Temptation Mysticism


In True Morality and Its Counterfeits, Dietrich von Hildebrand scrutinized what he called the “sin mysticism” of prominent Catholic novelists, like Graham Greene. He saw that the authors, reacting against the dead “righteousness” of hypocrites who went to church and kept the commandments outwardly but who did not open their hearts to God and neighbor, had set up a false dilemma and drawn false conclusions from it.

That is, if it is “better” to sin a full-blooded sin, as does the prostitute Sonia in Crime and Punishment, than to sleepwalk through life in a moral condition that is neither white nor black but merely blank, then we may suppose that such sinners, closer to God than the blanks are, are granted valuable and admirable revelations into good and evil. The sin becomes a “happy fault,” whereby God brings unexpected virtue and wisdom into the world.

Let’s be clear. This position has no Scriptural warrant. Jesus never says, “Blessed are those who have plumbed the depths of sin, for they shall be as wise as serpents.” Jesus never recommends sin for spicing up the buffet. Jesus eats with sinners; he does not sin with sinners. Saint Paul, aware of his sinfulness and his frailty, never says, “It was good that I persecuted the Church, because now I’m in a fine position to promote it.” Paul says he becomes all things to all men, to win some; he does not say he dabbles in their temptations.

Von Hildebrand is careful to show that any good that God may, in His Providence, bring forth from the sinner’s past, is not attributable to the sin, either in itself or by circumstance. The simple Sonia, who prostitutes herself to keep her family from starving, is not admirable for the sin but despite it. We deplore the prostitution, but admire her love and heroism. Sanctity comes to her from God despite the sin, not because of it.

Nor can time-bound human beings presume upon God’s Providence. We cannot know what God would have wrought from an Augustine who did not live his youth in dissolution. We must never look upon our sins as anything other than sins – bringing spiritual sickness, hardness of heart, blindness, and calamity. They have absolutely no value, period.

That applies also to temptation, or to evil proclivities.

Suppose John is tempted to steal. Whenever he sees beautiful things that don’t belong to him, he begins to covet them. He muses about how he might filch them and get away with it. But he does not go through with the imaginary thefts. He knows that the law of God forbids it. “I’m a kleptophile,” he says publicly, and is praised for being honest and brave.

What value are we to attribute to John’s inclination to steal? Absolutely none – he’d be far better off without it. It is a distortion of his true nature. Suppose John says, “See, I am being celibate with regard to other people’s things. Am I not virtuous?” We must answer, no, not at all, and warn him against making of his frailty a mysterious object of pride.


      Descent from the Cross (detail) by Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1435

We’ll say to him, “It’s good to admire admirable things and to be glad that other people possess them. It is not good to muse about taking them, and certainly not to be proud of the musing.”

Suppose Jerry likes to work with children. He thinks they’re beautiful. He likes to draw them. He admires their small bodies, their smooth skin, their little muscles. He seeks out swimming pools so he can look at them. Jerry says, “I am a pedophile. But not to worry – I never have touched a child in a funny way, and I never will, because I follow the moral law.”

What are we to make of this advertisement? Is Jerry morally admirable for having the inclination, and for resisting it? Does he have special things to teach us about children which we might otherwise miss?

We may admire his struggle against the evil; we may not admire the evil that makes him struggle. It would be better for Jerry if he did not suffer the inclination. It would be better for everyone. His refraining from evil is not in itself a good, no more than is John’s refraining from filching.

We may say, “It is good to have a keen appreciation of the beauty of children. But your appreciation is distorted. You would have a better appreciation of their beauty if it were rightly ordered. It does you no good, and it does us no good. You must not make this inclination into a totem.”

So with all inclinations to evil. They do not make up our personalities. They thwart them, or dampen them, or distort them. When we say, “I am a thief,” if we mean anything other than “I have stolen,” we are in error. We are who we are despite and against our evil inclinations.

And that is what we have to say to people – hurting, no doubt, and sometimes lonely, and perhaps staring at a life without a spouse and children – who say, “I am gay.” We don’t deny that the temptation exists. We don’t want to take it lightly. But we must deny that it is a fortunate disorder, either for the person who suffers it, or for the rest of us who do not.

And we must most firmly deny that the disorder should be attributed to people who possessed a keen capacity for friendship, about whom there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that they ever cast a yearning eye towards evil.

And when we ask whether we should make our frailties public, whatever they are, the only criterion must be charity for others – all others.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.

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