Spiritual Warfare

I’ve been fascinated by my experience over the last two weeks, as I count down toward my departure for my Camino walk.

Starting about a week ago Monday, I’ve experienced the pain of pretty much every injury, illness or pain I’ve experienced over the last several years. For two days my right forearm ached miserably. (I had tendonitis in that area two years ago.) Then I had several days of terrible aching of my left shoulder. (I had a rotator problem that arose about a year ago.) In between that, I had several mornings where I woke up with stiffness in the last two digits of my left hand. (Something I had complained about to my doctor during my last physical, but which had disappeared.) The other night I woke up with a bad toothache. My right achilles (the last body area on which I had physical therapy) has been giving me almost constant, although thankfully low-level, pain. Most recently, I woke up in the middle of the night with excruciating nerve pain in my left leg (past sciatica). I think there may be a few more I’ve left out.

I know none of these are re-injuries, since the pain comes for a couple of days and then departs. So the only label I have is Ignatius’ enemy spirit. Whatever name you give it – enemy spirit, spiritual warfare, it is the negative force that calls out, “You can’t do this. You can’t do this. Might as well not try.” My dear friend Maria calls it “the same syndrome as when you decide to go on retreat and have a terrible, shitty week leading up to it that makes you want to sulk and stay home.”

Well, I’m tougher than that. There is only one response: mindfully put one foot in front of the other. And trust.

That, I recognize, is no guarantee one of these past injuries won’t arise for real on the Camino, perhaps one great enough to cause me to have to suspend my walk. But I’ll face that possibility if and when I come to it. For now, it is one foot in front of the other.


The Devil’s Greatest Trick

Over the weekend, Dave, Elena and I saw a simulcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Gounod’s Faust, which was terrific. (If you have a chance to see en encore performance, you will not be sorry if you make the time to see it.)

Notwithstanding the title, the opera is more about Marguerite than about Faust. I can’t do justice in a short synopsis, but briefly: Faust makes his deal with the devil (Mephistopheles), allowing him to seduce Marguerite. Faust abandons her when she is pregnant with his child. In a duel, Faust kills her brother, who curses her with his dying breath. Distraught, Marguerite goes to church to pray for forgiveness, but hears the voice of Mephistopheles telling her she is damned. Marguerite kills her child and is imprisoned for infanticide. Faust and Mephistopheles go to the prison in an attempt to “save” Marguerite, but she resists their efforts and in the last scene, angelic voices proclaim she is saved.

Faust is a great tale from an Ignatian perspective. The enemy spirit (devil, evil spirit, whatever term you want to use) is constantly trying to turn us way from God. It tries to tempt us in various ways, holding out the promise of all sorts of gain if we abandon our path of faith. (Think of Jesus’ temptation in the dessert).

Of all the tricks of the enemy spirit – and there are many – the greatest is to try to persuade us that we cannot be reconciled with God, that whatever sin we have committed is too great to turn away from – that, in Mephistopheles words to Marguerite, we are damned. The great hope of the enemy spirit is to drive us to the despair of Judas, making us think we are beyond redemption.

But the reality is that, whatever we have done, no matter how bad, God is always there waiting anxiously for us to turn back to him. Marguerite is terrified when Mephistopheles tells her that her prayers are useless, that her soul is damned. But ultimately, she refuses to believe him and she continues to pray and beg God’s forgiveness. And in the end, we see her moving now down to the darkness, where Mephistopheles and Faust have disappeared, but up to the light, saved by the resurrected Christ.

Reconciliation is always possible.