The Devil is a Logician

(Homily for First Sunday of Lent, Year A)

Bottom line: Satan uses logic to tempt Jesus - and us. Logic can take a person only so far; we need poetry to bring us home.

G.K. Chesterton said, "Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do." The tragic life of Bobby Fisher illustrates that saying. He was one of the most brilliant chess players of all times, but he went off the deep end. When he faced a legal problem, he denounced America and abandoned his native country. He fell into a bizarre and bitter anti-Semitism, even though he himself had a Jewish mother. Chesterton thought that chess-players sometimes went mad because chess is a game of pure logic - and that logic by itself can drive a person crazy.* The remedy, he thought, was poetry. "Poetry is sane," said Chesterton, “because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason (logic) seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion..."

I don't know how seriously to take Chesterton's theory about chess-players and poets, but it does seem this Sunday that the devil is a logician - a chess player who has one goal: to trap his opponent. The temptations he proposes to Jesus are pure logic: You're hungry? Turn these stones into bread. Are you really who you say you are? Then throw yourself down and let the angels catch you. So want to save the world? Just a simple act of homage and you can have it all.

To respond to the devil's logic Jesus used a kind of poetry. Chesterton said that poetry floats easily in an infinite sea. Each of Jesus' responses point to infinity, to God beyond all limits: "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God... You shall not tempt the Lord, your God...You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve."

Logic can take a person only so far. We need poetry to bring us home. Our mother Eve, unfortunately, tripped on logic. The devil said to her: "Why deny yourself any experience? Think about the knowledge you will have." That seems reasonable. Our young people - and some not so young - get involved in illicit drugs and illicit sex because they don't want to miss the experience. What the devil doesn't tell them is that by a certain self-denial they could have an experience that so much greater, wider, better.

You and I constantly want something we can hold on to, that we can say, "it's mine. It belongs to me." That sounds reasonable, but it can lead to terrible distortions. Once a guy who had a new car said, "She's beautiful and she's mine. And if someone so much as touches her, I will smash his hand." Ownership is legal and logical - but it can drive a person mad. The devil is a logician. He wants to use logic to destroy us. But God wants to free us from narrow logic. He wants to give us everything. He wants to give us himself. He wants us to give us poetry.


*In the end, Bobby Fisher requested to be buried in a Catholic cemetery in Iceland. It's unclear whether the request was based on anything more than the feeling that the "countryside would be perfect as his final resting place." Whatever the motive, it strikes a hopeful note. Should we not offer a prayer that Bobby Fisher might at last find rest?

Spanish Version

From Archives (Year A homilies for First Sunday of Lent):
Prayer and Spiritual Combat Week 1 (2014)
The Purpose of Temptation (2011)
The Devil is a Logician (2008)
The Temptation of Sloth (2005)
First Signs of Spring (2002)
Original Sin & Temptation (1999)

Complete List of Homilies for First Sunday of Lent ("Temptation Sunday"):

2014: Prayer and Spiritual Combat Week 1
2013: Do Not Talk to the Devil
2012: The Covenant with Noah Today
2011: The Purpose of Temptation
2010: Who Is Like God?
2009: Knee Mail
2008: The Devil is a Logician
2007: More Powerful than Satan
2006: Sir, Go on the Other Side
2005: The Temptation of Sloth
2004: Temptation of Spirituality
2003: Lent with C.S. Lewis
2002: First Signs of Spring
2001: How Satan Operates
2000: The Rabbit's Foot
1999: Original Sin & Temptation
1998: Hidden Sin of Gluttony
1997: Jesus' Temptation & Ours

Ash Wednesday homilies:

The Purpose of Lent
Two Cheers for Catholic Guilt
Don't Waste This Crisis
When You Give Alms
Back to the Basics
Dealing With Guilt
Exercise of Holy Desire

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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