Life & Soul Life and Soul

The meaning of ‘The world, the flesh and the Devil’

In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite this Sunday we are served a bracing slap of reality. Holy Mass begins with an antiphon taken from Psalm 25 (24) in which David invokes God’s mercy upon him, a sinner, beset with enemies. Then we have the Collect:

“Deus, qui conspicis omni nos virtute destitui: interius exteriusque custodi; ut ab omnibus adversitatibus muniamur in corpore, et a pravis cogitationibus mundemur in mente.”

Pravus, in Latin, is “crooked, distorted”, and in a moral sense “perverse, vicious”. Virtus, in a dictionary such as Lewis and Short, is literally “manhood”, the Roman summation of a man’s physical and mental qualities, including strength, skill, bravery, etc. In the dictionary of liturgical Latin by Blaise, the emphasis is on “power”, in reference to God, and moral strength, in regard to us little mortals. Pliny used adversitas, “contrariety” – a key to unlock our prayer – to describe the great natural hostility between the scorpion and the lizard.

Literal rendering: “O God, who see we are robbed of all strength, guard us inwardly and outwardly; so that we may be protected in body against all assailants, and cleansed in mind of wicked thoughts.”

Because of Original Sin, there war on us, within and without, deadly forces, called by sources from St Thomas Aquinas to Trent, “the world, the flesh and the Devil”. None of us, the living, are exempt from the temptations that arise from these implacable enemies of the soul. By this prayer we cast ourselves upon the mercy of God because of our weakness in the face of adversity.

By “world”, we intend indifference and opposition to God’s design, embracing empty, passing values.

By “flesh”, we understand the obvious tendencies to gluttony and sexual immorality, but also all our corrupt inclinations, disordered passions which blind us, make us stupid, and lay us open to greater sins.

By “the Devil”, we identify a real, personal enemy, a fallen angel, Father of Lies, who with his fellow demons of hell labours in relentless malice to twist us away from salvation.

Speaking of contrariety, this season of Lent – itself like a sacrament – strengthens us against our interior and exterior adversaries. This is why we fast during our Lenten “discipline”, a term from Latin, “to learn”. There is an old adage, plenus venter non studet libenter (“a full stomach doesn’t willingly apply itself to study”).

We are at war.