To live without conflict, to have no conflict of any sort in one’s life inner or outer, who would not want that? Isn’t that the main reason one slips away to sandy beaches or to the lake? The main reason, come to think of it, one meditates? Would it not in fact be desirable, should it not in fact be possible, to undertake a spiritual development that would lead to a life entirely free of conflict? A life so entirely quiet and peaceful, so fully independent of the noise and busyness impinging on it, that the whole of one’s existence would be gathered up into a complete concord of mind and world, a concord that would totally understand itself as the true self that transcends all struggle, all contradiction, and therefore all conflict? Which would be to say, the true self that endures?
I think it is important … that we should understand ourselves totally and completely, because … we are the world, and the world is us. … I condemn, judge, evaluate, and say, ‘this is right, wrong, this is good, this is bad’ according to the culture, the tradition, the knowledge, the experience which the observer has gathered. Therefore it prevents the observation of the living thing, which is the ‘me’. … When the Muslim says he is a Muslim, he is the past, conditioned by the culture in which he has been brought up. Or the Catholic, Communist. You follow? … So when we talk about living we are talking about living in the past. And therefore there is conflict between the past and the present, because I am conditioned as a Muslim, or god knows what, and I cannot meet the living present, which demands that I break down my conditioning. … And in the past there is security. Right? My house, my wife, my belief, my status, my position, my fame, my blasted little self – in that there is great safety, security. And I am asking, can the mind observe without any of that? … Therefore the mind is totally free. And you say, what is the point of that being free? The point is: such a mind has no conflict. And such a mind is completely quiet and peaceful, not violent. And such a mind can create a new culture – a new culture, not a counter-culture of the old, but a totally different thing altogether, where we shall have no conflict at all. (Saanen 22nd July 1971 ‘Can We Understand Ourselves?’).
No conflict at all, says Krishnamurti, because when the mind is free of all cultural conditioning and all the experience which the mind has gathered, it can then observe the living thing, the thing that does not live in the past, the pure “me”.
No doubt. Yet we have these words from Saint Paul:
. . . Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against principalities, against powers, against the cosmic rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph. 6:10-17)
What Saint Paul enjoins us to do is traditionally referred to as spiritual warfare, which assumes a central place for example in the spirituality of Saint Anthony the Great , where descriptions of encounters with demons are common. In his life of Anthony Athanasius notes: “There is need of much prayer and self-discipline to gain through the Holy Spirit the gift of discerning of spirits, to detect their nature, namely which of them are the less abandoned, which the more, what is the aim of each, what each affects, and how each is overthrown and ejected.”
Here spiritual life – spiritual life, that is, as life of prayer – is seen as a life of struggle and conflict, a life in which evil forces are to be encountered and defeated. “We have for enemies,” Saint Anthony warned, “the terrible, unscrupulous and wicked demons; against them is our warfare.” According to Abba Serapion (died 362), the whole of monastic life is essentially a war-campaign for Christ “to witness the defeat of demons”. For victory, spiritual discernment is crucial. Saint Benedict uses instead the word discretion, which means far more than the tactfulness and avoidance of excess we would normally intend in using this word. Discretion as it is used in the Benedictine Rule means spiritual discernment, a quality of soul whose ultimate end is purity of heart and the vision of God. This vision can be obscured or totally eclipsed by the false spirits who invade consciousness. Thus the Book of Privy Counselling (chapter seven) warns:
Do not be overcome with anxious dread if the evil one comes (as he will) with sudden fierceness, knocking and hammering on the walls of your house; or if he should stir some of his mighty agents to rise suddenly and attack you without warning. Let us be clear about this: the fiend must be taken into account. Anyone beginning this work (I do not care who he is) is liable to feel, smell, taste or hear some surprising effects concocted by the enemy in one or other of his senses. So do not be astonished if it happens. There is nothing he will not try to drag you down from the heights of such valuable work.
We have the testimony of Anthony the Great, also the testimony of Teresa of Avila, the Curé d’Ars, and Padre Pio (to mention only a few well-known saints) that indeed such encounters do occur, with at times even the aftermath of physical bruises (!) to prove it. There is of course the whole matter of temptation, temptation in reality having within it multitudinous levels. Naturally, as the soul progresses, the quality of temptation becomes subtler, the stakes higher. In any case, “No one,’ remarks Anthony in Apophthegmata, “if he is not tempted, will be able to enter the kingdom of heaven. For, take away the temptations and no one is saved.”
Yes, there are Angels to help, above all our guardian Angel, but there is also the matter of “liberation of Angels” to consider, concerning which, as quoted in Letter XV (“The Devil”) of Meditations on the Tarot, Origen has the following to say:
But we must not always rely on the Angels to fight for us; they help us only at the beginning, when we ourselves our commencing. With the progress of time, we should arm ourselves for combat. Before we learn to do battle, so that we will consider giving ourselves up to the battles of the Lord, we are succored by the “princes”, by Angels. Initially, we receive the provision of celestial bread . . . as long as we are children, we are nourished by milk; when we begin to hold to the word of Christ, we live as children under the authority of tutors and procurators. But when we have tasted the sacraments of celestial militia, when we have nourished ourselves on the bread of life, listen how the apostolic trumpet invites us to combat! It is with a loud voice that Paul cried to us, saying: “Take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand the wiles of the devil.” He no longer permits us to hide ourselves under the wings of our nurse; he invites us to the fields of battle. “Gird yourself,” he says, “with the breastplate of righteousness, and the helmet of salvation, and sword of the Spirit, and above all the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.”
According to Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815–1894) in his foreword to Unseen Warfare (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), “The arena, the field of battle, the site where the fight actually takes place is our own heart and all our inner humanity. The time of battle is our whole life.”
War should be waged ceaselessly and courageously, we are told in chapter fifteen (pp. 110 ff.) of that spiritual classic:
If you want to gain a speedy and easy victory over your enemies, brother, you must wage ceaseless and courageous war against all passions, especially and pre-eminently against self-love, or a foolish attachment to yourself, manifested in self-indulgence and self-pity. For it is the basis and source of all passions and cannot be tamed except by constant voluntary self-inflicted sufferings and by welcoming afflictions, privations, calumnies, persecutions by the world and by the men of the world. Failure to see the need of the pitiless attitude to yourself has always been, is and will be the cause of our failure to achieve spiritual victories, and of their difficulty, rarity, imperfection and security.
So this spiritual warfare of ours must be constant and never ceasing, and should be conducted with alertness and courage in the soul; they can easily be attained, if you seek these gifts from God. So advance into battle without hesitation. Should you be visited by the troubling thought of the hatred and undying malice, which the enemies harbor against you, and of the innumerable hosts of demons, think on the other hand of the infinitely greater power of God and of His love for you, as well as of the incomparably greater hosts of heavenly angels and prayers of saints. They all fight secretly for us and with us against our enemies. . . .
If the Lord delays granting you full victory over your enemies and puts it off to the last day of your life, you must know that He does this for your own good; so long as you do not retreat or cease to struggle wholeheartedly. Even if you are wounded in battle, do not lay down your arms and turn to flight. Keep only one thing in your mind and intention – to fight with all courage and ardor, since it is unavoidable. No one can escape this warfare, either in life or in death. And the one who does not fight to overcome his passions and his enemies will inevitably be taken prisoner, either here or yonder, and delivered to death.
To be sure, this unseen warfare, as for instance in the case of outright persecution, can manifest quite visibly. Consider these words from Tortured for Christ (Living Sacrifice Book Co., 1967, 1998) by evangelist pastor Richard Wurmbrand, fourteen years a prisoner in Communist Romania, who at ninety-two died on this day exactly ten years ago:
The tortures and brutality continued without interruption. When I lost consciousness or became too dazed to give the torturers any further hopes of confession, I would be returned to my cell. There I would lie, untended and half dead, to regain a little strength so they could work on me again. Many died at this stage, but somehow my strength always managed to return. In the ensuing years, in several different prisons, they broke four vertebrae in my back, and many other bones. They carved me in a dozen places. They burned and cut eighteen holes in my body. When my family and I were ransomed out of Romania and brought to Norway, doctors in Oslo, seeing all this and the scars in my lungs from tuberculosis, declared that my being alive today is a pure miracle! According to their medical books, I should have been dead for years. I know myself that it is a miracle. God is a God of miracles. I believe God performed this wonder so that you could hear my voice crying out on behalf of the Underground Church in persecuted countries. He allowed one to come out alive and cry aloud the message of your suffering, faithful brethren.
. . . I am very sorry if a crocodile eats a man, but I can’t reproach the crocodile. He is not a moral being. So no reproaches can be made to the Communists. Communism has destroyed any moral sense in them. They boasted that they had no pity in their hearts. I learned from them. As they allowed no place for Jesus in their hearts, I decided I would leave not the smallest place for Satan in mine.
. . . A flower, if you bruise it under your feet, rewards you by giving you its perfume. Likewise Christians, tortured by the Communists, rewarded their torturers by love. We brought many of our jailors to Christ. And we are dominated by one desire: to give Communists who have made us suffer the best we have, the salvation that comes from our Lord Jesus Christ.
Dominated by one desire, to give to those who have made us suffer the best we have, the salvation that comes from our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . whether to torturers, whether to demons, whether to demons working through torturers or through any other persecutors, to show each and everyone the divine love and mercy that we ourselves continually receive from above in our ceaseless war against the passions.
It is John Climacus, that ancient veteran of spiritual warfare, writing in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, who observes, “Those brought down by wine often wash with water, but those brought down by passion wash with their tears.”
And that’s really okay. Because, as Elie Wiesel reminds us, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
Pax et Bonum,