War and Peace
On one Christmas Eve, the trenches of World War I witnessed a seeming contradiction. A German soldier entered no-man’s land between the trenches armed only with a Christmas tree. A few warning shots were fired, but he stood his ground. His battle cry was the chanting of the well-known carol: Silent Night. Other voices slowly joined in and the French replied with their own carols. The habitual roaring of the cannons and the cries of the wounded and agonizing ceased for a brief moment, being replaced by the carols honoring the birth of Christ, the Prince of Peace. The next day they exchanged handshakes, small gifts of chocolate and cigarettes and even worked together to dig a common grave for the fallen of both sides. Some claim that there was a small soccer match before they resumed their positions and unfortunately their war of fratricide. What a strange night that must have been and yet it is very similar to a nearly daily occurrence within our own souls.
The presence of Christ heals wounds and restores peace in the very midst of the trench warfare of the spiritual life. The spiritual life is at the same time both a brutal war and profound peace. St. Benedict explains this same reality in the Prologue of his Rule: “To thee are my words now addressed, whosoever thou mayest be, that renouncing thine own will in order to fight for the true King, Christ, dost take up the strong and glorious weapons of obedience.” He teaches that the monastic life, is a battle against our own will, our disordered self-love, which is our principal enemy. A few paragraphs later, St. Benedict tells us to seek out peace while we battle against our evil inclinations. “If thou wilt have true and everlasting life, keep thy tongue from evil and thy lips that they speak no guile. Turn away from evil and do good: seek after peace and pursue it.”
War and the Slavery of Sin
War is essentially a division between two or more sides. At one and the same time, one country can be at war with many other countries. The soul is also at war on many fronts. The soul’s enemy depends upon its choice: with God or against Him. If we choose to separate ourselves from God, we are also divided with our neighbor and within our own soul. We become our own most bitter enemy. We refuse to accomplish the plan that God has foreseen for His creature, frustrating the very goal of our existence. All is ordered towards our selfish plan for personal happiness, without any concern for God or neighbor. Revolt against God entails hatred and jealousy with our neighbor. It destroys our life by disordering our passions. When the passions begin to dominate the soul, they become tyrants and the soul becomes the slave of their impulsive whims. Every disorder of sin becomes, with repetition, a type of slavery. Alcoholism, drug-addiction, pornography and impurity are the more obvious slaveries, but lying, gossiping, stealing, and disobedience are also slavery. If the soul declares war on God, it tries to find peace in the pleasure of sin. This rest can only be superficial and temporary because it destroys the order willed by God. If we place our hope in the passing things of this world, all is lost when we pass from this world.
If we choose to fight for the “true King, Christ,” He directs our battle against our spiritual enemies. When He is present, the soul knows great peace in the midst of spiritual battle. The surface of our souls is often troubled by worries, stress and anxiety because of some exterior trial that we are obliged to undergo, but the depth of our soul is at peace. It is similar to when Jesus was asleep on the ship during the storm. The apostles were afraid and waking Jesus, sought His help. “... and rising up He rebuked the wind and said to the sea: Peace, be still. And the wind ceased and there was made a great calm” (Mk. 4:39). The presence of God calms the storms of the soul. The battle may continue, but the soul is at peace because its Creator is present. We are made for God and we must undertake the necessary means to achieve our goal. God asks us to fight against our own fallen nature inclined to evil and malice. The war is painful because as St. Paul says “the old man,” which is a part of who we are, must die. At the same time this war gives great peace because it restores us to our true inheritance as children of God. To resist temptations, to refuse thoughts of anxiety and worry that trouble the soul is to live in the presence of God. His presence communicates great peace in spite of the battle we undertake to refuse our evil inclinations.
That World War I German soldier with his Christmas tree and carols brought with him a certain presence of Christ to that bloody battlefield. For a moment, peace was given to the men of good will. May this be the image of our soul in the midst of our worries and temptations, may we call upon our true King, Christ and peacefully wage war against all of His enemies. “These things I have spoken to you that in Me you may have peace. In the world you shall have distress; but have confidence I have overcome the world” (Jn.16:33).