Three months into his six month solitary retreat all was not going well for Brother Antony. True, the days were peaceful enough, and the silence enjoyable. He relished great views of the Western Isles, where in the early Spring the snow still capped the island peaks, and he loved the gentle whispering of the wind. But at nights when he was alone in the darkness of his remote location, he felt disturbed by a presence that was alien to his prayer. He had read somewhere that there had been a pagan temple in the region hundreds of years ago, and he wondered whether the disturbing presence was connected with that. But it was surmise, and he got on with his temporary hermit’s life.
Then one night when the wind blew around the isolated cottage and the darkness swirled round its ancient walls he heard a footstep on the gravel outside, and then a knock on the door. He opened to see a walker, clad as you would expect in hiking boots and anorak, who sought shelter for the night. In keeping with his rule of hospitality he invited the stranger into his house, but as the stranger entered Antony saw that his boots looked surprisingly clean, and he sensed that as the stranger entered the darkness was swirling in with him.
Antony asked whether the stranger, who had not given his name, was cold and whether he should put more on the fire, but the stranger demurred with a shudder and said that he had no need of fires. Nor did he eat.
Conversation was desultory until they turned to religion and the stranger suddenly said to Antony, “I greatly admire what you are doing, but you are an intellectually talented man, could you not make more of your life than this, you could become rich and famous.”
But Antony demurred, saying that he did not require riches and fame, so the stranger changed his tune.
“Being isolated here means that you are unknown. How can you do your work if no one knows you. I have many friends in the media who can take you onwards. You can be a great media personality. Think what you can do for the church if you get on the television.”
But Antony replied that whether or not he ever got on the television was for the future, but the time was not now and that he would do so only when God called. Moreover, he could not break his retreat, for that would undermine the spiritual strength that he sought.
But the final suggestion was the one that bit hard.
“The church is so short of power these days, and people in high places are so inadequate, there are not the great men of the past. You can serve the church by seeking power. Go home, strive to become a bishop, even higher. You have the potential to be pope. Think of the good that you can do.”
For a moment Antony hesitated as the last temptation spoke to his deepest fears, needs and hopes, but he retorted, “None who have sought to be pope have ever been a good one. If God wants me to be pope he will send for me, until then I will wait.”
Then on an impulse Antony said, “Shall we pray together?
But the stranger stood and said, “Time for me to depart.”
And without a word he left the cottage, his footfall lasting for but a moment as he retreated into the night. As he left Antony felt the darkness receding and sensed that the presence that had beset him was going away.
Then in a flash of insight he turned to his Bible and opened it at Luke’s gospel, the story of the temptations of Christ, where one line struck him like a revelation.
“Then the Devil left him, to return at the appointed time.”
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