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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - The Spiritual Life Is a Battle

Robert Barron - The Spiritual Life Is a Battle

Robert Barron - The Spiritual Life Is a Battle
TOPICS: Spiritual warfare

Peace be with you. Friends, our first reading for this Sunday is one of my favorites. It's from the book of Exodus, and it's about a battle between Israel and the Amalekites. And you'll say, "Well, that's of maybe mild interest to specialist historians of the ancient world," or on the flip side you'll say, "That's why I don't like the Bible. The Bible, it's all about these wars". And at the end of this story, Moses and the Israelites put the Amalekites all to the sword. So either this is an ancient irrelevancy or it's kind of an outrage.

Well, can I suggest it's neither one of those? And to help us see that, I would draw attention not to any contemporary biblical scholar but to a very ancient figure, Origen of Alexandria. Lived in the late second, early third centuries, so a long time ago. And he proposed a way of reading this kind of text that I think is still of great relevance to us. It shows why it's not just about some ancient, pointless battle, nor is it about some kind of gruesome God performing genocide on people.

How does Origen read this kind of story, the battle of Israel against its enemies? He sees Israel as evocative of all of God's power in the world, all that's good and creative and positive and God-like in the world. Therefore, who are the Egyptians, the Amalekites, the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, all the various enemies of Israel? They stand for all those powers of darkness. All those powers of sin, stupidity, cruelty, hatred, violence, racism, everything that stands opposed to God would be symbolized by these enemies of Israel.

So a first basic point, and we just got to come to terms with it, the spiritual life's a battle, everybody. Always has been, is today, always will be until the end of time. The spiritual life is a battle. Why? Those who stand with the ways of God will be cheered by some, yeah. Encouraged by some, true. But opposed by many. When I was counseling people in the seminary, those who are just commencing the spiritual life, they often begin with great enthusiasm and that's good, that's appropriate. But there always comes the point where I have to say, "You know, the more you walk the path of Christ, the more you will be opposed. You know that, don't you"?

And people say, "Well, what do you mean I'm going to be opposed"? "Well, just wait. You'll find out". If you're consistently on the path of Christ, trust me, they will come out after you. You know that line from Churchill I've quoted many times, I've always loved it, it gives comfort to me, which is, "Never trust a man who has no enemies. That means he stands for nothing". Dead right, it seems to me. It's right in the political world that Churchill was in, but it's even more correct in the spiritual world. Never trust someone who is not being opposed. That means almost certainly he's not walking the path of the Lord. So let's look at all these battles, including this one, as evocative of the spiritual struggle.

So Israel against the Amalekites, how's the thing unfold? Well, there are soldiers who are directly engaged in the struggle. Think of the foot soldiers with their spears and swords, actually engaging the enemy directly. Are there such people in the spiritual order? Uh-huh. Whenever you're directly involved in the struggle against stupidity, cruelty, violence, evil in its various forms. Now this could happen in your personal life. It could be somebody who's just getting in your way as you're trying to live the spiritual life. They're just, they're tempting you, they're blocking you, they're mocking you. It could be at that level.

Think of someone who's trying to speak the truth. They're trying to catechize, trying to speak the truth of God. They're being opposed by all sorts of negative opinions. You doubt me on this? Spend thirty seconds on the internet and say something that's inspired by the Gospel. Trust me, they'll come out against you. The Amalekites will rise up. It could be when you're in, let's say, the social order; you're speaking out for, fighting for good things. You're against abortion, you're against capital punishment. You're in favor of protecting God's good earth and so on. And the enemies will come out against you.

So you're directly involved in the struggle, some of you know, and I guess as a priest, as a bishop, I've been involved in this for a long time, directly involved in the give and take. But then we hear, while the battle's going on, up on a height, there's Moses. Now Moses, the great leader of the Israelites. Up on the height, this was typical really up until the probably twentieth century, that military leaders, the generals and so on, would seek the high ground, because from the high ground you could survey the whole field of battle. That was the point of vantage you needed if you were going to be effective in directing things. This from Julius Caesar through Napoleon and Robert E. Lee. That's what generals did.

So Moses up on the hill, surveying the battle, stands for those who direct the life and work of the Church. I'm a bishop of the Church. Bishop, the English word, is a kind of corruption of a Greek word "Episkopos". Say "episkopos" fast three times and you'll come up with bishop, right? "Episkopos" in Greek, that's where the word comes from; means "to look out over". It's a very functional term. It's not like a mystical term. It's very functional. The "episkopos" does "episkope". He scopes out, he looks out upon.

So the bishop surveys the life of the Church that he's assigned to. Moses up on the mountain, it seems to me, stands therefore for all of the official leadership in the Church. All those generals, commanders, priests, bishops, the pope ultimately, who direct the battle. They direct the struggle. God bless them. Without them, the battle wouldn't go very well. Would it? If you're not being directed by a wise and prudent strategically-minded general, you won't do well. Think of every time a new pope is elected, he usually sends out his marching orders.

Think when Pope Francis was elected, the Church that goes out to the margins, etc. a poor Church on behalf of the poor, Those are all his ways of giving his commands to the army so we would know how to fight. But then, in this beautiful detail, Moses is not just the general who's surveying the scene and giving commands. He is that, but we also hear that he's got his hands raised. Well, that's an ancient gesture. I imitate it every time I say Mass, and I assume what they call the "orans" position, the praying position. Moses is directing the battle, but primarily he's doing it through prayer.

So we speak of the leaders of the Church as having a kingly office, that's administrative and directive, but also a priestly function. That means they sanctify. That means they pray for the Church. So this morning in my Holy Hour, as I always do, I prayed for the people that I serve. And I said Mass this morning, and I prayed during that Mass for the work that I do. Okay. That's Moses up on the hill, directing the battle, the struggle against the Amalekites, but doing it primarily through prayer.

Now extrapolate from just the bishop, who's praying for his Church. Think of all the forms of life within the Church that are dedicated to prayer. Think here of monasteries and convents. Think here of mystics and contemplatives and visionaries. Think here of a homebound elderly person who can't be directly in the struggle anymore. Maybe she was years before, but now in her old age, she prays for the Church. Think of people who gather at two o'clock in the morning as part of a perpetual Adoration society. They all are evocative of Moses with his hands raised, praying on behalf of those who are directly involved in the struggle.

Okay. The picture though gets even more interesting. We hear that as long as Moses has his hands raised, the struggle goes well. But when his arms get tired and they fall down, then the battle goes against Israel. What a basically important spiritual point, everybody. The Church is sustained by prayer. Period. In the Bible, nothing great ever happens apart from prayer. If the Church stops praying, the battle doesn't go well. So we hear about these two figures, Aaron and Hur, younger men who come along and they literally hold up the arms of Moses so that he can continue to pray so that the battle can continue to go well. Those who support the prayers of the Church.

So here naturally, I think of that army of people across the centuries who have supported with their financial donations, with their encouragement, indeed with their own prayers, who have supported the prayerful work of the Church. There's not one monastery or convent, there's not one community of contemplatives that has not been supported by, at some point, wealthy people, who gave the money they needed to establish themselves, who continue to give the money so that they might survive. Call that crude if you want. I don't think it's crude at all. It's just what you need in the real world. They are exactly correspondent to these two people who are holding up the arms of Moses as he sustains the battle.

God bless those people. All these donors and wealthy contributors to the life of the Church, don't despise them. No, no. They hold up the arms which keep the army going, which keeps the battle against the Amalekites going well. Now here's the point, everybody. And I'll bring it to a close here. To me, this is a beautiful icon of the variegated offices and functions within the Church. See, don't fall prey to a sort of crude egalitarianism. "We're all the same in the Church". Bore me to death with that, "we're all the same". No. How beautiful that we're different. That there are some people, yes, engaged directly in the various struggles.

There are other people who are directing operations, other people who are praying for the success of the battle and still others who are supporting those who pray. And it's precisely this variety that gives the Church its power. Cardinal George, who was a mentor to me, used to say that at the liturgy, what's displayed is the Church precisely in its beautiful variety. There are those who will say, animated by a very worldly egalitarianism, "None of that. No one should be any different. No one should stand out in any way. No one should be distinct from anybody else. Let's just be an egalitarian society at Mass". No way, no way. That might be some utopian fantasy you have, but it's not the Church.

How beautiful that at the liturgy, the differences within the Church are formally on display. Oh, that guy's better than that guy. No, it's not a question of better. It's a question of the differences within the life of the Church being on vivid, symbolic display. How beautiful. I'll tell you exactly where things go wrong, and this is exactly what the devil wants. He wants to turn us against each other. See, because he's the leader of the Amalekites here. He's the leader of the opposition army.

So what's the best way to undermine the opponent? It's to divide us against ourselves. So we start bickering, and now it's the laity against the clergy, now it's priests against bishops, now it's the laity against those rich people, those rich people… Forget all that. That's the devil's work. We are most effective when we are on beautiful, interdependent, variegated display. That's when the Church is most effective in this battle against the Amalekites. And God bless you.
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