When We Trip And Fall In The Pilgrimage Of Life, God Is There Ready To Help

Bernardino_Parenzano_-_Temptations_of_St_Anthony_-_WGA17016One of the normative phases of spiritual development is found when a spiritual pilgrim goes off alone to fight against all the temptations which beset them. These temptations can come from within, with all the inordinate desires, passions and habits they have developed throughout their lives, but also, it can come from some external influence, which suggest the wrong course of action which will get them off the proper spiritual path. They go to get to know themselves better, to know their failings as well as their particular strengths and gifts which they possess. Going alone means they will have to figure it out alone, but it also means they will not have some outside source confusing them, causing them to misunderstand their place in the world. For, while it is true we become better with the help of good friends, it is also true, even the best of friends, can inadvertently influence us in a direction which might be suited for them but not us, causing us to stray from the course of life which is best for us. Going out and discerning oneself alone is not meant to serve as an individualistic ego-boost, but rather, it is a stage which we all need in order to clear ourselves and our thoughts and re-center ourselves once we have silenced all internal and external thoughts which cloud our mind.

Many, who are called for a longer embrace of solitude and silence, often into places of grave danger, where they test themselves even more due to the environment which they put themselves in. Thus, as St. John of Avila explained, some desert monks and nuns were known to go out into the place of the dead, into the tombs, facing what came upon them:

The ancient fathers of the desert knew how necessary it was to have a courageous heart so as not to be overcome in these battles with the demons that were very common among them. Therefore, they used to go alone to pray at the tombs of the dead in order to obtain freedom from the fear whose dominion is very harmful. [1]

It was never easy; indeed, it often did not go well. Many were known to be physically assaulted and wounded, barely surviving the conflict as they were saved by some of their friends. Sometimes, after the conflict was over, some spiritual consolation or aid would be given, comforting the would-be ascetic, as St. John of Avila recounted of St. Anthony:

Remember Saint Antony when he was severely beaten and kicked by demons. Raising his eyes above, he saw that the roof of his cell was opened and that a ray of light so wonderful entered through there that with its presence, all the demons fled, and the pain of his wounds was taken away. With profound sighs, he said to the Lord, “Where were you, good Jesus? Where were you when I was so mistreated by your enemies? Why were you not here at the beginning of the fight so that you might prevent or heal all my wounds?” The Lord answered him, saying,: “Antony, I had been here since the beginning, but I was watching how you were behaving in the fight. Because you have struggled manfully, I will always help you, and I will make you famous in the whole world.” By these words and by the strength of the Lord, Antony arose so encouraged that he learned by experience that he had recovered more strength than he had previously lost.[2]

Thus, as we progress along the spiritual journey, it is likely we will be tested, perhaps several times in our lives; each time we will discern our growth but also where we still need help due to our personal weakness. These tests, while keeping us humble, also help preserve a sense of our own potential, so not to lose hope. We learn not only our own strengths and weaknesses, we also learn how in accepting them for what they are, we are more willing to accept the help of others, knowing that they can bring to us what we need. This, of course, also means we will overcome Pelagian self-reliance as we see how we are able to do what we do with the special aid of God. We do not have to do all things ourselves. We should not assume we can, because that will only make us fail; we need others to work with us; when we truly discern ourselves, we will be able to see this as well as see how we can help others, and do so, knowing that we will often become the means by which God offers aid to others in this world.

While most of us might not follow the desert fathers, making our life one of extreme ascetic pursuit, we will still find ourselves undergoing retreats, coming to know ourselves better through our own limited struggle against temptation. We will resist, we will find ourselves, weak, and often we will stumble and fall into sin. Time and time again, we will fall down, only to get back up with the help of God’s grace. Time and time again, we find ourselves resolved once again to combat our worst desires, and then something gives in and we fall once again. We might find ourselves giving in to anger and fight with someone in a way which we know is wrong, but fueled by anger, we let our uncharity rule; we might give in to food or drink too much, finding gluttony a problem; we might find ourselves giving in to envy or avarice, acting unmindlessly to achieve our desire only to regret what we have done once we stop and ponder what we have done.

We must not give up, we must not despair: God’s mercy is there, he loves us like a loving mother; God will not abandon us, but will take us back in, nurse us from our sounds, and help us make sure we can get back on our feet and on our way in the world. We must not fret when we trip and fall; pride will make us despair while humility will allow us to get back up, look to God for what we need, accepting the means by which he shares his grace without questioning ourselves as to whether or not we are worthy of his mercy. Even when the fall is great, we must not despair. As long as we struggle against our worst inclinations, we can still be lifted back up and indeed see our work has not been in vain. For, despite our failure, what we have done before tripping up can be of substantial worth, helping not only ourselves but others, and it will not be lost just because our endurance against temptation came to an end. This lesson is one which J.R.R. Tolkien demonstrated well in The Lord of the Rings through the trials and tribulations of Frodo.

Frodo with his constant struggles against the ring reflects the spiritual conflict we all face; we know what is right, but we also take and grasp after, and often use, that which is wrong to use, often finding that the circumstances justify it as Frodo did in the times he used Sauron’s ring.  Yet, it is not just in and with the ring we find the spiritual conflict paralleled in the exploits of Frodo; early within his journey, after he and his friends left the Shire, they found themselves in the land between the Shire and Bree, a dangerous wilderness in which they found themselves aided by the mysterious Tom Bombadil.  Frodo and his companions would even find themselves facing he power of darkness and death in the barrow downs. Like Anthony in the tombs, the Hobbits were attacked and held down by a great evil force; Frodo, before he knew it, was trapped and about to be the victim of a Barrow-wight:

When he came to himself again, for a moment he could recall nothing except a sense of dread. Then suddenly he knew that he was imprisoned, caught hopelessly; he was in a barrow. A Barrow-wight had taken him, and he was probably already under the dreadful spells of the Barrow-wights about which whispered tales spoke. He dared not move, but lay as he found himself: flat on his back upon a cold stone with his hands on his breast.[3]

Like Anthony beaten up in the tombs, Frodo and his companions had to be rescued. At first, he could hear someone coming in and through a song:

Suddenly a song began: a cold murmur, rising and falling. The voice seemed far away and immeasurably dreary, sometimes high in the air and thin, sometimes like a low moan from the ground. Out of the formless stream of sad but horrible sounds, strings of words would now and again shape themselves: grim, hard, cold words, heartless and miserable. The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered. Frodo was chilled to the marrow. After a while the song became clearer, and with dread in his heart he perceived that it had changed into an incantation:

Cold be hand and heart and bone,
and cold be sleep under stone:
never mare to wake on stony bed,
never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead.
In the black wind the stars shall die,
and still on gold here let them lie,
till the dark lord lifts his hand
over dead sea and withered land.[4]

But then, there was great power, a great light, which came upon Frodo and Tom Bombadil showed up to save the trapped hobbits:

There was a loud rumbling sound, as of stones rolling and falling, and suddenly light streamed in, real light, the plain light of day. A low door- like opening appeared at the end of the chamber beyond Frodo’s feet; and there was Tom’s head (hat, feather, and all) framed against the light of the sun rising red behind him. The light fell upon the floor, and upon the faces of the three hobbits lying beside Frodo.[5]

Tom, in this instance, was filled with a holiness and power which transcended the darkness which had trapped Frodo and his companions. Though it was said that Anthony had the direct intervention of God in his life, he did also have companions and friends see him and help him when he was hurt or needing something which he could not provide for himself. We need each other even as we need to recognize the aid we can give to each other, for without it, we will find our weakness overcoming us and destroying us from within. Tom was able to rescue Frodo when Frodo was still welcoming the help and aid of others. Yet, through the conflict he was put into, he slowly gave way, cutting himself from his friends, and though he was able to reach his destination, he also gave in to temptation and took possession of the ring instead of willingly destroying it:

‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’ And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight. Sam gasped, but he had no chance to cry out, for at that moment many things happened.[6]

Frodo was both victorious and defeated. He had come to his destination, but once he got there, he found all the times he had given into the power of the ring caused him to finally let the habit take over and consume him. As he took possession of the ring, he became possessed by his own evil inclinations, thinking, as all do, that he will use his perverted will for the sake of some good goal. And yet, because of all he had done, the war was able to be won; for he had done much good up to that point in time, including saving Gollum from death. This good was able to be the means by which Frodo, and the rest of the world, would be saved, as Gollum followed Frodo, took the ring from him, and in his joy, found himself falling into the fires of Mount Doom, destroying the ring by accident. Frodo is a hero; he fell into temptation but it was not enough to overcome the grace; he had given himself over to grace even before he had given himself into temptation, and when the two came together, grace was able to come out stronger. In Frodo’s weakness, he was still able to find victory, showing us an example of how and why even the evil we do can be turned around and used for the greater good. So long as we struggle after and seek the good, we must not despair, and that even in our weakness, we not only can be saved but shown to be holy and saintly. Tolkien, through Frodo, gives us a side of the saints which is normally glossed over or neglected in hagiography, that is the true reality of the saint as they would see themselves as fallen and unworthy of God’s love. Saints were still human, full of human frailties, and often did much which was bad; they were wounded pilgrims seeking the kingdom of God with the rest of us. Yet, we can discern a greatness in them despite their weakness, and so likewise, we are given hope for ourselves. This was something which St. Ambrose understood; in discussing the saints of the Old Testament, he once pointed out that their fallen nature was important because it helped us have the right understanding of saints. When we avoid lifting up the saints with romantic visions which ignore their foibles, we will better understand how we can be like them, struggle with failures while still working out our salvation. Even with our passions and bad habits, we can become holy thanks to the grace of God, for, so long as we allow it to do so, grace is able to perfect in us what we are incapable of perfecting by ourselves.

We might not go out into the tombs; we might not face the full onslaught of evil, destroying us in body if not in soul; but we all have journeys to make. We are all pilgrims on this earth. We all face the darkness within and without. We all find ourselves wounded, both from within and without. We need help. We need each other. We cannot do it alone. We can do it, thanks to the grace of God. When we see even the great saints, or literary representatives which resemble the saints, falling and yet thriving, we should realize we have been given signs of hope. God’s mercy and love is greater than our frailty. But this is not to say we do nothing; we must strive, we must wrestle – with the help of God—all our life, fighting for what is good and true. The structures of sin, the ring of evil which tempts humanity individually and socially to embrace evil, will eventually be put into the fire; but before it destroyed, we must realize we will often succumb to its influences, claiming what it offers to us for ourselves. Fear not. Like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, we will find God is able to take into account all we have done in our struggles for the good, to use the limited good which we have achieved, and use it to complete his own work in us, so that as the ring of evil is destroyed, we do not have to be destroyed along with it.

 

[Image=Temptation of St. Anthony by Bernardo Parentino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]


 

[1] St. John of Avila, Audia, filia – Listen, O Daughter. Trans. Joan Francis Gormley (New York: Paulist Press, 2006), 104.

[2] St. John of Avila, Audia, filia – Listen, O Daughter, 106.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings Collector’s Edition: Fellowship of the Ring  (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965; rp. n.d.), 151.

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings Collector’s Edition: Fellowship of the Ring, 152.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings Collector’s Edition: Fellowship of the Ring, 153.

[6] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings Collector’s Edition: Return of the King, 223.

 

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