Tempted, Tested, but Triumphant
by Fr. Rufus Pereira
It was after being baptized in the River Jordan, where the Spirit came upon him with power, and the Father spoke to him with authority, that immediately Jesus was led, nay driven, by the same Spirit into the desert, where after fasting and praying for 40 days and 40 nights he was tempted by Satan, tested by the Father and triumphed victoriously (Mt 2:1,2; Mk 1:9-13; Lk 4:1,2,13).
For us too the annual season of Lent or Forty Days is meant to recall and relive the desert experience of Jesus, through what is called the practices of Lent, and to come out victorious ever after through every type of temptation and test, as we pray the prayer of Jesus, "Lead us not into Temptation, but deliver us from Evil."
Fasting (the basic or foundational Lenten practice) is, firstly, not just from food but in our modern context from the luxuries and even so called necessities of life, which can often even lead us into temptation, like the TV and the Internet. Secondly, it is not an end in itself, but is meant to help us to empty ourselves even of otherwise legitimate desires so that, as the hymn urges us, "I want more of Jesus, so I will give him more of me." Thirdly, fasting is needed not only for personal purification but also for a more effective prayer ministry and a more successful preaching ministry (Mk 9:29: Acts 13:1-3).
Exactly 30 years ago, in February 1977, I was invited to give a Clergy Retreat at the Better Life Centre, Aloor, in the diocese of Irinjalakuda, Kerala, South India. I had no time to change into my clerical dress, after the long train journey, and so I felt rather uncomfortable as I gave my first talk to the venerable looking priests before me, all in their flowing religious robes, and many of them with even long or white beards. I became more nervous when I learnt that this was no ordinary priests' retreat but a special one open only to the preachers of Kerala.
In answer to my query at the end of the first session, if they had any comments to make about what I had spoken to them, one of them stood up and with a cold stare at me said, "I want to tell you on behalf of my fellow priests that nothing of what you have said impresses us," and he sat down. I thought to myself that this was a jolly good way to begin a retreat. Instead I replied that I had not come to make an impression on anyone but only to share what the good God had done in my priestly life and ministry.
I realized then that on the outcome of this retreat with its special participants would depend on their acceptance of the Charismatic Renewal, which, I was firmly convinced, was, in the words of Pope Paul VI, a gift of the Holy Spirit and a chance for the Church. But I did not know what to do; it then suddenly occurred to me that this the first day of the retreat was Ash Wednesday, the Church's official day of abstinence and fasting. I therefore had only tea or soup that day, and I decided to continue the liquid fast for the rest of the five days retreat. The result was beyond my expectation, for the last session was one of spontaneous jubilation, a sign of the deep transformation that the Holy Spirit had worked in each one of them. Most of those participants became famous charismatic retreat preachers and have remained so even till this day. How can I not then believe that this extraordinary happening took place by imitating our Lord in spending the 40 days of Lent in fasting, at least in abstaining from solids?
The Word of God
"Man does not live by bread alone." Just as during the 40 days in the desert, Jesus was listening to his Father attentively, who then spoke to him so clearly at the river Jordan, for us too the 40 days of Lent should be a precious time of reading and listening to the Word of God (Mk 1:11; Lk 3:22). For, on the one hand, 'Dei Verbum', the Vatican Council II document on Divine Revelation charges us to, "Be a hearer of the Word of God in your own heart, before you become a preacher of that Word to others" (DV 25). This is what a well-known parish priest of Mumbai wrote to me, "Congratulations on completing 50 Golden Years of Priestly Life. God has used you mightily for his kingdom … so many persons' lives have been transformed by your ministry to them. I don't know if I have shared this with you … but many years back you had given a Lenten mission at my Parish Church when I was still a teenager in Std X. I don't remember what you said now, but I know what happened to me the day the mission ended. I went home and started reading Scripture as never before, sometimes right till 3.00 am, and in a few days I had read the whole Bible (OT & NT) - and I am a slow reader. Four months later I joined the novitiate. Since those days the Bible has been my best companion."
On the other hand, as James says, "It is not enough to hear the Word only, but we must also obey it and put it into practice" (James 1:22). This is what a prominent writer, from a former communist country of Europe, testified she did, in her letter on my recent Priestly Golden Jubilee: "This year will also be the eight anniversary of my conversion and of my Baptism in the Spirit during the retreat that you gave in my country in 1999. My life has changed the very minute I joined that retreat, which brought me back to God, and brought Jesus back to my heart. I could write pages and pages of all those wonderful and miraculous things that happened then, and have been happening ever after. I stopped smoking on the spot (I had been smoking up to 2 packets a day) and I have been going to Mass daily ever since. I am in love with the Word of God, and my family life has changed completely and has been getting much better. There have been baptisms in the wider family circle, and we are looking forward to new ones. I love the Church which the Lord gave us and of which you have made me aware."
Prayer is obviously the heart and the core of the period of Lent, for after having emptied ourselves through fasting from the earthly bread of this world and filling ourselves with the heavenly bread of his Word, we can then engage in a daily com-union with God expressed in praise and thanks, in adoration and contemplation. What can be more edifying than seeing even our ordinary laypeople and above all our youth making even a full five days charismatic retreat in perfect prayerful silence. I was giving a retreat to 200 college students in Tenali, Andhra Pradesh, during Lent, and I was taken aback when they all came in a body to ask permission to spend the whole night, before the Baptism of the Spirit, in prayerful silence in the chapel. Similarly, the Sisters of Mount Mary's Convent, Bandra, Mumbai, insisted that they spend the last night of their retreat in the chapel in total silence. In a similar way all the priests at the first charismatic retreat at Alwaye Seminary, in Kerala, in December 1976 spent the whole second night in silent contemplation before the Blessed Sacrament.
But the retreat that made the greatest impression on me by the prayerful silence of the participants was the one that I gave to the 30 or more Bishops of Uganda with their Papal Nuncio four years ago. Since they were Bishops, well advanced in years and spiritual maturity, one of them even being my classmate and ordained together in Rome, I was ready to overlook them talking when needed with one another. But I must say I have never seen a retreat with such total and prayerful silence as this one. There was not a whisper and not even a nod to one another. I had asked them to pray for and over one another for the Renewal of their Sacerdotal and Episcopal charism, while I preferred to remain quietly one side. Their prayer was so intense that there were floods of tears on earth and showers of blessings from heaven.
Almsgiving is the final practice of Lent. For after giving out of myself and after having received in myself from above, I now give it of myself to others. But I would like to understand it not just in the narrow sense of giving the customary food and money to the poor, but in the richer sense of giving them what is even more important and needed, my time and availability, my comfort and compassion, my prayer for healing and deliverance - to the needy, the sick, the burdened and the lonely.
A Salesian priest (in whose parish Church I had just given a Lenten Mission) had come with his mother asking for prayers for his brother who had a severe mental breakdown. He had been studying for his doctorate in nuclear physics in the States, but had become caught up in a new religious movement, or rather an infamous diabolical cult. They began to sponge on him for money for so called self improvement courses and were even interfering in his private life, to the extent that on the day of his marriage to a girl, who did not meet their approval, they had him beaten up. The marriage was called off and he returned to Mumbai completely shattered. For two years he was on psychiatric treatment and during the last two months he had locked himself in his room, without having a bath or washing his clothes or having a hair cut or his nails trimmed.
When I went to his home to pray over him, he refused to open the door of his bedroom and so I just made a prayer before the picture of the Sacred Heart in their living room. As I was leaving and was passing his closed door, the lady who happened to accompany me, an expert on New Religious Movements and especially on this particular cult, suggested that I make a prayer for deliverance for him - but in front of the closed door, since she had read in my book that I had done this in a similar situation. I must say that I was annoyed at being told what to do and just made the sign of the cross (three times - as she reminded me to do) without much faith. She again insisted that I make a prayer for deliverance from the infamous founder of that cult by taking his name. I knew nothing about that particular cult and its founder and so I made that prayer even more reluctantly.
The next morning the mother phoned up to say that early that morning her son took a bath, washed his clothes, cut his hair and trimmed his nails. He then went up to the terrace for the first time in those two years and joined the family for breakfast. But he next went around the whole house, apparently searching for something. When questioned, he replied that he was searching for (he took the name of the cult founder), "But where has he gone?" he asked. He became a normal person ever since and took up a good job within a week. The Lenten Practice of Almsgiving means therefore Jesus saying, "As I have loved you by first speaking to you and by inviting you to speak to me, now you must love one another by first speaking words of comfort and healing to one another."
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