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Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Spiritual Combat

by Paul Kokoski


Mr. Paul Kokoski provides an excellent overview of the spiritual problems that beset us and the need for spiritual discipline.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


18 & 20 – 26

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, June 2008

Increasingly, we are living in an age in which moral principles have no objective standard, a time of global terrorism and violent Christian persecution. In the face of such grave challenges Pope Benedict XVI has announced a special jubilee year dedicated to St. Paul, calling to the fore modern Christians who will imitate the apostle's missionary energy and spirit of sacrifice. Today's Church, the Pope said, needs Christians who are willing to "pay in person for their fidelity to Christ in every circumstance."1 This requires making use of the spiritual capacity with which we are endowed and developing it by conquering the obstacles to its growth we encounter within our own selves and all about us. This essay focuses on spiritual warfare, which is the mark of every Christian life. I will briefly discuss the consequences of original sin and then explain the three spiritual enemies that continually exert their powerful influences in order to turn us away from God — namely, concupiscence, the world and the devil. After each I will provide some remedies for overcoming our spiritual foes.

As a result of the disobedient choice of our first parents, human nature became fundamentally flawed. Prior to original sin man was constituted in an "original state of holiness and justice"2 to which God attached three privileges meant to better dispose man to the reception of sanctifying grace: infused knowledge, control of the passions, and the immortality of the body. All these gifts were given to Adam as "a patrimony to be handed down to his heirs should he abide faithfully to God.3

Despite these gifts man still retained the power to turn away from God by virtue of his free will. In essence, heaven still had to be merited. This entailed man's submission to a prohibition from God — symbolized by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — by which man was to be obedient to the "laws of creation and to the moral norms that govern the use of freedom."4 Holy Scripture narrates how the devil in the guise of a serpent tempted Adam and Eve into abusing their freedom by planting in their minds doubt as to the legitimacy of God's ban. With the fall, the intimate unity between man's intellect and will on the one hand and the body on the other became disordered. The relationship between the body and soul became strained such that weariness, suffering and death were introduced into the human condition. "The inner harmony of the human person, the harmony between man and woman, and finally the harmony between the first couple and all creation"5 became tarnished.

Concupiscence, man's first spiritual enemy, is the foe we carry within us. With respect to his sensitive faculties, man became prone after the fall to every curiosity and novelty. His flesh became alive to many different pleasures. His interior sense of imagination sought to wrest compliance from his will by portraying to him sensual images. Man's intellectual faculties also became injured. Though the precepts of the natural law are still knowable to the human intellect even without the aid of revelation, it no longer rises "spontaneously from the creature to the Creator, as it would have done in the primeval state, [rather] man's intellect gravitates earthward."6 The intellect, drawn to the different curiosities and novelties by the sensitive appetites, now tends to focus on God's creation rather than on God himself. Further, our resulting prejudices create a tension within our spirit that obfuscates truth and directs man more readily into error. Man's will, rather than worshiping God, allows itself to be carried away by sentiment and passion toward a sense of exaggerated self-worth and independence. The will finds itself weak and inconstant in submitting to the authority of God and his representatives on earth. St. Paul describes such weakness in striking terms: "I do, not the good I will to do, but the evil I do not intend. For I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind and captivating me in the law of sin that is in my members."7 Subject to ignorance, prone to evil and weak against temptation, concupiscence rages within and proves more unruly in some, more subdued in others.8

St. John describes a three-fold concupiscence: the concupiscence of the flesh, the eyes and the pride of life.9 Concupiscence of the flesh is the inordinate love of sensual pleasures from which arise gluttony, lust and sloth. Pleasure in itself is not evil. The moderate enjoyment of pleasure, if referred to its supernatural end, is in fact good. God attached enjoyment to certain acts — such as the act of eating — as an incentive in order to facilitate their accomplishment (in this case the sustenance of our bodily forces) and to draw us on to the fulfillment of duty. Pleasure becomes a moral disorder when we will it to excess as an end in itself.

The remedy for this great evil is the mortification of the senses. As St. Paul tells us, "Those who belong to Christ have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires."10 Our baptism, by which we die to sin and are made one body with Christ, supplies the motive that obliges us to mortify our love for pleasure. Our very salvation indeed depends upon this obligation: "For if you live according to the flesh, you shall die; but if by the spirit you put to death the evil deeds of the body, you will live."11 And it is not enough for us to merely renounce evil pleasures. To gain a complete victory we must also sacrifice all dangerous pleasures since "he that loves danger shall perish in it"12 It is even advisable that we forgo some lawful pleasures in order to strengthen our wills against the lures of forbidden ones.

The second concupiscence — concupiscence of the eyes — comprises two things: all unwholesome curiosity and avarice, or the inordinate love of the goods of the world. Both betray in us a lack of confidence and trust in God's divine providence. Unhealthy curiosity pertains to an excessive desire to see, hear and know the secret intrigues of the world, not for spiritual gain but for frivolous knowledge. A special object of this curiosity is the desire to delve into things and events hidden — to gain knowledge of that which God has reserved to himself. The Old Testament already warns us: "Let there not be found among you anyone who immolates his son or daughter in the fire, nor a fortune-teller, soothsayer, charmer, diviner, or caster of spells, nor one who consults ghosts and spirits or seeks oracles from the dead."13 Today we might add to this list such New Age practices as Reiki training, eco-spirituality, reflexology, centering prayer, the Enneagram, channeling, etc. Sadly, such forms of psychological affirmation of the individual have become very popular among Catholics today, even in retreat houses, seminaries and institutes of formation for religious.

Unnatural curiosity also extends to true and useful science when men give themselves over to its pursuit without moderation or to the detriment of higher duties. Such is the case when one attempts to go beyond one's human limits to engage in such activities as human cloning, embryonic stem cell research and other forms of genetic manipulation.

To combat vain curiosity we must remind ourselves that "whatever is not eternal is not worthy of winning and captivating the thought of immortal beings such as we are."14 Past and present-day events certainly ought to engage our interest, but only insofar as they contribute to the glory of God and the salvation of men. We ought to study before all else, not what is pleasing, but what is necessary and profitable. We ought to read slowly so that we digest and understand what we read, so as to improve and purify ourselves and enlighten others: "They edify others, and this is charity . . . they are edified themselves, and this is prudence."15

Of grave importance today is the need to heal our intellectual pride. This can be done by submitting ourselves with childlike docility to the teachings of the Church and to the directions of the Holy See. In this way we can avoid that hypercritical attitude that attenuates and minimizes our dogmas under pretense of explaining them.

In addition to fruitless curiosity, the second form of concupiscence of the eyes is avarice. Sometimes the inordinate love of earthly goods lies in the intention. Here we desire wealth as an end in itself or as a means for achieving ends, such as pleasures and honors. This kind of passion tends to supplant God in the human heart and amounts to a form of idolatry. The disorder of avarice is also manifest in the eager and hazardous way in which we seek riches without regard for the rights of others or for our own health. It again shows itself when we stingily spend money or when we hoard it like misers, giving little or nothing to the poor.

The remedy to avarice involves bearing in mind that wealth is not an end in itself but merely a means, provided by God to minister to our needs and those of our brethren. Under God's supreme dominion we are merely administrators of the earth's goods — caretakers — who will ultimately be called to "give an account of our stewardship."16 The most effective way of detaching ourselves from riches is to invest our wealth in the bank of heaven by giving generously to the poor and to good works: "Do not lay up for yourselves an earthly treasure . . . Make it your practice instead to store up heavenly treasure, which neither moths nor rust corrode nor thieves break in and steal."17

The third form of concupiscence is pride. Pride is the inordinate love of self, which causes us to consider ourselves as our first beginning and last end. It is a species of idolatry whereby we consider ourselves the sovereign lords and masters of those qualities, real or imaginary, that we possess, without referring them to God.18 This often translates into a spirit of independence and self-sufficiency that ultimately leads us to renounce God as well as his representatives on earth. From pride are born vain-glory, envy and anger.

There are perhaps few who go so far as to consider themselves explicitly as their own first principle and last end. This is the sin of Lucifer, the sin of atheists, the sin of heretics who refuse to acknowledge the authority of the Church established by God, the sin of rationalists who refuse to submit their reason to faith, and the sin of certain intellectuals who, too proud to accept the traditional interpretation of dogmas, attenuate and deform them to make them conform to their own views.19

Nonetheless, there are many others who commonly behave in practice as if they shared in this error. They want, for example, to be praised by others for their good works as if they themselves were the authors. They are often prompted by egotism, making themselves the center of attention while giving but little to God and even less to their neighbors. They may complain to God when he does not flood them with consolations — as if the end of piety was the personal enjoyment of consolations. Pride, the arch-enemy of perfection, thus robs God of his due glory and deprives us of his graces: "God resists the proud but bestows his favor on the lowly."20

The remedy of pride consists in recognizing that God is our first principle and last end. Pope Benedict XVI recently reminded us how the triumph of our Blessed Mother was a consequence of her firm decision to be "the handmaid of the Lord" and to place herself entirely in God's hands. She leads all Christians down "the path of love, which entails losing ourselves, but which is the only way that we can truly find ourselves."21

To conquer pride we must remember that by ourselves we are but nothingness and sin, in the sense that by concupiscence we tend to sin; so much so that, according to St. Augustine, if we do not fall into certain sins we owe it to the grace of God.22

Mankind's second spiritual enemy is the world. Unlike concupiscence, which resides within man, this foe attacks from without. "The world" here refers in a general sense to the "negative influence exerted on people by communal situations and social structures that are the fruit of men's sins."23 Sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. At root, the world is the totality of all those who oppose Jesus Christ and who are slaves of threefold concupiscence. These include non-believers who are hostile to religion precisely because it condemns their pride and their love of pleasure and wealth. Examples of such crusading atheists today include the noted authors Christopher Hitchens (God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion). Then there are the indifferent who do not want religion to stir them out of their apathy. Also too are the hardened sinners who love sin because they love pleasure. Finally there are the "worldlings, who believe and even practice their religion, yet combine it with the love of pleasure, of luxury and of ease, and who not in infrequently scandalize their neighbor by giving them occasion to say that religion has but little influence on morals."24 One is reminded here of some of our present-day Catholic politicians who profess to privately follow their religion but who publicly support acts that gravely contradict Church teachings, such as those regarding abortion, homosexuality, contraception, same-sex marriage, euthanasia or embryonic stem-cell research. Not free from fault in this regard are many of our own Catholic bishops, who do little or nothing to challenge such "public sinners." As a result, the world subtly worms its way into the hearts of Christian families and even religious communities, feeding the fires of concupiscence.

Essentially, the world seduces us by holding up maxims directly opposed to the Gospel. It corrupts us by extolling the empty happiness of the rich and powerful. Vice is thus made attractive by being concealed beneath the guise of what are often called "innocent fashions and amusements." The world also seduces us through its many perverse examples. These include the examples given by people who live only for pleasure, by those who make light of their marital vows, and by those who scrupulously resort to questionable means to further their careers and to "get ahead." Moreover, the world is so tolerant of human weaknesses that it actually encourages temptations to lead a life of sin.

When the world cannot seduce us it terrorizes us, often in the form of direct persecution of the faith. An obvious example is communism. At other times the world will subtly attempt to turn timid souls away from their religious duties and toward the prevailing fashions and customs of the day by ridiculing believers as hypocrites and dupes who still believe in ancient dogmas. The world will also resort to threats by telling us that our consciences must not accompany us into the work force; for example, the pressure placed on politicians to pass immoral laws. In the end the world offers us a road that is wide and that leads to perdition. But our Lord encourages us to strive to enter the narrow gate that leads to heaven.

The remedy in overcoming the world is to view the world from the point of view of eternity and in the light of faith. Then we will see the world in its true colors as an enemy of Christ. Practical resolutions include continual readings of the Bible in order to absorb its maxims and truths and to come to recognize the many false maxims of the world when we encounter them. We should also make it a habit to avoid the many dangerous occasions of sin that exist in the world. Though we are in the world we should not be of the world. Also, we should dispense with forms of socializing that are purely worldly in character. This is especially true for priests; "We shall not forget what is said of our Lord after his resurrection, that he came among his disciples but rarely, and only in order to complete their training and to speak to them of the Kingdom of God."25

Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.26 Let us then carry into the world the maxims and examples of the Gospel. Instead of proclaiming the praises of wealth and power, let us acknowledge that there are other sources of happiness and success. Let us convince others that virtue carries with it rewards even in this world and that the peace of a good conscience is worth infinitely more than false pleasures. We can no doubt bring the Gospel to men most effectively by our own example, for no one can help but admire those who live according to their convictions. This means that we must make no concessions to the world either to please or to be esteemed. By our good example we can infuse into others the courage to fight steadfastly against the tyranny of the world.

Our third spiritual enemy is the devil. Scripture tells us there are in fact many devils or fallen creatures who rebelled and were damned. The principal devil, however, is Satan, which means "the adversary." Many would have us believe today that the "prince of this world" is nothing more than a vestigial piece of folklore — something that is unacceptable to mature faith. Of the devil, however, Pope Benedict XVI has stated: "Whatever the less discerning theologians may say, the devil, as far as Christian belief is concerned, is a puzzling but real, personal and not merely symbolical presence."27

In regard to the devil's influence, St. Thomas tells us that the Evil One cannot act directly on our intellect and will, which God has reserved as a sanctuary for himself. The devil can, however, affect our higher faculties by acting directly on our interior and exterior senses, including our imagination, memory and bodily passions. Despite this, we remain through our will ever free to give or refuse consent.28 We can also be assured that God who is faithful will not let us be tempted beyond our strength and that whoever leans upon the Almighty in humble trust can be sure of victory.

According to St. Ignatius, diabolical temptation can be recognized whenever a temptation is sudden, violent and protracted beyond measure. One can especially suspect the devil's influence if the temptation "casts the soul into deep and prolonged turmoil; if it excites the desire for the spectacular, for strange and conspicuous mortifications, and particularly if it induces a strong inclination to be silent about the whole affair with our spiritual director and to distrust our superiors."29 We can also presume "his sinister action is at work where the denial of God becomes radical, subtle and absurd; where lies become powerful and hypocritical in the face of evident truth; where love is smothered by cold, cruel selfishness; where Christ's name is attacked with conscious, rebellious hatred; where the spirit of the Gospel is watered down and rejected, where despair is affirmed as the last word; and so forth."30

The remedy against evil temptation rests first in humble and confident prayer. We must acknowledge our inability to conquer the prince of pride without God's assistance. In this way we can be sure of God's help and the help of his angels and saints: "If God is for us who will be against us?"31 We should also seek the intercession of St. Michael, who already obtained a distinguished victory over Satan and whose office it is to rescue the souls of the faithful from the power of the enemy. It is also a good practice to invoke our guardian angels. Most especially we should have recourse to our Blessed Mother, who shared in Jesus' struggle against the Evil One and whose foot crushed the serpent's head.

Another antidote to diabolical temptation is the confident use of the sacraments and sacramentals. Through the sacrament of confession, for example, we obtain the grace of a strengthened will, which enables us to grow in humility, to conquer our bad habits and to repel the devil with utter contempt. Confirmation makes us soldiers of Christ. The Eucharist nourishes our souls, infusing into us God's spirit and the virtues.

Sacramentals, which are determined by the spiritual disposition or worthiness of the individual and by the intercessory prayer of the Church, can also be efficacious in routing the devil. In this regard, the sign of the cross is the most basic Christian gesture. "By signing ourselves with the cross, we place ourselves under the protection of the cross, hold it in front of us like a shield that will guard us in all the distress of daily life and give us the courage to go on . . . It is the saving staff that God holds out to us, the bridge by which we can pass over the abyss of death, and all the threats of the Evil One, and reach God"32 St. Teresa of Avila recommends in a special way the use of holy water: "I often experience that there is nothing the devils flee from more — without returning — than holy water . . . the power of holy water must be great. For me there is a particular and very noticeable consolation my soul experiences upon taking it."33 Abstinence and fasting are also religious actions that dispose the individual to reception of grace and enhances one's relationship with God. Christian fasting, together with prayer, provides the most powerful means of healing. When Christ's disciples asked him why he was able to cast the demon out of a boy when they could not, Christ replied, "This kind can only come out through prayer and fasting."34 Other penitential acts that compliment fasting include works of charity, such as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and almsgiving.

In conclusion we can see that the Christian life is warfare, a battleground that engages us in a lifelong series of intricate maneuvers that ends only with death; warfare of supreme importance since our eternal life hangs in the balance. St. Paul teaches us that there are within us two men: the New Man with supernatural abilities produced in us by the Holy Spirit through the merits of Christ, and the old Adam with all the evil inclinations that we have inherited — even after baptism from our first parents. This concupiscence is aroused and intensified by the world and the devil inclining us toward an inordinate love of sensual pleasure. These two men are necessarily engaged in constant conflict and it is our holy duty to choose between them, for "no man can serve two masters."

The Christian, then, is a soldier, an athlete, who fights unto death for the immortal crown.35 St. Paul, in his epistle to the Ephesians, describes the Christian armor as follows:

Draw your strength from the Lord and his mighty power. Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. Our battle is not against human forces but against principalities and powers, the rulers of this world of darkness, the evil spirits in regions above. You must put on the armor of God if you are to resist on the evil day; do all that your duty requires, and hold your ground. Stand fast, with the truth as the belt around your waist, justice as your breastplate, and zeal to propagate the Gospel of peace as your footgear. In all circumstances hold faith up before you as your shield; it will help you extinguish the fiery darts of the Evil One. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. At every opportunity pray in the Spirit, using prayers and petitions of every sort.36

Lest we forget, the grace given us by God is the grace for struggle and not the grace for peace: "Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division."37 These words are a reminder that Christ's followers will always encounter conflict and that anyone who has the courage to pursue the truth without compromise will meet with opposition. Christ himself is the source of peace for his followers, and those who embrace the Lord's words without reservation will imitate him by resolutely rejecting evil. In this way they may become, like St. Francis of Assisi, "instruments of His peace" — not because they avoid conflict but because they overcome evil with good.38

Though we can never fully divest ourselves of the old Adam, we can weaken him and fortify the New Man against his attacks. In the beginning our fight will be more acute with more numerous and more violent counterattacks by the enemy. However, with perseverance our passions will subside and our victories will become more frequent. In the end we will be able to claim with St. Paul, the great apostle of the Gentiles: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. From now on a merited crown awaits me."39

End Notes

  1. Pope Benedict XVI, L'Osservatore Romano, July 4, 2007, p. 2.
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. 1995, no. 375. (Hereafter cited as Catechism)
  3. Rev. Adolphe Tanquerey, The Spiritual Life (Belgium: Desclee & Co., 1930), p. 35. (Hereafter cited as Spiritual Life.)
  4. Catechism, no. 396.
  5. Ibid., no. 376.
  6. Spiritual Life, p. 38.
  7. Rom. 7:19-24.
  8. Spiritual Life, p. 37.
  9. 1 John 2:16.
  10. Gal. 5:24.
  11. Rom. 8:13.
  12. Ecc. 3:27.
  13. Deut. 18:9-11.
  14. Spiritual Life, p. 105.
  15. St. Bernard, In Cant., sermon 36, n.3.
  16. Luke 16:2.
  17. Matt. 6:19-20.
  18. Spiritual Life, p. 107.
  19. Ibid., p. 394.
  20. James 4:6.
  21. Pope Benedict XVI, homily of August 15, 2007, on the feast of the Assumption.
  22. St. Augustine, Confessions, II, no.7.
  23. Catechism, no. 408.
  24. Spiritual Life, p. 110.
  25. Ibid., p. 113.
  26. Matt. 5:13-14.
  27. Pope Benedict XVI, The Ratzinger Report (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), p. 138.
  28. Spiritual Life, p. 116.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Pope Paul VI, Confronting the Devil's Power, General Audience November 15, 1972.
  31. Rom. 8:31.
  32. Pope Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), p. 178.
  33. St. Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life, trans. by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington: ICS Publications, 1976), Chapter 31, no. 4.
  34. Matt. 17:21.
  35. 2 Tim. 2:1-7.
  36. Eph. 6:10-18.
  37. Luke 12:51.
  38. Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus audience, Sunday, August 19, 2007.
  39. 2 Tim. 4:7-8.

Mr Paul Kokoski holds a B.A. in philosophy from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. His articles have been published in several Catholic journals, including Catholic Insight and Challenge Magazine. His last article in HPR appeared in April 2008.

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