In the fourth chapter of the Book of Wisdom, or what some call the Wisdom of Solomon, there is that wise and rather juicy line, For the bewitching of naughtiness doth obscure things that are honest; and the wandering of concupiscence doth undermine the simple mind. And while the King James Version, because of its timeless and poetic beauty, really ought to be the version we hear publicly read in the Church's English language liturgical celebrations, this is one of those passages which is perhaps a bit too quaint to be appreciated without consulting a more literal translation as well, like the RSV: For the fascination of wickedness obscures what is good, and roving desire perverts the innocent mind.
The fascination of wickedness. Such a rich phrase. The sacred writer knew well the fallen nature of sinful men. We are so easily fascinated. Pascal's pensee on this passage is that, in order to keep worldly passions from harming us, we ought to proceed as though we had one week to live. That's a good thought. We should strive to live with the awareness that eternity is just around the corner, for whether one has decades or minutes left in this world, it is really, as the saying goes, just a matter of time. Christians in the pre-modern world had a much healthier awareness than we tend to have of the fleeting nature of life in this world. The morbid nature of what popularly passes for culture in our modern age should be reminder enough for the thoughtful Christian not to let himself get distracted by it. Self-discipline, however, cannot and will not turn (convert) the Christian and keep him away from what is harmful to his soul. The reason for this is that his very heart, according to his sinful nature, is the real source of harm in his life because it is the reason for his distractibility. It is the very heart of man, the best and most essential part of him, the part that turns all the rest, that is bewitched, fascinated by all manner of evil-including one's own sense of self-righteousness, darkened, and obscured.
The outwardly disciplined (ascetic) life of the Christian monastic tradition (and there is a noble history of this tradition even among the churches of the Augsburg Confession) is a praiseworthy way of life. But that very history, as many can attest, shows that such discipline, such a purposeful keeping away from worldly distractions, in no way ensures that sin and wickedness will not creep in. It need not creep in, because as we have said, it comes from within.
Saint Jerome's experience is instructive in this regard. Every time he felt himself distracted by his passions, he moved further away from distractions. Finally he came to realize that the world is not the only problem; there is also the self, and it will not do to think one can escape the self.
Of course I am not arguing that we ought to give up on self-discipline. We need more of it, not less. Nevertheless, it is worth constantly reminding ourselves and confessing that it is the heart itself that needs conversion, and that we cannot convert ourselves. It must come from outside of us.
For discipline to be truly helpful, spiritually beneficial, and healthy, it must be Christian in its very character. That is, it must flow straight out of the side of Christ, and be immersed in the fountain of mercy that flows from His pierced and broken heart. If the Church in this world is always in need of reformation (ecclesia semper reformanda) -for it is made up of sinful men, likewise the Christian in this world is in constant need of being connected to God's mercy and grace in Christ, he is in constant need of the remedy for his constant life of sin, namely the sacramental gifts we have in the Church, which flow from the wounds of Christ Himself, in Whom alone we find all joy and comfort, indeed, our salvation.
I think another way, then, to view this passage in Wisdom chapter 4 is to turn it over and think of it the other way around. Namely, on what ought we be focused? We might say that Saint Paul restates this wisdom of Solomon thus in his letter to the Philippian Church:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true,
whatsoever things are honest,
whatsoever things are just,
whatsoever things are pure,
whatsoever things are lovely,
whatsoever things are of good report;
if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise,
think on these things.
In a world of uncertainty we can be certain of this, Christ is truth itself.
The one honest word is the eternal Logos Himself.
As Paul tells the Corinthians, Christ is our righteousness.
The only true purity is the pure life of God, revealed to us in Christ.
There is no loveliness in this life apart from the One Who is love itself.
There is no good report that compares to the evangel of the grace of God in Christ.
Who is virtuous but the one exemplary Man Himself?
Who is praiseworthy but Christ?
In counseling us to think on these things, Paul is first of all orienting us to the One worthy of our attention, Christ Jesus our Lord. And if you want to view Christ most honestly, that is, in a way which clearly sets forth what He is all about, then view Him as St. Paul pictured Him in his preaching to the Galatians, according to His bloody and life giving death.
We who, as Wisdom 4 reminds us, are so easily bewitched by the distractions of the flesh, are asked rhetorically by the Apostle, Who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?
Let us fix our gaze, and the gaze of our heart, on Him, and, indeed, seize every opportunity to make use of the sacramental gifts by which His Word and Spirit abide in us.