Battlefield Earth

‘...a great plain, all around Jerusalem, where the supreme commander of all the righteous people is Jesus Christ. Opposed to it is another huge, enemy plain, near Babylon, filled with a multitude. The chief of them is Satan.’

This stark vision is a meditation on two standards. Two armies. Two world ideologies or Weltanschauungen. Taken from a spiritual classic, The Exercises, by St Ignatius of Loyola - the founder of the celebrated Jesuit Order, to which Pope Francis belongs. A meditation composed with a practical aim and intimating a radical choice: which side are you on?

I can hear the howls of protest, of derision, of execration. Manichean! Dualistic! Reactionary! Christ versus Satan? Righteous fighting the wicked? What about shades of grey? What about neutrality? Good, old British tolerance or sitting on the fence?

First, dualism. Hhmmm... Funny how the media’s voice never fails to reiterate how WWII was exactly that. An epic war of light versus darkness. A struggle by the righteous Allies against a monstrous foe. Nazism, Hitler and his minions, evil incarnate, threatened to engulf civilisation. Mercifully, the world was saved by the powers of good, led by Roosevelt, Churchill and...Stalin. Amen to that but, I ask you, if recent history proclaims such a clear-cut example of dualistic human confrontation, why should revealed religion be different? Why can’t God have a righteous side, too?

‘Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me!’ Moses demands after the apostate Israelites have worshipped the Golden Calf. (Mea culpa: I can’t help thinking of Charlton Heston’s Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s ham, unforgettable movie, The Ten Commandments.) The sons of Levi, the priests (hurrah!) then rally round God’s Prophet. What happens to ‘the other side’? Look it up! (Exodus 32:25)

Second, Manichaeism. A heresy that postulated a good deity and an evil one, locked in cosmic struggle. And matter, the flesh was evil, created to imprison particles of divine light. But Christianity is not anti-matter, as the Incarnate Christ ipso facto rules out the flesh being intrinsically evil. Nor is the Devil on a par with God. The Evil one is only a subordinate, created Spirit, though a powerful one, given human frailty and stupidity.

Third, there is actually a war on. Eric Zemmour, a French Jewish controversialist, has delivered a droll and effective radio send-up. War has broken out. Not war on Israel on Iran or China on Japan. Rather, it is the media war on Pope Francis. Especially by the Anglo-Saxon media. These decadent, degenerate ex-Protestants and ex-Christians detest the Papacy – and the Catholic Church. Spiritual hierarchy and authority – could anything more abominable? Pius XII they labelled Hitler’s Pope – despite his saving innumerable Jews. Pope Benedict they pilloried for being forcefully conscripted, a lad of 16, into the Hitler’s Jugend. Now Pope Francis is unfairly tarred with the brush of supporter of the Argentinean military. They never give it a rest. In truth, only a Pope who publicly ladled out condoms, praised abortion, blessed gay pubs and smoked pot would appease the liberal media. Sarcasm apart, this is serious because it means Christianity is under attack in the West. Judaism is untouchable and Islam feared but Christians are fair game. The media have indeed chosen their flag, their side: it is Satan’s side.

Young Ignatius of Loyola had been a soldier, a member of the Basque nobility and had fought with earthly weapons. Wounded at the siege of Pamplona he was at the point of death when he almost miraculously recovered. While convalescing he read some books on medieval chivalry. ‘What if from an earthly knight I was to turn into a spiritual one? A servant of Christ?’ he wondered. His conversion dates from that moment. After tremendous self-mortifications, Ignatius travelled to Jerusalem as a pilgrim and then, after being tried by the Spanish Inquisition as suspect of heresy, he went to Paris and became a mature theology student. Once, he says in his riveting autobiography, he even crossed over to England, to beg for alms to pay for his studies. He found the English very generous. Well, why not?

The rest of Ignatius’ life was a different type of soldiering. Unbloody, spiritual, in the service of God. His masterpiece, the Spiritual Exercises show a deep insight into human psychology. Satan recruits his hapless followers on earth by ensnaring them with three lures or disvalues, each attractive to men: riches, honour and pride. Christ, by contrast, summons the righteous to poverty, also in the sense of spiritual detachment from wealth, self-denial and humility. Forgive the priest but...Sounds almost like a Christian Sufi!

Pope Francis’ prophetic insistence on prelatical poverty is right. A Jesuit Sufi, perhaps? As St Ignatius says on paragraph 344 of The Exercises, ‘the Third Council of Carthage, to which St Augustine participated, decided that the furniture of a bishop should be cheap and poor’. Insh’allah!

St Ignatius dramatic picture of the earth as a sacred battlefield between Christ and Satan rests on his faith in a gracious God who is active in history. Each person is summoned to realise the existence of an awesome conflict. Each must choose the right side and enter the combat, not by physically slaughtering the wicked – here Christ is loftier than Moses - but by summoning them to repentance and promising them God’s infinite forgiveness. The combat is primarily spiritual. Engagement under the standard of Christ requires arms of a different kind. The Apocalypse, when it comes, will not be fought by fanatics with thermonuclear or chemical weapons but by Michael and his angels, wielding the weapons of light.

As a young man, I briefly aspired to joining the Jesuits. Reading St Ignatius’ autobiography fired me up but a friendly priest discouraged me. ‘You are not cut out to be a Jesuit’ he counselled. Quite right. Unlike Ignatius, I am not tough. I am too much of a pussycat. But, under the banner of Christ, I know at least I have chosen the right side. So, I hope, have you...

Last modified on Wednesday, 20 March 2013 15:31

Frank Gelli I am an Anglican priest and cultural critic and commentator. I have BA in Philosophy, MA in Christian Ethics, MA in Islamic Studies, PGCE in Religious Education and Oxford Certificate in Theology. I have been a journalist & drama critic in Italy and England.
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