"Take unto you the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit." [Ephesians vi]
St. Paul wrote this morning's Epistle using military language, referring to swords, and armor, and the other paraphernalia an ancient soldier might wear into battle. This “military metaphor” is fairly common among spiritual writers. While we are called to deal with God as loving sons and daughters, it is often useful to think of ourselves as soldiers when we consider the way in which we must resist the devil. The spiritual life is often enough a struggle or a combat between the opposing forces of good and evil. In many ways it can be thought of as an armed conflict with the devil, who would like nothing better than to see us deprived of our rightful place in heaven.
This talk about armament calls to mind an episode which comes at the beginning of the biography of the famous American World War II General, George S. Patton. Patton has been directed to take command of a unit which had just sustained terrible losses during their first time in battle with the German troops. He came, and found an Army with no sense of purpose ... no idea of what it was trying to do. Officers and men were just milling around, half in and half out of uniform—dirty, and unshaven, utterly lacking in the discipline and order so essential to a military unit.
At length, he came upon an enlisted man who was asleep in a corner, on the floor. Patton's aides woke the man up and got him to his feet. He came to rigid attention before the commanding general. Patton then asked him what he thought he was doing—to which he replied, “Sir, I was just trying to get some sleep!” To which, in turn, the General replied, “Well then get back down there son, you're the only man in this outfit who knows what is he is trying to do!”
The example may be a little extreme, but it is one which we ought to take to heart in our own spiritual combat. We need to have a sense of purpose, before we can make proper use of the spiritual weapons and armament available to us.
Without a sense of spiritual purpose, fasting and abstinence become little more than just a diet to reduce our weight and improve our health. Penance is reduced to a test of physical endurance. Sacred Scripture is reduced to just another literary entertainment. Without spiritual purpose, even prayer deteriorates to selfish demands for the things which please us.
Just like any Army preparing to enter battle, we need to have our ultimate goals clearly in mind. And, sometimes this isn't as easy as it sounds. Intellectually, we all know that we were created to “show forth God's glory in this world, and to be happy with Him in the next.” Yet, that often remains purely theory, not having a practical effect on our outlook.
The world in which we live is filled with other good things—lesser things, but nonetheless good—which distract us from perceiving God as our ultimate good, and motivation, and purpose in life. We all want to be loved, and comforted; to be healthy, wealthy, and wise; to be prosperous. In moderation these are all fine things. They become harmful though, when they cause us to lose sight of our long term goal. When they become goals in themselves, they deteriorate into vices like pride, and lust, and greed.
Engaged, as we are, in a spiritual combat, we need to do a little strategic planning. That's one of the reasons who we are asked to make an examination of our conscience regularly. That's one of the reasons why we are urged to converse with God in regular mental prayer. Why we are invited to read Sacred Scripture, and the lives of the saints, and other spiritual books.
Only once we begin to engage in such planning with God can we begin to make good and complete use of the weapons at hand. Only then can we begin to bring our bodies and wills under the discipline so necessary for the spiritual combat. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these other things will be given to you besides” (Mt. vi). If we find God, and direct our efforts toward possessing Him, all of the other things will fall into their appropriate places.
Combat without a goal quickly turns into a brawl. So, if you haven't done so already, please begin to plan with God for your happiness in heaven. And, once you have begun to seek this goal, remember that it is a continuing process. We must continuously take counsel with God. We must not fail to maintain discipline and vigilance.
And, “our struggle,” St. Paul reminds us, “is not against flesh and blood ... but against the spiritual forces of wickedness on high.”
So, formulate your battle plan. Put on the armor of God, the breastplate of justice, the belt of truth, the helmet of salvation. Be prepared to go forth in a well organized and well armed combat for your soul.