Some Catholics are of the erroneous opinion that the Christian life does not entail fighting (even spiritually), and that all fighting of whatever sort is harmful. Others become consumed by the idea of combat and make it the whole, or nearly so, of their interior life. This, too, is an error.
Which error is worse is an academic question that does not interest me here.
To the former, I say that this quietistic tendency is condemned outright in scripture. Holy Job tells us “The life of man upon earth is a warfare” (Job 7:1). And to the spiritual pacifist, Saint Paul is positively truculent: “This precept I commend to thee, O son Timothy; according to the prophecies going before on thee, that thou war in them a good warfare” (1 Timothy 1:18). “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty to God unto the pulling down of fortifications, destroying counsels” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4). “Let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us” (Heb. 12:1). “Fight the good fight of faith: lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art called, and hast confessed a good confession before many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12). “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
It is part of the data of revelation that the Christian life entails fighting, so there is no question whether one who has the true faith is to fight or not. But there is the very large question that presents itself, and which I can hope only to touch upon in this little offering and is sequel: “How do we fight?” This is where we address the second of the two errors we outlined above, for if we must fight, we must fight well.
I know Catholics, both men and women, who spend very much of their time excessively angry at their own faults and the faults of others. Their irascible appetites — especially fear, despair, and anger — are too frequently in high gear. In extreme cases, these passions are the very motive force behind most or all of their actions and reactions in their every-day spiritual life. Such folks have too little patience with others, but especially with themselves. If they catch themselves, for instance, sinning against the commandments because they are angry, they become angry with themselves because of it, and on and on it goes. Now, a bow that is always taut will eventually snap; so, too, with the mind that is always tense.
Being a man primarily of choleric temperament, I entirely understand this dilemma. My confederates and I should listen to the sage words of our fellow choleric, Saint Francis de Sales, whose disciplined and grace-inspired self-mastery rendered him worthy of his informal titles, “Gentleman Doctor” and “Gentleman Saint”:
“Be patient with everyone but especially with yourself; I mean that you should not be troubled about your imperfections and that your should always have courage to pick yourself up afterwards. There is no better way of getting there in the end in the spiritual life than always starting all over again and never thinking that you have done enough.”
“Upon becoming aware of your imperfections, you should be displeased, but your displeasure should be humble, tranquil and peaceful, never violent and bitter, for such sentiments usually do more harm than good.”
What the Bishop of Geneva has just told us of meekness stands as a salutary lesson on that virtue (upon which he has much else to say), but it also suits a more general goal. It illustrates the truth that, for every vice that we can name, there is an opposite virtue we can also name, and this virtue ought to be a goal for us to acquire. As the Christian life is essentially and primarily an affirmation of the good, the true, and the beautiful, it is the acquisition of virtues, and not the eradication of vices, that ought to occupy our energies. Let the good reader take notice: I am not denying the need to eradicate vice; rather, I am affirming that the way to do it is by indirection — that is, by acquiring the opposing virtue.
This is called “fighting intelligently.” The person who erroneously thinks that the Christian ought not to fight confuses combat with the unwholesome and consuming wrath that disturbs our soul’s peace and tranquility. But we know that, even in non-metaphorical combat, such a thing is ineffective. The Kung-Fu practitioner who comes against a well-matched foe knows well that he must not lose his head. He must employ strategy, and strategy would include such things as attentiveness to one’s strengths and weaknesses (as well as those of his opponent), circumspection, planning, forethought, and prudence. Should he find himself boiling with hatred for the man he fights, he will let his passions get the best of him. He will get sloppy. He will lose.
Similarly, the general who whips his men into a fury and spurs them on to gorge themselves on the blood of their enemies will regret his failure to consider achievable goals, a well-reasoned battle plan, clear directives, and an exit strategy that will forestall a rout. In a word, the military arts require reflection, which is why good generals play chess, learn the history of great battles, and study in particular what they can of their opponent’s known tactics.
The attentive reader may be catching on to the fact that the spiritual combat requires a battle plan. He would be correct. Revelation essentially gives us this battle plan (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount), but it is useful to distil short guidelines that will help. Here is a very simple outline that will help the reader craft his own personal battle plan:
1. Procure a good examination of conscience and examine yourself with it. Do this routinely and determine what your predominant fault is. This helps in self-knowledge.
2. Name the demon, by which I mean your predominant fault. (Is it the vice of pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy or sloth?) Be specific. The exorcist gets a handle on the demon in an exorcism when he learns its name. Likewise, we get a handle on our evil tendencies when we name them. It’s also a good exercise in humility to tag such a terrible name to something you do.
3. Find out the virtue that’s opposed to that vice and strive to acquire it daily. Practice circumspection in noting (and avoiding) what occasions lead you to commit the sin, but, more importantly, resolve to commit acts of the virtue you’re trying to acquire. I mean resolve specifically to make particular acts by which you will acquire the virtue. E.g., “I will do three kind things for Ralph today.” (Ralph is the guy at work that gets you so angry you have to go to confession.)
4. Pray to acquire the virtue, and confess sins against it frequently — even venial sins.
It is good to remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were any of the saints.