I am sure that there are some people who saw this snake image and quickly decided to surf to another page. Many people don’t like snakes. It can’t be simply that they are slimy and slide on their bellies since we are delighted to see worms, the bigger the better, in the garden compost. Our fears about snakes probably stem from the Genesis account of the snake as the cunning and subtle tempter who was subsequently cursed.
For us, the word “cunning” has mostly negative connotations, rather than the more positive “showing inventiveness and skill‘ that is also a part of the definition.
In his Epiphany homily yesterday Pope Francis spoke of “holy cunning” when speaking of the decision of the Magi to avoid Herod’s dwelling because it was “gloomy, [and] filled with darkness, suspicion, fear [and] envy”. (Pope Francis, Epiphany Homily). The pope commented:
One aspect of the light which guides us on the journey of faith is holy “cunning”. This holy “cunning” is also a virtue. It consists of a spiritual shrewdness which enables us to recognize danger and avoid it. The Magi used this light of “cunning” when, on the way back, they decided not to pass by the gloomy palace of Herod, but to take another route. These wise men from the East teach us how not to fall into the snares of darkness and how to defend ourselves from the shadows which seek to envelop our life. By this holy “cunning”, the Magi guarded the faith.
We too need to guard the faith, guard it from darkness. Many times, however, it is a darkness under the guise of light. This is because the devil, as saint Paul, says, disguises himself at times as an angel of light. And this is where a holy “cunning” is necessary in order to protect the faith, guarding it from those alarmist voices that exclaim: “Listen, today we must do this, or that…”. Faith though, is a grace, it is a gift. We are entrusted with the task of guarding it, by means of this holy “cunning” and by prayer, love, charity.
We need to welcome the light of God into our hearts and, at the same time, to cultivate that spiritual cunning which is able to combine simplicity with astuteness, as Jesus told his disciples: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16).
Most of us are pretty cunning about avoiding danger or disease. When it comes to the people we don’t like we often develop this avoidance to a fine art. However we might not always be as shrewd when it comes to dealing with temptation. Ignatius of Loyola, known for his wise and robust teaching on discernment, encourages the pilgrim to grow to notice the “tail of the serpent,” thus becoming as cunning as the serpent in noticing how something that might at first glance seem attractive or even a good option, can in reality be a deceptive hook of temptation. Jesuit Pope Francis would be well aware of this rule of discernment of spirits for the second week of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises.
I was thinking about this in relation to resolutions that I sometimes make. If I resolve to eat less chocolate, then it is unwise for me to visit a chocolaterie, especially on an empty stomach. I need to be aware too that when I wheel my trolley down the supermarket confectionery aisle and suddenly have the generous thought that the people who are staying with me next week might like chocolate…well, perhaps this hospitable thought is really the tail of the serpent seeking to lead me astray.
If we apply this chocolate analogy to the other temptations we face, then we will understand what the pope is saying when he suggests that “these wise men from the East teach us how not to fall into the snares of darkness and how to defend ourselves from the shadows which seek to envelop our life”.
It is significant too to note that these three wise people have the help of each other in the discernment that they make not to return to Herod’s house of horror. Had I been making the journey alone I might have decided to go back to Herod to convert him, or at least to avoid getting into his bad books. He might even be grateful and reward me…
But with the help of each other their sound discernment and collective resolve away from evil and towards good ensures that they journey from the shadows into the light.
And this would be a great new year’s resolution for us: to avoid the people who lead us into the valley of darkness, and to journey with those who are following an attraction to the one who gifts us the fulness of light and life.