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Spiritual combat

The older I become the more quickly Lent seems to roll around. But with advancing years, I also find myself taking this grace-filled season of repentance more seriously.

When I was younger, I imagined myself to be invincible. Of course, I knew that someday I’d grow old and that my earthly life would be over – but that seemed far off in the future. To be sure, my imagined invincibility did not express itself in a wild and crazy lifestyle. Instead, it was expressed in what seemed like a nearly endless capacity for work. There just weren’t enough hours in the day for all that I wanted to do or thought I needed to do – whether in my studies or my ministry.

Naturally I went to Mass, received the sacrament of reconciliation and prayed, asking for and preaching about God’s grace and mercy. But deep down, I harbored the persistent thought that if there was anything important that had to be done, I had better roll up my sleeves.

I knew from my studies that such an attitude doesn’t square with our Catholic faith. It’s actually a heresy and it has a name: Pelagianism. Pelagius hailed from the 5th century. To him is ascribed the view that we are able to obey the commandments through the natural powers of our will so long as we are enlightened by the teaching of the Gospel. The problem with this outlook is that it fails to take into account human weakness as well as our need for God’s mercy and the grace of the Holy Spirit.

In various ways the Lord tried to dislodge Pelagian attitudes from my heart but I resisted, and sometimes still resist. Among other things, this badly exaggerated “can-do” attitude is symptomatic of the sin of pride that played such a devastating role at the dawn of human history.

For some souls it is sufficient that God whispers. For others, God has to use a megaphone. At times, I’m among the latter. The Lord certainly sent me lots of gentle signals, including good and patient spiritual directors, hints that my health, while good, is by no means invulnerable; the witness of good and holy people who spoke of their utter reliance on the Lord and his mercy. All those things were nudges in the right direction.

But some years ago, I think the Lord decided to beat me at my own game. He ladled out so much work and such great problems that I had to face the fact that my exaggerated self-reliance was both foolish and untenable. I was up against things I couldn’t handle, things larger than my limited abilities, things out of my control. That was God’s megaphone in my ear: “You need me!” he seemed to be saying.

And it all came home to me in a little Scripture passage from Ephesians where St. Paul wrote: “For the struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).

In my own life and ministry, I was engaged in spiritual warfare against the forces of evil. But in failing to rely utterly on the grace of the Holy Spirit, I was entering into heavy battle with the lightest of armor – my own imperfect efforts. Instead, I needed to “put on the armor of God” (Eph 6:11).

That does not mean that I no longer worked hard or that I gave up the very human struggle to attain virtue. It does mean that I can no longer cling to past illusions about my personal efficacy in the face of such formidable opposition. Rather, I must rely utterly on the Lord and the grace of the Holy Spirit to drive from me and from the church the forces of evil.

Lent is not merely a season for self-improvement or self-denial. No, it begins with Satan’s tempting Jesus in the desert. Jesus engages in mortal combat with Satan and for our sakes wins the victory. Lent is a time when we lay aside illusions and, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, “fight the good fight and run the race” (2 Tim, 4:7). ●