Luke Dysinger, O.S.B.

 Fall of the Rebel Angels, Bartholomeus Anglicus
On the Nature of Things,
15th C., BNF FR 135, fol. 40.

modified from entry in : The New SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality
ed. Philip Sheldrake, (SCM Press, 2005) ISBN: 0 334 02984 8

THE use of military metaphor to depict the inward struggle against sin and vice long predates Christianity; but its frequent use in the New Testament Epistles, especially by St. Paul (Rom 7:23; 2Cor 10:3-6; 1 Tim 1:18), made the theme of spiritual warfare a Christian commonplace.  It has been employed by spiritual writers in every epoch of Christian history as a means of portraying the arduous, heroic nature of the quest to avoid sin and attain holiness.

THREE caveats should be observed in regard to this theme.

First, it is essential to clearly define both the opposing “enemy” and the “battleground” on which spiritual combat is waged.  St. Paul explicitly states that our fight (agōn) is not against human beings or temporal governments: our battle is joined against “spiritual wickedness in heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).  The demonic powers that tempt to sin constitute the enemy; the battleground is the heart or “innermost self” of the Christian.  Any other use of the notion of spiritual warfare by Christians, as for example in attempting to rationalize the use of physical violence in the cause of religion, is a perversion of this concept.

Second, there is a regrettable tendency in some modern authors to describe extraordinary and bizarre manifestations as “spiritual warfare”.  Above all this term describes the ordinary, daily, and often quite banal experience of struggle against sin.  The notion of “spiritual combat” is not chiefly concerned with phenomena that require the attention of an exorcist.

Third, the language of spiritual warfare inevitably suggests at least a hint of Pelagianism; so it is important always to begin with the Christians’ absolute dependence on the grace of God.  Even though the battleground is the individual Christian heart, the Christian who avoids sin and grows in holiness is not the true victor: that title and dignity belong to Christ alone, as the Book of Revelation makes clear (5:12-13; ch. 20-21).  The Christian never fights alone, and victory is always the gift of God.

DURING the first three Christian centuries a vivid and public symbol of spiritual warfare was found in the martyrs’ struggle.  Although instigated and conducted by civil authorities who tried to compel apostasy, martyrdom was regarded within the Church as the external manifestation of an invisible and deeper spiritual combat. In The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicity the young matron and catecheumen Perpetua vividly depicts this conviction by recounting a dream in which she envisions her imminent death and that of her companions in the arena as a gladiatorial combat against the devil.  The civil authorities were not thus the real enemy: they were the dupes and agents of the true unseen adversary.

IN the developing Christian ascetical tradition, Perpetua’s understanding of spiritual combat was applied to the interior “arena” of the heart.  The most eloquent exponent of this tradition is the desert hermit Evagrius Ponticus (d.399).  In his Praktikos, Evagrius explains that victory in the daily battle for virtue begins with faith in and wholehearted reliance on Jesus Christ, who alone is able to communicate in prayer the deeper meaning of the daily struggle.  With the help of Christ the Christian ascetic learns to recognize the tactics of the demonic enemy.  Ever attentive to his own unique constellation of weaknesses and strengths, the ascetic, or praktikos, learns the identity, the order and the frequency of the most common demonic assaults: gluttony, lust, avarice, dejection, wrath, acedia, vainglory, and pride.  He also learns how to appropriately employ in each of these assaults fitting spiritual remedies, such as fasting, keeping vigil, psalmody, prayer, and charitable deeds.  Particularly important for Evagrius is the memorization and use of suitable biblical verses in verbal “contradiction” (antirrhesis) of the offending tempting thought (logismos).

ALONG with other desert fathers Evagrius emphasizes the critical importance of directing the powerful but dangerous energy of anger (thumos) solely against the demonic sources of temptation, and never against an offending brother or sister.  Tricking the Christian into wrongly identifying another human being (rather than the demon) as the enemy is a common demonic ruse.  Evagrius’ disciple John Cassian particularly emphasized that treasured friendships can easily become unintended casualties of spiritual warfare whenever the perilous weapon of anger is deployed (Conference 16)

THE goal of spiritual warfare and of all Christian asceticism is the attainment of both charity and that state of inner freedom from compulsion called apatheia  or “purity of heart” that is the necessary precondition for spiritual vision, contemplation.  Texts on the art of spiritual warfare have taken the form of handbooks on Christian asceticism.  Among the most influential of these are: the ascetical treatises of Evagrius Ponticus (partly preserved in the Orthodox Philokalia) the Institutes and Conferences of Cassian The Spiritual Ladder of John Climacus; the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola and the Spiritual Combat attributed to Scupoli.


R. E. Sinkewicz, tr., Evagrius of Pontus, the Greek Ascetic Corpus, “On the Eight Thoughts”, “The Monk”, “Chapters on Prayer” (Oxford, 2004).

B. Ramsey, tr., John Cassian, The Institutes and The Conferences, (Paulist, 2000, 1997).

C. Luibheid, tr., John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Paulist, 1982).

Scupoli, The Spiritual Combat, numerous editions, various publishers.