Circular Letter: Summer 2017
In the Efficacy of the Holy Spirit: “Put on the full armor of God”
In the letters of St. Paul, we are admonished to prepare ourselves in this life for spiritual combat. As in those times, so also now we need to learn to fight for our own salvation and for others, not against men, but against the “principalities…powers…the evil spirits in the heavens” (Eph 6:12). In this battle, the Holy Spirit and His holy angels come to our aid, but we must learn to do our part as well.
St. Paul exhorts us to “put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground” (Eph 6:13). He proceeds to specify the real source of the conflict: “Our struggle is not with flesh and blood, but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Eph 6:12). Clearly, the weapons we need are essentially spiritual in nature. He mentions seven such weapons, which we will discuss, first, on the moral level.
Who is the adversary? Since God is infinitely good, He surely created all things good. Therefore, it follows that some of the angels freely fell away from God into untruthfulness and hatred! The devil “was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. …he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44). He also leads others into rebellion. St. John tells us that the Dragon “with its tail swept away a third of the stars (angels) in the sky and hurled them down to the earth” (Rev 12:4). The second object of the devil is to destroy mankind: “The Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it. Then the dragon…went off to wage war against…those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus” (Rev 12:9,17).
The devil’s weapons are generally reckoned to be the “world”, the “flesh” and the fear of the devil. But since everything that God created is good, we can simplify this even more and say that the enemy’s weapons are deception and fear. Through cunning lies and arguments, he distorts our mind’s perception of the nature of the things of this world, their purpose and utility and the circumstances in which they are fittingly used or relinquished.
Servants and Soldiers of Christ alongside the Holy Angels
In order to become a soldier of God, fighting for the protection of His Kingdom on earth, we must first be a willing servant, one who readily carries out his charge, even when the master is not present. In His infinite love, God chose us and called us also to become His children in grace; He calls us to intimate friendship and to eternal life. Among God’s servants there are those who distinguish themselves by their super-generous assimilation to Christ: forgetting themselves, they wish to become servants of all, to “become all things to all, in order to save at least some” (1 Cor 9:22). These become, as it were, soldiers of Christ alongside the holy angels, who are utterly selfless in their ministries. In a very real sense they gain nothing from their ministry beyond the joy they find in contributing to our salvation and the glory of God.
The Seven Virtues
1. With truth we are to gird our loins. This Hebrew metaphor indicates that the pursuit of merely sensual love (euphemistically called the “loins”) is a lie, because it fails to see and promote the good of the beloved. Truth of the “loins” is chastity, whereby the concupiscible appetites are to be assimilated to the Gospel truth, which restores the dignity of man and true human love. In a military sense ‘girded’ also calls us to alert battle-readiness at all times. We should not allow ourselves to be surprised and taken off guard, for we know that “the devil is roaming about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8).
2. St. Paul would have us clothe ourselves “with the (defensive) breastplate of justice”. In the parallel passage, 1 Thessalonians 5:8, he calls it a “breastplate of faith and love”. Here again, he is thinking as a Jew, for whom the mind and will have their center in the heart. These need to be protected at all costs. The Jewish idea of “justice” goes beyond the cardinal virtue of justice. The righteousness of Israel consisted in their total fidelity to the Divine covenant in faith and love. That did not permit any watering down with the thoughts of worldly wisdom. “If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you” (Jn 15:19).
3. With his next exhortation St. Paul goes on the “offensive”, encouraging us to see that our “feet be shod with the shoes (sandals) of readiness to preach the Gospel of peace”. The Christian’s treasure must be the Gospel, the new Covenant in Christ. These sentiments explain the joy the disciples felt as they “went from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were accounted worthy to suffer reproach for the name of Jesus” (Act 5:41).
Here, St. Paul accentuates the peaceful assurance our faith should afford us in all the spiritual battles of daily life. As Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you” (Jn 14:27). This peace of Christ makes evangelists of us, ready to proclaim the Gospel. Even after having been beaten and thrown into prison, Paul and Silas were singing midnight hymns to God. This disposition is earth-shaking! (Indeed, an earthquake shook the prison, opening all the doors in the power of Gospel peace and joy!) Behold St. Paul’s joyful readiness to share the Gospel of salvation with the jailor, his persecutor of a few hours before (cf. Acts 16:22-33). St. John Chrysostom explains this transformational logic: “The proclamation of the Gospel of peace is nothing else than a most virtuous life”, (Homily 24 on Eph 6:14-17). A true Christian desires to “destroy” his enemies by making them his friends, that is, by bringing them to Christ. On God’s side, Christ’s side, the winner’s side! “If God is for us, who is against us!” (Rom 8:31). Victory is promised to those who persevere in their good will: “Blessed is anyone who perseveres when trials come. Such a person is of proven worth and will win the prize of life, the crown that the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:12).
4. “In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Eph 6:16). St. Paul presents faith as the universal armament, as a shield, that when properly used destroys all the attacks of the enemy at bay. Our victory over the world is our faith (cf. 1 Jn 5:4).
In all temptations against the faith we should never enter into discussions; rather, we should hold up the shield of faith and resort to acts of hope and charity. There is no point in discussion when the adversary hates the truth; there is no point in discussion when this adversary knows Scripture better than we do, when he is a ‘better theologian’ than we are!
5. “Take the helmet of salvation” (Eph 6:16). In 1 Thessalonians 5:8, St. Paul already identified hope of salvation as our helmet. We call hope a helmet, for it is a protection against mortal wounds. St. John Chrysostom writes: “The helmet covers the head perfectly in every part, and suffers it not to sustain any injury” (Homily 24 on Eph 6:14). As a soldier places his trust in a helmet, we place our trust in the name of the Lord. Supernatural hope is a greater guarantee of life than any metal helmet. St. Thomas explains that hope derives its invincibility from the infallibility of faith: the God who testifies to the Truth is the God who promises Life! (cf. Summa Theol. II-II, q. 18, art. 4,c).
Accordingly, the helmet of salvation guarantees eternal life. Hope helps us in two ways: First, when hope is strong, all temptations, offering an alternative happiness, are weakened and overcome. For their promised happiness is, at best, shallow and short lived. Secondly, hope is a great defense against repeated, wearying attacks by means of which the devil seeks to cause us to despair of ever winning -eternal life.
“Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before Him, He endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken His seat at the right of the throne of God” (Heb 12:1b-2).
The point is practical: When was the last time you made a -serious act of the virtue of hope? And when was the last time —when in trial— you consciously looked to Jesus, who “for the sake of the joy that lay before Him endured the cross” (Heb 12:1), such that you drew strength and resolution from His example?
6. “Take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” It is time to go on the offensive! A coward dies a thousand deaths out of fear. In fact, there is a kind of “hope”, which is not hope at all, but rather a species of fear. How often, even among regular church-goers, we find that their strongest motive for hope is not positive, but rather fear! They want to go to heaven, because they do not want to burn in hell!
The sword of the Spirit, the word of God, is elsewhere defined: “The word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart” (Heb 4:12). Such a sword was also directed against Mary, “a sword will pierce your soul too — so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare” (Lk 2:35). This is the sword of the Spirit, the word of God, the sword of salvation, that must first be directed against our own soul, our own secret thoughts, before it can work efficaciously for the salvation of souls by suffering like Mary. In this sense, St. Bernard of Clairvaux sees this sword from the positive side, namely, as the light and grace of the Holy Spirit to wound and heal sinners (Canticles, Sermon 29,6). St. Jerome says of the word of God: “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ” (Letter to Eustochia), and therefore also ignorance of Christ’s kingdom.
St. Ambrose understands the sword of the Spirit as the gift of discernment (On the Duties of the Clergy, ch. 7). It separates the true from the false, the good from the bad, and so leads to the defeat of proud and rebellious minds (Letter 61, To Pomponius). St. John Chrysostom goes on to assert that with the sword of the Spirit, we will not only ward off the devil’s missiles, but smite the devil himself. (Homily 24 on Eph 6).
7. And finally
“With all prayer and supplication, pray at every opportunity in the Spirit. To that end, be watchful with all perseverance and supplication for all the holy ones and also for me, that speech may be given me to open my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the Gospel“ (Eph 6:18-19).
The prayer recommended is the prayer of the creature who is aware of its lowliness and its need, but also of how much it is loved by God. He has given us all things in Christ. He has poured His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Hence, we confidently cry out to Him, “Abba, Father” (cf. Rom 5:5; Gal 4:6). Made temples of the Holy Spirit, we willingly surrender ourselves up completely to the Spirit, who “comes to the aid of our weakness…[and] intercedes [for us] with inexpressible groanings” (Rom 8:26).
Our effort in prayer should come down to this: to seek to open ourselves in all confidence to the intimacy of the Divine presence and to remain there as perseveringly as we can! If we give ourselves to God, He will give Himself to us! A soul in prayer is victoriously one with God!
The Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Super-weaponry of God
In his commentary on the “whole armor of God”, St. Thomas states that these are “the Gifts [of the Holy Spirit] and virtues. For the virtues [among which the Gifts are numbered] protect man from vices” (Commentary on Eph., ch. 6, lect. 3). We first spoke about the moral and theological virtues, which are immediately at the disposition of all the faithful. While all in the state of grace possess the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, few have the spiritual detachment, humility and docility that are necessary for them to flourish within us. The faithful practice of the above virtues, though, will prepare the way for a richer expression of the Gifts in our lives.
Now we may direct our attention briefly to the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, whereby we will focus chiefly on their quality as weapons in spiritual combat.
1. The Gift of Understanding
The Gift of Understanding is the Alpha among the gifts; it grants us an intuition of the greatness and majesty of God, to which nothing is to be preferred. What does not resonate harmoniously with St. Michael’s cry, “Who is like God!”, is a false light.
In the light of this gift we gain an intuition into the depths of creation, for “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The omnipotence of God can be perceived in God’s salvific impotence in salvation, in the Incarnation, in the Eucharist. The enemy despises what is small and weak, but “the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor 1:25). His weakness is His patient love, waiting for the moment in which He can save us (cf. 2 Pet 3:9).
Mary lived this gift in that she kept all God’s words in her heart, pondering them. Even more she lived them: she is the Ark of the Covenant, which lies at the beginning of all God’s ways in creation.
2. The Gift of Wisdom
The Gift of Wisdom is the Omega among the Gifts, for by it we savor our last end, the depths of divine goodness. “Taste and see, how good the Lord is!” (Ps 34:9). Whoever has drunk this best of wines, will not be deceived by lesser loves. There are, of course, many degrees of divine wisdom—the wine cellars of God—but in all of them, it is a question of experiencing more and more profoundly God’s own goodness. The foundation is sanctifying grace. Mary alone was ‘full of grace’. Therefore, Mary is our touchstone of wisdom. If we are not like Mary, it is not wisdom. St. John of the Cross expresses it well when he declares:
“It should be known that many people reach and enter the first wine cellars according to the perfection of their love, but few in this life reach this last and most interior; for in it is wrought the perfect union with God, called spiritual marriage…. What God communicates to the soul in this intimate union is totally beyond words.… For in the transformation of the soul in God, it is God who communicates Himself with admirable glory; the two become one, as…the coal [is united] with the fire.” (Canticle of Love, Stanza 26,4).
The Blessed Virgin, the new Eve, is the first and truest Spouse of the Lamb, the first called to the wedding feast!
3. The Gift of Counsel
The Gift of Counsel is the most practical of gifts, because it helps us to discover God’s will in matters of daily life which are not governed by law. This covers our personal choices of prayer, the good works we want to do, but also the choice of one’s path in life, whether one marry, the choice of a spouse, one’s profession, one’s friends, where to live, etc. For such decisions there is no hard fast law, only good counsel, which is not easy to come by.
Good counsel requires fundamentally two things: First, one needs to hold human and godly values in high esteem. Such esteem can only thrive in a heart detached from worldly wisdom and ambitions. And secondly, one needs a great sense of connaturality for life in this world and, in particular, for the individual seeking counsel. In order to give wholesome counsel to someone, I need to be able to see the world through their eyes; I need great empathy of heart. As a gift of grace, this unction is given to souls who strongly desire to help others and apply themselves to this task, more in silent prayer than voiced opinions.
No one is richer in this regard than the Mother of Good Counsel.
4. The Gift of Science
The Gift of Science (Knowledge) is supernatural know-how! It is a sword! There is a science of the Ten Commandments; it is not mere chance that they lead to life! They express the natural moral law. The scientific knowledge of the moral law helps us to cut out the weeds and foster the growth of the good plants (the virtues). There is also a science of the Evangelical Counsels—poverty, chastity, obedience—which explains why the close discipleship of Christ (lived more radically in consecrated religious life, but also for lay persons) leads more quickly and safely to life and to greater perfection and happiness. This science cuts out superfluous things that steal time for prayer and good works. There is a science of love and sacrifice, which is the science of the Cross. Only on this path do we treat others as we aspire to be treated. The truth we know through this Gift sets us free. But few there are who desire truth unconditionally, because the Truth challenges us to the utmost with its demands. This weapon of the Gift of Science is also a two-edged sword of justice to protect the common good. Here stands the power of exorcism to drive out evil spirits in the Name of Christ. The Immaculata, like an army set in battle array, is our sure defense.
5. The Gift of Fortitude
The Gift of Fortitude is a weapon that should strengthen us even to be weak! The three degrees of fortitude, according to St. Thomas, are these: 1) the readiness to fight in defense of a noble cause even at the peril of our own life; 2) the readiness to die, rather than to deny the faith or betray moral righteousness in any way; 3) the readiness to willingly suffer and sacrifice our life—like Christ—when the moral good of our neighbor calls for this sacrifice. Christ could easily have had 12 legions of angels at His beck and call to save Him…but how would mankind have been saved, if He had not willingly embraced the divine impotence in order to die for us on the Cross? Fortitude, in its powerlessness, also give us the strength to pray, so that we want to be strong in suffering.
The Sorrowful Mother stands for us here in good stead.
6. The Gift of the Fear of the Lord
The Fear of the Lord appears to be the lowliest of weapons; it is the lot of the “little ones” of the Lord, who though they are trampled underfoot, still are conscientious in their observation of the Law of God out of reverence for His Name. This same reverence sustains these “little ones” in their unshakeable fidelity to the Church. The Fear of the Lord is the “landing place” for the holy angels, who gladly deploy to help the little ones in their perseverance.
The wicked and worldly scoff at the Fear of the Lord.
“The just man…holds aloof from the paths [of the wicked] as from things impure. He calls blest the destiny of the just and boasts that God is his Father. “Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him.” These were their thoughts, but they erred; for their wickedness blinded them. And they knew not the hidden counsels of God; neither did they count on a recompense of holiness nor discern the innocent souls’ reward. (Wis 2:16, 20-22).
Our Lady of the Deposition from the Cross is always present to comfort the lowly and the little ones in their needs.
7. The Gift of Piety or Godliness
The Gift of Piety is the final weapon. It is apparently the weakest, but is, in fact, the greatest weapon, the final, triumphal capitulation in homage before God out of the invincible conviction that God is good, whatever the appearances may seem to suggest. “Even though He should slay me, I will trust in the Lord!” was Job’s prayer (Job 13:15). And our Lord Himself, in order to offer safe harbor to the most bitterly tried had to experience being apparently forsaken by God (Mk 15:35) before He could victoriously exclaim: “Father, into Your hands, I commend my spirit!” (Lk 23:46). While wisdom is the reward and “completion” of charity, which resides in the spiritual will, piety is the reward and completion of the affections; and this is found in the tender and loving kindness of God.
Mary stands here as the Morning Star, as the Refuge of Sinners. Mercy does not know an end, though it can, of course, be rejected.
“Has anyone hoped in the LORD and been disappointed? Has anyone called upon Him and been rebuffed? Compassionate and merciful is the LORD; He forgives sins, He saves in time of trouble” (Sir 2:10-11).
Fr. William Wagner, ORC
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