Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”
The above quote from the New Testament is well known, and has been an inspiration for many people. At the end of the 20th century, some even thought that a strict forty day fast, without food or water, would bring them immortality. It seems that no one has managed to keep this fast for such a long time; however, there were persons who asserted that they had persevered for ten or more days. Actually, there is a widespread belief that a strict forty day fast is physically impossible from a scientific point of view, although there are some people who claim that they can survive on prana or light only.
Can we therefore find any meaning or relevance within this text that will help those seeking for the real purpose of their lives? Moreover, should we not treat the statement that a forty day strict fast can bring immortality, as utter nonsense?
This of course, will be dependent on how we understand the words ‘forty’ and ‘fasting’, for in order to make sense of this text, they cannot be taken literally. Let us examine this symbolism and see if we can’t come to a deeper comprehension.
Firstly, we have to understand that the texts of the Bible have, over time, been altered and deliberately changed, and therefore the earlier meaning of the above fragment, has also been modified. The same ‘temptation’ story also appears in other Gospels – Mark 1:12 and Luke 4:1-4 – in somewhat different forms. But there is not much sense in investigating what its original character was, nor what the author of it might have meant, because it is not even known if any original form of it ever existed and whether there was an author. Nevertheless, we can assume that the fundamental concepts have been largely preserved. They are: Jesus; forty days and nights; fasting; temptation; stones and God’s word.
Let us start by investigating the symbolism of the number 4 as it is represented in the concept of the 40 days. The number 4 can symbolize the functionality and impulses of the four vehicles of the human personality – the physical, etheric, astral and mental bodies, while the 0 refers to a higher spiritual activity of these vehicles. This higher activity can be understood as an assimilation of these impulses through a heightened level of consciousness, indicating a greater autonomy and independence from the previous automatic, unconscious reactions that normally drive our personality.
Such a level of awareness and sensitivity is as if over-personal state of being and can be achieved by detachment form those negative desires and emotions such as anger, irritation, fear, depression, jealousy, hostility, or tendency to compete, as well as those of a ‘loftier’ and more sublime nature that bring us happiness, joy and fulfilment, yet are more difficult to abandon. There need be no fear that neutralizing these desires and emotions will diminish us, for they are replaced by higher and more subtle states, for which we have longed unconsciously for years, moved by a strong internal pursuit of the Truth.
Thus the ‘40-day fast’ may refer to all our four vehicles refraining from engaging in the internal stimuli that are colored by our own personality. If we reach such a state of neutrality, it can to some degree, be compared to the Buddhist state of Nirvana, and if it becomes sufficiently anchored in the being of man, then the influence of another reality, sometimes called Gnosis, can be perceived. This new reality is not initially experienced consciously by the personality, as it is of a totally different nature to that of the ‘self’. In the Bible story, this is when Jesus was described as hungry, which also indicates that he hungered for the substance not of this world.
The task of all Gnostic Spiritual Schools is to help those who are ready, experience such a state. For this purpose, a direct contact, a link with this supernature is made, which at the same time weakens the powers of the ordinary nature.
This is not an easy state, as our ordinary nature is not accustomed to this, and the new reality is imperceptible to our senses, so seems colorless and empty, which in the temptation story is compared to bare, raw stones. That is why an immediate temptation appears in us to turn these stones into bread, that is, to give them color and make them more pleasant with the help of creative forces of our personality, as we constantly do in our normal life, abusing our powers of God’s sons by creating mental and astral beings – in the form of various persistent thoughts and feelings.
In the ‘temptation’ story however, Jesus, that is, that part of us that genuinely strives after Truth, is not persuaded, because he knows that a different food, a different nourishment is open to him, and he expresses this in his words: ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’. Thanks to this process, internal work continues in us, which in time – with proper stimulation – can be done with more and more awareness.
Through its literature and activities, by helping to focus attention, the Spiritual Schools offer a great support to those experiencing such moments of ‘temptation’. The ‘success’ of this support is, of course, dependent on our reaction, which can vary, just as we individuals vary. However, it is our perseverance that is the inner strength that moves us through progress towards success. When this ‘progress’ has reached a certain inner quality, a more direct contact with the field of the other reality will also develop, giving us a possibility of conscious assimilation of ‘this real food’, which will allow us to make our soul immortal over time. In this way, the possibilities that are available to us in this life can be realized, and thus we can bring the fullness of meaning to our humanity.
Hopefully, this short exploration can be of some help for all of us on this inner journey.