The Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola is upon us! It seems fitting to commemorate the author of the Spiritual Exercises with something about spiritual warfare. Theologians have tried to relate the sacraments to various things, the most common being life essentials (Baptism as birth, Eucharist as food, etc.). I prefer to relate them to the task of spiritual warfare that surrounds us in our daily lives.
Let’s start by examining the battlefield into which our first parents, Adam and Eve, were exiled. On our left is the fortress of Satan. It is dark and there is no life within it. The plants surrounding it are withered and dead. The moat is stagnant. The screams of the condemned can be heard echoing through the halls. It truly is “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4).
On our right is the temple of God, the new and Heavenly Jerusalem, brighter than a thousand suns, and in it is found no death. It sits atop a great mountain and all the way up the side of this mountain, the plants grow greener and greener, until just outside the castle, our first home, the Garden of Eden, sits thriving. The moat is filled with every type of fish in abundance and the streams flow all throughout it. The cheers of saints and angels in jubilation echo through the verdant courtyards. It is truly “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
We were born outside its gates, born upon the battlefield, born into the midst of a great war. Among us was once born a man who was God, to be our General, to lead us triumphing into the halls of salvation. While among us, He left us a few military tools and tactics:
- Baptism as Enlistment – So you’ve been baptized? Congratulations! You’ve been enlisted in the Church Militant. From now on, if you’re a dutiful soldier, you submit to the will of your General and follow the orders of His officers (see #5). Your life belongs to Him. In fact, it is no longer you who live, but He in you (Galatians 2:20).
- Confirmation as Boot Camp – Traditionally, Confirmation included a slap on the cheek to toughen up Christ’s new soldiers. (Funny aside: my wife’s bishop slapped her, then called her back and slapped her again. I assume he had some prophetic insight into the difficulty I’d end up giving her.) Now, I know what you’re thinking. Boot camp is a prolonged event and Confirmation is a sacrament received in a single moment. Hear me out, though. As we’ve pointed out before, a lot of misguided catechists across the country see Confirmation as a rite of passage to end a stage of development. That’s really not the case at all. What is it that Confirmation does? Confirmation comes from the Latin for “strengthening,” and what is it that strengthens a new soldier if not Boot Camp? Of course, the rest of life – if they’re doing it right – Christians continue to grow in strength, but that growth is an unpacking of the gifts the Holy Spirit given at Baptism and Confirmation. Remember that Confirmation slap and toughen up, soldier.
- Eucharist as Rations – I’ll avoid referring to the Communion line as a Mess Hall (another reason to bring back the altar rail?), but there’s nothing to keep us from considering the Eucharist as our special rations. In fact, it makes perfect sense. Not only does it have the distinct importance given it by Jesus in John 6, but we pray for it as our “supersubstantial bread” that gives us special strength to carry out our General’s orders. Just listen to the words of St. Thomas Aquinas’ O Salutaris Hostia: “O Saving Victim, open wide the gate of heaven to man below! Our foes press on from every side; thine aid supply, thy strength bestow!” If that isn’t a battle hymn, I don’t know what is!
- Matrimony as Trench-Friendship or Recruiting – Union and procreation make it difficult to pin down a specific parallel for Matrimony. On the one hand, marriage more closely resembles the trench friendships that grow between soldiers who come to trust one another with their lives. Husband and wife look out for the victory of one another over their common enemies – the devil and sin – and together are stronger than each would be alone. On the other hand, it resembles military recruiting efforts. After all, the most effective way of making new Christians is raising Christian children.
- Holy Orders as Promotion to Officer – If Christ is the General, then the clergy are His officers, authorized to act on his behalf in three degrees: bishop, priest, and deacon. These clergy carry out a variety of different ministries in their command, including the consecration and distribution of rations (see #3), the applications of battlefield medicine (see #6 and #7), the normal enlistment of new members (see #1), and the administration of boot camp (see #2). Additionally, bishops give orders in matters of faith and morals, which are delegated through the chain of command to us lay grunts.
- Reconciliation as Battlefield Medicine – The funny thing about spiritual warfare is that the enemy rarely strikes directly. He prefers to make soldiers in God’s army turn on one another and even on themselves. When we are dealt a blow or stabbed by the bayonet of our own comrades in arms, our duty is to recall that the wound becomes mortal if we let it fester. We must forgive and we must seek forgiveness for those times we’ve attacked our fellow soldiers. The other odd reality of spiritual warfare is that when we attack our fellow soldiers, we wound ourselves. Our self-inflicted wounds – whether they come from attacking ourselves or from attacking others – stem from disobedience to our General. Fortunately, we have a General who forgives as much as He expects us to. For our wounds, He offers medicine, dispensed through the ministry of his priestly officers, to forgive our offenses and restore us to good health.
- Anointing of the Sick as the General’s Pep Talk – Remember that scene in every war movie you’ve ever seen where the brilliant military leader delivers a stirring speech to rally the troops? Anointing of the Sick not only brings spiritual and sometimes physical healing, but it does so very often to prepare soldiers of Christ for what may be their final battle, to bring them comfort and resolve.
Aside from these sacraments, of course, there are other strategies. Prayer and charity are our battle tactics, rosaries our swords, the Mass our instruction from the General as well as our reception of rations. What parallels can you think of?