“There’s so many wars we fought,
There’s so many things we’re not,
But with what we have,
I promise you that
We’re marching on…”
~Marching On by One Republic
I was listening to this song in our vehicle not long ago, and this excerpt of the lyrics struck me. Minus the obvious syntax errors, I realized that the spiritual battle of which we are all participants is growing more intense as each day passes. It’s difficult to live in the world but not of it and to meet others at their level in order to evangelize without adopting their social and cultural mores. How can we continue to walk the path of holiness without becoming sanctimonious?
The answer is in the battle itself.
There are two points I’d like to make here that relate to the “many wars we’ve fought and the many things we’re not,” particularly that we are all susceptible to falling into any sin, and how to recognize the movements of the Holy Spirit while simultaneously rebuking the counter-movements of the devil.
When I was younger, I truly believed that most saints did not wrestle with the temptation towards serious sin. Their sanctity far outweighed my ability to recognize their humanness, so I became quite pompous (at the very least, in my thoughts) toward others who were “obviously” not striving for Heaven “like I was.” (I cringe at the remembrance of those days.) But what I didn’t realize during early young adulthood was that each of us is fighting a war inside, but most of us keep that war hidden.
I will be the first to admit that, since I have become a mother to two girls with special needs – and I’m talking very intense care – I have faced many temptations that abhorred me in the past to even consider, some of which are related to life issues. After Sarah was born, I was tempted toward sterilization, because I was so encased in fear about how difficult our lives would be forever. For the first time in my life, I truly understood how some couples could choose this path. Even so, I rejected the temptation, because I knew the truth, and I could not opt for the easier road, despite its enticements. That is only one example of the many temptations I have faced in which I could have chosen mortal sin over dying to self and trusting in God.
I write this, because today I acknowledge the reality that all of us, including the saints among us, struggle with very dark and heavy temptations toward eternal damnation. When I meet people who share their stories with me – stories of abortions, contraception use, sterilization, addiction and alcoholism – I no longer interiorly denigrate them. Instead, I see them as my brothers and sisters, walking the road that is paved with small crosses, as St. Maximilian Kolbe once stated. Truthfully, we are all at war. We are all participants in the battlefield of this life, because every day is filled with the temptation to despair or the grace of hope, the temptation of bitterness and resentment or the grace to trust. That is precisely why we who remain on the earth are considered the Church Militant, because the battle will not end until our life ceases in this world and we move on to the next.
The second point relates very well with the first one, because it offers clarity in recognizing what thoughts and desires originate from God and which ones do not. Of course, those of us who are well catechized understand that the most glaring sins do not come from Heaven, but what about the subtleties of the devil? I’ve found that the enemy no longer tries to persuade me toward mortal sin on a regular basis like he did when I was a teenager, but most of the time my temptations reside in my thoughts and emotions. This is primarily where the enemy attacks us: in our weakest and most vulnerable areas.
Therefore, we must understand both the movements of the Holy Spirit and the counter-movements of the adversary. A priest explained this beautifully, and suddenly I realized how critical it is for all of us, every day, to keep his illustration in mind. Let’s say you feel called to lead or participate in a particular ministry or apostolate, and this call is followed by a tremendous joy and profound peace. So you pray or perhaps discuss with your spiritual director this nudge that you experienced so that you can discern more appropriately if and how to take the next step. All the while, the call – and the fruit – remain indisputably clear. So you move forward with what you are called to do. This is the movement of the Holy Spirit.
After a while, however, you begin to doubt. It starts slowly at first, with just minor irritating thoughts, such as, “Maybe this really isn’t for me after all” or “I’m not so sure I’m following God’s will.” The doubts typically begin when you encounter difficulty along the path toward which God has called you (and these trials will inevitably come). When the battle grows more intense, you become wearier, and thus your doubts turn to despondency. You consider quitting altogether, because it seems this wasn’t truly a call from God. Your heart is filled with darkness, fear, and is overwhelmed with tension. This is called counter-movement, and it is how the enemy chooses to dissuade us from following God’s will for our lives.
How do we know, then, if something truly is from God or derives from the devil, the flesh, or the world? Statistically speaking, it seems the odds are against us that, at any given point in time, our inclinations are initiated by the Holy Spirit. But I think there is a clear guide that can be loosely generalized for most situations where the battle intensifies in our lives. It is this one, simple question: What is the spiritual fruit?
If our hearts are flooded with joy, fear of the Lord, an increase in charity or humility, and we arrive at “the peace that surpasses all understanding,” then the movement is truly from God, and we can rest in that with confidence that He will fulfill His will in and through us. But if we are confused, angry, or distracted from our primary vocation, it is the counter-movement of the enemy. When this happens, simply rebuke the thought or emotion in the name of Jesus, and then ask for God’s blessing to remind you of the original call.
Pope Francis offers another perspective on discerning a particular thought or feeling: “If a thought, if a desire takes you along the road of humility and abasement, of service to others, it is from Jesus, but if it brings you to the road of sufficiency, of vanity, of pride, along the path of an abstract thought, it is not from Jesus.” So, obviously, any idea or longing in our hearts that leads toward virtue rather than vice is at least an inkling that God may be calling us to a particular apostolate. (Naturally, I would advise seeking spiritual direction for further clarification.)
My fellow soldiers of Christ, let us not succumb to the obvious and devious wiles of the devil in our everyday lives. Instead, we must remain connected to the Prince of Peace and stay close to Our Lady and St. Michael as we tread on difficult, and perhaps scandalous, paths in life. Above all, let us pray unceasingly for humility, because it is the foundation upon which all other virtues are built. Humility alone will conquer the enemy, and we must maintain hope – despite the signs of the times – that Jesus already overcame sin and death. The war has been won, but the battle has only begun.