Aldo Maria Valli
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Recent statements by Pope Francis (“It is not a good translation. The French have also changed the text with a translation that says, ‘Do not let me fall into temptation’: it is I who fall, it is not He who throws me into temptation and then see the way I fell, a father does not do this, a father helps to get up right away”) reopened an old question.
But if Christians prayed this way for centuries, is it possible that they all made a mistake? Would it really be better to say, “Do not abandon us in temptation,” as we read in the new translation?
Not being an expert, I willingly leave the answer to others. Of course I will continue to pray as I was taught as a child. And I rely on a memory of many years ago. It concerns the cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who dedicated some reflections to the discussion, which — in my opinion — are illuminating.
The problem of a less “scandalous” translation, the archbishop explained, certainly does not arise today. Saint Ambrose, for example, preferred to translate it as: “And do not allow us to fall into temptation.” In this sense, “Do not abandon us into temptation” proposed by the Italian Episcopal Conference is but one of the many attempts to solve an ancient problem, but, according to Martini, the real question is another.
The point, explained the cardinal, is that Jesus in prayer poses the problem of temptation in the first place and with force. Whatever the verb be (“lead us,” “abandon us” or something else) we must concentrate on the complement. Jesus tells us that temptation accompanies us, is part of our daily experience, as he himself proved when, not by chance, after his years in the family, he began his ministry by subjecting himself to the temptations of satan in the desert. Therefore, whether we say “Do not lead us into temptation” or “Do not allow us to fall into temptation” or “Do not abandon us into temptation,” the real question is that God certainly allows temptation, not in an extraordinary or marginal way, but as constant experience.
Why? According to Martini, the answer is simple: because precisely through temptation, and the consequent interior fight, we grow in faith. If we were not exposed to temptation, if everything went smoothly and quietly, if we were to be “guided” towards the good, freedom would not be tested. We must never forget, however, that the life of the Christian is a continuous battle, because it is always a question of choosing between good and evil.
The temptations are many and varied, but there is one that seems particularly appalling. It is the eschatological one, which concerns the end of time, when satan will launch his last and most fearsome attack. In this regard Martini recalled the words of Matthew (24:11-12): “Many false prophets will arise and deceive many; because of the spread of iniquity, the love of many will grow cold.” Here is the ultimate and most devastating temptation: to give in definitively to the action of satan, to his seduction, and to choose Evil. With a capital letter, because he is a person, or the Evil One.
The seduction is actually the weapon used by the Evil one, who instigates the man to choose him presenting himself in a persuasive, captivating outfit.
Everyone, Martini explained, without exception, is subject to the seduction of the Evil One, and we all have to watch out. This is why Jesus, in the prayer he taught us, emphasizes temptation.
In the book Ritrovare se stessi (Rediscovering themselves), in the chapter dedicated to spiritual combat, Martini writes: “The whole life of Jesus was a formidable struggle, a firm stance in the great fight against the adversary.” And so it is for us. It is not right to sugarcoat this issue.
If we are in battle, what must we be aware of?
Here is the archbishop’s reply: “First of all, we are in a risky situation; it is risky and dangerous to live the Gospel to the end. Having the sense of risk, of difficulties, is realism, a realism that allows us to see the ways of the adversary, the ways through which the world is led to evil, but feeling full of the strength of God. A profound analysis and synthesis of the mystery of perversion, made with the help of Sacred Scripture, it puts us in front of adversities without fear because we know how to grasp, together with the vastness of evil, the power of Christ who works continuously in history.
Second observation: it is a struggle that knows no pause, or rest, against a cunning and terrible opponent who is outside of us and within us. This, today, is often forgotten, because we are living in an atmosphere of deterministic optimism for which all things must go well for the better, without thinking of the drama and fractures of human history, without knowing that history has its tragic regressions and its risks which threaten precisely those who do not expect it, cradled in a vision of historical evolutionism that always proceeds for the best.
The third observation: only those who are fully armed can resist, since the enemy is around us to find out if there is at least one gap open, if there is at least one element missing in the armor so that we fall in combat. The last observation, very important: all the weapons, all the elements of the armor must be continually refined in the exercise of prayer that does not supply them — it does not make up for zeal, commitment, the spirit of faith, the ability to give oneself — but it is the reality in which everyone is enveloped and reinvigorated for the struggle.”
A behavior of fundamental importance, in the battle against temptation, consists in avoiding the occasions of sin. If the eye gives you a scandal, take it out. If the hand is a scandal, cut it. Jesus could not be clearer. And it is significant, explains Martini, that in Matthew these exhortations are found, practically identical, in two different passages of the same Gospel: a very rare case, a sign of the importance of the admonition.
Avoiding not only sin, but opportunities for sin. A lesson that must never be forgotten in a world marked by the multiplication of these occasions. Keeping in mind that the Christian experience is agonistic [from the Greek agone referring to the athletic competitions of ancient Greece], it is a battle, a fight, a competition against the Evil one that relentlessly uses the weapon of temptation to ensnare and conquer our soul.
For those wishing to deepen, there is a beautiful text of Martini entitled Do not waste words. Spiritual exercises with the Our Father .