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Unseen Warfare

By Mac Stewart

My Lenten reading this year is a book with the English title Unseen Warfare. I have found it a remarkably edifying piece of ascetical theology, but it also has an interesting ecumenical history of composition and translation, originating in Italian before moving into Greek, then Russian, and finally English. The scholar who wrote the introduction to the edition was Professor H.A. Hodges, a mid-20th-century Oxford Anglican with a deep interest in Orthodoxy and ecumenism. He introduced the work in its English translation with a particular intention, wishing to publish it as a set piece for more ecumenical reception of texts on the spiritual life. He wrote in 1951:

For that growing number of people who take to heart the scandal of schism, and of that mutual ignorance and estrangement which is both cause and effect of schism, and who work and pray for a better understanding between the Christians of East and West, the lessons which this book can teach are of no small moment. It is not in the sphere of ecclesiastical organization, of canon law and church government, that unity will be discovered and union achieved. Nor is it in the sphere of dogmatic discussion, severed as that so often is from the actual life of the Christian community and reduced to a battle of abstractions. It is where we fight and pray together, in the same spiritual combat against the same unseen enemies, that we shall find ourselves to be one army — not become one army, but discover that we are one. And when we discover that, the formulae and the institutions will be adjusted accordingly. (Introduction, p. 15)

Hodges may be sliding here into an unhelpful minimizing of the importance of structures and canonical organization in ecclesiological and ecumenical labors, and it is probably a mistake to play the internal and the external off one another when talking about the fullness of ecclesial communion for which ecumenists (and Jesus) pray. But surely Hodges is right that a seriousness about spiritual warfare and the ascetical tools traditionally wielded in its execution are crucial ingredients in any prospective ecumenical labors. This might just be another way of saying with Pope John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint that mutual interior conversion to Christ is a necessary precondition of the ecumenical task, and that “[t]here can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart” (Unitatis Redintegratio).

And this is a key lesson to learn in relation to Unseeen Warfare, given its complicated history of composition and translation. I’d like to relate this history briefly, before discussing the text. (Readers simply interested in what it has to say may skip to the next section.)

The text began its life in the 16th century under the hand of the Italian Roman Catholic Lorenzo Scupoli. His original title for the work was Combattimento spiritual (“Spiritual Combat”), and it was recognized from its first publication as a masterpiece. St. Francis de Sales put Scupoli’s work in the same category as Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ as a guide in the spiritual life. Through an unusual bump in Latin influence on the Orthodox Church in the 17th century, the text found its way to Mt. Athos, where it was taken up by the 18th-century Athonite monk Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain. Nicodemus found such spiritual wisdom in the text that he decided to translate it. He knew that the spiritual credentials of its original Roman Catholic author might render the work suspect on the Holy Mountain, so he referred to him anonymously as “a certain wise man,” whose work Nicodemus had taken up only to “beautify” and “amend.” Nicodemus called his new Greek version ’Αόρατος Πόλεμος (Unseen Warfare), and this text in turn achieved such reknown in the Orthodox world that it was taken up and translated into Russian in the 19th century by the Orthodox bishop Theophan the Recluse, a prolific translator, especially of the ascetical works of the Church Fathers, including the Philokalia. Finally, the text was translated into English E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer and published in 1951 with the introduction by Hodges.

Nicodemus’s edition was not just a translation of the original text; he combined Scupoli’s Spiritual Combat with another short text by him called the Path to Paradise, and Nicodemus also added some material on the Jesus Prayer, which reflects some of the variance in spiritual tradition between the East and West. But actually the vast majority of this Greek edition followed Scupoli very closely, making it all the more remarkable that his text attained such stature in the Orthodox Church that it was taken up for translation a century later by Bishop Theophan. He, like other readers of the Greek version, didn’t know the identity of the “certain wise man” behind the original text, but readily recognized his deep spiritual wisdom.

Two themes that have struck me thus far in Unseen Warfare are dispassion and dispossession. By dispassion I mean that state of the soul that has gone by the name of απάθεια in the East, the freedom from passions that does not imply (as is often mistakenly assumed) an emotional hardness or an affective coldness but rather a freedom from the grip of the burning impulses that destroy our capacity for disinterested love: greed, lust, vanity, wrath, envy, complaining, self-pity, self-indulgence, self-absorption, self-just-about-anything.

The Christian life is an arena in which we are constantly doing battle with these fierce spiritual enemies. The text offers some powerful weapons for this combat. There are the obvious defenses: complete distrust of self to overcome these enemies and total trust in the Lord Jesus Christ who dwells in the Christian’s soul to defend her against these raging foes. But there are also some counterattacks on offer that strike at the very heart of the passionate impulses. The idea is to drive out the passions and replace them immediately with their opposite.

In place of unbelief — undoubting faith in God; in place of complaints — a sincere gratitude to God for everything … in place of ignorance — a clear contemplation or mental examination of all the soul-saving Christian truths; in place of ill-judgment — faculties trained to discriminate between good and evil … in place of love of pleasure — every kind of abstinence, fasting and self-mortification; in place of vainglory — humility and desire of obscurity … in place of gloating — compassion; in place of ill-will — well-wishing.” (p. 105)

When you do this, the text says, “then you will be like a general, who constantly reviews his troops and disposes them in battle order; and enemies know that to attack such a general is impracticable” (p. 106).

But there’s also the theme of dispossession. The text offers the idea that human beings initially had no need of and made no use of the power of “imagination” in our mental operations. Imagination stores things in our memory and mediates to us our understanding of them by visualizing their outline, shape, dimensions, and color. But Adam did not need this imaginative power. His impression of and engagement with the world operated through “the higher power of the soul, that is thought,” by which he “contemplated purely, immaterially and spiritually only the pure ideas of things or their inner significance” (p. 149).

The point is not a Gnostic “excarnation” of Adam from material realities; the point is that the pre-Fall human being was able to look at the world without self-interested fantasy (a word the text seems to use interchangeably with imagination in this section). He looked upon things not with an immediate eye to how they pleased or displeased him, to how he might utilize them to serve his plans and purposes, but rather with a disinterested assessment of the truth and value of things insofar as they are.

Our relation to the world and to the things and people in it is far different from this: we are fallen into a state of near perpetual fantasy and self-deception, reflexively indexing the value of things at nearly all times to their potential benefit to our private health and happiness and power. To return to a clear vision of things as they really are, to a wholehearted embrace of the truth, we must be dispossessed of these fantasies:

[I]f you wish easily and effectively to become free of such errors and passions, if you seek to escape the varied nets and wiles of the devil, if you long to unite with God and obtain divine light and truth, enter courageously into battle with your imagination [i.e., fantasy] and fight it with your whole strength. (p. 150)

But the text reminds us again and again, none of this dispassion or dispossession is possible unless we have settled it in our minds and in our hearts to call out in earnest supplication, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me!” The point, as always in the Christian life, is to be drawn more deeply into the death and resurrection of Christ, cleaving with ever more affection and devotion to that Paschal Mystery, of which all the baptized have already been made partakers. Only “[b]y the power of the Spirit who brings the self-giving of God into the convert’s life [is] the self-centred nexus of appetites and impulses … broken, and the life is brought into a new centre and a new environment, Christ and His Body” (Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, p. 33).

Christian asceticism is the attempt to surrender oneself to that power of the Holy Spirit. And if Hodges (and Ramsey) are right, it places us on the frontlines of those who work and pray for the unity of Greek, Russian, Italian, English, American, Burundian, and all, in the one Body of Christ.




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