(Image taken from here.)
Since the time of Adam and Eve, there exists a spiritual battle between the faithful and the powers of darkness; it’s a battle that will continue until the end of the world. In this battle, there are two armies: on the one hand, Satan and his demons; on the other, St. Michael and the Christians.
You might ask: why St. Michael, and not Christ himself, given that St. Benedict speaks of the monastic life as military service under the banner of Christ, the true King? The reason is simple and employs the principle of aequitas. Satan is an angel, Michael is an angel, and so, the battlefield is the same. Christ, on the other hand, is true God and true man, and has already fought the good fight: mors et vita duello conflixere mirando: death and life contended in a spectacular battle, recites the Easter Sequence (cf. Victimae Paschali laudes). So, the Lord leaves the battlefield to us, helping us with his grace. In today’s Gospel, Christ offers us important insights so that we might conquer this spiritual battle.
The fights between the two armies (the demons and us) need education and training. For new demons, so to speak, who lack experience, there is a special course of four lessons:
- The first lesson describes the psychology of a temptation. The Dark One instructs: “Remember that there are three stages for an effective temptation: first, the suggestion itself; it’s easy to insinuate the temptation in the mind of those who are weak. Then, secondly, the victim, when he considers the suggestion, enjoys the pleasure: here one can work quite efficiently. If you’re able to deceive the victim to this point, the third moment will immediately follow: the consent of the will. Learn well what I’ve told you!”
- The second lesson is more specialized; it’s not for beginners, but rather for demons who have acquired some more experience. Again, the Dark One says: “Attentively observe people’s behavior. Unfortunately, we cannot read their hearts, we can’t see their minds, but we can watch their gestures, their words, and every last sign which indicates to us their weak spot. Then, attack!”
- The attack takes place with a bow and arrow. Therefore, the third lesson is an exercise on how to handle the bow so as to precisely hit the bull’s eye.
- Finally, after all of this training, if the demons have been good students, they will receive the fourth lesson, eight special arrows which correspond to the eight vices: gluttony, lust, avarice, anger, dejection, listlessness (acedia), vainglory, and pride. The art of temptation is to observe well the behavior of the victim to find his weak point, introducing an appealing temptation, then choosing the right arrow, and fire!
On the other hand, the Christian’s “internship” or “training” is a bit more demanding. Even here, though, there are four principle movements:
- The first moment is Baptism, when one enrolls in the army of Christ, the true King. The rite calls for the renunciation of Satan, and the new Christian gets anointed as a preparation for the battle. Moreover, for a more serious training, we need the Lenten instruments of prayer, fasting, and good works.
- The second step requires some time. One must learn to recognize the enemy, carefully observing his behavior. And more than just the demons, we ourselves are our own chief enemy, and so we must have a good awareness of ourselves, to understand our weak points, where the enemy will surely mount an attack.
- After that, the third stage of training is when we receive the armor of God in order to resist the wiles of the devil: the shield of faith, with which one can extinguish all of the flaming arrows of the evil one, the helmet of salvation, and above all, the sword of the Spirit, that is, the word of God (cf. Eph 6:11-17). A good understanding of the word of God is essential for the fourth stage of Christian formation.
- As the enemy attacks us with one of the eight arrows, we need to be able to not only block the arrows, but also we need to turn them around on him.
Now, we’ve arrived at the crux of our reflection. In today’s Gospel, what was the strategy of our Lord in resisting the temptations of the devil? Let’s imitate his example! He took the arrows fired at him from the devil, and, with a passage from Scripture, Christ threw them back towards his adversary.
- Let’s consider the arrow of gluttony: after 40 days of fasting, Jesus was hungry. From his treasure of biblical passages, the Lord blocked the temptation from the devil: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Mt 4:4).
- Then, the arrow of vainglory: If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down! (Mt 4:6). And the Lord chose from his quiver the right word: You shall not tempt the Lord your God! (Mt 4:7).
- Finally, the diabolic arrow of pride: Satan quite pompously says: all these [the kingdoms of the world] I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me! (Mt 4:8-9). And the Lord, using his proven strategy, responds: Begone, Satan! You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve (Mt 4:10).
And so, the devil, having been defeated, leaves our Lord, and then the angels came and ministered to him.
The Art of the Spiritual Battle
In the spiritual battle, we can imitate our Lord: we can use passages from Holy Scripture as our shield against the arrows of the enemy, and even use the arrows to fire back at the demons who attack us.
- Against the spirit (or logismos) of gluttony, as we have already heard in today’s Gospel: man shall not live by bread alone (Mt 4:4).
- Against the spirit of lust: We must, therefore, guard thus against evil desires, because death hath his station near the entrance of pleasure (RB 7:24).
- Against the logismos of avarice: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Lk 12:34).
- Against the spirit of anger: do not let the sun go down on your anger (Eph 4:26).
- Against the logismos of dejection: why are you cast down, o my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God (Ps 42:5)
- Against the spirit of listlessness (or acedia): for you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised (Heb 10:36).
- Against the logismos of vainglory: But I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people (Ps 22:6).
- And finally, against the spirit of pride: Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner (cf. Lk 18:13).
The arrows which I’ve just demonstrated are simply examples. There is a whole patristic literary tradition on this topic (see Evagrius of Ponticus, Talking Back: Antirrhetikos), and meditating on Holy Scripture, each one of us can find verses more adapted for our own personal battle.
If we force ourselves to take seriously the demands of the spiritual battle, then we might conclude that we aren’t well-prepared because we don’t know Holy Scripture very well. But, if we aren’t prepared, the enemy will win. Therefore, Lent is a period of grace, given to us by the Church, in which we can begin, or take up again more seriously, this spiritual training.
(English translation of an Italian homily from a Benedictine monk.)