Spiritual Combat in the Orthodox Tradition
Last week, on the feast of St. Gregory the Great, I entered a post on the “Spiritual Combat.” I did not know at the time that the Monastery of Bose in Northern Italy was sponsoring an ecumenical conference on the theme, “Spiritual Combat in the Orthodox Tradition” from September 9th through 12th.
There is a very fine paper posted on the Monastery’s website, by the prior of Bose, Enzo Bianchi (though, as of this post, it is available only in Italian).
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is a great friend of the Monastery, and went on retreat there prior to his consecration as Archbishop. He sent greetings to the gathering. Here is an excerpt:
I am very happy once again to send my blessings and best wishes as you gather at Bose to pray and reflect and to discuss what the great teachers of the spiritual life have called ‘the art of arts’ the disciplines and practices that shape us, by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, into the likeness of Jesus Christ.
On this occasion, you will be focusing on the imagery of ‘spiritual struggle’. From the very beginning of Christianity, as we see in the words and actions of Our Lord himself, there has been the conviction that human beings have been the object of a violent assault from the forces of spiritual evil, an assault that has left them disastrously weakened and less than free. The Lord comes with a gospel of absolute, nonviolent mercy and promise. Yet the effect of this gospel confronting the aggression of evil is a great conflict, played out in what the Western liturgy calls an ‘astounding battle’, duellum mirandum, a hand to hand struggle between death and life in the Paschal mystery, from which Christ emerges as conqueror. It is that Paschal struggle that now takes place in the depth of the hearts of all the baptised: we struggle, not for our own victory, but for the victory of Christ to be manifest in us.
For this to become real, we need at least two things. The first is a keen eye to diagnose the stratagems of the forces of destruction, the various subtle ways in which Christ’s victory can be obscured or undermined in us by passions that cloud our understanding. We need to be able to see where our self-oriented, self-serving habits ally themselves with the deeper currents of negation and rebellion that are at work in the universe, and to which we give the name of the diabolical. Secondly, we need, quite simply, perseverance the long vision that is able to see the defeats of yesterday and today as opportunities for penitence and learning, not for despair. And this is a patience born out of the confidence that the victory has truly been won already in the cross and resurrection of the Saviour. There is nothing passive about it. It is the habit of unfailing hope, grounded in the faithfulness of the God who continually ‘is giving us the victory through Our Lord Jesus Christ’ (I Cor. 15:57).
In the eyes of some people, this language is difficult. In the modern world, we are inclined to recoil from the vocabulary of warfare. In our own Church, certain hymns that use this imagery have become unfashionable in recent years. It is also hard for many to accept that the task of being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a matter of a lifetime’s labour, not the work of a moment and not simply the enjoyment of comforting religious feelings.