As we begin Lent, we do well to recall that we are engaged in a great and dramatic battle for our souls. The opening prayer for Ash Wednesday Mass makes use of the image of a military “campaign” and mentions weapons and battle: Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint. The First Sunday of Lent lays out the tactics of the devil in terms of temptation, and relates how we must be prepared to refute and resist such things.
Every ancient prayer manual and guide to spirituality until about fifty years ago had at least one large section devoted to what was known as Pugna Spiritualis (spiritual battle or spiritual warfare). In more recent decades, many spiritual books have either downplayed or completely deleted references to spiritual battle or spiritual warfare.
Many modern approaches to faith, religion, and spirituality prefer to emphasize consoling themes rooted in self-esteem and affirmation. To be sure, the authentic faith can and does offer great consolation, but the truest and deepest consolation often comes after one has persevered along the sometimes-difficult path, along the “narrow way” of the cross. But too many today, in the name of affirmation and pseudo-self-esteem, are all too ready to excuse or even support grave moral disorders rather than fight them.
It is true that the Holy Father would have us focus on mercy this year. And so we should. But, paradoxically, mercy is a tactic of battle. Satan would “love” nothing more than for us to hold grudges and intensify our divisions through prideful resistance. He would prefer that we despair of God’s mercy or despair that it is even possible for us to live apart from sinful habits. Thus mercy is a tool of tactical genius; it breaks the cycle of negativity and sin and robs Satan of victories and of souls, snatching them back from the downward spiral of anger and despair.
Mercy does not mean saying that God doesn’t mind what you do. Rather, it means that saying that God loves you despite your sins and is extending to you a way out of the misery your sins have caused.
Grace and mercy are marvelously extended to us, but it is repentance that opens the door to these gifts. Repentance, too, is a battle tactic, because it embraces God’s daring move to break the satanic cycle of anger and despair. Repentance (metanoia) most literally means to come to a new mind, to a new way of thinking. Repentance is accepting God as our general and following His battle plans for our life. It is recognizing that sin is awful, but that grace and mercy are still extended to us and that we ought to accept and depend upon them. By unlocking grace and mercy, repentance deals serious blows to satanic plans and powers. To repent is to engage in the battle on the right side of the war.
In our times it is rare to hear spiritual realities being spoken of in warlike terms. Many prefer softer terms and images. Some are even outright offended at concepts such as spiritual warfare. Many hymnals have dropped older hymns that reference being on the battlefield for the Lord, or being soldiers in the army of the Lord.
With spiritual battle having been removed from many people’s spiritual landscape, the idea that the Lord would summon us to battle, or to ask us to choose sides, seems foreign, intolerant, and uncompassionate.
Even more dangerous, these modern conceptions not only distort Jesus, but they downplay the presence and influence of Satan. This is a very, very bad idea. Even if we cease fighting against Satan, he will never cease his sometimes very subtle attacks on us.
Jesus called consistently for prayerful, sober vigilance against the powers of evil and sin. Like it or not, we are in a battle. Either we will undertake the battle soberly and vigilantly, or we will be conquered and led off like sheep to the slaughter.
Contrary to the modern spiritual approaches, Christianity has been a militant religion since its inception. Jesus was exposed to every kind of danger from the beginning. Herod sought His life. Satan tried to tempt Him in the desert. Many enemies plotted on all sides as He worked His public ministry, misrepresenting Him, levying false charges, and conspiring to sentence Him to death (eventually succeeding, though only for a moment).
And as for Jesus, so also for His mystical Body, the Church: Saul, Saul why do you persecute me? (Acts 9:4) Jesus warned that the world would hate us (Luke 21:17, John 15:20), that in this world we would have tribulation (Jn 16:33), and that we should watch and pray lest we give way to temptation (Matt 26:41). He summons us to persevere to the end if we would be saved (Mk 13:13). Jesus rather vividly described the kind of struggle with which we live when He said, From the time of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force (Matthew 11:12). Indeed, no Christian until the time that Jesus returns can consider himself dismissed from this great spiritual battle, this great drama in which we exist, this battle between good and evil.
Unpopular theme or not, we do well to remember that we are in the midst of a great cosmic and spiritual battle. And in that battle we must be willing to choose sides and fight with the Lord for the Kingdom of God. Either we will gather with Him or we will be scattered. We are to fight for our own soul and the souls of those whom we love.
In Lent we move toward the awesome battle we call the Paschal Mystery, in which Jesus will conquer Satan’s pride by humility and obedience. We are reminded once again of the great cosmic battle that the Lord waged and that is still being waged today. Though already victorious in His mystical Body the Church, the Lord in His faithful members still suffers violence, rejection, and ridicule. Lent is a time to reclaim territory from the evil one, to take back what the devil stole from us. We are to advance the glory of God’s Kingdom through the fruits of great spiritual struggle, sacrifice, prayer, fasting, preaching, and an extensive missionary campaign to which the Lord has summoned and commissioned us.
The battle is on; the struggle is engaged! To spiritual arms, one and all! Fight the good fight for the Lord.
Still not convinced that we are at war? Let the Lord pull back the veil just a bit and let you look at what’s really going on. The final words of this article will not be mine; they will be the Lord’s. Here is described the cosmic battle that is responsible for most of the suffering and confusion you experience:
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days. Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.” When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach. Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus (Rev 12).
Here’s a great video reminding us that the Church is more a battleship than a cruise ship: