The Thirteen Strategies of Spiritual War

Christianity, as the great GKC was always fond of telling us, is full of paradoxes, one of which to my mind doesn’t receive near enough attention or development is the notion of the Church as a Military. 

What could be furthest from the mind of the worldly nephew than to look upon his lamb-like Christian Aunt, slouched in some corner sofa, sipping her tea and reading the Imitation of Christ, or murmuring a rosary, and think here sits a fearsome warrior? But in the strictest and most literal truth, in the glories and high achievements of martial skill in war, that enfeebled and elderly Aunt is greater than any man in mere mortal combat, even rivaling Hannibal himself! “You jest! You jest!” you say. No, I don’t: I am dead serious. Let me explain. 

The merit of a fighter’s skill is directly correlated to his enemy’s skill. So, if the enemy is weak, there is no great honor in defeating him. But, if the enemy is strong, there is a proportionate honor in defeating him. Hannibal waged against princes and municipalities of Rome, against men of flesh and blood, whereas our beloved little Aunt wages war “against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places,” and also against perhaps the greatest enemy of all, her own will. 

As Job says, “The life of man upon earth is a warfare…” And so it is, which is why the Church here on earth is called Militant. At every moment, demons are at our elbows just ready to strike in an ambush of temptations, to a heedless and harsh word against our neighbor, to a bite or drink too much, to an act of deficiency or excess that, if with grave matter and if knowingly done, could kill us eternally. Our Aunt’s enemies, unlike Hannibal’s enemies, are more like the almost-impossible-to-kill Elite alien fighters in the Halo video game my sons and I love to play so much. With their invisibility cloaks activated, the Elite lies in wait for you to meander through the dark corridor, then a second later a thousand blue blasts hit you in the face and it’s game over! That’s the way it is with demons, only their invisibility cloaks are always activated.         

But as great as Auntie may be at spiritual warfare, she, as well as we, can always stand to learn new strategies. I propose one of the greatest teachings on war as our guide. Penned about twenty-five hundred years ago by a perfect pagan in China, the treatise on how to win a war, The Art of War, has influenced how physical conflicts ought to be fought down through history and throughout the world, from Asia to America. The book was composed of thirteen chapters which dealt with the means and methods of subduing one’s enemy. I propose to repurpose it, at least in outline, as a list of strategies on how to win a spiritual war.  

Now, it must be understood from the first that demons, being immaterial, nearly infinitely more powerful and intelligent than humans, cannot be subdued or conquered in the same sense as Sun Tzu had in mind in his Art of War. And let me just pause to stress here that I AM NOT saying we should be actively engaging with demons at all! That is spiritually dangerous and unlawful according to Church law—our standing orders, if you will. The Church has entrusted this dread task to a special kind of spiritual solider, a Spec Ops Corps of ordained and highly trained spiritual soldiers known as Exorcists.  

The Thirteen Strategies of Spiritual War that follow, then, are meant to apply to the spiritual warfare we wage generally, not with this or that individual and invisible foe. Though the Demonic cause is beyond our ability to contend against, we are able and must resist the effect, which is temptations in ourselves or others, actual sins committed and their consequences, or those humans who knowingly or unknowingly serve the enemy by their actions and beliefs, and other such effects we have control over and ought to fight against.

The Thirteen Strategies of Spiritual War

I. Plan of Attack or Escape 

Victory in war is not random. It is brought about by a successful execution of an attack plan. Such a plan requires that one takes stock of one’s resources, sizes up one’s enemy, and thinks of ways to negotiate the difference. Not doing so will result in failure. Thus, it is the first strategy of spiritual war to plan out how one will act in the heat of the battle.

For instance, in the spiritual war we wage, this may mean thinking ahead about how you will respond when that naughty coworker comes up in the break room with another immoral story to tell. You can evade the situation, if you know you are unable to resist the temptation to listen to his foul story, or, if you think you have what it takes, you could use the moment of temptation to evangelize the wayward youth in the virtues and delights of purity, and the interior freedom you have in not being a slave to your passions. But without a plan of attack or escape, you are left helpless and at the mercy of your enemy.    

II: Economize Resources  

Spiritual war is costly. It is both physically and emotionally draining. Economizing means choosing our battles carefully, and if once engaged in conflict, bringing about a swift resolution. 

Practically, this may mean that we pray a rosary (more on this Weapon of Mass Grace Production in a bit) in the morning when we are super charged with breakfast and coffee, instead of the evening when we are ready for our pillows. If you struggle with concentration while praying the rosary (like I do!), then economize by praying the rosary when your concentration is most efficient not when it is least, thereby reducing your level of temptation to willful distraction, which renders one’s prayers worthless.  

III: Unity, Not Numbers 

Being one is perhaps the easiest and the hardest thing to achieve in the spiritual battle we face. Strength comes in unity not in number. But how often we look downcast and feel small and insignificant when our foes, or those ensnared by them, are Legion, whereas we in our acquaintances number little more than a handful or less most of the time. 

But wars are not fought by numbers but by loyalty to each other and fealty to our Lord. Band together with those few who share the One Faith, and, leaving aside all differences of opinion which do not touch upon doctrine or morals or law, unite under a common banner. This is in what the strength of Christ’s Army consists.    

IV: Defend, Not Advance  

I think this strategy of spiritual war has its most fitting applicability in the global spiritual war we face today. The principle is the defense of one’s position, instead of advancing without a capable commander. How often this principle has been violated! There are those who take it upon themselves to forge ahead in the fight, to abandon Church law, the fortifications of our position, and run out into the field or forest and take on the enemy with unlawful sacraments, or building up sham bunkers of their own, in mass centers, seminaries, monasteries and convents, and schools, thinking they are advancing on the enemy, when all the while they are burying themselves deeper behind enemy lines, almost beyond hope of rescue.    

Resist the temptation to speculate what God would want, or what a Pope would want. This is advancing without a leader. Stay bunkered down in your location. Do not advance until a Commander (a Vicar of Christ, or one of his lawful pastors) can lead you to safety. Keep to the commandments of God and His Church. These are your sure defense.

The second part of this article will be published next week!