The arts and sciences that lie behind all combat — be it Asian martial arts, boxing, team sports, or the life-and-death combat of warcraft — are habits. These are things acquired by study and/or repetition. Now, science requires knowledge and art requires skill. But what of morals? What do they require? Morals require virtues, which are also habits.
The Christian combat is no less serious a pursuit than these other forms of combat. In fact, it is by far the greater, as its goal is God Himself and failure means Hellfire. (Total failure, that is; partial failure merits Purgatorial fire — which is not pleasant either, but which terminates in heavenly beatitude.) Therefore, as the fighter or soldier acquires arts and skills to equip him for combat, we members of the Church Militant must, all the more, acquire virtues for the Christian combat.
But the Christian life is more than the practice of the moral virtues. If that were all it were, we would be Pelagians, not Catholics, by asserting that our acts matter more than God’s in the spiritual life. (Yes, the Pelagians, being essentially Stoic Christian heretics, did believe in virtue; they were not like modern libertines in that regard.) Contrary to Pelagius, we Catholic know that the Christian life is the life of grace. It is nourished by the sacraments and by prayer. Now, prayer includes not only vocal prayer, but also liturgical prayer, that is, the social prayer of the Church. By this, we especially mean the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, that self-immolating prayer of Jesus Christ the High Priest, which we participate in as members of His Mystical Body, the Catholic Church. Prayer also encompasses that intimate private prayer known as “mental prayer.” In whatever form we find it, Christian prayer — if it be worthy of the name — unites us with the Holy Trinity through the sacred Humanity of Jesus Christ, who is “the way, the truth, and the life.”
Christianity is a life of union with God, or, if you will, a divine romance. It is not only the cloistered mystics of the Church, like Saint Teresa of Avila, who were meant to be ecstatically united to God. This union is actually the natural terminus of the life begun in Baptism.
There is another way of putting all this. When we consider the moral virtues, we come to the area of self-knowledge. Knowledge of self is very important for the acquisition of virtue and growth in holiness. However, without an indispensable and complementary knowledge, self-knowledge becomes useless, or, in the all-too-common case of narcissism, it is positively harmful.
Dependence on Jesus Christ and not on self, intimacy with Him in prayerful conversation, union with Him in the Blessed Sacrament: these and other integral parts of the life of grace point to that second knowledge, which is knowledge of the Triune God, for which it is necessary to have a knowledge of the Man-God, Jesus Christ.
In Saint Louis de Montfort’s thirty-three-day preparation for total consecration, there are three weeks spent on knowledge of self, knowledge of Mary, and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Note that these are ascending gradations. That’s evident to any Christian. A deeper observation is that knowledge of self, to be authentic, must be knowledge of self in the light of God, of His truth, and of His standards as revealed to us through His infallible Church. Father Michael Jarecki, whose recent death delayed this sequel, once said very memorably: “Do you know what adoration is? I’ll tell you. It’s BIG GOD and little me.” Such a definition of adoration is hardly scholastic, but it sure gets the point across with an admirable economy of words that is both evangelical and child-like.
This definition of adoration presumes that we recognize both our littleness and God’s bigness. Put another way: for us to surrender our infinitesimal selves to the Immensity of the Divine Trinity necessitates the two-fold knowledge of God and of self.
But what does this have to do with “how to fight”?
Jesus Christ fought and won the battle against sin, death, and hell. He achieved salvation for the human race. Of primary concern for us is union with Him, the great Victor. While self-knowledge is necessary for the life of grace, more important still is knowledge of Jesus Christ. He — the great Other and not the self — is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. This is the spirituality of Blessed Columba Marmion, who cut through much of the confusion of the devotional life in his day by focusing his disciples intently and ardently on Jesus Christ Himself. In our narcissistic age, where self-obsession is pandemic, focusing our gaze onto Jesus Christ, even to the forgetfulness of self, is of paramount importance.
Jesus said to Saint Catherine of Siena: “I am He Who Is, and you are she who is not.” Such an ontological lesson of sheer dependence upon His Majesty is very necessary for us if it was for her.
To Saint Teresa of Avila, Our Lord once appeared as a Child. When He asked her who she was, she responded: “I am Teresa of Jesus, who are you?” To which His Majesty responded: “I am Jesus of Teresa!”
We can imagine that Jesus could have made both of these utterances to each of these saints. Each had to learn the lesson of dependence on Christ and mistrust of self first. But each was elevated to an intimacy that would allow the Divine Bridegroom, Lover that He is, to identify His very Self with His bride.
Such is the divine condescension of the Trinity that dwells in us; such is His generous elevation of a mere creature to the height of union with Himself.
This union puts an end to all narcissism, to all selfishness. The “Disciple” expresses it well in The Imitation of Christ (IV, 13): “Ah Lord God, when shall I be completely united to You and absorbed by You, with self utterly forgotten? You in me and I in You? Grant that we may remain so together. You in truth are my Beloved, chosen from thousands, in Whom my soul is happy to dwell all the days of her life. You are in truth my pledge of peace, in Whom is the greatest peace and true rest, without Whom there is toil and sorrow and infinite misery.”
One might ask whether utterly forgetting self is not contrary to the genuine self-knowledge that is necessary for the Christian life. It is not, for this forgetfulness of self recommended in the Imitation is a knowledge of self in Christ. It is the “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30) of the Baptist. All comparisons limp, but I will venture one to illustrate the difference between an inadequate sort of self-knowledge and the Christian sort, which includes “self forgetfulness.” The reader is asked to imagine a masterful painting of himself, one that captures at the same time not only the external appearance of the subject, but also — as only a truly great artist can do — the internal realities of the soul. This image represents what I’ve called “inadequate self knowledge.” Next, the reader will see that same image, but this time as a small part of a colossal scene depicting the wonders of the natural and supernatural orders, including the eschatological realities and even the Holy Trinity Itself. The image of the self has not changed, but it is now put in relation to realities far larger than itself, realities that also ennoble and elevate the self into God’s eternity. That is knowledge of self in light of God.
The author of the Imitation has just told us that Jesus is our “pledge of peace, in Whom is the greatest peace and true rest.” And isn’t that the point of fighting? The Christian warrior, like the many canonized soldiers, is a man who wants peace, but who knows that the order requisite for peace sometimes has to be restored by force of arms. So, too, the spiritual combatant fights that he may rest in the peace of God.
Intimate union with the Conqueror of sin, death and hell assures us that ultimate victory, which is one good reason to be patient and even tranquil as the war rages ‘round us.
I would like to recommend an excellent book on the spiritual life called This Tremendous Lover. It is the kind of volume that’s worth reading and rereading.