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Spiritual Warfare: No Pacifists Allowed!

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 05/20/15

Our souls are being contested for, and we deny this at our peril

“So, you’re a Jesuit—that means you’re an exorcist, right?” My response to that all-too-frequent question is (muttered under my breath, of course), “Thanks a lot, Hollywood!”

It seems that any priest, and especially any Jesuit priest like me, speaking of spiritual warfare and the like, invites inevitable questions and comparisons related to William Peter Blatty’s famous novel and movie from the 1970s, The Exorcist. Just as one can’t hear Sir Edward Elgar’sPomp and Circumstance” without thinking of graduation, so too any clerical mention of the devil stirs up in the popular imagination Jesuits performing exorcisms, Hollywood style.

That’s as unfortunate as it is unnecessary. We need instead to have a sober and reasoned conversation about the reality of spiritual conflict in every Christian’s life. In 2011, The Rite was Hollywood’s latest contribution to the, “Every-Jesuit-Is-An-Exorcist” theme. It was a movie of modest merits, except for the last scene. There we see a newly-ordained priest, convinced by his Jesuit mentor that the devil is real, undertake his lifelong battle against evil by….hearing confessions. Hollywood got that part right. In its most common form, the fight against evil is not spectacular; rather our confrontation of evil most often starts with a long look in the mirror, moves to a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, transitions to the confessional, and then out into the everyday world, where we try to put the graces of repentance into practice.

As in so many other areas, so too in the spiritual life—the spectacular can be a distraction from the nitty-gritty, daily grind of daily fidelity, with humble admission of sin followed by grateful reception of grace. What a tragedy, what a disaster, that the practice of frequent reception of sacramental confession has withered, almost to extinction! The most ordinary and necessary means of fighting for our souls has been voluntarily abandoned!

In my research, I was surprised to find in the liberal, secular news journal, Slate, a reflection on the falloff of sacramental confession in an essay from 2005. The concluding paragraph was painful to read—because of its accuracy:

“The biggest barrier between Catholics and the confessional, however, may be the real effort it requires. Unloading your transgressions on the Internet takes a few computer clicks—you can do it on your coffee break. But done right, Catholic confession demands a rigorous examination of conscience and real contrition, to say nothing of the prayers you may be assigned for penance and the thinking a priest may ask you to do about the ways you’ve let yourself and God down. No wonder we are more comfortable with the Eucharist service, which demands only that we line up like consumers and accept something for free.”

Ouch! The author’s words sting for two reasons.

First, he rightly notes that real repentance (of which sacramental confession is an essential element) is difficult, and therefore is less likely to be taken up precisely because it is difficult. (To that I’d add, “If you think confession is hard, you haven’t thought much about Hell…”)

Secondly, he notes the horrifying contemporary trend to treat grace, which is free, as something that is cheap. If people “line up like consumers” to “accept something for free” when they receive Holy Communion (and the dearth of confessions and the long lines for Holy Communion suggest that he may be correct), then we are in very great need of catechesis as well as conversion. If it is sufficient to be merely “nice” to gain entrance into Heaven and come before the presence of the All-Holy God, then we can afford to let sacramental confession die a quiet death. But Sacred Scripture says otherwise: “None but the righteous shall see God.” (
Hebrews 12:14; see also Part Two, Section Two of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.) It is simply spiritual suicide for a Catholic to blithely withhold himself from the divine power uniquely available through sacramental confession.

It seems that many Catholics have given up on spiritual warfare without a shot being fired. This surrender is not unique to Catholics. Recently a student sent me a message. He wrote: “I had to relate to you the funniest/saddest sign I saw for some denomination’s church. It read, ‘It’s time to put down our weapons and come out with our hands up’. They clearly don’t believe that we have an enemy prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)

The testimony of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, as well as the Magisterium and the great saints, are as one: our souls are being contested for. We deny that fact at our peril. If we fail to choose sides, then in fact we have chosen sides. Nineteenth-century author Juan Donoso Cortes puts the issue before us in a work known for its soul-stirring prose:

“There is no man, let him be aware of it or not, who is not a combatant in this hot contest; no one who does not take an active part in the responsibility of the defeat or victory… And don’t tell me you don’t wish to fight; for the moment you tell me that, you are already fighting; nor that you don’t know which side to join, for while you are saying that, you have already joined a side; nor that you wish to remain neutral; for while you are thinking to be so, you are so no longer; nor that you want to be indifferent; for I will laugh at you, because on pronouncing that word you have chosen your party. Don’t tire yourself in seeking a place of security against the chances of war, for you tire yourself in vain; that war is extended as far as space, and prolonged through all time. In eternity alone, the country of the just, can you find rest, because there alone there is no combat. But do not imagine, however, that the gates of eternity shall be opened for you, unless you first show the wounds you bear; those gates are only opened for those who gloriously fought here the battles of the Lord, and were, like the Lord, crucified.”

How can an honest soul read that and remain unchanged?

If we have even a shred of integrity within us, we know that we have a conflict raging within us (Romans 7:23). We desire goodness, but not really—because goodness is costly; we resist evil, but not really—because evil is attractive. If you find yourself throwing up your hands in despair, take heart! Author Paul Thigpen’s latest book, “Manual for Spiritual Warfare” is a place to get started. The primary purpose of his manual, he says, “…is to help everyday Catholics recognize, resist, and overcome the Enemy’s attacks in their own lives and the lives of those for whom they bear responsibility (such as parents have for children).”

Thigpen’s advice is clear, direct and simple: Know Your Enemy; Know Your Commander and Comrades; Know Your Weapons and Armor. His book is a cornucopia of spiritual resources. He collects in one place relevant Scripture passages, magisterial documents, writings of the saints, as well as prayers, devotions, hymns and liturgical texts. The resources contained here, put to use, can help us to prevail in the battle for our souls and the souls of our loved ones. (Another fine work for that same purpose is Heilman’s “Church Militant Field Manual.”) Yes, the awful truth is that we are being fought for. The glorious truth is that we are on the winning side, and if we fight, we can win! As Pope Leo XIII reminds us in Sapientiae Christianae #14: “Christians are, moreover, born for combat, whereof the greater the vehemence, the more assured, God aiding, the triumph…”

When I write next, I will speak of a common tactic of the devil to trick people into blasphemy. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.  A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.

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