Our Lord in the Desert – from Fr Aloysius Ambruzzi SJ’s “Companion to the Spiritual Exercises”11-min read (inc. footnotes)

This week, the WM Review contributed a reading to the Catholic Family Podcast‘s project “Lent Around the World”. One of our editors read an extract from Fr Aloysius Ambruzzi SJ’s A Companion to the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius (link for UK readers). The text of the meditation is below.

Image: Mosaic from St Mark’s Basilica, Venice. Wiki Commons.

OUR LORD IN THE DESERT

The Features of Christ’s Kingdom

The first Prelude is to call to mind how, after His Baptism our Lord was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness where, having tasted forty dan and forty nights, He was tempted by Satan (Matt. iv, 1-11 ; Mark i, 12, 13 ; Luke iv, 1-13).

The second Prelude is to see with the eyes of the imagination the wild and dreary desert waste – a hill to the west of Jericho­ where Christ was led by the Holy Spirit.

The third Prelude is to ask light to know how the Divine King prepares Himself for His mission and lays bare the deceits and snares of Satan, the great enemy of His Kingdom; and grace to love Him more and more and to do as He does.


“And straightway the Spirit casteth Him out into the wilderness. ” (Mark 1.13)

This retreat of the Saviour is usually called the Messianic preparation. Jesus is led into the desert to show in Himself the characteristic traits of His fellow-labourers and to find out, and defeat for them the ruses of the enemy, bent on marring the work which he cannot prevent. From the outset Christ wants us to understand what His Kingdom is not, to banish illusions, and to dispel false hopes.

1. THE LIFE OF OUR LORD IN THE DESERT

“And He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted the while by Satan and He was with the wild beasts.” (Mark 1.12-3)

“And in those days He did eat nothing.” (Luke 4.2)

In the forty days spent in the desert, Christ strikingly teaches us some virtues which, though practised by Him throughout His life, might otherwise be overlooked by many of us in contemplating the mysteries of His public life.

First of all, He shows in His own person how an apostle must prepare himself for work in the Kingdom of God. Humility of heart is, certainly, most required, but, it is not enough. Preaching and teaching are effective when thereby one delivers to others the fruits of one’s contemplation. In order not to become a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal, the apostle must constantly cultivate the spirit of self-recollectedness, and to secure this he must, besides severely controlling his senses and imagination, from time to time withdraw entirely from the crowd and from the ordinary duties of life. This he does every year during his Retreat; every month at the time of his monthly recollection; and if he is careful, everyday also from the moment he retires at night, to the moment his spiritual duties are over in the morning.

Recollection leads to prayer. The apostle must be essenti­ally a man of prayer, if he is to be a fit instrument in the hands of God for the conversion and sanctification of souls. He must be filled with what St Ignatius calls familiaritas cum Deo in spiritualibus devotionis exercitiis.

Bona est oratio cum jejunio. If every Christian must carry the cross of self-abnegation and self-mortification, how much more should an apostle do it, whose only object in life is to witness to a Crucified God against a world that craves for pleasures, to rescue souls from the abyss, and to atone to the Divine Justice for his own sins and for the sins of others. Sincere contempt for the comforts of life and love for whatever is hard and painful, for sufferings and privations, mark out the true man of God from him who is but a weakling or a hypocrite.

2. OUR LORD IS TEMPTED

The Spirit of God leads Christ into the desert, not, properly speaking, that He may there give Himself entirely to prayer and mortification, but that He may be tempted by the devil. St, Matthew says: “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” At first, we are almost shocked at hearing this of our Divine Master. For us tempta­tions are the effects of our evil passions and of our corrupt nature, adroitly used by our enemy. To some extent, they are connected with something evil, though they are not always evil in themselves. We must discard these ideas when talking of the temptations of Christ. However difficult it may be to explain them, let it be understood that Christ’s interior faculties were not affected by the suggestions of the enemy. These came from outside, and not for a moment did they trouble the inner peace and purity of the Saviour.

The fact, however, remains that Christ was tempted. How could He, just a moment before proclaimed the Son of God, allow the enemy to approach Him with evil insinuations? Besides the three Synoptics, St Paul is the only sacred writer that speaks of these temptations of Christ. The words which he uses may serve to explain to us the object which Christ had in view in allowing them.

“And though He was Son, He learned obedience from that which He suffered.” (Heb 5.8) For we have not a High Priest who is unable to realize in Himself our weaknesses, but rather one who hath been tried in every way like ourselves short of sin.” (Heb. 4.15) “Whence it behoved Him to be made like unto His brethren in all respects, that He might become a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, so as to atone for the sins of the people. For because He hath suffered, being tried Himself thereby, He can give help to those who are under trial.” (Heb 2.17-18)

Christ, our Divine Leader, has started His campaign against the chieftain of all the enemy. Accordingly He first shows in Himself that His soldiers should never fear Satan’s attacks, however painful and humiliating. To be attacked by Satan is a sign that we belong to Christ. He wants, moreover, to teach us in a practical way, how to find out and how to baffle the ruses of the Evil One.

Christ was to be our Saviour. But such He could never perfectly be if He contented Himself With redeeming us from sin, and heeded little the causes of sin, i.e., our passions, and the occasions of sin, i.e., our temptations. To understand our dangers, as far as He could, having taken upon Himself our human nature with an its infirmities, He further allowed Himself to be tempted by His enemy and the enemy of us all, His brothers.

This episode of our Lord’s life must inspire us with the greatest confidence.

Christ is the second Adam, the Head of the regenerated human family. In the earthly paradise Adam had yielded to Satan’s temptation and had thus made all his descendants prone to follow in his footsteps. In this new kind of Eden, Christ faces the enemy and puts him to an ignominious flight, thus securing for us the courage and the strength to conquer all our temptations. We have but to imitate His promptitude in resisting the suggestions of the Evil One. Against the claims of the flesh and of vanity we must oppose, as Christ did, the rights of God and our duty to Him.

3. THE TEMPTATIONS

(i) THEIR NATURE

The temptations of our Lord are not ordinary temptations.

They may be called Messianic temptations. Their object is not so much to induce Christ to do evil as to make Him deviate from the straight path. Satan tries to get Jesus to choose an easier and pleasanter path than the hard one which God had marked out for Him. He tries to lead Him to follow His own way instead of God’s, to make God His servant, rather than Himself the servant of God. In other words, the temptations are not directly against the Kingdom of God; they aim at perverting its nature. Hence their importance for every minister of Christ.

Christ is first of all attacked in His faith in His Divine Origin and Mission and in His confidence in the Father, Is He really the Son of God? The temptation is occasioned by His sufferings – “He afterwards felt hungry” – and by the apparent abandonment on the part of His Father. The temptation will again recur in the Garden and on the Cross: “He trusted in God, let Him deliver Him now, if He will have Him: for He said: I am the Son of God.”

Presumption follows: God ought to intervene and manifest His Son to the world by some extraordinary sign, which should spare Him the many sufferings and humiliations of His public life and of His Passion.

Lastly, the material kingdom is offered instead of the spiritual, human and political action, instead of self-abnega­tion and personal sacrifice. In one word the choice between the vulgar Messianism of the Iews and the Divine plan of Redemption is proposed to Christ at. this moment of His manifestation as Messias.

Everyone that tries to continue Christ’s work is exposed to similar temptations, and they are the most subtle tempta­tions of all: discouragement, love of whatever is showy, striking and marvellous, and the perverse use of religion and of the things of God to pursue temporal and material gains.

(ii) HOW CHRIST WITHSTANDS SATAN’S ATTACK

It is good to watch the manner in which Christ withstands the temptations: all His future steps will be inspired by it.

To the Evil one suggesting thoughts of diffidence and discouragement, Christ opposes now, even as He will continue to oppose to His agonizing end, the boundless confidence of a child. Though humbled, despised and having no place whereon to lay His head, He will never doubt the love and the Providence of His Father, nor His transcendent origin.

To Satan prompting spectacular effects, and, later on, to the Iews asking for them, He persistently answers with humble and patient work.

And lastly, to Satan offering Him all the kingdoms of the earth, Christ answers indignantly, just as He will answer the Iews, anxious to make Him their king, by hiding Himself and by even concealing the title of Messias, that He might the better maintain the spiritual and interior character of His Kingdom, though He knows that such an attitude will bring about His final rejection at the hands of the people. His Kingdom will be based on the Will to suffer for men and to love them to the very end, in spite of all.

Satan is discomfited. The Angels who had expelled the old Adam from the Garden of Eden, come to serve the new Adam in the Desert.

AB INSIDIIS DIABOLI, LIBERA ME, DOMINE !

1. From the Jordan Thou goest, O Lord, into the wilderness to spend forty days in solitude, prayer, and penance, and thus Thou teachest me that if I want to work with Thee for the spread­ing of the Kingdom of God, I must cultivate the spirit of self­-recollectedness – withdraw from time to time from the crowd, and be a man of prayer – despise the comforts of life, and love what is hard and painful, sufferings and privations.

2. Thou art led into the desert by the Holy Spirit to be tempted, thus showing that I should never fear the attacks of Satan, the chieftain of all the enemy, however painful and humili­ating they be. To be attacked by Satan is a sign that I belong to Thee, my Lord. Thy victory has secured for me the courage and strength to fight with Thee and like Thee, and to conquer my temptations.

3. Thou, O my Divine Leader, teachest me how to baffle the tricks and ruses of the Evil One – the spirit of discouragement in the face of difficulties and sufferings – the love of whatever is showy and striking to the eye of the crowd – the use of Religion to pursue worldly and temporal gains. O my Jesus, may I keep close to Thee and with Thee fight bravely against the enemy. Give me an unshakable confidence in Thee in the midst of trials and failures. Grant that I may work patiently and constantly in Thy vineyard, avoiding, as far as I can, all show. Grant me a true love of the Cross and a strong determination to suffer and to love men for Thee.

From Fr Aloysius Ambruzzi SJ, A Companion to the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius (and for UK readers)

Thanks again to the Catholic Family Podcast and a blessed Lent to all.

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