The World, the Flesh, and the Devil: these are the monikers by which Scripture presents to us the three great sources of temptation. Lent being a time specially devoted to introspection and refocusing upon the practice of virtue, let us look at what precisely these things mean.
When we talk about the Flesh, we usually mean lust. This is one of what are called the Seven Capital Sins, or more loosely the Deadly Sins; the others being gluttony, avarice, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Of course, gluttony and sloth may hover vaguely in the background as also being of the Flesh, but usually lust comes first to our minds, particularly a culture such as that of contemporary America, which is so utterly sodden in sex, to the point that not only decency but good taste is affronted.
However, the Flesh does not mean the body. We are accustomed to think of the body when we hear the word, because our bodies are made of flesh. But the real theology behind the word is subtler than that, and illuminates a good deal more about human nature. For a Biblical understanding of the term, let us turn to St. Paul:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. but if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. -- Galatians 5.16-24
Note that, in this list of fleshly things, only four -- immorality (a polite translation of the Greek porneia, which could more vividly be rendered "whoring" but did cover a wide variety of sexual, uh, conduct), licentiousness (for which "immodesty" might be a better equivalent), drunkenness (which probably needs no further explanation), and carousing (which can also be translated "orgies" for the modern) -- only these four are intrinsically connected to bodily activities at all. It might be noted that half deal with gluttony rather than lust; but what I want to look at is all the other terms. The word "impurity" is as vague in Greek as it is in English, though we might suspect a sexual connotation. But the others are all social -- enmity, strife, etc. -- or related to a depraved spirituality, as idolatry and sorcery. The saint is clearly as much concerned with our conduct as souls among souls, as he is with our conduct as bodies among bodies.
And this squares with the Christian faith generally. St. Paul is sometimes taken to be a grim ascetic, and ascetic he certainly was; but, unlike some other patently pessimistic forms of spirituality called Gnostic, Catholic asceticism is really asceticism. That is, it is concerned with askesis: rigorous self-discipline. The Gnostic cults which were largely simultaneous with, and frequently drew upon, Christianity, were not ascetic in this sense at all. They practiced and valued many of the same things, such as celibacy, but they did so for reasons that were opposed to the faith in their very essence. The Gnostics believed, not in self-discipline, but in self-destruction. A Catholic monk and a Gnostic sage might equally whip themselves with cords; but the monk does so for a quite definite set of reasons: to train himself to be ready to endure pain, for instance, or to identify himself with the sufferings of Christ, or as an aversive against some sin. We may think them bad or inadequate reasons, whether in general or in an individual case, but those are the reasons, and they are very different reasons from those of the Gnostic. He too might whip himself with cords; but he would do it to punish the body for being material, or in order to prove that his body was irrelevant to his soul. In other words, his self-torment was based on contempt for the body as such. No Catholic is able theologically to countenance contempt for the body; or if, and to the extent that, he does, he becomes a heretic; for in Jesus, God Himself took on a body. Matter in general is, for a Catholic, sacred because of Creation, and the body especially because of the Incarnation.
So if the body has been sanctified by the Incarnation, and if the Flesh doesn't really need to have to do with the body, then what is the Flesh exactly? It is the sinful nature of man, with the specific character of our natural desires and weaknesses.
This doesn't mean that the Flesh is identical with all things that draw us on to sin, though it would be easy to think so from the preceding definition. The World and the Devil I plan to deal with in my next two posts in more detail; suffice it to say here that both of them, in differing ways, are pressures on us to sin that come from without. The Flesh is the interior pressure toward sin. C. S. Lewis, in his book on prayer titled Letters to Malcolm, notes a desire to peer into the transcendent realms of the spirit, "behind the scenes" of this earthly life, and points out frankly that this desire is properly a desire of the Flesh in the Pauline sense. Human sexuality in its crassest perversions is a sample of the Flesh; but so is the most romantic, and even the most morally observant, Eros, when it is made a substitute for God. Drinking oneself stupid is a sample of the Flesh; so too is dabbling enough in philosophy to sound intelligent and sophisticated, without actually bothering about the questions of whether life is worth living or righteousness worth pursuing. The Flesh can, in one sense, be as spiritual as anything.
The remedy to the Flesh is what the apostle says it is: recourse to the Spirit. The Flesh consists in the corruption, better to say the defection, of our merely natural longings -- longings for pleasures (gluttony), for human relationships (lust), for security (avarice), for peace of mind (sloth), and so forth. The work of the Spirit against the Flesh consists in an invasion of nature by the supernatural, whose work is one but is manifest in a twofold manner; the Person is not divided, nor the natures confused.
Human nature, left to itself after the Fall, is no longer self-sustaining. Of course, really nothing is self-sustaining except God, but human nature now needs supernatural help even to be natural; before the Fall of Man this would not have been the case. Anyway, the curious warp of human nature is that it is directed toward God, but is directed to Him very largely through other things He has made, because He made those things in order to communicate Himself to us. Since we are very limited beings, and God has no limits imposed on Him, this is a pretty obvious thing to do. The Fall (whether one takes Genesis 3 to be historical or not) consisted in seeking certain of these good things God meant for us, but independently of Him, even to the exclusion of Him. In fact, it consisted in seeking them as if they were self-sustaining goods. But, apart from God, creation turned out to be very like an onion: one peels away layer after layer, and there's nothing in it, and one ends in tears. Creation was made from nothing, and the moment it was treated as self-sufficient it quite honestly told us that it had been made from nothing; or, in C. S. Lewis' tragically accurate statement about our history in The Problem of Pain, we began "the whole terrible story of man trying to find something other than God that will make him happy."
As a result of the Fall, we now instinctively look to creation as if it were independently capable of making us happy. That is the Flesh. In order to correct that, we must have recourse to the Spirit; i.e., the guidance and gifts of the Holy Spirit, of which the first two (in the traditional list of seven) are wisdom and understanding. These two gifts in particular grant us a supernatural perspective, founded in the truth about God and what He has made: they impress upon us that the real and final good we are seeking is God Himself, and that insofar as our pursuit of any other good thing is not directed toward Him, it will make us miserable rather than happy.
The Spirit therefore restores to us the essentially supernatural orientation of humanity. But in so doing, it restores human nature itself to a more natural condition. Take the matter of sex. Chesterton points out, I believe in The Everlasting Man, that about sex in particular men seem to be born mad, and they scarcely reach even sanity until they reach sanctity. Any human being left to pursue sex as his untutored instincts led him would, at best, subject himself to raucous and irresponsible excesses that might easily ruin not only his happiness but his health. Surrendering oneself to the Spirit, however, brings one to one of the two obviously sane approaches to sex: Matrimony, which is what all people everywhere have in some measure recognized as the norm and ideal of sexuality, and also happens to be a Catholic sacrament; or else celibacy -- which, though unpopular with the lascivious superstition of the West, has been recognized by nearly every religion and society as something that is peculiarly suitable to some persons, respectable, even laudable. In reordering us to the supernatural, the Spirit thus gives a natural order even to the natural; a natural order which, we know from experience, cannot sustain itself.
This reorientation of nature from the Spirit is specially set forth in the sacraments, and in none more than the Blessed Sacrament. The very normal human act of eating is transformed, sublimated, into the most intensely spiritual act we ever perform; and it is so transformed without at all ceasing to be the normal human act of eating. Nature is united to supernature. I have quoted before Lewis' passing remark in Perelandra that the sacraments were instituted in part to remind us that the customary mental division we make between the material and the spiritual is neither wholesome nor final. It is no coincidence that we often find ourselves tempted by the Flesh at the altar; it sense the Presence of its nemesis.
And the tempter came and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread." But He answered, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"