Unseen Warfare: Our Struggle toward Perfection – Chapter One

In Chapter one of Unseen Warfare, it is stated clearly from the outset that “perfection” is the goal of the Christian life.

“We all naturally wish, and are commanded to be perfect. The Lord commands: ‘Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’ (Matt. V. 48).”

But the meaning and content of “Christian perfection,” is not necessarily understood by all. The danger of a misunderstanding of what our Lord and the Apostles mean by Christian perfection should be a concern to us. If you have ever sailed a boat or gone on a hike, you know the disastrous effect of being off course by 5°. Over time, the miscalculation will result not only in missing your desired destination but becoming completely lost. The spiritual application of this analogy is obvious.

“But if you, my reader beloved in Christi, wish to attain to such heights, you must first learn in what Christian perfection consists. For if you have not learnt this, you may turn off the right path and go in a totally different direction, while thinking that you make progress towards perfection.”

So, what is Christian perfection?

“I will tell you plainly: the greatest and most perfect thing a man may desire to attain is to come near to God and dwell in union with Him.”

Such a statement, while brief and to the point, is not enough. There are many practices that can seem like the pursuit of perfection but miss the mark. It is easy to confuse means and ends. As a result, the author(s) makes it clear what does not qualify as the right pursuit of perfection.

“There are many who say that the perfection of Christian life consists in fasts, vigils, genuflexions, sleeping on bare earth and other similar austerities of the body. Others say that it consists in saying many prayers at home and in attending long services in Church. And there are others who think that our perfection consists entirely in mental prayer, solitude, seclusion and silence. But the majority, limit perfection to a strict observance of all the rules and practices laid down by the statutes, falling into no excess or deficiency, but preserving a golden moderation. Yet all those virtues do not by themselves constitute the Christian perfection we are seeking, but are only means and methods for acquiring it.”

To practice the spiritual disciplines as ends in themselves is worse than not practicing them at all! They fall into the trap of pride. This is an extremely dangerous condition for a disciple.

“On the other hand, these same virtues may do more harm than their open omission, to those who take them as the sole basis of their life and their hope; not from their nature, since they are righteous and holy, but through the fault of those, who use them not as they should be used; that is, when they pay attention only to the external practice of those virtues, and leave their heart to be moved by their own volitions and the volitions of the devil…”

Righteousness doesn’t consist in mere outward observance of the disciplines.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Matthew 23.23-28)

“When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. But if you call yourself a Jew and rely upon the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth — you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God.” (Romans 2.14-29)

 “Fasting and vigils, prayer and psalmody, acts of charity and hospitality are by nature good, but when performed for the sake of self-esteem they are not good.  In everything that we do, God searches out our purpose to see whether we do it for Him or for some other motive.” Saint Maximos the Confessor

“Going through the fast does not consist in merely going through the time, but in going through it with amendment of manners (behavior and motive).  Let us consider this; whether we have become more diligent; whether we have corrected any of our defects; whether we have washed away our sins?” Saint John Chrysostom

“Even if we have thousands of acts of great virtue to our credit, our confidence in being saved must be based on God’s mercy and His love for men.  Even if we stand at the very summit of virtue, it is by mercy that we shall be saved.” Saint John Chrysostom

“Love sinners, but hate their works, and do not despise them for their faults, lest you be tempted by the same.  Remember that you share the earthly nature of Adam and that you are clothed with his infirmity.” St. Isaac the Syrian

The disciplines, in as much as they have been created by the Holy Spirit to bring about our salvation, are a matter of the heart. Why? Because salvation is a matter of the heart before it is a matter of words and deeds (Matthew 7.13-29 and Romans 10.8-10). The disciplines are a necessary means to a greater end. The end cannot be achieved without them but they are not the end in themselves. You cannot be saved by them but you cannot be saved without them.

The fault in this scenario lies not in the spiritual discipline but in the disciple who practices it. That is of immense importance. Over the course of the history of the Church, effective disciplines have been mistakenly and tragically excluded because of their misappropriation by errant Christians. The Christian who practices the disciplines as ends and not means, eventually begins to judge others as inferior to him. What is more, this confusion of means and ends begins to be taught to new believers, leading them astray as well.

The disciplines of the Holy Spirit are, therefore, a two edged sword. They are designed to save but they can serve to destroy. For those who diligently seek the Lord with all of their heart (even though they struggle to be faithful), the disciplines purify and establish in joy. But, for those who seek to only to promote and themselves and their own interests, they serve only to further separate the wayward from the Lord (see, for example, St. Paul’s intense exhortation regarding the spiritual discipline of Holy Eucharist – 1Corinthians 11.17-30).  The result of practicing the disciplines of the faith in a manner that doesn’t proceed from a spirit of humility and gratitude in response to God’s mercy is spiritual delusion.

“Experiencing with this certain spiritual stirrings and consolations, such people begin to imagine that they have already reached the state of angels and feel that God Himself is present in them. And at times, engrossed in the contemplation of some abstract and unearthly things, they imagine that they have completely transcended the sphere of this world and have been ravished to the third heaven…

If desirous of bringing them to self-knowledge and leading them to the right path of perfection… they refuse to bend their necks to the yoke of God’s will and to trust in His righteous and secret judgments. They do not want to follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Who humbled Himself and suffered for our sakes, and they refuse to be humble, to consider themselves the lowest of all creatures, and to regard their persecutors as their good friends, the tools of the divine bounty shown to them and helpers in their salvation.”

Delusion is accompanied by an almost complete refusal to submit to and receive correction.

“Thus it is clear that they are in great danger. Their inner eye, that is their mind, being darkened, they see themselves with this and see wrongly. Thinking of their external pious works and deeming them good, they imagine that they have already reached perfection and, puffing themselves up, begin to judge others. After this it is impossible for any man to turn such people, except through God’s special influence. An evident sinner will turn towards good more easily than a secret sinner, hiding under the cloak of visible virtues.”

So, having been given an example of the dire consequences of misunderstanding the meaning and content of perfection and how to pursue it, the author proceeds to outline the proper understanding and approach toward the disciplines. What should the attitude of our heart and mind? So now the author takes up where he left off.

“Now, having seen clearly and definitely that spiritual life and perfection do not only consist in these visible virtues, of which we have spoken, you must also learn that it consists in nothing but coming near to God and union with Him, as was said in the beginning. With this is connected a heartfelt realization of the goodness and greatness of God, together with consciousness of our own nothingness and our proneness to every evil; love of God and dislike of ourselves; submission not only to God but also to all creatures, for the sake of our love of God; renunciation of all will of our own and perfect obedience to the will of God; and moreover desire for all this and its practice with a pure heart to the glory of God (I Cor. X. 31), from sheer desire to please God and only because He Himself wishes it and because we should so love Him and work for Him.”

Wow… Now that is clear and to the point! No wiggle room. As was said above, this must be “heartfelt.” External observance that doesn’t issue from a heart of humility and gratitude is worthless. Less than worthless, down right damning!

It is worth listing them again just to be crystal clear: 

  1. A heartfelt realization of the goodness and greatness of God
  2. Consciousness of our dislike (distrust) of ourselves
  3. Submission not only to God but also to all creatures, for the sake of our love of God
  4. Renunciation of all will of our own and perfect obedience to the will of God
  5. Desire for all this and its practice with a pure heart to the glory of God (I Cor. X. 31), from sheer desire to please God and only because He Himself wishes it and because we should so love Him and work for Him.

Now, just to make sure that we GET IT, the author(s) says:

“This is the law of love, inscribed by the finger of God Himself in the hearts of His true servants!”

Get it?! Love… Not the law of self but the law of Christ. Not the law of merit and performance that issues from self, but the law of merit and performance that proceeds from Christ Jesus – the power of the Holy Spirit to do all things in and through disciples who abide in Christ and have Christ abiding in them (Isaiah 40.28-31; Jeremiah 31.31-34; Ezekiel 36.25-27; Romans 5.5; Philippians 4.7-13; 2 Timothy 1.8). The law of freedom and power in Christ Jesus.

This law of love involves a mandate to obedience that is filled with grace and yet unwavering in its demands.

“This is the renunciation of ourselves that God demands of us! This is the blessed yoke of Jesus Christ and His burden that is light! This is the submission to God’s will, which our Redeemer and Teacher demands from us both by His word and by His example! For did not our Master and the Author of our salvation, our Lord Jesus Christ, tell us to say when praying to the heavenly Father: ‘Our Father, … Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven’ (Matt. vi. 10)? And did not He Himself exclaim on the eve of His passion: ‘Not my will, but thine, be done’ (Luke xxii. 42)! And did not He say of His whole work: ‘For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me’ (John vi. 38)?”

Do you hear the power behind and within these words? Do you hear the excitement and zeal? If the author were here in flesh and blood, I imagine him to be standing on tip-toe with hands outstretched, deeply desiring to have me join in his excitement!! These words thrill my heart every time I read them!

“Blessed be your zeal!”

But, be aware of the cost of this zeal and desire. It is not a cheap grace to which we have married ourselves…

“But prepare yourself also for labour, sweat and struggle form your first steps on the path. You must sacrifice everything to God and do only His will. Yet you will meet in yourself as many wills as you have powers and wants, which all clamour for satisfaction, irrespective of whether it is in accordance with the will of God or not.”

Remember? It is a warfare, unseen though it be.

“Therefore, to reach your desired aim…”

And what is the aim?? “…coming near to God and union with Him.”

“Therefore, to reach your desired aim, it is first of all necessary to stifle your own wills and finally to extinguish and kill them altogether. And in order to succeed in this, you must constantly oppose all evil in yourself and urge yourself towards good. In other words, you must ceaselessly fight against yourself and against everything that panders to your own wills, that incites and supports them. So prepare yourself for this struggle and this warfare and know that the crown – attainment of your desired aim – is given to none except to the valiant among warriors and wrestlers.”

I love those words too!! I hear the echoes of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” in the background, don’t you. I know, it is not the “in thing” or the “spiritually politically correct thing” to couple the spiritual life with images of warfare. But, you know, it is what it is. Who am I to call it anything else?! I believe one of the reasons we don’t enjoy a certain quality of transformation lies in this squeamishness regarding the language and the images.

Is it ALL about warfare? Are those the only images we have been given by our Lord to use? By no means! We have a myriad of images and analogies and stories. But, let us not shy away from this one and think we can use another just as well. It does not work that way. If it did, then Jesus would have told only a couple of parables and they would have sounded pretty much the same. But, He drew on a huge variety of images and plot lines to portray the fullness of the Holy Spirit’s ministry within and among us. Here is a point of obedience that you and I need to heed.

This unseen war is a hard war. Why? Because it is against OURSELVES! As the little possum in the old “Pogo” comic strip said on one occasion, “We has met the enemy and he is us.” Or as Charlie Brown said on a lot of occasions, usually flat on his back after having been convinced by Lucy to try and kick the football that she was holding, “Good Grief!”

But if this is the hardest of all wars – since in fighting against ourselves it is in ourselves that we meet opposition – victory in it is the most glorious of all; and, what is the main thing, it is most pleasing to God.

Are we willing forsake all to gain mastery over ourselves by the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God? Are we willing to take “the road less travelled?” Are we willing to join St. Paul in saying:

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith;  that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3.7-11)

The author(s) of Unseen Warfare echo St. Paul’s distinction between a false righteousness, the kind that proceeds out of self powered obedience, and a true righteousness that is the fruit of a grace powered obedience that is a synergy of our will and the will of God.  Once again, we are reminded of that self-powered observance of the spiritual disciplines is a dead end (it avails us nothing).

“For if, inspired by fervour, you overcome and put death your unruly passions, your lusts and wills, you will please God more, and will work for Him more beautifully, than if you flog yourself till you draw blood or exhaust yourself by fasts more than any ancient hermit of the desert. Even if you redeem hundreds of Christian slaves from the infidels and give them freedom, it will not save you, if with this you remain yourself a slave to your own passions. And whatever work you may undertake, however glorious, and with whatever effort and sacrifice you may undertake, however glorious, and with whatever effort and sacrifice you may accomplish it, it will not lead you to your desired aim, if you leave your passions without attention, giving them freedom to live and act in you.”

Truly, we may do great deeds in the name of God but if our passions are left unaddressed and our hearts are darkened and enslaved by them, they are as filthy rags in the sight of God (Isaiah 64.6).

So, having defined perfection, enlightened us regarding the danger of using the spiritual disciplines as ends rather than means, and the rewards of joining the Holy Spirit in confronting our passions the author(s) bring the first chapter to an end. We are presented with four dispositions and activities that arm us for the warfare.

“…if you really desire to be victorious in this unseen warfare and be rewarded with a crown, you must plant in your heart the following four dispositions and spiritual activities, as it were arming yourself with invisible weapons, the most trustworthy and unconquerable of all, namely: (a) never rely on yourself in anything; (b) bear always in your heart a perfect and all-daring trust in God alone; (c) strive without ceasing; and (d) remain constantly in prayer.”

In the following chapters, our guide(s) will instruct us in the meaning, content, and conduct of these dispositions that constitute the weapons of our unseen warfare.

“Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!                          (Refrain)                                                                                                                                                                                             Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.”

Note – All quotes from Unseen Warfare are from Chapter One, pgs. 77-81

Fr. Thomas

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Christ’s Invitation, Promise, and Mandate to Love

I spoke, recently, with some wonderfully zealous young men in the Lord. I love those guys and their ministry. But, it was a difficult conversation. They were saying (I think) that the Christian life should not be one of struggle if we have faith. The Christian life is a matter of “just do it”. Believe and do. No struggle if you really believe. I asked them about “struggle” and they responded with more victory. Full of victory. Full of triumph. Full of zealous  youth. I do not yearn for those days any more. Those days ended up leaving me empty and shallow. They led me to a place of “if then” spirituality. The reason? The exclusion of struggle rather than the legitimate inclusion of it. Is the struggle of a believer to obey an aspect of faith action or prior to faithful action?! If it is “prior” then where is the humility? I believe the “face set on Christ” struggle to act in faith is part of faith not prior to it. 

Now, let me be fair… I understand (I think) what they were saying. Faith IS a “just do it” kind of thing. But, the point of decision that leads to action, I have come to find, is always (dare I use that word) in the context of a struggle – an unseen and seen warfare between light and dark, righteousness and iniquity, self-sacrificial love and self-preserving fear. The decision to “do” in the face of all things and against all odds IS a struggle to get to, but once you are there, it is a matter of “do or do not, there is no try.” I may struggle again and again, but what I am looking for each and every time is the moment of trusting abandon that is filled with faith and peace (the kind that “passes all understanding”). If that is what they meant, then great…

 The older I get the more pragmatically true to me are the words of Lord Tennyson and C.S. Lewis. They sink deeper and deeper every time a circumstance stirs my lethargic will – that will that so very often shrinks back in the face of the essential sacrifice and risk that love requires of the person who desires to be most truly human, that is so say, Christian. The deeper they sink, the more profound the accompanying pain and release that comes with obedience (willing and active submission) to their counsel. Let me share their convictions with you along with a closing comment.

“In Memoriam A.H.H”, XXVII, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

I envy not in any moods

The captive void of noble rage,

The linnet born within the cage,

That never knew the summer woods:

 

I envy not the beast that takes

His license in the field of time,

Unfetter’d by the sense of crime,

To whom a conscience never wakes;

 

Nor, what may count itself as blest,

The heart that never plighted troth

But stagnates in the weeds of sloth;

Nor any want-begotten rest.

 

I hold it true, whate’er befall;

I feel it, when I sorrow most;

’Tis better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all.

The Four Loves,  (pg. 120-121), C.S. Lewis

In words which can still bring tears to the eyes, St. Augustine describes the desolation into which the death of his friend Nebridius plunged him (Confessions IV, 10). Then he draws a moral. This is what comes, he says, of giving one’s heart to anything but God. All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away. 

Of course this is excellent sense. Don’t put your goods in a leaky vessel. Don’t spend too much on a house you may be turned out of. And there is no man alive who responds more naturally than I to such canny maxims. I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as “Careful! This might lead you to suffering.”  

To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground—because the security (so to speak) is better? Who could even include it among the grounds for loving? Would you choose a wife or a Friend—if it comes to that, would you choose a dog—in this spirit? One must be outside the world of love, of all loves, before one thus calculates. Eros, lawless Eros, preferring the Beloved to happiness, is more like Love himself than this.

I think that this passage in the Confessions is less a part of St. Augustine’s Christendom than a hangover from the high-minded Pagan philosophies in which he grew up. It is closer to Stoic “apathy” or neo-Platonic mysticism than to charity. We follow One who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus, and, loving all, yet had one disciple whom, in a special sense, he “loved.” St. Paul has a higher authority with us than St. Augustine—St. Paul who shows no sign that he would not have suffered like a man, and no feeling that he ought not so to have suffered, if Epaphroditus had died (Phil. 2:27).

Even if it were granted that insurances against heartbreak were our highest wisdom, does God Himself off them? Apparently not. Christ comes at last to say “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

This is “ancient wisdom”. It flies in the face of current worldly wisdom – whatever the latest “thing” might be that proposes to save us from the risk of love.  It flies in the face of some of the “wisdom” within the Body of Christ, although, perhaps, that is a more subtle thing to discern and articulate and resist. It makes a mockery of my inordinate need to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful; that are, in reality, my chosen tools of self protection – the ability “to play it safe” and make it through without “the scars of love.”

I find myself seeking/desiring to rely, more and more, on this “ancient path” and listen more to the “ancient voices” of those who have lived Christ and commend such a life of risky love to me. These are the truly wise men and women. I do not claim to have achieved what they advise, but I do press on, having my “drooping hands and … weak knees” strengthened by the Holy Spirit.

And when I choose this strength and the actions He mandates, I realize I have lost nothing and gained everything…

Fr. Thomas

Unseen Warfare: Our Struggle toward Perfection #2

In the introduction, Staretz Nicodemus, the author of, Unseen Warfare, gives us a detailed list of the weapons of our unseen warfare. He will speak of these in the course of the book. They are:

“With what weapons are warriors armed for this unseen warfare? Listen. Their helmet is total disbelief in themselves and complete absence of self-reliance; their shield and coat of mail – a bold faith in God and a firm trust in Him; their armour and cuirass – instruction in the passion of Christ; their belt – cutting off bodily passions; their boots – humility and a constant sense and recognition of their powerlessness; their spurs – patience in temptations and repudiation of negligence; their sword, which they hold ever in one hand, is prayer whether with the lips or within – in the heart; their three-pronged spear, which they have in their other hand, is a firm resolve in no way to consent to the passion which assails them, but to repulse it with anger and wholehearted hatred; their pay and food, sustaining them in their resistance to the enemy, is frequent communion with God, both through the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, and inwardly; the clear and cloudless atmosphere, which enables them to see the enemy from afar, is a constant exercising of the mind in the knowledge of what is right in the eyes of the Lord, and a constant exercising of the will in desiring only what is pleasing to God, peace and quiet of the heart.” (pg. 72)

I am, of course, immediately reminded of the list in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.” (Ephesians 6.10-20)

Nicodemus is reiterating what St. Paul and Jesus before him taught that the most important location of spiritual warfare is the inner man. The Apostle makes this point clearly when he says, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

The word “listen,” should set off a connection with the Rule of St. Benedict. That word is the first word of his “Rule.” And, not surprisingly, St. Benedict makes it clear that the rule of life is for the purpose of doing battle in union the Christ the Lord. It is only by engaging in the warfare, in the context of a community of accountability and encouragement, abiding in Christ at all times, St. Benedict says, that we will “be found worthy to be coheirs with Him [Christ] of His Kingdom.”

“Listen, O my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of thy loving Father, that by the toil of obedience thou mayest return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience thou hast gone away. To thee, therefore, my speech is now directed, who, giving up thine own will, takest up the strong and most excellent arms of obedience, to do battle for Christ the Lord, the true King… We are, therefore, about to found a school of the Lord’s service, in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But even if, to correct vices or to preserve charity, sound reason dictateth anything that turneth out somewhat stringent, do not at once fly in dismay from the way of salvation, the beginning of which cannot but be narrow. But as we advance in the religious life and faith, we shall run the way of God’s commandments with expanded hearts and unspeakable sweetness of love; so that never departing from His guidance and persevering in the monastery in His doctrine till death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to be coheirs with Him of His kingdom.”(The Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue)

With the warfare come the weapons. The Apostle, during his lifetime as well as the staretz during his lifetime, point to the need for the warrior to be armed if he or she intends to enter the warfare.

We could, contrast these who accounts of the weapons of our warfare, but we need not. They are not comparable. Rather, they are complementary. They inform and deepen one another issuing out of the lived experience of the living Christ in their own circumstances and challenges. At one and the same time, the lists are different and yet they are the same.

  • They refer to the power of God.
  • They refer to the powerlessness of the disciple.
  • They, none the less, refer to the intentionality and effort that is required of the believer
  • They refer to the “passions of the flesh” that still reside and operate within the disciple and must be addressed.
  • They refer to the presence and diabolical intention of the enemy.
  • They refer to the commitment to join the battle (make the effort) in the midst of present circumstances not to use our energy wishing for a better set of circumstances in which to live out life of faith, hope, and love.
  • They refer to a nourishment and atmosphere of clarity and wisdom in which the warfare is waged. They refer, therefore, by implication, to the great cloud of witnesses, in the midst of whom and with whose aid we wage war within, and to the Lord Himself in whom we must constantly abide and under the shadow of whose wings we prevail against every foe and rejoice.

It is this clarity (the opposite of it being fantasy and delusion) that are so very important in confronting the passions within us that keep us under their control and frustration our “sanctification” (the western term) and “deification” (the eastern term).

It is this danger that Nicodemus refers to in the next paragraph of his introduction:

“It is here, — here in this ‘Unseen Warfare’ (that is, in this book) or rather in the ‘Wars of the Lord’, that Christ’s warriors learn to discern the various forms of prelest (the nearest English equivalent seems to be “beguilement”), the different wiles, the incredible subterfuges and military ruses, which our invisible foes use against us through the senses, through fantasy, through loss of the fear of God, and in particular through the four suggestions, which they introduce into the heart at the moment of death – I mean suggestions of unbelief, despair, vainglory, and of the demons themselves assuming the aspect of angels of light. But in learning to discern all this, men learn at the same time how to frustrate these wiles of the enemy and to resist them. They learn how to find out what tactical moves to make and what laws of war they must follow in each particular case, and the courage needed to enter into battle. In brief, I would say that every man, who desires salvation, will learn through this book how to conquer  his invisible foes, in order to acquire the treasure of true and divine virtues and to be rewarded with an incorruptible crown and a token of eternity, which is union with God, both in this life and in the future.” (pg. 72-73)

The passions blind us to truth and keep us blind. They numb us to our own blindness. Whatever their original reason for being set into place by us – perhaps survival  – they have come to serve a destructive purpose. They keep us from accessing the “new life” we have “in Christ” by virtue of our Baptism.

All things bear their own fruit. It is no exception with the passions. They bear the fruit that speaks of them and their essence.

“Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! how can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”(Matthew 12.33-37)

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another. (Galatians 5.16-26)

Unseen Warfare invites me to realize the necessity of spiritual warfare —  a subject that has become problematic in the Church over the last 50 years. The use of that term conjures up all kinds of images and experiences in my mind. I have, in my 32+ years of ordained ministry rubbed up against, relatively speaking, the best and the worst incarnations of the conviction. I venture to say we could share some wonderful and scary stories. But, according to the Church Fathers, the Apostles, the saints over the centuries and our Lord Jesus, there is a warfare in which to engage. It is not vague – ill-defined. It is not left up to me as an individual believer to figure out a way to deal with it nor is it allowable for a group of well-meaning believers to do so either. I am called to neither shrink from the fight nor engage in it in a cavalier way.

The way of warfare is definite within the historic Body of Christ and there is a “tried and true” way to engage in it.

I invite you to read on with me and receive more of the witness of the Lord in and through the Church regarding nature of the unseen warfare and how to engage in it.

Fr. Thomas

Unseen Warfare: Our Struggle Toward Perfection

The Forward of the classic, Unseen Warfare begins in this way:

“This book, which profits the soul, is justly named ‘Unseen Warfare’… for it teaches not the art of visible and sensory warfare, and speaks not about visible. Bodily foes but about the unseen and inner struggle, which every Christian undertakes from the moment of his baptism, when he makes a vow to God to fight for Him, to the glory of His divine Name, even unto death… It speaks of invisible and incorporeal foes, which are the varied passions and lusts of the flesh, and of the evil demons who hate men and never cease to fight against us, day and night, as the divine Paul says: ‘For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places’ (Eph. Vi. 12).

This book teaches that the warriors who take part in this unseen war are all who are Christians; and their commander is our Lord Jesus Christ, surrounded and accompanied by His marshals and generals, that is, by all the hierarchies of angels and saints. The arena, the field of battle, the site where the fight actually takes place is our own heart and all our inner man. The time of battle is our whole life.” (pg. 71-72)

The author(s) (there are several authors) make it quite clear, by implication, that in order to reach the desired aim of perfection in Christ Jesus, we must engage in an inner warfare. It is essential. Unless we actively oppose, in concert with the Holy Spirit, all that wars against God’s purpose within us – the “desires of the flesh,” St. Paul calls them – we will never realize our heart’s desire.

Many, I fear, have never been instructed either in the existence of the war; the necessity of the warfare; and the manner of its conduct. (I include myself in that number until my college days.) I would like, therefore, to spend some time moving through Unseen Warfare on this blog, from time to time for the purpose of receiving from the Lord, through His faithful servants – St. Theophan the Recluse, Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, and Lorenzo Scupoli.

I will include a pertinent quote in course and reflect on it. I invite your reflections and comments toward the end of embracing the fullness of the True Faith.

“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7.13-14)

“Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” (Luke 13.24)

Fr. Thomas

The True Church – In But Not Of the World

In a recent post, I spoke of, what I believe to be, an aspect of the “true Church,” namely, “Giving it your all with perseverance.” I want to add another aspect to the list, “life witness.” Now, when I use the word “witness,” I intend for you to understand that I bring to it the connotations of the Greek word, “martyr.” When you read the word “witness” in your New Testament, most likely the Greek word is martyr.

I do not want to take the space in this post to give a detailed exposition of the threads of meaning that this connection exposes. Suffice it to say, martyrdom in some form or another (as the Holy Spirit determines), is the inevitable shape that true discipleship in Christ takes when we are “giving it our all with perseverance.” In short, martyrdom is simply dying to all that is not of Christ in your life – interior and exterior – and living in more and more practical conformity with all that is of Christ – interiorly and exteriorly.

Several passages from the New Testament will take us deeper into the nature of the true Church, which is martyrdom.

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Matthew 6.24

“But take heed to yourselves; for they will deliver you up to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them.  And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.” Mark 13.9-13

“But now I am coming to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth.” John 17.13-19

“Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” James 4.4

Our martyrdom, in essence, begins with the commitment to no longer live according to the standards and priorities of “this world.” We are citizens of “another world” – the Kingdom of God – which has been and is breaking in to the kingdom which is “this world,” and transforming it (according to ways that are appropriate to God’s economy of purpose) to the Kingdom of Heaven. The “flow” is toward the consummation of the Kingdom of Christ no matter what appearances may indicate. The gates of hell shall not (are not) prevailing against this progress no matter how hidden and subtle.

Our commitment, according to our Lord and Master, Christ Jesus and the “witness” of the Holy Spirit within us, is to decide at all times and in all places with all persons, to make our decisions and live in identifiable ways that are in agreement with the standards and priorities of the Kingdom of God.  It is coming to the point where, nothing less than this is acceptable to us in our own life before we even begin to say or do anything about our conviction of this in the lives of others (I must be actively addressing my own stuff before I presume to speak to others about taking care of what I believe to be their stuff! Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating letting sin slide. Just the opposite. I am advocating NOT letting sin slide but taking care of it in our own life first.).

Such a commitment to not “give in” to the standards of this world is, of course, huge. But, I at least, cannot rationalize it away. I cannot pretend that it is anything less than the true baseline of, as Watchman Nee termed it, “the normal Christian life.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic, The Cost of Discipleship, called anything less than such a commitment, “cheap grace.”

Will we fall back into the old ways, the ways of the world? Will it be painful and feel artificial and seem many times like no progress is being made? Yes. The Church Fathers make it abundantly clear that “walking in the light” – living the Kingdom life beginning here and now, in the midst of this world, is tantamount to warfare. Warfare of an invisible kind with the “passions of the flesh” that have reigned within us unchallenged.

The passions of pride, self-love, and vainglory desire to keep us enslaved, sowing in the soul confusion, delusion, and vain reasoning. When we realize this is the case and begin to oppose the “powers and principalities” that war against Christ within us, we must intentionally lay aside all our acquired learning, every opinion about God and ourselves. We must allow the Holy Spirit through use of the Holy Tradition, “which has great holy power and is filled with divine wisdom,” teach and conform us to the likeness of Christ Jesus.

Because the roots of the “ways of this world” have grown deep and strong into the depths of our souls, the journey of spiritual healing and maturing will be lifelong. Our Lord made it abundantly clear: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7.13-14)

We need to become as children not just when we are new to the faith. No. We must remain teachable children and grow up into the kind of maturity that remains deeply teachable. The Holy Tradition calls this characteristic, humility. St. Paul is speaking of this character trait when he says, “If any man thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know.” (1 Corinthians 8.2)

You and I will lapse into times of forgetfulness and revert to the ways of the world. Then, all of a sudden we will be awakened out of our stupor by the Holy Spirit. But we must, never give up. We must never let ourselves become despondent or give in to feelings or thoughts of resignation or self-condemnation. Breaking the power of the ways of the world in our life is hard work that takes time to accomplish. The healthiest thing to do at the moment we realize our lapse is to cry out to God in thanksgiving for the merciful “wake-up call,” agree with the truth God has shown us, re-turn to our right mind (truthful mind) regarding our life, and move forward from that point with great thanksgiving.

The old ways cannot be overcome by our own strength. We must be being continually strengthened and equipped by the Holy Spirit. But, it is also true that the old ways cannot be overcome without the exertion of our will with regularity and constancy. It is the union of our will with the strengthening and equipping will of the Holy Spirit that can successfully overcome the power of the spiritual inertia of the old “frame of reference” and our tendency to “fall back” into the way of life we have forsaken.

You and I will not “win friends and influence people” according to “this world.” But, we may be the leaven of salvation to many. St. Seraphim of Sarov, the 18th century Russian saint, greeted all with these words: “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.”

The most important questions that the true Church of Christ Jesus over the last two millennia asks us are: Do you know what the Lord desires for you to do? Are you doing it? If not, why not? When will you do it? What price are you paying for the delay? Are you, in short, setting your hand to the plow and looking back?

Be blessed by the “witness” of St. Mamas, who is commemorated today…

The Holy Martyr Mamas of Caesarea – September 2 — Mamas, was born in Paphlagonia of renowned Christian parents, Theodotus and Rufina. His parents were cast into prison for Christ’s name. His father died first in prison, and as soon as Rufina bore Mamas, she also died. Thus the newborn child was left alone between the dead bodies of his parents. However, God the Provider sent an angel to a noble widow, Ammia. Ammia saw the angel in a dream: he told her to go to the prison and take the child in. The local eparch granted Ammia permission to bury the dead and to take the child to her home. When Mamas reached his fifth year, he began to talk and his first word was “Mama!”-for which he received the name “Mamas.” In school, Mamas displayed unusual intelligence, and as he had been reared in a Christian spirit, he did not hide his faith, but confessed it to the other children and laughed at the idols. During the reign of Aurelian there was a bitter persecution of Christians. The pagans did not even spare the Christian children. Mamas was fifteen years old when he was brought before the emperor. The emperor told him that he needed only to deny Christ verbally. Mamas replied: “Neither in my heart nor with my lips will I renounce my God and King, Jesus Christ.” The emperor ordered him to be beaten, burned with torches, and finally thrown into the sea. But an angel of God saved him, and took him to a high mountain near Caesarea. There he lived in solitude and prayer. Even the wild beasts were tamed by his sanctity. He was finally discovered by his persecutors and subjected to torture again. When he had overcome torture both by fire and by wild beasts, St. Mamas was run through with a trident by a pagan priest. Thus, in A.D. 275, he gave his holy soul to God, to Whom he had been faithful during all of his tortures. From his relics many healings of the sick have taken place. (The Prologue from Ochrid, pg. 279)

I know, I haven’t given you or myself much “wiggle room.” But then, neither does Jesus. The character of our martyrdom is NOT determined by us. It is decided by God. Your decision and mine is whether or not to embrace it with gratitude, humility (a truly repentant attitude – “joyful sorrow”), and perseverance when it becomes known. This we do, it must be stated, in the context of the visible and invisible fellowship of the saints. To God be the glory…

Fr. Thomas

The True Church

The higher the cost for confessing the life of Christ Jesus in life and word the deeper the authenticity of the Church constituted by such confessors. Perhaps we need to listen to the “witnesses — confessors” (martyrs) of the faith in past generations and our own more deeply who speak to us of the inner warfare that must be embraced by all those who desire to be added as living stones into the building which is the the true Church.

Ephesians 6.10-20

[10] Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.
[11] Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
[12] For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
[13] Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
[14] Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness,
[15] and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace;
[16] besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.
[17] And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
[18] Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,
[19] and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel,
[20] for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.

Let us embrace the death of the old man that must continue in order for the new man to be set free to shine forth as a light to all who sit and walk in darkness. Let us continue to pay the price that grace demands with hope that we may lay hold of the fulfillment of the promise of grace with joy.

Fr. Thomas