THE MOTIF of the Christian mission expressed by the figure of a soldier may be found throughout the New Testament, as well as in the prayers and life of the Orthodox Church, as well as outside of it. The social service organization, the Salvation Army, is built on the theme. Kierkegaard calls his peacemaker, who resolves to bring peace to the conflict or paradox of faith and impossibility, a “Knight of faith.”
The imagery calls upon the discipline and tools of earthly soldiers, who manifest a spirit of single-minded seriousness and sobriety. In Orthodox baptism, we are not only brought forth from darkness into light, passing over from the tomb to the womb (per St. Cyril of Jerusalem), but we are also enlisted as soldiers of Christ. We are called, as St. Paul writes to his spiritual son, Timothy, to fight the good fight of faith. St John Chrysostom notes that the war the Christian soldier fights is a spiritual one, against an enemy that is not made of flesh and blood. It seems to me that there are mainly three battles in which we engage as peacemaking soldiers: we engage in battle against our passions, we wrestle with God, and we war against demonic powers.
In the eastern churches, we have the image of a soldier in the person of St. George, who is known for slaying a dragon. In the western literary canon, there is an archetypical symbol of warfare in the knight Parsifal, who also battles dragons.
The story of Parsifal is part of the epic Grail myth, and a first reading of it comes across somewhat like a situation comedy. Parsifal is a sort of holy fool in King Arthur’s court, a Knight who grows from extreme naivety to acts of heroism. As a child, his mother is intensely overprotective, and does not allow him to know anything about the world to such a degree that when he first comes across knights in their shiny armor, he believes they are angels. He is instantly attracted to them, and resolves almost immediately to become a knight himself, much to his mother’s heartbreak and chagrin.
One of the key factors to consider regarding the story of Parsifal’s journey to knighthood, whereupon he must conquer knights and slay dragons, is that according to some of the interpreters of the story, he never kills other human beings, with one exception, the red knight. This leads some to suggest that the story serves as a morality tale about an interior fight within the psyche, and that the dragons Parsifal slays represents interior complexes that either cause him to stagnate or to regress – tendencies that prevent him from ever having any hope of becoming a true knight and a whole man.
The soldier or knight of faith typified by Parisfal therefore isn’t someone who does battle with conventional weapons of war, whose arena is geopolitical and whose enemy is another soldier like him but working for another state. Rather, the weapons are spiritual, the arena is the human heart, and the enemy is comprised of his own hidden impulses, fears, and passions.
According to the psychologist Robert Johnson, when Parsifal fights dragons he is battling against his own complexes,
particularly his desire to regress into the safety of the protection his mother once offered. One might see in this the symbolic warfare we are called to as Christians against cowardice, regression, the need for safety, and especially against fear, which is the enemy of peace. We need to fight against fear and the cowardice it enables in us if we have the tendency to conflate comfort and peace, which is a common deception. We want to be comfortable, secure, our cultural responsibilities taken care of, and if we reach that plateau, we might think of the resultant satisfaction as a peaceful one. But the role of the peacemaker is not necessarily to make others feel comfortable if it is at the expense of a deeper conflict.
There are times when we may be tempted to believe the lie that ignorance is bliss, and in affluent cultures we have huge media outlets which are built upon an economy of advertising that wants us to believe that very notion, and is keyed to keeping us ignorant, satiated and always wanting more. We all buy into it, especially me. Peace must be devoted to truth, and it takes courage to slay dragons when they rage inside us and represent in us the things to which we cling when we are filled with fear, insecurity, cowardice and alienation. The peacemaker as a soldier of Christ fights the battle against interior dragons, and begins to experience true, authentic peace when they are slain.
This may also speak to a type of spiritual violence that has more in common with being in boot camp, or with the daily discipline of the soldier…wrestling with God on a way parallel to the manner in which Abraham wrestled an angel. We seek our spiritual blessings from God in prayer with an effort and commitment that resembles the work of an intense fight, and in the end, God changes us. He injures us, or exposes our wound, so that we may be healed. If we repress our doubts, we may become victims to false certainties. If we hide, we cannot be rescued. If there are no symptoms of the disease, it may progress, hidden, until death overcomes us. The poet, Rilke, composed the following poem which indirectly speaks to me about this aspect of our relationship with God, titled, “The Man Watching”:
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can't bear without a friend,
I can't love without a sister
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestler of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler's sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
It’s good for me and encouraging to remind myself that wrestling in prayer, wrestling with poverty, wrestling to be meek, wrestling to mourn, wrestling with the hunger and with the thirst for righteousness, and with mercy, purity of heart and with peacemaking, is a transformative fight, It is the fight of a soldier, as per St. Paul.
And as in the Rilke poem, my own failures, or those things that we see as weaknesses (such as poverty or meekness) in Christ and through the grace of God are transformed into the blessings that Jesus describes, whereas the small fights which my ego, or selfish ambitions, or small comforts, wins, are small victories that reduce me to their miniscule level. Who is the victor, the aggressive person who is agile at feats of one-upmanship, and who always gets what he wants? Or the person who loses because he does not play the game, but whose heart is single and full of virtue?
This interior combat – striving for God and in a sense wrestling with God, as well as fighting against my own passions and proclivities, is the meaning of asceticism. Being a true peacemaker therefore has to do with being at peace within ourselves, which is a peace that can only come from communion with God.
Eric Simpson is a peace activist and author of The Way of the Peacemaker