Are you ready for the fight? If you were to enter the boxing ring today, would you be primed? Or are your muscles a little flabby, your lungs easily winded and your feet dragging instead of dancing? Besides you don’t want to break your nose.
Competitive boxers prepare through discipline and hard work. They recognize that only through perseverance, mental fortitude, stamina and skill will they beat their opponent. Their vigorous fitness training includes both physical conditioning and mental preparation. It’s not just the boxer who delivers the explosive punches, hooks, and jabs that wins. It’s the boxer, who outfoxes and outmaneuvers his opponent, mentally and physically, packing the powerful punches and persevering until the end that is declared the winner.
Similarly, before engaging in battle no general worth his 5 stars would ever send a soldier into combat without him first completing the rigorous exercises and tedious drills of boot camp. In addition to forming his soldiers, an astute general recognizes that his enemy is real and he prepares a realistic battle plan.
Think spiritual warfare and you might imagine St. Michael, sword drawn, battling it out with Satan and his minions or the movie The Exorcist with the young girl’s head spinning and voice growling. Cynics may scoff, “Spiritual warfare is just a fairy tale—a Biblical myth to entertain little kids or a sensationalized story of demons and deliverance to create a box office blockbuster.”
The devil, however, is real. As St. Peter tells us, “Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for [someone] to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Yes, that someone is you! Definitely, there are times when an exorcist is necessary, but what about you? Are you ready for the fight? Do you have a realistic battle plan to combat the devil in your life?
Are you ready to combat that menacing little voice that taunts you, “You are stupid!? You are worthless! You are unlovable!—relentlessly seeking to drive you to despair. Or maybe, he fuels your pride and presumption, “You are great! You are magnificent! You don’t need anybody to tell you what to do, certainly not an ‘outdated’ Church!”Or maybe he exploits your weaknesses, “You can have another drink. You will only gamble a little. Who will know you are looking at porn? You won’t get pregnant if you have sex. You can do it your way.”
Whatever your weakness—selfishness, pride, anger, bitterness, hatred, jealousy, greed, gluttony, laziness, vanity, and the list never ends–he foments it until it masters you, instead of you mastering your weakness. Maybe it is not a disordered passion, but a frivolous waste of time or money. The kids are screaming, the house is a mess, but you can’t miss that soap opera! You deserve a little “me” time! Or as our pastor said, “Maybe he can’t get you to do something bad, but he will attempt to get you to do the wrong good thing.”
Too often we ignore the spiritual warfare that is happening in our own lives. It’s too easy to pass it off as out there or the devil’s not real—it’s all psychological. But before we can address the challenges of spiritual warfare, we have to accept the devil is real and very much a part of our lives. We are not Don Quixotes charging wind mills? And what is the battle plan to diminish the devil’s power and might?
During an evening presentation to our teen prolife group, our auxiliary bishop shared his insight on the topic of spiritual warfare. At the end of his talk, a young man asked, “What are the tools we can use to combat spiritual warfare?” The bishop answered, “The Sacraments, prayer, and sacramentals.” Earlier in his talk, he had also discussed the importance of having a close relationship with the Blessed Mother.
A few days later I was listening to Christopher Check’s riveting account of the battle of Lepanto. Historically, it is noted (from a military point of view) as the last great naval engagement between oared galleys. From a Catholic point of view, it was far more than that. It was the battle that saved Christendom.
On the morning of October 7, 1571, as the light was beginning to dawn and the last of the morning mists to rise, scouts on both sides sighted their first ships. After receiving the news, the respective admirals consulted one more time with their veteran commanders. The decision was reached; now was the time for battle.
Straining with all their might, the rowers on the ships of the Holy League laboriously pulled their huge and heavy oars into a strong and steady head wind, slowly moving south and east down the coast of Greece.
Maneuvering through the Curzolaris islands around the tip of the northern shore, the first galleys of the Holy League entered the bay to be met by a formidable and imposing sight. Arrayed in glorious splendor, the fleet of the Ottoman Turks extended across the mouth of the Gulf of Patras from one end to the other.
Rowing southward, the galleys of the Holy League deployed their vessels into battle formation, causing the Ottoman Turks to assume they were cowards fleeing. Because of the brisk wind, the Holy League’s vessels struggled to maneuver into position.
Meanwhile, heady with their recent victories, the Ottoman fleet, under the command of Ali Pasha, along with other notorious Turkish commanders and assisted by the barbaric Corsairs, boldly advanced upon the ships to the noise of yells, shots, banging gongs, clashing cymbals, and blaring conches determined to crush the Holy League.
Suddenly and unexpectedly the winds shifted, the sails of the Turks became slack, forcing the Christian galley slaves to be whipped into action. At the same time as the Christian oarsmen were being shackled, the Holy League’s rowers (many convicted criminals) were released from their chains, armed with swords and half pikes and promised freedom if the Turks were vanquished.
As the Muslims neared the Holy League’s ships, they were greeted by an unusual sight. Six larger, cumbersome vessels, galleasses, assumed to be merchant supply vessels, floated one half mile ahead of the Christian forces. Unknown to the Ottoman fleet, these ships packed an explosive force that would decimate one third of their fleet.
This was the first of three surprises that would prove costly to the Muslims in battle. The second surprise was an alteration of the Holy League’s ships. They removed their outmoded rams which allowed them to have greater accuracy when firing their canon. The third innovation was the addition of boarding nets stretched from stem to stern on the Holy League’s galleys, causing the Janissaries or infantry, who wore no armor, to be caught in the nets as they boarded the higher ships and become easy targets for those firing harquebusiers.
By the end of the brutal battle that witnesses would say caused the sea to turn red with blood, the Ottoman Turks would experience enormous losses in vessels, guns, and men, but most crucial of all, skilled seamen, seasoned soldiers, and experienced commanders.
Poised to conquer Rome, the Ottoman Turks suffered a severe, surprising and devastating, blow from the hands of the Holy League, stemming the tide of Muslim aggression in the Mediterranean. Spurred on by the cruel atrocities of the Turks against the defenseless civilians of Famagusta on Cypress, where the Muslims murdered and pillaged the defenseless populace and savagely tortured and flayed alive the Venetian Governor Bragadino, the Holy League delivered a decisive victory.
Although it did not permanently end the threat of invasion or completely break the ruthless power of the Ottoman Empire, it, nevertheless, dramatically crippled their military might and prevented further expansion of Muslim rule in Europe. Never again would the Ottoman Empire be as powerful.
What does the battle of Lepanto have to do with spiritual warfare? On a grand scale it exemplifies many of the difficulties we face on a daily basis. For the vast majority of us, our battle with the devil is not oppression, obsession or possession, but daily temptation. How do we make the decisions we make? Do we have a plan of action? For Pope Pius V, he recognized the Ottoman Empire as a serious threat and addressed it both spiritually and practically. Through tireless efforts he reached out to heads of state to deal with the problem. Do we prioritize the goals in our lives?
Considering themselves invincible, the Ottoman Turks pompously anticipated another victory to add to their string of conquests. Sacraments, sacramentals, and prayers, through the intercession of the Blessed Mother, handed them a resounding defeat. Buttressed by the spiritual sustenance of thousands who incessantly prayed the rosary, the battle of Lepanto was not only a military victory, but a moral and spiritual victory. In the wake of the battle, citizens would joyously celebrate the news. The battle combined not only the practical of brilliant military strategies and ingenious tactics, but the spiritual with prayers, sacraments, fasting, and more.
While some Catholics may recognize it as the battle that was won through the power of the rosary, the feast day of October 7, Our Lady of the Rosary, few would know that a blessed image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, sent from the Bishop of Mexico and touched to the original was on board the ship of the Genovese commander Andrea Doria as a gift from the King of Spain, Philip II.
Both Don John of Austria and Pope Pius V, key players to the successful outcome of the battle, were men of prayer, the sacraments, and fasting, as well as deeply devoted to the Blessed Mother and her rosary. In addition, both had extraordinary diplomatic skills in dealing with hot tempers and self-centered interests. Pope Pius V’s crucial role included both the practical of garnering physical support through the various heads of state and the spiritual through the constant pleading of everyone to pray the rosary. Similarly, Don John of Austria prepared to meet his formidable foe both militarily and spiritually.
Not only did the general populace constantly pray the rosary, begging for God’s abundant mercy through the Blessed Mother’s intercession, even filling the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggorie on the morning of the battle, but the men on the Holy League’s ships knelt in prayer the evening before, praying the rosary, and entered the battle with a rosary in hand.
On the day of the battle, a Sunday, everyone celebrated the Eucharist before setting sail. As the time drew imminent, if they had not done so yet, priests from the Franciscans, Capuchins, Dominicans and other orders heard confessions, blessed the ship’s crew with holy water, and ultimately joined in the fray.
After firing the signal he was going to engage in battle, Don John ordered the banner of the Holy League, emblazoned with Christ crucified, hoisted. Immediately, the men on the surrounding ships, cheered and every ship prominently displayed a crucifix.
As the enemy drew nearer, Don John, crucifix held aloft, jumped into a small craft, and moved up and down the battle line, encouraging the seamen, “My children, we are here to conquer or to die as heaven may determine.” Then returning to his ship, with his eyes fixed on the consecrated banner of our crucified Lord, he knelt in prayer one more time. Officers and men in nearby ships followed his example, kneeling, and joined him in prayer. Then standing up, they loudly proclaimed the protection of their saints, “San Marco! San Stefano! San Giovanni!”and others.
The Holy League had fewer men and ships than the Ottoman Turks. What the Holy League lacked in manpower and vessels, they made up for with ingenuity, military tactics, and ultimately the power of prayer. Never again would the separate states of the Holy League be able to look beyond their self centered interests and petty squabbles to join together in a common purpose.
Every day as sure as the sun is to rise, we know that our adversary, the relentless devil, with all of his wiles will seek to destroy us by undermining our purity, goodness, and closeness to Christ. Spiritual combat is an interior struggle we deal with every day against the devil’s temptations. Whether it is a boxer training to enter the ring or a general preparing for battle, each recognizes the need for a plan of action. When it comes to spiritual matters, are you ready for the fight?
Beeching, Jack. The Galleys at Lepanto. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sos, 1982.
Capponi, Niccolo. Victory of the West. Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press, 2006.
Check, Christopher. The Battle that Saved the Christian West. Catholic Answers, n.d.
Chesterton, G. K. Lepanto. Ed. Dale Ahlquist. San Francisco, Ignatius, 2003
Crowley, Roger. Empires of the Sea. New York, Random House, 2008.
Hanson, Victor Davis. Carnage and Culture. New York: Doubleday, 2001.