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    Spiritual Combat

    We are called to rely not on our own strength but entirely on the grace of God

    by Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E. Lori 2/1/2020

    THE OLDER I BECOME, the more quickly Lent seems to roll around. But with advancing years, I also find myself taking this gracefilled season of repentance more seriously. Let me tell you why.

    When I was young, I imagined myself to be invincible. I knew, of course, that someday I’d grow old and that my earthly life would be over — but that seemed far off in the future. My imagined invincibility didn’t express itself in a wild and crazy lifestyle. Instead, it was expressed in a seemingly endless capacity for work. There weren’t enough hours in the day for all that I wanted to do or thought I needed to do — whether in my studies or my ministry. Naturally, I took part in Mass, received the sacrament of reconciliation and prayed for God’s help. As a priest I preached on God’s grace and mercy and administered his mercies sacramentally. But deep down, the thought lingered that, if anything important had to be done, I had better roll up my sleeves.

    I knew from my studies that such an attitude doesn’t square with our Catholic faith. Actually, it’s a heresy called Pelagianism. Pelagius was a fifth-century theologian who professed the view that we are able to obey the commandments through the natural powers of our will, so long as we are enlightened by the teaching of the Gospel. But this outlook fails to take into account human weakness and our need for God’s mercy and grace. Among other problems, this badly exaggerated can-do attitude is symptomatic of the sin of pride, which played a devastating role at the dawn of human history, with the advent of original sin.

    For some souls, God’s whispers are sufficient. For others, he has to use a megaphone. I’m among the latter. The Lord tried to dislodge Pelagian attitudes from my heart, but I resisted, and sometimes still resist. He certainly sent me lots of gentle signals, including good and patient spiritual directors; hints that my health, while strong, is by no means invulnerable; the witness of holy people whose way of life spoke to their utter reliance on the Lord and his mercy. These were nudges in the right direction.

    But years ago, the Lord decided to beat me at my own game. He ladled out so much work and so many problems that I had to face the fact that my exaggerated self-reliance was foolish and untenable. I was up against things larger than my abilities and beyond my control. That was God’s megaphone in my ear: “You need me!”

    All of this came home to me while reflecting on a passage from the Letter to the Ephesians: “For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (6:12). In both life and ministry, I was engaged in spiritual warfare against the forces of evil. But in failing to rely utterly on the grace of the Holy Spirit, I was entering into heavy battle with the lightest of armor — my own poor efforts.

    We need to “put on the armor of God” (Eph 6:11). This does not mean that we no longer work hard or that we give up the struggle to attain virtue. Rather, it means that we let go of illusions about our own personal efficacy in the face of opposition. The armor we must rely on is not our own but the victory of Christ and the grace of the Spirit.

    All of this brings me back to Lent, which begins with Satan tempting Jesus in the desert. Jesus engages in mortal combat with Satan and for our sake wins the victory. In short, Lent is not merely a season for self-improvement. It is a time for laying aside illusions of self-reliance and, in the grace of the Holy Spirit, sharing in the victory of Jesus over sin and death.



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