Once upon a time there was a man who decided to go upon a pilgrimage to a holy place as a way of showing his love for God. At the end of the first day he wasn’t very tired, and because a full moon that night gave him enough light to see the road, he decided to continue on. Rounding a curve, he saw a man sitting by the road, who asked him, “Please help me harvest my field of wheat; I will pay you ten times the standard wage.” The pilgrim was reluctant to take time out from his pilgrimage, but thinking it was the charitable thing to do, agreed to help. They went to a field and worked in the moonlight, using a sickle to cut the wheat—but the pilgrim became suspicious when he noticed the man putting the sheaves right into the wagon, without standing them up to dry; it was as if he was a thief, in a hurry to get away with grain that didn’t belong to him. When he asked the man about this, he received the brusque response, “Mind your own business and keep working.” The worried pilgrim made the sign of the cross—and the man and his horse and wagon suddenly vanished in a cloud of smoke. Fearful and trembling, the pilgrim flung away the sickle and ran off toward the village, praying all the way. Somewhat calmer, he knocked on the door of the first house he came to and asked if he could stay the rest of the night; the owner graciously agreed, and gave the man a corner in which to sleep. Later that night, however, the pilgrim awakened and realized he was not alone; the owner’s beautiful young wife was lying next to him, trying to seduce him. Horrified, the pilgrim got up immediately and ran out of the house, and didn’t stop until he was well past the village; again, prayer helped calm him down, and he found a place in the forest to sleep the rest of the night and part of the next day. The following evening he came upon a group of suspicious-looking men who were going in the same direction; they were friendly enough, but something didn’t seem right. When they settled down for the night, they invited him to join them and share a meal. After eating, the leader of the men showed off their valuable treasures to the pilgrim and boasted that they were robbers who made lots of money from their efforts; instead of robbing him, however, they wanted him to join their group, and promised him great wealth as a result. The frightened pilgrim refused, said goodbye, and hurried off into the forest, wondering why so many strange things were happening during a journey he was making to please God.
As he continued into the forest, the pilgrim heard the sound of someone crying; investigating, he came upon a boy, who said he was lost and alone. Feeling sorry for him, the pilgrim picked him up, though he thought it strange the boy was so light-weight. Suddenly the forest was filled with a great light, and with a heavenly voice the boy said, “Well done, My servant. I have allowed the Evil One to tempt you three times— with bread, women, and money—and each time you resisted. Go in peace, and tell this story to everyone you meet as proof that My grace is sufficient for those who love Me, and that temptations are allowed that My people might grow in wisdom and love.” The child and the light suddenly vanished, and the pilgrim—after a fervent prayer of thanksgiving—went on his way, sharing the story with everyone he met (Doherty, Not Without Parables, p. 34). Life is supposed to be like a pilgrimage—but if we set out on the path of righteousness, we will surely be tempted. In fact, we will share in some of the same temptations Jesus experienced—but if we rely on His grace, we will also share in His victory.
After being baptized by His cousin John, Jesus went on retreat in the wilderness in order to prepare Himself for His public ministry—and Satan immediately tried to divert Him from His chosen path. Three times the devil tempted Jesus—with food, earthly power and glory, and a chance to misuse of His miraculous powers—and each time Jesus resisted. Satan tempts us, too, and he is far more cunning and powerful than we are; if we rely on our own strength, we will surely fail. The readings for the First Sunday of Lent tell us, however, that through God’s grace we can succeed in our spiritual pilgrimage. As Moses reminded the people, it was through God’s power that they were freed from slavery in Egypt, and as St. Paul states, all those who call upon the Name of the Lord in faith will be saved. Jesus would not disobey the will of His Father—and we too must place God’s will first in our lives.
You and I are probably beginning this season of Lent with the best of intentions; we want good things to happen during this pilgrimage of forty days. However, the world, the flesh, and the devil are lying in wait. Perhaps you’ve chosen to give up something—television, one meal a day, a favorite food, or another legitimate pleasure. You might fall short or be unsuccessful in sticking to your goal—in which case you’ll be tempted to give up entirely, instead of starting over. It’s also possible that you might succeed in sticking to your lenten resolution—but then you may be tempted to be proud and to feel superior to others who haven’t done as much. The devil has a temptation to fit every circumstance. Maybe as your lenten goal you’ve chosen to work on overcoming one of your faults with God’s grace. If it’s harder than you thought, you may be tempted to grow discouraged; if success comes easily, Satan might use this as an opportunity to focus your attention on yourself, rather than on God. Perhaps your plan is to use these forty days to come closer to God through extra prayer and spiritual reading; if the devil can’t make you change your mind, he may trick you into believing that this is something you only need to do during Lent—so that, come Easter, you slack off so much you end up losing all the progress you’ve made and are even worse off than before. Whenever we choose to do something good, we must be prepared for the possibility that we’ll provoke a negative response—either from the devil, or other people, or our own subconscious fears and weaknesses and anxieties.
Jesus wants us to be ready for whatever we may encounter on our pilgrimage. This means following His example by placing God’s will first, by trusting in His grace, and by turning to Him in our needs. We are called to proceed through Lent, and through life, in a spirit of humble and confident faith, taking each day one at a time. Jesus successfully completed the mission given Him by His Father, and we are called to follow in His footsteps. The journey will involve times of challenge, sacrifice, and temptation, but we are not alone. Jesus is with us each step of the way, and if we trust in Him, He will one day welcome us home.