The drama of this Gospel story hinges on Jesus’ encounter with Satan, demons, and unclean spirits. In our own time and place, these “evil spiritual realities” are largely relegated to Hollywood and to children’s fantasy literature such as the Narnia Chronicles, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. We are products of the Enlightenment, so-called, a culture not schooled in the discernment of good and evil. And yet, you can hardly turn a page of the Bible without encountering the battleground of spiritual forces. Saint Paul writes, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but… against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”[i]
The early experience of monasticism in the Egyptian desert gives repeated accounts of the monks being in constant battle between good and evil, and it is we who are being fought over. The fourth-century monk, Evagrius Ponticus, gave the warning: “Stay watchful of gluttony and desire,” he warned, “and the demons of irritation and fear as well. The noonday demon of laziness and sleep will come after lunch each day, and the demon of pride will sneak up only when you have vanquished the other demons.”[ii]
In our worship, we speak of the glorious company of apostles, the noble fellowship of prophets, and the white-robed army of martyrs.1We speak of the angelic hosts.2 We might use language such as, “the Church militant,” or, “the Church triumphant.” Our founder, Fr. Benson, once had a conversation with a stranger while out in the city. When he described his life as a member of a religious community, she exclaimed, “Oh, you must have found so much peace!” Fr. Benson replied, “No, madam, I’ve found a war.”
This language resonates with me, because it gives expression to a truth of my own life with God. I experience God as peace, as rest, as calm, as love. But this is not passivity, and my own proclivity to sin, the corruption of my own human nature, fights viciously to dethrone God from my heart. In my life, and especially my prayer, I often must fight back, asking God not only for the gifts of calm, rest, and silence, but also for the gifts of strength, vigor, and power, to aid me in the war over my spirit.