Dear Father John, I have been working on my prayer life consistently for a few years. During this time I have been on retreats and other similar activities. I have noticed a strange pattern: the conservative groups I have had contact with talk a lot about spiritual warfare, but the less traditionalist groups don’t. Until now, I haven’t paid much attention to the discrepancy. But lately I was wondering if maybe I should look into it – maybe understanding it better will help me grow spiritually?
It is so encouraging to hear from yet another blog reader who is committed to praying and growing in their prayer life. Keep it up! We are called to be salt and light in this world, and we can only do that by maintaining our flavor and keeping our lamp full of oil, and that means praying.
Before getting into the core of the issue you raise, I would like to comment on the terms “conservative” and “traditionalist.” In the context of your question, I think I know what you mean, but sometimes those terms (along with the term “liberal”) can cause more fuzziness than clarity. The same words are used for political and academic discussions, and so they carry a lot of baggage. When we bring them into our conversations about the Church or the spiritual life, we use them at our own risk – we simply don’t know if our listeners (readers) will think of the same reality as we are. In general, therefore, I have found it useful to be as specific as possible. For example, if I say, “my parish priest has a great respect for papal teaching and often explains it to us in his homilies,” I am being clear and precise. If I say, “our retreat director advised us to avoid using the Our Father and gave us some centering prayer techniques instead,” I am also being clear. Admittedly, this kind of language is more cumbersome and inconvenient than one-word labels, but in the end, exercising a little discipline here may benefit all of us in our conversations about Church issues. At least, I think so. But maybe this is just a pet peeve and I’m being too conservative…
As regards spiritual warfare, your instinct is right. The concept is at the heart of the Church’s identity, and so it is also at the heart of our efforts to grow in the spiritual life. Understanding it better will be a major help for every aspect of your Christian life.
Grappling with Spiritual Warfare
I am tempted to bombard you with Scripture quotations in order to clearly reveal that we, as followers of Christ, are by definition soldiers in an ongoing spiritual battle. But there are so many passages that I wouldn’t know where to stop. Instead, I will share one of my personal favorites from the documents of the Second Vatican Council. It’s from the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, better known as Gaudium et Spes, paragraph #13:
Although he was made by God in a state of holiness, from the very onset of his history man abused his liberty, at the urging of the Evil One. Man set himself against God and sought to attain his goal apart from God. Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, but their senseless minds were darkened and they served the creature rather than the Creator… Therefore man is split within himself. As a result, all of human life, whether individual or collective, shows itself to be a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness. Indeed, man finds that by himself he is incapable of battling the assaults of evil successfully, so that everyone feels as though he is bound by chains. But the Lord Himself came to free and strengthen man, renewing him inwardly and casting out that “prince of this world” (John 12:31) who held him in the bondage of sin.
This “dramatic struggle between good and evil,” whose primary arena is every human heart, is what we mean by spiritual warfare. Every day, we are faced with decisions about how to use our time, talents, and treasure, about how to treat those around us, about how to respond to difficulties and opportunities. Our ability to make those decisions, those free choices, is what makes us human – squirrels don’t make free choices, they are driven purely by instinct. The quality of those choices determines who we are as human beings, both now and for all eternity. If we repeatedly choose what is good and right, we grow in our communion with the Author of all that is Good and Right, God. If we choose what is evil and self-centered, we distance ourselves from God. And since the very purpose of our existence is to live in communion with God, it is these choices, these free decisions that we make every day, in the most normal circumstances, that determine our everlasting destiny.
As a result, the forces of evil (the devil and his minions, the demons – these are fallen angels who exist in permanent rebellion against God) are interested in influencing those decisions. They want to lure us away from God, expanding their rebellion. They work their influence through temptation. At the same time, God and his servants (the angels and the saints) are working to strengthen us against temptation, so that we can overcome the attacks of evil. This is the normal state of affairs here on earth, and it will be so from now until our Lord comes again at the end of history.
An Imaginary Exercise
If there were a “Spiritual Warfare Daily News,” its headlines would differ wildly from the headlines of our newspapers. Earthquakes, forest fires, wars and rumors of wars, stock prices, sports scores, fashions – all these external realities that tend to monopolize our attention would only appear in the background of the main stories. Instead, headlines would say things like, “Plumber Endangers Soul by Overcharging Widow,” or “School Teacher Conquers Greed by Cancelling Credit Card,” or “Girl Opens Flood of Grace by Being Patient with Her Brother.”
From the point of view of spiritual warfare, which is the point of view of eternal life – God’s point of view, the circumstances of the world around us, however dramatic they may appear, are like the stage sets of a theatre play: what really matters is how the characters, you and I, respond to them, confront them, work with them, and carry out our life-mission (to know, love, and follow Christ and helps others do the same) within their parameters.
I would like to write more about this topic. But before I do, I would like to see how you and other readers respond to this post. Let me know what you think.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC