Leo: Sermon 39.2

II. Use Lent to vanquish the enemy, and be thus preparing for Eastertide

Accordingly, dearly-beloved, that we may be able to overcome all our enemies, let us seek Divine aid by the observance of the heavenly bidding, knowing that we cannot otherwise prevail against our adversaries, unless we prevail against our own selves. For we have many encounters with our own selves: the flesh desires one thing against the spirit, and the spirit another thing against the flesh . And in this disagreement, if the desires of the body be stronger, the mind will disgracefully lose its proper dignity, and it will be most disastrous for that to serve which ought to have ruled. But if the mind, being subject to its Ruler, and delighting in gifts from above, shall have trampled under foot the allurements of earthly pleasure, and shall not have allowed sin to reign in its mortal body, reason will maintain a well-ordered supremacy, and its strongholds no strategy of spiritual wickednesses will cast down: because man has then only true peace and true freedom when the flesh is ruled by the judgment of the mind, and the mind is directed by the will of God. And although this state of preparedness, dearly-beloved, should always be maintained that our ever-watchful foes may be overcome by unceasing diligence, yet now it must be the more anxiously sought for and the more zealously cultivated when the designs of our subtle foes themselves are conducted with keener craft than ever. For knowing that the most hallowed days of Lent are now at hand, in the keeping of which all past slothfulnesses are chastised, all negligences alerted for, they direct all the force of their spite on this one thing, that they who intend to celebrate the Lord’s holy Passover may be found unclean in some matter, and that cause of offence may arise where propitiation ought to have been obtained.

Leo moves from typology to psychology and anthropology now. The key is that prevailing against our (demonic) enemies is only acheived by first prevailing over the self. The image that he moves to now is less martial—or at least less agonistic as there’s no direct combat involved—and more organizational. Leo cites Gal 5:17 bringing in the familiar dichotomy between the flesh and the spirit. We need to notice a few things about this, though:

  • Leo shifts the dichotomy. The language changes from flesh vs. spirit to flesh vs. mind (animus or mens).
  • This is not a simply equation between the physical and the spiritual (or mental). Leo doesn’t get into much “will” language here but when he says, “the flesh desires one thing against the spirit, and the spirit another thing against the flesh” the desire language lets us know that this is about the will, and not just a rejection of materiality in a shallow dualistic fashion.
  • Submission of the body (or the desires of the body) to the mind and its will are preferred. But it doesn’t—and can’t—stop there. In addition, the mind and its will must be in submission, through grace, to the will of God. Supremacy of the mind alone is not enough.

So, Leo here advocates fasting as tool to assist in the process of putting the body under submission to the rational will in order to properly order the whole person, forming a strong defense against temptation.

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5 Responses to Leo: Sermon 39.2

  1. Bryn says:

    I’ve been searching for lenten thoughts. May be this season I’ll get it.

  2. Hey Bryn! Knowing you, you’ll ask me about its Scriptural roots… :-D

  3. John-Julian, OJN says:

    You know, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the “spiritual warfare”paradigm.

    First, to me it bespeaks a kind of violent confrontation. (I’ve always thought that learning to “hate the devil” is, in the long run, learning to hate — Period) Julian says the devil should be “scorned” or (i would add) ridiculed, and that makes good sense to me.

    Secondly, to me it smacks of a mild Pelagianism (“I’ve got to fight to overcome evil” rather than “I’ve got to find a way to put this in God’s hands.”) It makes it seem that it’s all up to me to overcome sin.

    Third, I think that no matter how it is couched, lying slyly beneath the arguments is an inherent dualism. You suggest that putting it in terms of “conflicting desires” alleviates the dualism threat, but I’m not so sure it does. The “battle” is still between mind and body.

    I think a “submission” model makes much more sense to me: a submission to God and God’s will by the action of one’s own will. Of course one’s will needs “training” (i.e. Lent), and while (as Aquinas states) the human soul/mind always seeks the good, sometimes it is a matter of learning what the “good” is, and then actively willing it.

    Well, enough.

    I enjoy your weekly postings — I do love Leo, and they make me think.

  4. Good thoughts, Fr. John-Julian. I definitely agree with you on the “submission” model.

    Where I disagree is with you and Aquinas that the human soul/mind seeks the good. Perhaps it’s my Lutheran roots, but I’m deeply skeptical of the mind seeking the good without copious amounts of grace and training.

    Training, then, leads to the mild Pelagianism point. I’m with Cassian on this one. An exercise of the spiritual life must be a grace-saturated process. And yet we must respond to and work in connection—cooperation—with that freely-given grace. As Cassian said all good habits formed in us begin and end in God—but that doesn’t mean there’s no middle where we’ve got work to do!

    Point three–yes, there is an inherent dualism. I don’t deny that. I think Leo is offering a more complicated and nuanced form of dualism especially given the degree to which he rails against the Manichees in so many of his writings. In a Platonic world, though, I don’t think you’re going to escape a certain degree of dualism.

    As for point one, yes, Leo’s language is unabashedly martial—as is much of the monastic language of the first centuries. As you know it’s coming out of a long strand of Western moral philosophy securely appropriated by Paul in the NT. I find it useful because I think so many in the mainline churches are so blase about the notion of evil; I think many of our folks don’t have a sense of what real evil is. Perhaps I’ll come to a place in my life where I can “scorn” rather than “fight” but I’m just not there yet. The evil that I’ve seen and that I know is out there is real and raw enough that combat language is what makes the most sense to me.

  5. John-Julian, OJN says:

    Hey, it is a psychological reality (not just a Scholastic teaching) that everyone seeks “the good” for her/himself — that is, seeks what the self PERCEIVES to be “the good” — even a masochist sees self-inflicted pain as “good” in some kinky way.

    The challenge is in educating people or revealing to them what is the TRUE Good, rather than the transient and ephemeral.

    And, oh, I’m with Cassian……

    Well, enough.

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