By Canon Benjamin Coggeshall
THE CONCUPISCENCE OF THE FLESH
For the first Sunday of Lent we will remember that the Gospel passage recounted Jesus’ fasting in the desert for forty days. He was approached by the devil and tempted in three ways. These three ways represent the three concupiscences to which we humans are subjected: the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes and the pride of life.
The purpose of this first reflection was to put us Christians on guard against these temptations, these concupiscences to which we are all subjected. A large part of Lenten meditation concerns turning away from sin and the temptation of one sort or another that precedes sin.
However, what kind of mother would the Church be if she only told us of the dangers that lie waiting for us in the spiritual life…and not the remedies to these ills? Jesus left to the world a good, holy Church, as part of His permanent presence in our world to guide us through life, teaching us how to resist temptation and sin.
Returning to our reflection from the first Sunday of Lent, let us call to mind the first sort of temptation experienced by Jesus in order to understand it better and how to fight it. We are talking about the Concupiscence of the flesh.
Concupiscence of the flesh is the inordinate love of sensual pleasures (Tanquerey, p. 101) “Inordinate love” means love that is out of order…love that is in the wrong place.
As we saw earlier this Lent, pleasure in itself is not evil. Gold allows pleasure for the accomplishment of certain good acts. He makes food taste good…so that we may preserve and take care of our bodies. He attaches certain pleasures to the marital act so that we will have children and perpetuate our species. God allows pleasure in these things…but only because they help the completion of a good act: preserving the body or perpetuating the species.
Fr. Tanquerey says that pursuing sensual pleasure as an end in and of itself is a moral disorder. Simply, it is not good, and not what God has intended for our dignified state as His children. An example would be for someone to continue eating iced cream…even though he has had sufficiency. He continues eating the iced cream…not because he is hungry or starving, but because he simply likes the taste and the pleasure it gives to his taste buds.
This is what we call an excessive love of pleasure. We say excessive love, because we must remember that enjoying good iced cream is not bad; loving it to the point where we continue eating it and destroying our health is bad. Our excessive love of sensual pleasures can in fact harm us very much. Think of our society which is ever more dependent on stimulants…that reflects our obsession and excessive love for pleasure. This is seen in the habitual overconsumption of alcohol and in drug use. This can even be seen in thrill seekers…diving off the sides of mountains and buildings to get a rush of adrenaline…to get a sensual high. People pursue these things with a heightening level of voracity…until they simply burn out or even kill themselves. Pleasure or “highs” are not the ends of our existence.
The Church teaches us quite simply that the best way to combat this evil is the mortification of the senses. “Mortification” means to put to death in a certain way. So we must put our senses to death…not that we become stoic and claim to have no more feeling…but rather to put our senses in check. We may not realise this, but we do it all the time. When walking by the chocolate aisle in the supermarket, we may hear a small voice telling us to fill our cart with the whole lot. However, our reason then kicks in, telling us no, we only have €50, and we must get milk, potatoes and bread for the family. Here, we are mortifying our senses, because our reason is telling us that there is a much more important thing at stake here. (We can either buy all the chocolate and eat it in the car, enjoying every bite and let the family go hungry…or we can buy what is necessary and good for the family).
Fr. Tanquerey reminds us that the motive that obligates us to mortifying our senses is our baptismal vow. Baptism obliges us to mortify our senses that can lead us to sin. We are to mortify them so we can control them…and not the other way around. “For if you live according to the flesh, you shall die; but if by the spirit you modify the deeds of the flesh you shall live.”(Rom: 8:13) We reject sin, as part of our baptismal promises…and in turn any temptations that may lead to it.
Fr. Tanquerey adds a final prudent note to his considerations. He says to best benefit from mortifying our senses, we should not only do the ones that are strictly evil…but ones that can be dangerous. We are called to completely control our actions.
Telling ourselves “no” for something that may be perfectly ok exercises our will…thus strengthening it for when we need to reject something that may be particularly alluring. Indulging in permissible pleasures can break our resolve over time and render us weak in a dangerous situation. St. Paul says “he who loves danger shall perish in it.”(Tanquerey, p104) Simply put, we should avoid putting ourselves in harm’s way. Children will often play at a distance from the fire that is safe, but still contains a bit of danger. These same children are burned from time to time when a stray ember pops out and hits them. Licit pleasure can be like this.
Let us resolve then to use sensuous pleasure as God intended, for His glory. May our Lenten prayers help to obtain this grace for us!
Canon Benjamin Coggeshall.
Institute of Christ the King