Orthodox America

  War and Peace

     News of the war in the Persian Gulf is filling our homes with talk of targets and tactics, of missiles and munitions, strikes and sorties. We watch Pentagon briefings and listen as military advisors and politicians are probed by the media. Panels of experts in various fields discuss the historical background of the war, its rationale, its objectives; they hypothesize about its short and long-term consequences. School children are given lessons in the geography of the region. There is no doubt that Desert Storm has captured the nation's attention.

       As intent as we may be in following news coverage of the war, most of us are not directly involved and, so far, only marginally affected by it. There is, however, another war going on in which we, as Christians, are engaged. Because it is an invisible war, we sometimes lose sight of this fact; we neglect our weaponry, we become lax, unconscious of enemy infiltrations and lost battles. The present conflict in the Gulf has brought a heightened awareness to the subject of war, and we would be wise to take advantage of this time in order to assess the status of our struggle in the spiritual realm, and to develop an increased consciousness of just what this struggle demands of us. 

     This life is a spiritual battle: to conquer or be conquered. If we conquer, we shall enjoy the fruits of victory through all eternity; but if we are conquered, we shall suffer the horrors of defeat through all eternity. This life is a duel between man and everything that sets itself against God. Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, Prologue of Ochrid.

      The analogy between what we shall call conventional warfare and spiritual warfare, used widely in Scripture and patristic texts, is useful in providing familiar images, helping us to concretize what lies beyond the realm of our sensory perceptions. There are, however, some important differences. In a conventional war, for example, not everyone is involved in combat. Some wars are fought solely with volunteer or mercenary armies. No one, however, is exempt from spiritual warfare. Everyone is called to active duty: the elderly, the disabled, children, rich, poor; there is no discrimination.

      The fact that we are a nation at war has introduced a measure of some sobriety. There is an awareness that human lives are at risk; some will be lost. Warfare is in fact a difficult and deadly serious business; it demands courage, commitment, sacrifice, concentration; to fight successfully, especially in the case of protracted conflict, requires substantial motivation. This applies with even greater force to the spiritual arena where what is at stake is not simply life, but eternal life.

      We are perhaps intellectually aware of the consequences of this unseen warfare we read about it in books, we hear about it in sermons---but we must personalize it. Victory is won not in newspapers or on TV, but in the combat zone. We must fight!

      A cardinal rule in any war is "Know your enemy." When someone offends us or provokes us to anger, when someone entices us towards sin, we often react as thought they are our enemy. But as St. Paul tells us, We fight not against flesh and blood, but against the spirits of evil under heaven who war against us together with the various passions and lusts of the flesh. The more we learn about how the enemy operates the better our chances of victory.

      In observing Desert Storm it is clear that modern warfare relies heavily on advances in military technology, which very quickly render existing weapons obsolete. Military manuals require constant updating; training and equipment are subject to similar modernization. Spiritual warfare, however, has through the centuries remained largely unchanged. Those manuals written by the successful combatants and war heroes of the past are as relevant and valuable to us today as they were when they were written years ago. Some may object: Times have changed, we have new problems... Bishop Nikolai Velimirorich has this to say: "Spiritual experience in olden times and spiritual experience in our day are identical --on the condition that the confession of faith is identical. The heavenly knowledge to which the ancient ascetics came, in no way differs from the heavenly knowledge to which modem ascetics come. For, as Christ is the same today as yesterday, so also is human nature." (Prologue)

      One of the best and most popular manuals for soldiers of the spiritual arena is Unseen Warfare. The book is recommended in a Foreward by St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain Cr1809), as an invaluable resource in which readers can learn about the "different wiles, the incredible subterfuges and military ruses, which our invisible foes use against us... How to frustrate these wiles of the enemy and to resist them. They learn how to find 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."

      Other classic "manuals" of spiritual warfare include The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus and Discourses and Sayings of Abba Dorotheos of Gaza. All are readily available in English translation. Let us not claim ignorance as an excuse for defeat!

      Still another striking difference between conventional and spiritual warfare is the duration of the conflict. St. Symeon the New Theologian explains: "...When men fight against other men they at times fight with weapons but at other times they withdraw and stop fighting and lay down their arms and in all security enjoy sleep and food. Often they surround themselves with fortifications and take turns to be on guard duty. Thus he who takes to flight survives; if he is taken prisoner he may perhaps escape being slain, but having exchanged his freedom for honorable servitude he may even rise to greater fame and fortune. Here it is different; warfare goes on constantly, and the soldiers of Christ must at all times be armed with their weapons. Neither by night nor by day nor for a single instant is this warfare interrupted, but even when we eat or drink or do anything else we find ourselves in the thick of battle." (The Discourses

       We must be under no illusion. Our enemy is exceedingly cunning and well-seasoned. But we have a distinct advantage, and if we exert ourselves as befits soldiers of Christ, victory will be ours, for God is with us!