptations of Christ in the wilderness. Isn't it interesting that he was tempted AFTER he had been in the desert, fasting and praying for forty days. Sometimes we seem to think that if we have been particularly observant of the spiritual practices of the Christian life, and if we have been particularly faithful, then we will escape temptation and the testing of our faith. But the opposite is surely true. Those who are careless about the spiritual life often find that their way is smooth before them, it is those who tread the narrow way who have to be careful of their footing at every step.
I spoke in my homily about the first temptation of Christ. He was hungry after having fasted for so long. Who could begrudge him some nourishment. To be hungry is a blameless passion, a faultless movement of our body, yet we are more than animals, and Christ shows us that even in the case of such natural and physical movements of our humanity we are to rise above being controlled by such desires.
The Lord Jesus Christ does not refuse all nourishment. He eats and drinks, even turns water into wine, and a basket of loaves into a meal for a great crowd. But right here, right now, it is not the time for nourishment, and certainly it is not ever right to be driven to nourishment by the body. Jesus Christ rules over his own body and transforms it by offering it to the Father.
When Christ says that 'man cannot live by bread alone' he must be speaking of some higher and deeper living than a merely animal existence. If we just want to exist then we can sustain our bodies by bread alone. But this is not living. Real life is to know God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and this is not a matter of bread, but of knowing and beeing nourished by the words of God.
I have often thought that the Lord resists the attraction of natural passions by the words of God, 'by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God'. Perhaps we Orthodox too easily criticise everything that Protestants do, but their are spiritual practices within Protestantism which are well worth emulating, and indeed which are already found in those Orthodox who teach us the spiritual way. One of these is memorising the words of Scripture. I grew up learning memory verses in Sunday School, but I did not apply myself well enough as I grew older, and so I missed the opportunity over many years of gathering the treasures of the Scriptures into the storehouse of my heart. I am having to catch up now that I am older. It is not so easy with my slower mind to remember chapters from the Gospels and many of the Psalms. But it is a work I am committed to because I believe that these words have the power to help us resist the temptations of the devil.
When the Palestinian militants held captive many Westerners, including Terry Waite, I wondered how much of the Scriptures, and how much of the spiritual tradition of the Church I would have stored in my heart to nourish me. Not as much as I would have liked. Surely I should have enough spiritual food stored up for the lean times that may come upon us?
I will certainly be encouraging my own congregation to memorise the Scriptures, and as much of the Agpeya as they can. It is not an intellectual exercise, but is a matter of life and death. 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God'. And if that is so then surely those words should have a place in our hearts, and should be rising up into our spiritual consciousness as we need them?
I urge us all to learn a new psalm this week. There are a great many to choose from, some short and some long. Use this psalm through the week in your prayers and make sure that by regular use it becomes your own response to God and is stored in your heart where it can always be used.