What Does Success in Bodily Warfare Look Like?

Some of the most accessible and practical wisdom from the ancient Christian desert tradition can be found in the letters of Sts. Barsanuphius and John.  They lived in Gaza (Palestine) in the early sixth century.  Over 800 letters are preserved for us, and in these letters we get an inside look at what spiritual guidance looked like in the desert monasticism of those early years.  And although much is different in the cultural context, even more seems to be the same in regard to the human struggle to draw near to God.  

In the letters of Sts. Barsanuphius and John (461 and 462), an aspiring hermit writes to St. Barsanuphius asking him to discern if he is ready to live the life of a hermit, as opposed to remaining in community with the rest of the monks in the monastery.  And he also asks for the saints’ prayers because he is “troubled by bodily warfare.”  

St. Barsanuphius writes back and tells this fellow that he is not ready for the hermetic life and, among other things, he writes that it is through his warfare that God is training him.  This fellow writes back, this time to St. John, asking for clarification.  (This happens commonly in the letters of Sts. Barsanuphius and John: St. John helps the writers interpret and apply the sometimes cryptic wisdom of St. Barsanuphius.)  Also, in this second letter from this fellow, we find out more detail about what the “bodily warfare” is: fornication, gluttony and avarice.  

Fornication, gluttony and avarice.  It strikes me that these are the same forms of bodily warfare that trouble me and that trouble many of my spiritual children.  And what is worse, what is sort of on top of these more easily identifiable struggles, is the sin of pride.  At the same time as this fellow is asking for help to overcome the bodily warfare of fornication, gluttony and avarice, he is also thinking that he has matured to such a place that he can separate himself from his brothers in the monastery and begin to practice a solitary life.  It is as if he is saying, “I’m struggling with bodily passions, yet I am more spiritually advanced than my brothers and teachers in the monastery.”  

Does this sound familiar to anyone?  It sounds familiar to me.  I too sometimes think, or have been tempted to think, that I have outgrown my spiritual father, that I am more spiritually advanced than my peers, and that perhaps it is time for me to consider a more strenuous asceticism.  I think such high thoughts of myself even though I still struggle with the bodily warfare of fornication, gluttony and avarice.  How can I know that I still struggle with this basic bodily warfare and yet also have such high thoughts about myself and my spiritual achievements?  I can do this because on top of the bodily warfare that I experience, I am also bound up in pride—and I don’t even see it!

St. Barsanuphius tried to point this out to the writer of these letters in his response to the first letter.  St. Barsanuphius pointed out that God was able to deliver this man from his bodily warfare at any time.  But God would not deliver him yet.  Why?  “Because He loves you, God wants you to be trained through many battles and exercises in order to reach the measure of good repute.”  And, St. Barsanuphius goes on to say, you will not reach this measure unless “you keep all that I have commanded you through my letters.”

But what is this “measure of good repute” that St. Barsanuphius is referring to?  In the second letter, St. John states explicitly that what St. Barsanuphius was pointing to is humility.  St. John explains: “Brother, God grants us humility and we keep pushing it away….   Humility means cutting off one’s own will in everything and becoming entirely carefree.  In regard to cutting off the root of the passions, which you mention, this occurs by cutting off ones own will…”  St. John goes on to explain that, along with obedience, it is the very suffering, or torment, that we experience as we struggle with bodily passions that creates humility in us.  And it is humility that destroys demonic pride, the pride that we very seldom see in ourselves, but is hiding on top of our more easily noticeable bodily sins. 

Someone once said that the devil will always trade a bodily sin for a spiritual one.  That is, for the devil, pride is a much greater prize than a bodily passion.  St. Barsanuphius tells us that because God loves us he does not deliver us from our bodily passions (something God could easily do).  Why not?  God does not deliver us because lurking right on top of those more easily identifiable bodily passions is the spiritual passion of pride.  And it is that pride which will keep us from God eternally.  It is that pride that caused the very fall of Lucifer.  

We need to let God work humility in us in order that we might reach “the measure of good repute.”  And as St. John points out, it’s really a matter of not pushing away the humility God grants us.  When we fail, when we feel the pain, the torment, of our struggle, we realize again our utter dependance on the mercy of God.  We realize again that we cannot fix ourselves, that we can only offer ourselves completely to God, broken bits and all.  This is what St. John was referring to when he wrote of being carefree.  We strive for self control and holiness, not because we think we are able to achieve it by ourselves, but because it is how we tell God what we want.  We strive, we are tormented in our bodies and minds by trials and temptations that we sometimes overcome and sometimes fail to overcome.  But this striving is somewhat carefree.  

How can that be?  How can we strive and be carefree at the same time?  Aren’t they opposites?  Yes and no.  It is like a child who wants to please her mother by making her bed for the first time.  She tries, but she fails, she doesn’t do a very good job.  But she is carefree because she knows her mother will appreciate her trying her best and will be able to fix any mistakes she makes.  She knows her mother loves her.  Our problem is we do not know that God loves us—more than even the most loving mother.  

Even as we strive to please God by disciplining ourselves and obeying His commands, we know that God loves us (already, before we begin).  We know that God will accept our striving for righteousness, even if we don’t do it very well, even if we fail.  God is able to fix our mistakes.  Therefore, like children striving to please a parent whom we know loves us completely, we offer what we have, what we can do, in a carefree way, knowing that 100% will never be enough to succeed completely all of the time, but it is enough to please God.  

That’s what humility is like.  It is this childlike simplicity, this childlike desire to please a loving parent.  Humility is a simple trust that our Heavenly Parent will take care of us, that our Heavenly Parent will appreciate our puny but heartfelt efforts to please Him.  This is a large part of what Christian spiritual maturity looks like according to Sts. Barsanuphius and John.  This is what success in bodily warfare looks like.

9 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this. I really appreciate your words. Is there a book, in English, with these letters? You always explicate things so well and I needed to hear this right now.

  2. Oh, the blindness to one’s own pride! I get caught out every time, thinking I am more spiritually advanced than others. Thank you Fr Michael, for reminding me.

    I should be thankful to God for my eating problem and think of it as a correction of my pride and try not to blame my comfort eating on family members who upset me. It is going to be hard though, because it is so convenient to have someone else to blame for my failings.

  3. Christ is Risen!

    Thank you brother for your timely words! I needed to read this today more than any other day. I thank God for your ministry!

  4. Thank you P.Michael for your words, the way you approach the spiritual struggle and your sincerity. It is very encouraging, demanding and so consolant …
    Glory to God for your ministry !

  5. Christ is Risen Father!
    I rarely comment on your blog, though I look forward every time you write something and I “devour” every word. Your writings are always so helpful and edifying.
    This article was exceptional! I found a description of my spiritual life…..

    Thank you and God bless you for all you do!

  6. Fr. Gillis,

    Thank you for this beautiful article.

    Just one question:
    You say, “God is able to fix our mistakes.” Could you please elaborate on what this looks like in practical terms? Also, what are the implications of this fixing activity of God in terms of what we can expect God to do in our lives, and what we should not expect?

    Thanks.
    -NSP

    1. I begin by saying that it is very foolish to say what God will or will not, or can or cannot do. However, based on my reading and experience, I will talk about what God usually does: the means God usually uses to save us. On the one hand, scripture tells all that God works all things for good for those who love Him. On the other hand, God has given human beings terrible freedom to create hell on earth——hell for ourselves and hell for others. Nevertheless, in the context of striving to offer one’s life to God, even this we cannot do perfectly. In the child-like simplicity that Jesus asks of us, we can trust in God’s mercy to fix us and our mistakes as we strive to draw near to Him. This does not mean that consequences will usually go away, but that God can use even the negative consequences of our mistakes for good, to bring about salvation. This is especially the case if the consequences of our sins result in our humiliation, destroying the basis of the pride lurking in our heart.
      Also, we had better not presume on God. God is not tricked or manipulated. Psalm 18 tells us:
      “With the merciful You [God] will show Yourself merciful;
      With a blameless man You will show Yourself blameless;
      With the pure You will show Yourself pure;
      And with the devious You will show Yourself shrewd.”
      In as much as we are sincerely striving to repent and draw near to God, God will fix our mistakes according to His mercy for our salvation and the salvation of those around us. However, in as much as we are devious, God will deal with us shrewdly, in ways that are more severe and frightening than we expect. But even then, God’s mercy endures forever, and even in the depths of the worst human-caused hell, God is there suffering with us and leading us to the resurrection.

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