A Late Lenten Meditation on the Reality of Spiritual Warfare

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 downplayed or completely deleted references to spiritual battle or spiritual warfare.

Sadly, many modern approaches to faith, religion, and spirituality prefer to emphasize exclusively consoling themes rooted in self-esteem, affirmation, etc. 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 ready to excuse, and even affirm grave moral disorders, rather than fight them. Grace and mercy are preached, but without reference to the repentance that opens the door to these gifts. Both the possibility of Hell and any consequences of sin, are absent from many modern conceptions of faith and religious practice.

Some years ago, I was approached by a rather angry woman who, having heard my sermon on the seriousness of certain sins (which were in the readings of the day), expressed great indignation that I would preach on such topics. She said, “I come to church to be consoled and have my spirits lifted, not to hear old-fashioned warnings about judgment and sins.” She felt quite a “righteous indignation,” and was most certain that I had transgressed a fundamental norm, namely, that religion exists to console, and that any challenge to one’s moral stance, (except perhaps caring for the poor), is intolerant and way out of line.

Indeed, many today have this kind of attitude: that it is their birthright not to be troubled or vexed in any way by something people might say, especially a preacher who claims to represent God! The “God they worship” would never trouble them. They will have Jesus for their consoler and best friend, but not their Lord, and certainly not their judge. And never mind the literally thousands of verses from Scripture in which Jesus himself speaks sternly and warns of sin, death, judgment, and Hell. They will have none of it, and are certain that “the Jesus they know,” would never raise his voice at them or challenge them even for a moment. Never mind that the real Jesus says to take up our cross and follow him.

With spiritual battle having been removed from many people’s spiritual landscape, the idea that the Lord would summon us to battle, or ask us to choose sides, seems strangely 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 ceases 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 soberly and vigilantly undertake the battle, or we will be conquered and led off like sheep to the slaughter.

Despite what modern spiritual approaches would like to eliminate, 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, and eventually even 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 warns us 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 on leave or dismissed from this great spiritual battle, from this great drama that we exist in, this battle between good and evil.

Popular 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 scatter. We are to fight for our own soul, and the souls of those whom we love.

In the holy week that is about to unfold, we are reminded once again of the great cosmic battle that the Lord waged, and that is still being waged in our time. Though already victorious, in his mystical Body the Church, the Lord in his faithful members still suffers violence, rejection, and ridicule. It is also for us 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 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)

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Late Lenten Meditation on the Reality of Spiritual Warfare

On the Problem of Arrested Spiritual Development

Consider a five-year-old child who had not yet learned to walk or talk, who could only lie in his crib, who could not eat solid food. Most of us would consider this a great tragedy, a case of arrested development. Surely as he failed to pass expected milestones his parents would consult multiple doctors in an anxious search for the cause of the problem and its cure. No one would fail to see the problem or shrug it off.

Now, let’s look at a case of arrested spiritual development and compare the typical response:

Consider a young adult—say 25 years old—who has graduated high school and even earned a college degree. Perhaps upon graduation he landed a job in a cutting-edge field. Despite being a highly trained expert in his secular field, his spiritual development is arrested; he has progressed little since the second grade. In some ways he has even gone backward: he can no longer recite an Act of Contrition or even the Hail Mary.

He still goes to Mass, but he is incapable of expressing much of anything about his faith. He knows that there is a God but does not know for sure if Jesus is God—he thinks so, but he’s not sure. He is aware of the Bible but can’t name all four Gospels and wouldn’t even be sure exactly where to find them in it. Names like Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, David, Peter, and Judas all sound familiar, but he can’t tell you much about them except that they’re in the Bible—somewhere. He’s heard of the sacraments but can’t name them; he isn’t sure he’s received any of them or if they are only for priests and nuns. Every now and then he thinks to pray, but he really doesn’t know what to say or how to do it. Sometimes he remembers a prayer from Mass, but when he tries to recite it on his own he gets stuck because there aren’t other people around him saying it and helping him along. He can recite the Our Father, though; we have to give him that!

Mind you, this is a smart guy: he has a lot of knowledge in his field and is sought out for technical advice in the corporation where he works. Spiritually, however, he’s an infant.

The interesting question is this: why were his parents and others in his parish not alarmed as they noticed his arrested spiritual development? As he went from second grade to third and then on to fourth, not only did not progress, he regressed. Why were his parents not concerned? Why were the pastor and catechists not shocked that he seemed to show no progress in the spiritual life?

As he advanced to high school his moral life began to slide. Soon his language coarsened, he resented authority, and he began consuming pornography on the Internet. His parents were irritated by this, but not alarmed enough to intensify his recourse to the sacraments or to augment his spiritual training. Spiritually he was frozen in time, but no one seemed to care enough to do anything about it.

But, by God, when he almost failed a math course his parents sprang into action and hired a tutor! After all, a failing grade might threaten his ability to get into a good college. In contrast, his failure to grow spiritually didn’t seem to faze them much. When he went off to college they drove up with him, toured the dorms, met a few professors, and attended orientation sessions—but they never thought to meet the college chaplain or to ask who would be spiritually teaching or pastoring their son. That sort of stuff just didn’t occur to them to ask about.

Well, you get the picture:

  • Expectations are low. Most people don’t really expect that they should grow much in their faith. Advanced knowledge and deep prayer are for priests and nuns. Too many laypeople just don’t expect much and thus are not alarmed that they and their kids know next to nothing about the faith.
  • The faith is a side issue to many people. What really matters is that you study hard to get into a career that will get you access to the “American Dream.” Never mind that worldly things don’t last or that it’s pointless and harmful to climb the ladder of success when it is leaning up against the wrong wall. We’ll think about all that tomorrow.
  • The sense that faith really matters at all is muted.Many people today have the unbiblical view that almost everyone goes to Heaven. This removes motivation to grow in the faith or be serious about living in a countercultural way. They think, why work hard or seek to develop yourself when the “the paycheck has already been deposited and you’ll continue get paid no matter what”?

So, here we are today with many Christians who have a very bad case of arrested development. Scripture says,

  • We have much to say … but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil(Hebrews 5:11-14).
  • Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly (1 Cor 3:1-2).
  • Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults (1 Cor 14:20).
  • My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good (Jer 4:22).
  • When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me (1 Cor 13:11).
  • It was [the Lord] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ (Eph 4:11-15).

Scripture is clear that the normal Christian life is this:

  • To be constantly growing in our faith.
  • To go from the mother’s milk of elementary doctrine to the solid food of more advanced understanding.
  • To progress from being young students to mature teachers.
  • To exhibit mature knowledge of the faith and behavior that bespeaks mature Christianity.
  • To go from being worldly in our priorities to being spiritual.
  • To be able to distinguish false doctrine from true.
  • To show forth a stability of life and not be easily carried away by all the latest trends and fads.

Yes, this is the normal Christian life. Maturity pertains to the human person in general and it certainly ought to pertain to men and women of faith. I pray that you who read this blog are well along this path and are seeking to grow. I presume it, in fact.

Many are not maturing, however, and I wonder if enough of us in the Church today see this for the horrifically strange and tragic phenomenon that it is. It is far stranger and more tragic than a five-year-old still lying in a crib, speechless and unable to eat solid food. It is vastly more serious than the high schooler who is failing math. To fail math may affect college and a career, but those are passing consequences. To fail in the faith affects eternity.

Why are we so serious about passing, worldly threats and not so much about threats that have eternal consequences? Arrested spiritual development is by far the most serious of all developmental issues. Parents may give their child every good thing, but if they do not ensure the gift of strong and mature faith, they have given him nothing but sand that will slip through his fingers.

Only what you do for Christ will last. Pray God that we get our priorities straight and make sure that we—and everyone—grow up in the Lord. It is true that we must accept the Kingdom of God like a little child in order to enter it, but this well-known scriptural text refers to our dependence not our ignorance. God made us to know Him and to fail to do so is to miss the whole point and dignity of our life.

A Warning About Sloth in a Story from the Old Testament

The Israelites in the Desert, Jean-Léon Gérôme

This week in daily Mass we are presented with a vivid portrait of the sin of sloth and its effects:

A critical moment has arrived for the people of Israel. Having seen the Egyptian army defeated at the Red Sea, they have now crossed the desert in a short period of time, perhaps a matter of months. It is now time to enter the Promised Land and savor its “milk and honey.” This is the Land that God had promised them through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In effect, God says, “It is yours. Go and enter it.”

The LORD said to Moses [in the desert of Paran],
“Send men to reconnoiter the land of Canaan,
which I am giving the children of Israel.
You shall send one man from each ancestral tribe,
all of them princes.”

In response, Moses sends out a party of chosen men to reconnoiter the land. Upon their return, they verify the goodness of the land:

After reconnoitering the land for forty days they returned,
met Moses and Aaron and the whole congregation of the children of Israel
in the desert of Paran at Kadesh,
made a report to them all,
and showed the fruit of the country
to the whole congregation.
They told Moses: “We went into the land to which you sent us.
It does indeed flow with milk and honey, and here is its fruit.”

But then they spread among the people a discouraging report:

However, the people who are living in the land are fierce,
and the towns are fortified and very strong!
Besides, we saw descendants of the Anakim there ….

We cannot attack these people; they are too strong for us.”
Thus they spread discouraging reports among the children of Israel
about the land they had scouted, saying,
“The land that we explored is a country that consumes its inhabitants.
And all the people we saw there are huge, veritable giants
(the Anakim were a race of giants);
we felt like mere grasshoppers, and so we must have seemed to them.”

At this, the whole community broke out with loud cries,
and even in the night the people wailed
.

Caleb, however, summoned the people to faith:

Caleb, however, to quiet the people toward Moses, said,
“We ought to go up and seize the land, for we can certainly do so.”

Note therefore the fear and subsequent sloth among the people. There is no doubt that entering the Promised Land will require effort and sacrifice. There will be obstacles to overcome, but God has already delivered them in a wondrous and miraculous way. He had parted the Red Sea, fed them with bread from Heaven, and supplied water in the desert from its very rocks. Surely the favors of the Lord are not exhausted; His arm is not shortened nor His strength spent!

How quickly they have forgotten the deeds of the Lord! They will not trust Him to deliver them again. This is no rash presumption that they can take the Land; it is based on a promise and a clear directive of the Lord.  As in the Exodus and crossing of the Red Sea and the desert, it will involve effort and trust, but the outcome is promised and they have already seen a foretaste of the fruits of the Land.

Never mind any of this; the people wail. It is too hard, too much effort. They fear the sacrifices, even the war, necessary to make the entrance. They (still) do not trust God to help them with the necessary graces.

Sloth is an oppressive sorrow or an aversion to the good things that God is offering. It is usually rooted in the perception that inheriting these good things involves too much effort or sacrifice. Sometimes we also perceive that it might involve changes we are not willing to make, such as giving up our favorite sins or attachments. In sloth, all this seems oppressive and sorrowful to us.

This story from the Book of Numbers is an image for our spiritual life. God parted the waters for us in our baptism and brought us out of slavery to freedom. Although we are in the desert of this world, He has loosed us from the grip of Satan and now feeds us with His word, the Eucharist, and many graces. The Promised Land of Heaven is just ahead!

Despite the promise of God and the help of His grace, many still consider the effort and sacrifice necessary to inherit Heaven to be too much. Turning away from favorite sins and attachments and engaging in spiritual warfare is all just too much. To many, forsaking apparent goods in order to attain true and lasting goods seems a poor trade-off. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Better the lesser pleasures I have now than the greater ones I can have later, after sacrifice and effort. The trinkets of this world come to be preferred to the treasures of Heaven.

This is sloth: sorrow or aversion to the good things that God is offering.

The sad result of sloth is that we fail to inherit or enjoy the true and lasting good that God is offering us. God will not make us take what He offers. He will not force us to take the journey, to undertake the effort or spiritual battle necessary to attain to the good things of Heaven. We seem perfectly willing to make many sacrifices in order to get worldly trinkets, but if we are unwilling to make sacrifices for heavenly glories, God will not force us to do so. If we don’t want what God is offering, we don’t have to take it.

God will encourage us through the “Calebs” of our time. He will continue to inspire preachers and teachers who will summon us to faith, trust, and zeal so that we both desire Heaven and become willing to engage in battle for it.

Finally, here is the sad ending of the passage from Numbers:

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron:
“How long will this wicked assembly grumble against me?
I have heard the grumblings of the children of Israel against me.
Tell them: By my life, says the LORD,
I will do to you just what I have heard you say.
Here in the desert shall your dead bodies fall.
Forty days you spent in scouting the land;
forty years shall you suffer for your crimes:
one year for each day.
Thus you will realize what it means to oppose me.
I, the LORD, have sworn to do this
to all this wicked assembly that conspired against me:
here in the desert they shall die to the last man.”

Indeed, that sinful and slothful generation would never see the Promised Land. They don’t want it (at least not at the cost prescribed), and so it will not be forced upon them. If they want the desert they can have the it—until it claims their dead bodies. For the Nation of Israel, this would be a kind of forty-year purgation. For the sinful and slothful individuals, there would be no Promised Land. That generation would die inheriting what they wanted: the desert.

So, too, for us. Heaven is promised to us but it is not required. We have a decision to make: Will we engage in the spiritual battle with the help of God’s grace, receiving the Promised Land of Heaven, or not? The Day of Judgment is not about what God wants (He wants to save us); it is about what we want. The judgment to be made is this: did you and do you want the Kingdom God is offering, with all it values and its citizens or not?

Pray for zeal and joy, two virtues that are necessary in order to combat sloth. Pray to desire what God wants to give!

Reminders on the Road to Victory – A Witness to the Truth of a Teaching from St. Catherine

One of the great battles in the spiritual life is mastering our emotions, by God’s grace. Our emotions are not evil, but they are unruly and easily manipulated by the world and the devil. Our own flesh (fallen nature) also contributes to the difficulty of self-mastery.

Yet as I have often testified, if we are faithful to the Lord and to prayer, growth in the spiritual life happens. Many of my once-unruly emotions have become more stable and are more quickly assuaged when they arise. I feel very good and confident about the progress I have made because I know it is the Lord who has accomplished it. Yes, I did my work: prayer, spiritual direction, Scripture, confession, Mass, and psychotherapy, but I know it was the Lord. For example, I remember awaking one morning and realizing that some very deep hurts from the past were gone. I couldn’t say when they had left; it seemed as though they had just evaporated. God was signaling me that it was over; they were gone, just gone. I felt a forgiveness, even a compassion, for those who had hurt me. I knew that I wasn’t the one who had accomplished this. Without God’s grace, I was prone to cling to my anger and resentments and rehash the injustices I had felt. Thankfully those feelings have never returned.

Anxiety was always the unruliest of my emotions. Beginning at ten years of age I would have crippling bouts of anxiety and panic. During these periods I could barely sleep and would obsessively ruminate over the fears that seized me. As a boy, I was terrified of various things: a house fire, someone breaking in and killing our entire family, etc. As I grew older and had more duties and responsibilities, I would have periodic attacks of extreme anxiety about assignments or about presentations/sermons I had to give.

The sporadic nature of these bouts seemed to confirm their demonic source. I could go for months, even years at a time, and be fine; suddenly, and usually for no apparent reason, I would feel an overwhelming panic or anxiety. For example, when I had been a priest for over ten years and been preaching and teaching with ease, I suddenly went through a period of grave anxiety over my Sunday sermons. I would worry all week long about the upcoming sermon.

Whether or not these were satanic attacks, the fact is that demons are opportunistic. They found doorways in my psyche and I, with the Lord, knew that deliverance prayer alone wasn’t going to be enough. The doors had to be closed. The work of grace and my cooperation with the Lord was going to have to win the day.

The heart of the battle occurred during a ten-year period, from my mid-thirties to my mid-forties. The medicines were these: prayer, spiritual direction, psychotherapy, sacraments, liturgy, the purification of the intellect (since most feelings come from thoughts), and learning by grace to trust God.

As in any battle, the victories came, but there were also setbacks and relapses. Little by little, trust triumphed over anxiety. A more stable, serene, and confident joy became my set point.

Now in my mid-fifties, I can say that the most recent ten years have been largely and increasingly victorious. I am seldom anxious about anything today. Thank you, Lord, and thank you also for all who have helped, guided, consoled, and encouraged me in my journey!

Every now and again, usually for just a moment (or no more than a day), I am reminded that I hold this treasure in an earthen vessel and that I need to stay “prayed-up”; I need to maintain the disciplines I have learned. Maybe it is a dream in the middle of the night from which I struggle to recover. Perhaps it is just a memory that seems all too real. Maybe it is the looming possibility of a new duty. Thanks be to God, though, the reminders are brief and whatever anxiety comes is manageable. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to God for this gift!

St. Catherine of Siena writes of these “reminders” in her major work, The Dialogue of Divine Providence. God the Father teaches her why He permits them:

Sometimes I resort to a pleasant “trick” with [the spiritually mature] to keep them humble …. For the sensual emotions slumber [even] in the perfect soul but they do not die. This is why, if they relax their efforts, or let the flame of holy desire grow dim, these emotions will awaken. It is essential to remain in holy fear of me …. Otherwise … the emotions seem to be asleep and it seems that they do not feel the weight of great sufferings or burdens. But then, in some tiny thing that really is nothing (that they themselves will later laugh at), their feelings are so aroused that they are stupefied. My providence does this to make them grow and go down into the valley of humility. [I do this] to give them give opportunity for merit, to keep them in the self-knowledge whence they draw true humility, to make them compassionate instead of cruel toward their neighbors so they will sympathize with them in their labors. For those who have suffered themselves are far more compassionate to the suffering than those who have not suffered

(The Dialogue of Divine Providence, p. 145).

We still need pricks and blows lest in our progress we become prideful or think that something is so far in the past that we forget to be grateful for our deliverance. The point is that we should never lose heart nor think that all progress is lost when we see a simple reminder of our frailty. With God we are strong, but only with God. Salutary reminders of this are necessary and the Lord, who loves us, provides them.

Fix Me, Jesus; Fix Me – Three Reasons Why Even Our Spiritual Life Needs Fixing

When I was a good bit younger, in college actually, I had to take a few economics and marketing courses. At that time I thought to myself, “God has a bad marketing department,” since things like Scripture and prayer were often so difficult to understand and do. God seemed to insist that we pray, but everyone I ever asked admitted that prayer was difficult. And while many had reasons they offered as to why prayer was difficult, I still wondered why, if God could just zap prayer and make it delightful, He didn’t just do so. “Yes,” I thought, “God has a bad marketing plan!”

But of course God isn’t selling products; He’s raising children. He’s healing hearts, and heart surgery involves pain and often lengthy procedures. Many purifications, mortifications, and changes are going to be necessary if we want to attain holiness and Heaven.

Let’s look at three reasons our soul needs purification. Note that purifications of the soul are akin to, but distinct from, the mortifications necessary for our body and the passions related to it (e.g., gluttony, lust, and greed). For our soul, too, can be weighed down with excesses and defects.

Drawing from the spiritual masters and St. Thomas Aquinas, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange details three reasons that our soul needs purification, especially as we begin to make progress. They are spiritual pride, spiritual gluttony, and spiritual sloth. Each of these brings conditions and temptations to a soul that is beginning to make some progress in prayer and fervency. The very gifts of progress and fervency are also possible dangers to the ongoing growth that is needed. Thus God purifies us in diverse manners in order to avoid having these traps capture us entirely.

Let’s look at each in turn. The text is my own, but the insights and inspiration are found in Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange’s Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol two, pp. 44ff, Tan Publications.

I. Spiritual pride – This comes when a person, having made some progress and experienced consolations as well as the deeper prayer of a proficient, begins to consider himself a spiritual master. He or she may also start to judge others severely who seem to have made less progress.

Those afflicted with spiritual pride often “shop around” for a spiritual director, looking for one who affirms rather than challenges their insights. Further, they tend to minimize the true reality of their sins out of a desire to appear more perfected than they really are.

Soon enough we have a Pharisee of sorts, who regards himself too favorably and others too poorly. There is also the problem of hypocrisy, since spiritual pride would have one play the role of a spiritual master and proficient, when one really is not.

God, therefore, must often humble the soul who has begun to make progress. In a certain sense He slows the growth, lest the greatest enemy, pride, claim all the growth.

II. Spiritual sensuality – This is a kind of spiritual gluttony, which consists in being immoderately attached to spiritual consolations. God does sometimes grant these to the soul, but the danger is that the consolations come to be sought for their own sake. One starts to love the consolations of God more than the God of all consolations. Growth in the love of God for His own sake is too easily lost or becomes confused and entangled. Or even worse, it becomes contingent upon consolations, visions, and the like.

Hence God must often withhold these for the sake of the soul, which must learn the discipline of prayer, with or without consolations, and to love God for His own sake. Uncorrected, spiritual gluttony can lead to spiritual sloth, which we consider next.

III. Spiritual sloth – This emerges when spiritual gluttony or other expectations of prayer are not met. There sets up a kind of impatience or even disgust for prayer and the narrow way of the spiritual life. Flowing from this is discouragement, a sluggishness that cancels zeal, and the dissipation of prayer and other spiritual practices. One allows endless distractions, makes excuses, shortens prayer and other spiritual exercises, or does them in a perfunctory manner.

Here, too, God must seek to purify the soul of attachment to consolations, lest such sloth lead to a complete disgust and a refusal to walk the narrow way of the spiritual life. Perhaps this sort of purification will take place through secondary causes, wherein the Lord acts though a spiritual director to insist on prayer, no matter how difficult. Perhaps, too, certain seasons such as Lent and Advent, or other “ember days” and the like will be used by God to bring greater zeal to the soul weighed down with spiritual sloth.

Clearly, God must correct this spiritual sloth and help us to accept God and prayer on His terms, not ours. The insistence on delight and consolations on our own terms is a great enemy to the docility and humility necessary for true growth.

Yes, there are many purifications necessary for us, whether we like to admit it or not. We might like to think that our spiritual life would itself be free from excesses or defects or at least would be a sign of great progress. But often even the most beautiful prayer experiences and spiritual stages are replete with the need for purification and further growth. Perhaps this is what Isaiah meant when he wrote,

In our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?  We have all become like one who is unclean, and even our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (Is 64:5-6).

This song says, “Fix me, Jesus; Fix me.”

Four Common Tactics of the Devil

FEature 072213In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in demonic possession. Movies and books, along with human fears and fascinations, are largely the cause. Although actual demonic possession is somewhat rare, it does occur. Each diocese ought to have an appointed exorcist to assess possession. This exorcist, with the permission of the bishop, should use the Rite of Major Exorcism when true and morally certain possession has been determined.

But because actual possession is quite rare, most of us should be looking out for the more common ways that the devil attacks us. His usual tactics are more subtle and pervasive, and we ought not let the exotic distract us from the more commonplace.

One of the key elements in any contest is to understand the tactics of your opponent and to recognize the subtleties of his strategy. In the spiritual battle of life we need to develop some sophistication in recognizing, naming, and understanding the subtleties of the Devil’s common tactics.

A 2011 book by Fr. Louis Cameli, The Devil You Don’t Know, is of great assistance in this matter. Having read it a couple of years ago, I think it would be of value to reflect on four broad categories of the Devil’s tactics, which Fr. Cameli analyzes in his book.

While the four categories are Fr. Cameli’s, the reflections here are largely my own, though surely rooted in Fr. Cameli’s excellent work. I highly recommend reading the work, in which the categories are more fully described.

Here are four common tactics of the devil.

I. Deception – Jesus says, The devil was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies he speaks according to his own nature, he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44).

The devil deceives us with many false and empty promises. Most of these relate to the lie that we will be happier and more fulfilled if we sin or deny aspects of the truth. Whatever passing pleasures come with sin, they are just that—passing. Great and accumulated suffering eventually comes from almost all sinful activity. Yet despite this experience, we humans remain very gullible; we seem to love empty promises and put all sorts of false hopes in them.

The devil also deceives us by suggesting all sorts of complexities, especially in our thinking. He seeks to confuse us and conceal the fundamental truth about our actions. Our minds are very wily and love to indulge complexity as a way of avoiding the truth and making excuses. So we, conniving with the devil, entertain endless complications by asking, “But what if this? And what about that?” Along with the devil, we project all sorts of possible difficulties, exceptions, or potential sob stories in order to avoid insisting that we or others behave well and live according to the truth.

The devil also seeks to deceive us with “wordsmithing.” And thus the dismemberment and murder of a child through abortion becomes “reproductive freedom” or “choice.” Sodomy is called “gay” (a word that used to mean “happy”). Our luminous Faith and ancient wisdom are called “darkness” and “ignorance.” Fornication is called “cohabitation.” The redefinition of marriage as it is been known for millennia is labeled “marriage freedom” or “marriage equality.” And thus through exaggerations and outright false labeling, the devil deceives us. We too easily cooperate by calling “good,” or “no big deal,” what God calls sinful.

The devil also deceives us through sheer volume of information. Information is not the same as truth. Data can be assembled very craftily to make deceptive points. Further, certain facts and figures can be emphasized to the exclusion of other balancing truths. And thus even information that is true in itself can become a form of deception. The news media sometimes exercise their greatest power in what they do not report. And this, too, is a way that the devil brings deceptions upon us.

We do well to carefully assess the many ways Satan seeks to deceive us. Do not believe everything you think or hear. And while we ought not be cynical, we ought to be sober. We should seek to verify what we see and hear and square it with God’s revealed truth.

II. Division – One of Jesus’ final prayers for us was that we would be one (cf John 17:22). He prayed this at the Last Supper just before He went out to suffer and die for us. As such, He highlights that a chief aspect of his work on the cross is to overcome the divisions intensified by Satan. Some point out that the Greek root of the word “diabolical” (diabolein) means to cut, tear, or divide. Jesus prays and works to reunify what the devil divides.

The devil’s work of division starts within each one of us as we experience many contrary drives: some noble, creative, and edifying; others base, sinful, and destructive. So often we struggle internally and feel torn apart, much as Paul describes in Romans chapter 7: The good that I want to do, I do not do … and when I try to do good, evil is at hand. This is the work of the devil: to divide us within. And as St. Paul lays out in Romans 8, the chief work of the Lord is to establish within us the unity of soul and body, in accordance with the unity of His truth.

And of course the devil’s attack against our inner unity spills out into many divisions among us externally. So many things help drive this division and the devil surely taps into them all: anger, past hurts, resentments, fears, misunderstandings, greed, pride, and arrogance. There is also the impatience that we so easily develop regarding those we love, and the flawed notion that we should seek other more perfect and desirable people. And thus many abandon their marriages, families, churches, and communities, always in search of the elusive goal of finding better and more perfect people and situations.

Yes, the devil has a real field day tapping into a plethora of sinful drives within us. His goal is always to divide us, both internally, and from one another. We do well to recognize that regardless of our struggles with others, we all share a common enemy. As St Paul writes, For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12). Feuding brothers will reconcile when there is a maniac at the door. But the first step is noticing the maniac, and then setting aside lesser divisions.

III. Diversion – To be diverted is to be turned away from our primary goal or task. And for all of us, the most critical focus is God and the good things waiting for us in Heaven. Our path is toward Heaven, along the path of faith, obedience to the truth, love of God, and love of neighbor. And thus the devil does all that he can to turn us away from our one true goal.

Perhaps he will do this by making us too absorbed in the passing things of the world. Many claim that they are too busy to pray, or go to Church, or seek other forms of spiritual nourishment. They become absorbed in passing, worldly things and ignore the lasting reality that looms.

Anxieties and fears also distract us. Through these, the devil causes us to fixate on fears about passing things and fail to have the proper fear of the judgment that awaits us. Jesus says, Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt 10:28). In other words, we should have a holy reverence and fear directed towards the Lord. In this way, many of our other fears will be seen in better perspective, or will even go away altogether. But in this matter of fear, the devil says just the opposite: we should be afraid of the thousands of things that might afflict us on this passing earth, and not think about the one most significant thing that awaits us—our judgment.

At the heart of all diversion is the fact that the devil wants us to focus on lesser things in order to avoid focusing on greater things such as a moral decisions and the overall direction of our life.

Once again, we must learn to focus on what matters most and refuse to allow our attention to be diverted to lesser things.

IV. Discouragement – As human beings, and certainly as Christians, it is good to have high aspirations. But Satan often seeks to poison that which is good. For along with high aspirations we sometimes lack the humility to recognize that we must make a journey to what is good and best. Too easily, then, Satan tempts us to be impatient with ourselves or others. We sometimes expect to reach our aspirations in an unreasonably short amount of time and show a lack charity toward ourselves or others. Some grow discouraged with themselves or others and give up on the pursuit of holiness. Others give up on the church because of the imperfections found there.

The devil also discourages us with open-ended aspirations. The fact is, there is always room for improvement; we can always do more. But here the devil enters, for if we can always do more, then it is also possible to think that we’ve never done enough. And thus the devil discourages us, sowing unreasonable demands within us as to what we can or should do each day.

The devil also discourages us through simple things like fatigue, personal failings, setbacks, and other obstacles that are common to our human condition and to living in a fallen world with limited resources.

In all these ways the devil seeks to discourage us, to make us want to give up. Only a properly developed sense of humility can help to save us from these discouraging works of Satan. Humility, which is reverence for the truth about ourselves, teaches us that we grow and develop slowly, that we do have setbacks, and that we live in a world that is hard and far from perfect. Being humble and recognizing these things helps us to lean more on the Lord, and to trust in His providential help, which grows in us incrementally.

Here, then, are four common tactics of the devil. Learn to recognize and name them. In this way we can start to gain authority over them. Consider reading Fr. Louis Cameli’s book to learn more.

I have compiled here a list of demonic titles and descriptions from the Rite of Major Exorcism that refer to some of these tactics of the Father of Lies. You can view it here: Titles of Satan from the Rite.

Silence Is Necessary – On Cultivating Silence in Our Soul

I suppose it goes without saying that we live in a very fast-paced, hectic, and noisy world.  We’re often in a big hurry to get somewhere. Stress is the norm and noise is all around us in the form of radios, televisions, iPods, etc. We’re plugged in but often tuned out. Very few of us live at the pace or volume of normal life.

So overstimulated are we that many literally cannot relax when it is quiet; silence unnerves them. I recently took an informal poll in a class I was teaching and  found that 40% of the students said they cannot fall asleep without a television or radio playing in the background. Many phones and clock-radios have a “sleep” function to allow them to play for a certain amount of time and then turn off (presumably after we have fallen asleep). We used to set our clock-radios to wake us up; now we use them to “soothe” us to sleep with their background noise.

Wow, that’s really overstimulated.

Silence is precious and is a necessary ingredient for the spiritual life. We do well to build as much of it as possible into our lives. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, in his tome The Three Ages of the Interior Life, writes of the need to minimize distractions and noise:

We must create silence in our soul; we must quiet our more or less inordinate passions in order to hear the interior Master, who speaks in a low voice as a friend to his friend. If we are habitually preoccupied with ourselves, seek ourselves in our work, in our study and exterior activity, how shall we delight in the sublime harmonies of the mysteries of the Blessed Trinity present in us? … The disorder and clamor of our senses must truly cease for a life of prayer. … they [must]  eventually become silent and submit with docility to the mind or the superior part of the soul (Vol 1, p. 455, Tan Publications).

Ask yourself if silence is a significant part of your day. Do you cultivate it? Many today struggle with prayer and other quieter activities like spiritual reading because they are overstimulated. Overstimulation leads to being easily bored, having a short attention span, and becoming anxious about silence or inactivity. This is a poisonous brew when it comes to prayer, which requires a certain love for silence, listening, patience, stillness, and restful attentiveness. Having the radio, television, or iPod going all day does not help our soul to hear the still, quiet voice of God.

Some of my quietest moments are my daily holy hour and then later in the day when I write these articles. I have come to cherish these quiet times when I listen to God and ponder His teachings. And then, having listened, I sit quietly again and compose these posts. I really could not write without silence; noise distracts my thoughts too much.

One year during Lent I realized that I had the radio on almost all day long in the background. I decided to turn it off and since then I’ve never gone back. I listen only briefly now, to hear the headlines, and then return to the quiet. I do not own a television. I do make use of Netflix, YouTube, and podcasts for selective viewing/listening of necessary and helpful material. Music, too, remains a joy for me, but not all day long, just on walks or when cleaning.

I only offer this personal testimony to suggest that if I, a former news junkie, could wean myself away, maybe others can too.

Our lives are hurried and noisy. Consider well Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange’s exhortation and build in silence through a growing mortification of the senses. Be very selective as to what you view/listen to, and how often you do so. Find time for silence; it is golden and necessary. I have that God is waiting there for us.

Here’s a beautiful hymn. I put the words in the first comment below:


And here is a noisy and truthful description of the problem:

In the Darkness We See Farther – Pondering the Paradox of the "Dark Knowing" of Faith

051215As human beings we are very visual and there is a certain demand of our flesh to see on its own terms. But of course God, who is pure spirit, will not be seen in this way.

How can the human eye perceive what is spiritual? It is not designed to do so. We cannot see God, as God, any more than we should expect to be able to see justice sitting down to lunch with humility. These are not physical concepts; they are metaphysical ones. We may see evidence of their existence, but we do not physically see them. And so also with God. We see lots of evidence of His existence, but we do not see Him with our earthly eyes.

There is a well-known (but inaccurate) saying, “Seeing is believing.” But actually it is not; seeing is only seeing. When we see physical things or events, one of two things happens, either of which eliminates the existence of any sort of faith:

1. We see something and accept it as true, in which case faith is no longer necessary, for it is not necessary to believe what we can plainly see.

2. We scoff or act bemused and continue to disbelieve, saying (for example when we see a magic trick), “There’s a way of doing that; it’s just an illusion.”

In either case, faith (human or supernatural) is set aside when we see something with our earthly eyes.

Therefore, as Scripture insists over and over again, faith is not a matter of seeing in a physical way.

  1. Now faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not (Hebrews 11:1).
  2. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:18).
  3. For we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7).
  4. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? (Rom 8:24)
  5. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known (1 Cor 13:12).
  6. And though you have not seen [Jesus], you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:8-9).
  7. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe (John 20:29).
  8. So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom 10:17).

St. Thomas Aquinas says, Faith is a habit of the mind whereby eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent (Summa IIa IIae 4 ad 1).

Therefore faith is not about what is seen with our earthly eyes. It comes from hearing—hearing the Word of God.

That said, faith is a way of knowing and thus also a way of “seeing,” but more in the intellectual sense, as when we say, “Oh! Now I see” when we grasp a point intellectually. And though we know and “see” by faith, spiritual theologians such as St. John of the Cross remind us that the seeing and knowing by faith is “obscure.”

Now usually we think of the word “obscure” with a negative connotation. If something is obscure, it is tricky or hard to figure out and we look for something to illumine the darkness, to scatter the obscurity.

Not so fast. Consider the deeply paradoxical notion that the darkness, the obscurity actually helps us to see better! Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange explains it this way:

Obscure faith enlightens us somewhat like the night, which though surrounding us with shadows, allows us to see the stars, and by them, the depths of the firmament. … That we may see the stars, the sun must hide, night must begin. Amazingly, in the obscurity of the night we see to a far greater distance than in the day; we see even the distant stars which reveal to us the immense expanse of the heavens. … [And so] faith, although obscure, opens up to us the supernatural world and its infinite depths: the Kingdom of God, His inner life, which we shall see unveiled and clearly in eternity (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Tan Publications Vol 1, p. 361)

In the darkness we see farther and deeper into space. Sunlight is precious, but it envelops us; it closes us in a much smaller world. We see better what is near; what is farther off and higher up is lost to us. From the perspective of our physical senses, faith is a “dark” knowing or seeing. By it we see farther and higher, longer and deeper.

Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange continues,

Faith is obscure but it illumines our intellect … in a way very superior to the senses and to reason. … What is evident for our senses is sensible, not spiritual; therefore it is not God himself. … Now faith makes us attain here on earth the inner life of God in the penumbra, in obscurity. Consequently a man who preferred visions to infused faith would deceive himself … for he would prefer what is superficial and exterior, and what is accessible to our faculties, to what surpasses them. He would prefer figures to the divine reality (Ibid).

And therefore we must beware of the strong demand of our flesh to see on its own terms. Our earthly eyes are not going to see God on the terms that our flesh demands. He is just too immanent, too transcendent for that. Our eyes see what physically exists but not Existence Himself. If we yield to this demand of our flesh we are going to limit our world immensely. We will certainly see worldly and physical things well, but we will miss the greater portion of reality: the Kingdom of God and God Himself!

Welcome to the modern world; a small world increasingly closed in on itself; a world no longer enchanted and charged with mystery; a world that demands to see only in physical terms, preferring what is superficial and exterior, preferring the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.

Ponder the great paradox of the “darkness” and “obscurity” of faith. For in the humility of accepting the darkness, we see farther, higher, deeper, and longer. Jesus is the Light of the world. But we see Him in the “darkness” of faith and understand Him most clearly not by the false light of this world, but by faith. Faith is obscure to our senses, but understood by our souls as a necessary condition to loving Him as our only and true Light.