Prayer is power and works when we feel helpless about events in our lives. CNS photo/Karen Pulfer Focht

Sr. Helena Burns: Spiritual warfare is for everyone

  • November 10, 2021

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Spiritual warfare is for everyone

Sr. Helena Burns, FSP

Some people like to think of life as a journey, an adventure, a pilgrimage, a blank slate, a beach, a work of art … a box of chocolates. But life isn’t always that neutral, is it? Sometimes we are dealt a rough hand from the earliest moments of our existence. Sometimes life is filled with pain and obstacles. We are free to look at life however we want, but one thing is for sure: Life is a battle, and no one gets to sit on the sidelines.

With what or whom are we fighting in life (besides obvious challenges like illness, difficult relationships, tragedies, making ends meet, etc.)? Firstly, ourselves. We need to make sure we are not our own worst enemy, but instead our own best friend, because, as Mike Nesmith of The Monkees sagely stated: “I’m all I’ve got.” Jesus tells us to deny ourselves and take up our cross. St. Paul urges us to “run so as to win … athletes run for a perishable crown, we for an imperishable one. I do not fight as though shadowboxing” (1 Cor. 9:24-27).

Secondly, we’re fighting all that is not of God or can lead us away from God. Thirdly, we’re fighting our arch-nemesis from the beginning, Satan, the devil, that ancient serpent, the deceiver. What is the name for this kind of moral (and possibly mortal!) combat we face? “Spiritual warfare.” The Bible calls it: the flesh, the world and the devil. (The flesh and the world are not bad in themselves — only when they reject God and His ways.)

Most Catholics, astoundingly and regrettably, are not that familiar with spiritual warfare (unlike many Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians who know their Bibles inside and out). However, if you google “Catholic spiritual warfare” you’ll find that we have a smorgasbord of 2,000 years of writ on the subject and a fully-stocked arsenal. We Catholics have a lot more weapons than other Christians, including the sacraments and sacramentals. (No “nunchuck” jokes, please.) I’ve heard stories of ministers approaching Catholic priests for holy water because these Protestant pastors were praying deliverance prayers over people, but the water they had blessed didn’t seem to “work.”

When Catholics think of acquiring virtue while defeating sin, temptations and demonic activity, they tend to think of some kind of high drama like The Exorcist. The truth is that spiritual warfare is very ordinary and prosaic. It’s a relentless daily slog that never lets up, never goes on holiday. Or, as my novice mistress told us: “There are no plateaus in the spiritual life. You just have to keep going.”

Now, some peaceable children of God (see Matt. 5:9) object to any kind of warlike references applied to our metaphysical jousting, believing they can easily translate into physical violence, but that does not have to be the case at all. Metaphors can remain intact and the simple fact is we can’t change biblical imagery because Scripture is the Word of God, and God has given us the best possible ways to think about and approach life, the truest worldview.

On the other hand, vast hoards of the populace are very fond of film franchises, video games, sci-fi and fantasy media that involve various types of armed engagements. Tolkien even managed to serve up both actual military action and the epic spiritual struggle of good and evil in his mythos.

Perhaps we dismiss the notion of spiritual warfare because we don’t concretely grasp either the stakes (how often do we talk about “the salvation of souls” these days?) or the methods we need to employ.

If “our battle is not with flesh and blood … but against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil…” (Ephesians 6:12), then our arms must be similar in kind.When we feel helpless about events in our lives and the world around us on a grander scale … prayer is power, prayer moves mountains. Our Lord and Our Lady adjure and implore us to pray! Prayer changes things. Prayer works.

But shouldn’t we be doing something, speaking up and speaking out to right wrongs? By all means! Spiritual warfare isn’t only prayer (action accompanied by prayer is more effective than action alone), but the prayer aspect of spiritual warfare is essential and possible for all to partake of. How many have come back to the faith or turned their lives around because a father, mother or grandparent prayed ceaselessly for them? “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of” — Lord Tennyson.

(Sr. Helena, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA.  Twitter: @srhelenaburns)

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