Temptation in the Wilderness (3)

You stand above the world on holy heights

If the first two temptations in the wilderness were in some sense ‘obvious’; the temptation to mere physical satisfaction of appetite, and the temptation to worldly success and power, then the third temptation is subtle and dark, all the darker for pretending to a kind of light, or enlightenment. The third temptation takes place on the ‘pinnacle of the Temple’ on the height of religious experience and achievement. What could be wrong with that? But the best things, turned bad, are the worst things of all. A ‘religious’  or  ‘spiritual’ life can be riddled with pride and a sense of distinction, judging or looking down on others , despising God’s good creation! Such a twisted religion does more damage in the world then any amount simple indulgence or gratification by sensual people. Thanks be to God that in resisting this temptation to spiritual loftiness and display, Jesus shows his solidarity once and for all with all of us, trusting himself to our flesh and blood so that we can trust our flesh and blood to him. He does not look down on us but looks up with the humble eyes of the child of Bethlehem.

The picture above is by Gustave Dore and the one below by Margot Krebs Neale. as always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.

On the Pinnacle

‘Temples and spires are good for looking down from;

You stand above the world on holy heights,

Here on the pinnacle, above the maelstrom,

Among the few, the true, unearthly lights.

Here you can breathe the thin air of perfection

And feel your kinship with the lonely star,

Above the shadow and the pale reflection

Here you can know for certain who you are.

The world is stalled below, but you could move it

If they could know you as you are up here

Of course they’ll doubt, but here’s your chance to prove it

Angels will bear you up, so have no fear….’

‘I was not sent to look down from above

It’s fear that sets these tests and proofs, not Love.’

I was not sent to look down from above



Filed under christianity, literature, Poems

9 responses to “Temptation in the Wilderness (3)

  1. What a delightful photograph by Margot. And a lovely sonnet. Thank you.

  2. Charles Twombly

    Thanks, Malcolm, for great new thoughts. Hadn’t thought of the “looking down on others” dimension of the third temptation. Have usually seen it through the lens of Jesus’ response: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” and used it to chide (gently) some of my friends who go on and on about “stepping out in faith” on the basis of presumed guidance that I may be sceptical of. Can think of a family member who courted disaster (both for himself and his young family) in response to “inner promptings.” In this case, the prompter is Satan, who may play continually on the commendable tendency of contemporary believers who seek very specific directions from God about major (or minor) life decisions. Will cling to this interpretation of mine, but will add yours to the interpretive options. The story is rich enough to lend itself to both approaches and more.

    • malcolmguite

      Thanks Charles. Yes the temptation to ‘prove’ faith by ‘stepping out’ is another way to go with this one and I allude to that in the last line but the
      Main thrust if this sonnet, about not looking down or being holier than thou was strongly influenced by one of GKC s father brown stories which turns on the idea that church spires should be looked up at rather than down from.

      • Charles Twombly

        Will find this most useful for ongoing reflection. Seem to remember a Nathaniel Hawthorne story in which the protagonist is up on a steeple looking down. Will try to read the two–his story and your poem–together sometime. (Basically unrelated except for creating the thrill of height is Theodore Roethke’s marvelous poem, “Child on Top of a Greenhouse.” Unforgettable.)

  3. Have you watched this, Malcolm? It may interest you. Another poet’s experience…http://billmoyers.com/segment/poet-christian-wiman-on-love-faith-and-cancer/

    Lovely sonnet. To live eye-to-eye with one another — not beneath, not above….

  4. Charles Twombly


    “Sights from a Steeple, ” Nathaniel Hawthorne

    Child on Top of a Greenhouse

    The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,
    My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,
    The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,
    Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,
    A few white clouds all rushing eastward,
    A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,
    And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting!

    Theodore Roethke

    • malcolmguite

      Thanks for this Charles. The GKC Story I mentioned is also well worth reading, full of humility and compassion it is ‘The Hammer of God’ in ‘The Innocence of Father Brown’

  5. Pingback: Temptation in the Wired Wilderness: A Sonnet - Hieropraxis | Hieropraxis

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