Today’s gospel (Lk 13:31-35) and, especially, the first reading from the Letter to the Ephesians (6:10-20) actually took me back a few weeks and a few chapters to a little earlier in the Gospel of Luke: ‘Do you think I have come to bring peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.’[i] Paul has us decked out for battle. Listen to all the martial images: the armor of God, loins girded, breastplate, the shield, the helmet and the sword. But there’s both an inner and an outer battle going on.
In the gospel Jesus is speaking about the outer battle. The power of good seems to always be met by something working against it, like Herod the fox, and the holy city of Jerusalem itself who kills the prophets and stones those sent to it. I’m reading a novel right now about the 1960s in which the Freedom Riders play a major role.[ii] These are the young black students that were trained in non-violent resistance. They may have been non-violent, but this was still a battle, and the more they resisted the greater the violence against them became, from being humiliated at lunch counters and attacked on busses to fire hoses and dogs turned loose on them, all the way to lynching and the bombing of a Sunday school that killed four little girls––can you imagine how heinous a crime that is? All committed by good Christians! Jerusalem, you kill the prophets and stone those sent to you! The struggle for civil rights brought division to the country, north and south, within families, within political parties, within the Christian churches of America, and ended up with a few prophets killed along the way as well. Oh yes, we must be prepared for battle, we spiritual warriors, those who suffer for the sake of justice, we followers of Jesus.
But equally important to the outer battles, the cultural wars, and the struggle for justice–– and even more important, certainly at some points in our life anyway––is the inner battle, and I think that is what Paul is addressing. I was reminded again of the famous hadith from the life of the Prophet Muhammad. He had dispatched a contingent of the army and upon their return, he said: “Blessed are those who have performed the minor jihad and have yet to perform the major jihad––al-jihad al-akbar.” When asked, “What is the major jihad?” the Prophet replied: “The jihad al nafs–the struggle against the self.” The commentary I found on this says that this is much more difficult than fighting in the battlefield, because in the struggle against the self, we have to constantly battle enemies that are hosted inside our own existence![iii] And if I am any judge of it, this is the equivalent of the struggle with the demons that the desert monks spoke about. The imagery of demons was used to describe temptations and personify the reality of wickedness but, as Benedicta Ward says, these were not “imaginary imps.” The ancient monks were experts in the psychology of the spiritual life, and “A real woman might be known to have tempted a monk but the story of this would be about the temptation, not about the woman.” [iv] The occasion of lust or greed or gluttony was not the real problem––a beautiful body, riches, or fine food were not the demons: the temptations were, and the temptation dwells within, not on the outside but inside. What the desert monks were describing were the situations of temptation and fall, of sin and despair, and the narrow ways of repentance and return, the “narrow gate” which we heard about yesterday; and the vivid image of a demon said more than any amount of explanation could. And so Paul says our struggle is not with the flesh and blood but with the principalities, the powers, the evil spirits. And they are very real, these powers and principalities in the psychic realm, in our own minds.
There is an old story from the Desert Fathers about an old monk showing a younger man around the monastery. They passed by one cell where a monk lived alone, and there were many demons brooding and flying in and out of the windows. And in the next cell where several monks lived the demons were all lying around sleeping. The young man remarked to the abba, “The monk in that first cell must be very evil.” “No,” the abba replied, “he is very pure. In that second house the monks are very lazy and lecherous and so the demons don’t need to bother with them.” In some way we should be worried if we are not doing the inner battle, because as I read the stories of our monastic ancestors, including Saint Romuald, I hear all the time about them struggling with demons, as we struggle with our own compulsions and addictions, petty and great, with our disproportionate recurring reactions, our selfishness. The inner struggle might be a harder struggle than fighting in the battlefield, because in the struggle against the self, we have to constantly battle enemies that are hosted inside our own mind and heart, from which there is no escape. As a matter of fact the solitude and silence of the cell are meant to take away any possibility of escape from this battle (unless you have wireless internet, that is).
When I was clothed as a novice, Isaiah, who had been my postulant master, gave me a piece of photocopied paper that had on it the prayers that go with each article of the monastic habit. I had it taped to my closet door throughout my novitiate, and I passed it on to Cassian when he was clothed. This is the first time I realized that three out of the four prayers for clothing with the habit were drawn from the letter to the Ephesians, two of them from this very section we heard today. For the tunic the prayer is, Clothe me, Lord with the new self, who has been created according to God in justice, holiness and truth. That’s drawn from earlier in Ephesians, chapter 4. For the scapular: Purify me and cleanse my heart, so that being purified in the blood of the Lamb I may come to enjoy everlasting bliss, probably drawn from Psalm 51. But then for the cincture it’s, Gird my loins with the girdle of purity, quenching lustful desires and leaving me strong in chastity and self-restraint; and for the capuche, Put on my head the helmet of salvation so that I may withstand the onslaughts of the devil. So we pray that, trained in this non-violent resistance of the spiritual life, clothed with the new self, our loins girded and wearing the helmet of salvation, we could still fight the good fight again today so as to enjoy real freedom and everlasting bliss. But let’s not rely solely on our own power; as Paul writes, let’s draw on the strength of a Power-Greater-Than-Ourselves, the Lord, who feeds us with enough food for the journey in the Word and Sacrament.