Spiritual battles—and the ultimate defense that is virtue
A Reflection for Thursday of the Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time
Find today’s readings here.
“Stand fast with your loins girded in truth,
clothed with righteousness as a breastplate,
and your feet shod in readiness for the Gospel of peace.” (Eph 6:14-15)
Having spent a lot of time working in peace-focused groups like the Catholic Worker, the Daniel Berrigan Collective and even Dorothy Day’s canonization cause, I’ve experienced a few times when the group has read Scriptures that include a lot of battle imagery like today’s. It’s always a bit uncomfortable. In today’s reading, at least, St. Paul makes clear that the real battle we all are called to fight is “not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.” That’s not to say it is a battle that takes place exclusively in the spiritual realm. Otherwise he would not have contrasted the “world rulers of this present darkness” with “the evil spirits in the heavens.” I think the point he intends to make is that while our battle is “not flesh and blood,” it has very real implications in our world. Likewise, the weapons he calls us to take up can seem at first only spiritual, but they too have an effect on the way we live in our flesh-and-blood world.
Although we are clothed with all these virtues to do battle, peace is our destination.
Looking at this list of weapons, I’m struck by how the metaphorical weapon each spiritual weapon or virtue is paired with tells us something about that virtue. Girding our loins with truth, for example, evokes the image of truth being wrapped around us, holding us together. It’s something we wear close to us, that we can’t leave home without. Wearing the “helmet of salvation” evokes for me how the promise, or even the possibility, of salvation is a protection against the pain of anxiety or despair that afflicts our heads. The “sword of the Spirit,” I think, speaks to the way that the Holy Spirit is our tool of discernment—because the etymology of “discern” evokes cutting, it literally means “to separate apart.” The “breastplate of righteousness” likewise is one where the metaphorical resonance in our real lives is evident: A breastplate is a tool of defense, and what better defense is there against any malicious attack than being a righteous person?
The last “weapon” in this reading resonates the most with me: “your feet shod in readiness for the Gospel of peace.” It is an image that is echoed in the line that Catholics pray in the Liturgy of the Hours every morning: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” The metaphoric resonance of feet being associated with peace tells us something fundamental about peace: Although we are clothed with all these virtues to do battle, peace is our destination. And it isn’t a destination we can reach by standing in one place, sparring with the sword of the Spirit or the shield of faith. It’s the goal of all the battling, the place where we want to end up—but that can’t be reached without walking a long way together.
By the way, the first report from the global “Synod on Synodality” comes out today, and the root meaning of “synod” is walking together. Let’s pray that the synod process can be a way of helping our church walk together toward peace, armed with virtue.