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?
I hope the first three parts of this series (Part I, Part II, Part III) have succeeded in helping you understand the reality and nature of spiritual warfare. By now you may be piqued, though, at how theoretical it has been. That was necessary – no one can act intelligently without knowledge of the situation they are facing. But now it’s time to get practical. We know that our daily life as Christians consists in an ongoing battle, a steep climb beset with obstacles and enemies. The battle takes place in each person’s heart, where we make our decisions. In every decision, we can choose our personal, natural, and self-centered preferences, or God’s wise, redeeming, and often uncomfortable (for us) preferences. So, what can we do to defend ourselves against our enemies (the world, the flesh, and the devil), who are always trying to drag us away from God’s will and into the pit of self-will? Four things.
1) Steering Straight
First, we have to keep our mind clear. We have to stay focused on the truths that our faith reveals to us: the truth of heaven and hell; the truth of where happiness resides (in communion with God); the truth of whose voice is dependable (the voice of the Church); the truth of our own weakness and wounded nature… Jesus put it simply: “… You will come to know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
Our spiritual enemies obscure the truth. They hide part of it, or exaggerate another part of it. They put before our mind’s eye a false promise. We can only avoid being deceived if we are consciously, purposely, and regularly feeding our minds with the truth. If you are driving and take your hands off the steering wheel, what will happen? Sooner or later (probably sooner), the wheels will turn whichever way gravity, momentum, friction, and the road pulls them, and you will crash. You have to keep your hands on the wheel so as to keep heading in the right direction. You don’t necessarily have to grip the wheel with all your might (unless you are in the middle of a storm). You don’t necessarily even have to grip the wheel with both hands. But you have to keep steering, or the forces of entropy will steer you to destruction.
Keeping our minds clear is like keeping our hands on the steering wheel. We have to stay in touch with the sources of our faith: the Bible, the teaching of the Church, the writings of the saints and spiritual masters. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you spend four-and-a-half hours a day in the library. But it does mean finding and regularly dipping into the sources that explain our faith and apply it to our lives. It means finding dependable explanations of current events and issues, explanations that shed the light of God’s revelation on them. It means actively asking questions about what you believe and seeking the answers from trustworthy guides. It means study, reflection, discussion, and an active pursuit of deeper understanding. How sad it is to meet grown-up Catholics who know no more about their faith than they did when they received their first Communion as a child! How happy the devil is with such Catholics, because it’s so much easier for him to lead them astray with a skewed story on CNN about the Church, or an article in the New York Times, or a seductive work of spiritual distortion like The Da Vinci Code!
2) Keeping the Pedal to the Metal
Second, we have to keep our will in shape. We have all been wounded by original sin, and by our personal sins. And so we all can identify with St. Paul when he says, “I do not understand my own behavior; I do not act as I mean to, but I do things that I hate” (Romans 7:15). Even when we know what our faith asks of us, we often find it hard to comply. The mind (the intellect) may see our destination clearly, but the will (our willpower) may resist (our enemies egg on this resistance). If we have our hands on the steering wheel, it does no good unless we also put our foot on the gas pedal.
Keeping the will in shape requires self-discipline and self-governance. I wish there were a shortcut, but there isn’t. We have to discipline ourselves: use a budget; follow a personal schedule; go to bed at a reasonable hour so as to get up at a reasonable hour; eat and exercise healthily; keep our stuff (room, car, house, office, garage…) clean and in order; avoid over-indulgence in entertainment; do chores; don’t get distracted at work; avoid procrastination… Everything your mother taught you when you were growing up was steeped in wisdom. An ordered life is the backbone of a healthy will. This type of self-discipline, because it requires self-denial, can also be a fruitful source of penance. Sometimes we are attracted by exotic penances, like climbing the Holy Stairs on our knees. Nothing wrong with that. But the warp and woof of spiritual maturity are the quite unromantic realities of constancy and hidden sacrifice. These strengthen us, so that we can say yes to whatever our faith asks of us, no matter how wily our enemies get. Remember, it’s an ongoing thing – we will never be perfect at this here on earth; we will always be tweaking, adjusting, and recovering from bouts of disorder and laziness, but if the effort is constant, the fruits will be too.
Of course, we have to stay balanced. Some personalities tend to revere order for order’s sake, and they go berserk at the slightest alteration in their schedule or plans. They are constantly on edge, lest they arrive two minutes late, or lest the dishes don’t get done right away. If you have one of those personalities, you need to form your will in the other direction, disciplining yourself to relax and be flexible, to forgive and bear with the faults and personalities of others, without compromising the essence of an ordered, purposeful life.
3) Keeping the Gas Tank Full
Third, we have to keep our spiritual gas tank full of God’s grace. Jesus made this amply clear: “I am the vine; you are the branches… With me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The Christian life is a supernatural life. We have to do our part, because God doesn’t want us to be robots – he wants us to be friends. But our part is never enough. His grace is the lifeblood of spiritual maturity, wisdom, and lasting happiness. If you have your hands firmly on the steering wheel and your foot on the accelerator, you still won’t go anywhere if the car is out of gas.
We tap into God’s grace through regular and conscientious participation in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and confession (both of which make the devil furious and send him packing), and through prayer. And, in fact, a lively and growing life of prayer is the secret to a conscientious participation in the sacraments. If you aren’t cultivating a personal relationship with your Lord on a daily basis, listening for his words to you and speaking to him from your heart, even your sacramental life will begin to fall into routine. So your daily God-time is crucial. It is your lifeline. It is the one thing that you need to protect the most.
If you were the devil, you would do everything in your power to empty the gas tank of grace, wouldn’t you? Don’t let him. To this end, it is often helpful to be part of a small group (Bible study, prayer group, ecclesial movement…) that can supply some accountability in your spiritual commitments. Life in today’s world is just so busy, so noisy. It never has been easy to stay close to God all by oneself, and it is even harder now. To this end, we also need to take time for spiritual retreats, pilgrimages, and special liturgical celebrations. Our lives should be punctuated by objective encounters with God’s grace. That’s why he gave us the Church.
4) Don’t Be A Fool
Fourth, we need regular, strong doses of objectivity. In other words, we need to be told that we are fools, but God still loves us. The devil loves convincing people that their subjective point of view is sufficient for growth in holiness – they are called, eventually, heretics.
Do you remember the two disciples that abandoned the Apostles after Good Friday? They were walking home to Emmaus, and Jesus (now resurrected) fell in with them, but they didn’t recognize him. They told him all about the events of the Passion, and explained that they had been wrong (so they thought, subjectively) about Jesus being the Messiah, so now they were heading home to go back to their old lives. And Jesus’ first words to them were: “You foolish men!” He called them fools! And then he explained the bigger picture and put them back on track. It was the first spiritual direction after Christ’s resurrection. We need spiritual direction. Just as even the best athletes will never reach their full potential without a coach to push, guide, and motivate them, so we will never really get in spiritual gear if we try to direct ourselves. Which, by the way, is why we started this blog.
In conclusion, if someone tells you that spiritual warfare is irrelevant, you can confidently discard their input. And now I think you can see that yes, indeed, it is extremely useful for our spiritual growth to understand, and to reflect deeply upon, the reality and dynamics of spiritual warfare. I hope these posts have helped you to do that. Happy fighting.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC