This past Sunday’s Epistle reading managed to capture my attention much more than the Gospel, especially the following part:
Brethren: Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience. Bear with one another and forgive one another, if anyone has a grievance against any other; even as the Lord has forgiven you, so also do you forgive. But above all these things have charity, which is the bond of perfection. And may the peace of Christ reign in your hearts; unto that peace, indeed, you were called in one body.
What was it about the reading that made me pause? While I try as best as I can to accompany the readings in the missal, looking after two fidgety children makes for a distraction-ridden Mass. Still, as the priest intoned the words pax Christi, suddenly my attention re-directed from the kids to the reading. Since reading Chapter IV of the Rule some weeks ago, instrument no. 25 – “Do not give a false peace” – has stuck in my mind, almost as though a splinter, a source of constant “irritation”. What does it mean to give a false peace? And before we can even speak of a false peace, what is the peace that St. Benedict speaks of?
I will be dividing this topic into two posts as a matter of practicality, allowing me to flesh out the ideas as I write.
A much forgotten aspect (at least in the Western world) of the spiritual life is that it is a struggle, a combat. I say this at the risk of sounding repetitive, but it bears repeating again and again. The Christian spiritual life is not something merely therapeutic, a form of spiritual hygiene, the finding of an inner equilibrium. Our communion with God, our participating in the life of the Trinity is to be fought on three fronts – the Devil, the World, and the Flesh. It is a prize that does not come cheaply. If I was already aware of this, the reading of the Desert Fathers has hammered the lesson home quite emphatically. In the words of the Apostle Paul:
For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.
If we do think of the spiritual life of a struggle at all, then perhaps we relegate it to the monastic life. After all, aren’t monks and nuns the ones’ who have answered the call to remove themselves from the world to do spiritual battle? “I’m OK aren’t I? Sure I may gossip and get drunk and vent my frustration on others and completely forget to pray, but I haven’t killed anyone; I haven’t done any of that negative stuff explicitly stated in the Decalogue. I don’t notice any struggle at all…” In such a case, of course there is no struggle because the demons need not bother with one in such a state. Monastic literature speaks constantly of how material complacency is an enemy of the spiritual life, that it deadens the fear of the Lord, of how it lulls the soul into a torpor, and how one goes on to become little better than the beasts. I often wonder if that is not was has happened with us in the modern world, if we have not become too soft, too puny, too lethargic due to all the comfort that is available to us if only we have the ability to purchase it.
But if one does decide to be faithful to one’s baptismal vows, if one does decide to take up the standard of Christ, then one will see how much of a struggle the Christian life is, not only exteriorly, but interiorly as well. Are there not days when one can almost feel the struggle within? Days when it is as if a fierce war is being waged in one’s heart, that temptations of all sorts come in wave after wave, that the passions inflame, either individually or in concert, and beat down relentlessly upon one’s heart? And in these moments one realises how utterly fragile, utterly weak one is, and one’s only defence is to cry out “O God come to my assistance; o Lord make haste to help me”! No, spiritual warfare is not only the portion of the monastic.
We fight then to attain peace, but this peace is not the absence of conflict. The conflict will be within till our last dying breath, for the Enemy is a relentless one and will not give quarter until then end. Paradoxically, we are fighting so that we may die in order to live. We are putting to death the Old Man each and every day, so that the New Man may be born within and, in His being born, bring us to life.