Spiritual Warfare: Do our efforts matter in the Spiritual Life?
Spiritual Warfare: do our efforts matter in the Spiritual Life?
I had the honor of being the chaplain at Legendary Lodge this past week for the 5th-6th grade girls camp, and it was an absolute blast. These girls had endless energy, they hiked up the mountain with ease for a mountain top mass, played dodge ball, went swimming for hours, ate way too much candy, asked a million profound questions, and by the end of the week, they taught me more than a few profound lessons about the spiritual life. I will come back to this in a bit, but first we must look at the gospel, because we find the same lesson there.
The apostles- at least a good few of them, were fisherman. If you know any ocean faring fisherman, or if you have at least seen a movie depicting them, you know they are experts at discerning the weather. We can be sure that the apostles in today’s gospel knew this storm was coming, because the first line of the gospel says, “Jesus made his disciples get into the boat.” This isn’t the first time Jesus had pulled this, if you remember the story of the apostles waking Jesus up in the midst of a storm asking if he plans to let them perish (Mark 4:38 and following).
This is surely an even more frustrating situation, because Jesus isn’t even in the boat with them, he climbs up the mountain to be by himself, and leaves them to face the coming storm alone.
We ought to ask why Jesus allows this tribulation? He purposely subjects his disciples to hours of imminent danger, and though he knew what the outcome would be, they didn’t. This seems to go beyond even the normal conceivable spectrum of suffering. For someone to suffer because they make a poor decision is regrettable but retains a sense of justice. For someone to suffer because of another’s poor decision- perhaps like a child suffering due to the sin of a parent, is much more regrettable, but at least it doesn’t seem to be a contradiction, for it’s natural for the fate of a child to be wrapped up in the fate of their parents.
But for Jesus to send his apostles into the storm, knowing they would face this intense trial, this very real and serious danger, seems excessive or perhaps even cruel.
However, we see in other areas of life this is not unusual. Here I think of military training. Soldiers are subjected to a whole variety of excessively difficult trials, both physical and mental. It makes perfect sense because they have to be totally capable and calm in the most treacherous circumstances, and this is only possible if they have endured such serious tribulation beforehand.
On a less serious level, it’s also the preparation we make for athletics. Sometimes it’s hard for a kid coming into the season to believe that sprints, bear crawls, and hot midday practices are going to prepare him or her for that big play down the stretch, when they need to get that extra step on the defender.
Why do we think the spiritual life is any different? We acknowledge that physical activities take serious training and preparation, but we simultaneously think spiritual things, because they are spiritual, are impossible to work toward or train for.
This is absolutely not true. In fact, because the spiritual life is so foreign to us, we must work harder at it.
Admittedly, there is a legitimate reason for being confused about our efforts concerning the spiritual life, and this confusion is depicted in the gospel today. The disciples get into the boat in the evening to cross the sea. They fight the storm- with no success- until the 4th watch, which is between 3:00-6:00 AM. That means they were on the water for 12 hours. There is a lesson here for us, one which the early Fathers of the Church pointed out almost in unison: our efforts alone against the storm of this world are meaningless. No matter how ferociously we struggle by ourselves, we make no headway. (Origen of Alexandria, John Chrysostom)
But now I am not making sense- first I say we must train harder in the spiritual life than any other area, then I claim our efforts are meaningless. So, what is the proper disposition toward God in our spiritual life? Do we take up a passive role? Well, if the apostles had taken a passive role in the boat they would have been swiftly overcome by the storm, and the same is true with us- if we take a passive role in our spiritual life, we will never grow, in fact we quickly fall away. It is so easy for us to fall into the habit of showing up on Sunday to “watch” mass. Or in prayer to just daydream, waiting for God to break in and tell us what to do.
Here I want to return to the little girls at Legendary, because those girls showed me the proper disposition of prayer with their very lives. They were at the age where, if they trusted you as an adult and believed that you loved them, they would just confidently ask for whatever they want, and expect to receive it. Also, if they did not know how to do something themselves, they would immediately demand to be taught. They were not passive, but they also did not presume to know everything.
The little girls are receptive– but actively receptive. And this is the disposition we are to take up in our spiritual life. If we look, this is something we see played out today in the scriptures. This is how Elijah prayed in the first reading. He is up on the mountain looking intently for the Lord to speak to him, listening for God’s word in everything- the earthquake, wind storm, and fire. It is only by this active receptivity that he can recognize God speaking in the still small voice.
Most powerfully I think we see Peter doing exactly this in the gospel today. When Jesus calls out to them, and the disciples finally recognize him, Peter makes an incredible act of faith, asking Jesus to call him out on the water. Notice he does not jump out of the boat, attempting to swim to the Lord through the storm, this would be a fool’s errand. But he is also not sitting passive- rather he asks for supernatural help from God, confidently expecting to receive it. Of course, this act of faith was imperfect, so when sees the waves and feels the wind, he begins to sink. Peter has the right approach- be bold in asking the Lord for our hearts desire. Yet at the same time his faith is weak. Peter is a youth in the spiritual life, he was still learning, still growing as all of us are. It is only after the resurrection that we see Peter healing the sick and preaching the word with total abandon.
So, we have three examples this week for guidance in approach to the spiritual life. We look to the little girls of Legendary Lodge who, in their simplicity and trust, ask and demand whatever they desire from those whom they trust, totally confident that they will receive it. We have Elijah who stood atop the mountain, listening attentively each moment, ready to receive the word of the Lord. Finally, we have St. Peter, still weak in faith, looking confidently to Jesus to work miracles, even amidst his great fear.
In this life, God will allow whatever trials are necessary for us to reach this disposition of active receptivity, and then whatever trials are necessary to increase our faith and trust in him. Trials of faith are not only a natural part of a fallen world, they are a necessary step in spiritual maturity. If we embrace them as exactly that, and look to God confidently for aid in enduring them, we will find him working miracles in our lives as he did for the apostles in the gospel today.