“‘Spiritual combat’ is another element of life which needs to be taught anew and proposed once more to all Christians today. It is a secret and interior art, an invisible struggle in which (we) engage every day against the temptations, the evil suggestions that the demon tries to plant in (our) hearts.”
Saint John Paul II
“Maybe his [Satan’s] greatest achievement in these times has been to make us believe that he does not exist, and that all can be fixed on a purely human level.”
Introduction to Spiritual Warfare… Part II of IV
By Fr. John Bartunek
This is the second of a four part series of articles, which first appeared in Fr. Bartunek’s Blog: http://spiritualdirection.com/. With Fr. Bartunek’s permission, we are posting these articles as we prepare for our Advent Season!
An earlier post addressed the fact of spiritual warfare: it is our normal state of being while we are still residents of this fallen world. The earlier post also explained that the arena of this warfare isn’t somewhere “out there,” but right inside our hearts. Our day-to-day decisions, how we respond to the most mundane circumstances, temptations, and opportunities, constitute the battlefield. When we choose what is good and right, we advance Christ’s Kingdom; when we choose what is self-centered and skewed, we deflect God’s grace.
Every war has two sides, and spiritual warfare is no different. In order for us to fight effectively, we need to identify the enemy. Spiritual writers have traditionally identified three enemies, actually: the world, the flesh, and the devil. Jesus himself pointed this out in his parable of the sower (Matthew 13). The sower sowed his seed in four different places, but that seed only bore fruit in one place. In the other three, the enemies stifled it.
Enemy #1: The World
Some of the seed fell in decent soil, but weeds (thorn bushes) grew up around it and choked it. The weeds didn’t kill the good plant; they just stunted its growth, they kept it from reaching its fulfillment. These weeds Jesus describes as the “cares of the world and the lure of wealth.” This corresponds to the first enemy, “the world.” The world as God created it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31), but its original harmony was shattered by original sin. Since then, both the physical world around us and also human society have been a mixed bag. The beauties of creation inspire us, but the forces of nature often batter us. The achievements of human culture can lift our hearts towards God, but the horrors of social injustice can throw us almost into despair. The basic direction of human society in this mixed bag of a fallen world tends to drag us towards an illusion, the illusion that with the right combination of material goods (wealth, power, reputation), we can achieve heaven on earth. Every day we are smothered with invitations to believe in this illusion: billboards, commercials, advertisements, books, movies, and the seductive pleasures all within arm’s reach whisper in our ears and draw us away from a Christ-centered life. This is enemy number one: the world.
Enemy #2: The Flesh
The seed sowed on the rocky soil started to grow, but it dried up in the hot sun – just as our good resolutions and desires often dry up when we realize that fulfilling them will involve self-discipline and self-sacrifice. This laziness and reluctance to follow Christ’s narrow way, this tendency towards egoism that resides within our very selves, corresponds to “the flesh,” enemy number two.
This term is often misunderstood in contemporary spiritual writings, and especially in the writings of those who are critical of Catholicism. Critics misinterpret “flesh” to mean “the body.” Our bodies are not our enemies. Our bodies are part of our human nature, created and redeemed by God. Jesus and Mary are in heaven right now, with their bodies.
In terms of the spiritual life, “flesh” refers rather to the self-centered tendencies of our fallen nature. It’s kind of a code word for these tendencies, which God in his wisdom allows to endure, even after baptism and even as we grow in holiness. These are the tendencies that lead us towards sin: greed, lust, sloth, gluttony… Another term for this is “concupiscence,” which the Catechism describes in #1264: “… an inclination to sin that Tradition calls concupiscence, or metaphorically, ‘the tinder for sin’ (fomes peccati); since concupiscence is left for us to wrestle with, it cannot harm those who do not consent but manfully resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ. Indeed, an athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”
This quotation brings up an interesting point. It claims that God chose to leave us with these tendencies to self-centeredness and self-indulgence, so that we could “wrestle with” them. It is no sin to feel the seductive tug of sin; it is no sin to feel the plaintive voice of temptation – indeed, Jesus himself was tempted (though he never gave in). Every time we experience our weakness and encounter temptation, we are faced with an opportunity to win a victory for Christ and his Kingdom, by choosing to be faithful to Jesus as he has been faithful to us. God has a purpose even in the midst of our struggles and battles; he wants us to be active participants in our own salvation and sanctification, not just passive spectators. Life is a real adventure, not a movie that we wistfully watch from an armchair.
Enemy #3: The Devil
The seed sowed on the hardened path couldn’t penetrate the soil, so the birds of the air (the devil) ate it up. Jesus never shied away from talking about the devil. The devil is a real factor in our spiritual lives, and we’ll look more closely at how he works (mostly by manipulating the world and the flesh) in our next post.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC
About Father John Bartunek:
Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller “Inside the Passion”–the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: “The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer”. He has also published four other titles: “Seeking First the Kingdom”, “Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions”, “Meditations for Mothers”, and “A Guide to Christian Meditation”. Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN’S BOOKS include: “The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer”, “Inside the Passion”–The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, “Meditations for Mothers”, and “A Guide to Christian Meditation”