Lenten Wisdom in Verse: Saturday after Ash Wednesday

We continue today with another poem and commentary from Malcolm Guite, this being his poem on the third temptation of Christ.

On the Pinnacle

Temples and spires are good for looking down from;
You stand above the world on holy heights,
Here on the pinnacle, above the maelstrom,
Among the few, the true, unearthly lights.
Here you can breathe the thin air of perfection
And feel your kinship with the lonely star,
Above the shadow and the pale reflection,
Here you can know for certain who you are.
The world is stalled below, but you could move it
If they could know you as you are up here.
Of course they’ll doubt, but here’s your chance to prove it,
Angels will bear you up, so have no fear …
I was not sent to look down from above.
It’s fear that sets these tests and proofs, not Love.

 

And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”’ And Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.
(Luke 4.9-13)

If the first two temptations in the wilderness were in some sense ‘obvious’; the temptation to mere physical satisfaction of appetite, and the temptation to worldly success and power, then the third temptation is subtle and dark, all the darker for pretending to a kind of light, or enlightenment. The third temptation takes place on the ‘pinnacle of the Temple’ on the height of religious experience and achievement. What could be wrong with that? But the best things, turned bad, are the worst things of all. A ‘religious’  or  ‘spiritual’ life can be riddled with pride and a sense of distinction, judging or looking down on others , despising God’s good creation! Such a twisted religion does more damage in the world then any amount simple indulgence or gratification by sensual people.   One of G.K. Chesterton’s wonderful Father Brown’s stories. “The Hammer of God”, explores this theme with his usual combination of acuity and humour.  In the story a curate who has constantly taken to “praying, not on the common church floor with his fellow men, but on the dizzying heights of its spires” is tempted to deal justice to his sinful brother by flinging a hammer down on him from those same heights.  It is Father Brown who sees and understands the temptation and brings the curate down to earth, to a proper place of repentance.  Here’s a fragment of their dialogue before they descend:

I think there is something rather dangerous about standing on these high places even to pray,” said Father Brown. “Heights were made to be looked at, not to be looked from.”
“Do you mean that one may fall over,” asked Wilfred.
“I mean that one’s soul may fall if one’s body doesn’t,” said the other priest…
After a moment he resumed, looking tranquilly out over the plain with his pale grey eyes. “I knew a man,” he said, “who began by worshipping with others before the altar, but who grew fond of high and lonely places to pray from, corners or niches in the belfry or the spire. And once in one of those dizzy places, where the whole world seemed to turn under him like a wheel, his brain turned also, and he fancied he was God. So that, though he was a good man, he committed a great crime.”
Wilfred’s face was turned away, but his bony hands turned blue and white as they tightened on the parapet of stone.
“He thought it was given to him to judge the world and to strike down the sinner.  He would never have had such a thought if he had been kneeling with other men upon a floor.”
“I mean that one’s soul may fall if one’s body doesn’t,” said the other priest.

I was remembering something of this story when I wrote my sonnet on the third temptation, but thanks be to God that Jesus, in resisting this temptation to spiritual loftiness and display, shows his solidarity once and for all with all of us, trusting himself to our flesh and blood so that we can trust our flesh and blood to him. He does not look down on us but looks up with the humble eyes of the child of Bethlehem.

 

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