In the winter of my junior year of high school, during an early morning weigh-in for a wrestling conference, my sleep-ladened eyes caught sight of a lone sheet of paper. Located unceremoniously on a corner table was the poem “Holy Sonnet XIV” by John Donne. You’ve probably heard John Donne’s other famous works like Holy Sonnet X “Death Be Not Proud” or arguably his best known work “No Man’s an Island” (“Ask not for whom the bell tolls/ It tolls for thee”).
However, this is not the John Donne I know. I know the writer who captured my soul with lines like:
“I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end”
The poem made clear that I was a king, and my kingdom is the soul occupied by forces of sin and death. These powers close the gates of my kingdom to God, and render the people of God impoverished. Spirits so broken that even if given the opportunity to escape, I would not leave, because slavery is all I’ve ever known.
When I read this poem, I found a fire slowly kindling. I do not know the exact when, but after I set that paper back down, a cause was born in me. The very first marks of a spiritual rebellion and liberation movement took root that morning. I would fight a holy crusade, and I’ve been doing it ever since. Needless to say, I’ve had my ups and downs. Yet there is something to be said of this image, before I ended up putting it down all together.
It inspired me. I felt this was one of God’s most intimate callings to me: “Will you fight for love of me?” Wherever I was during and after that Junior year, all was a battle; all was spiritual warfare. It could not have been clearer where the lines were drawn, and how I needed to engage the enemy. Sometimes these battles were faced in the wide-open fields where nothing but the resounding booms of artillery shells echoed around us and the war cry of men and women charging to face uncertain ends. I stood aloft with fellow generals and tacticians of my own making as we ran through strategy after strategy against the dark enemy. Routing but often being routed ourselves.
There was immeasurable pride in my victories; devastating humiliation at my defeats. Eventually the enemy began to assimilate and predict my tactics. Complex militaristic strategies devolved into a disorganized guerrilla warfare. I began to retreat. What once were choices made from ideals and principles, were now reduced to crass decisions and shrewd acts for survival. I got to a point where ideals had nearly all been stripped, and I just needed to win. Losing these personal battles were more than just statistical losses. They were the slow loss of self. Those citizens of mine I was so desperately trying to save for love of God were becoming the source of my own defeats: for love of self.
This was a war I have been fighting since that day I was born, but probably more sincerely since I was seventeen. Twelve years later and I had all been reduced to a delusional leader still clinging to fantastical visions of triumphant marches and spectacular wins against a foe whose very size is every definable facet of unfathomable. Within my soul I began to realize I was losing. No, I had long since lost, I was being toyed with. I was a mouse in a game where the cat was letting me exhaust myself to death. I was in such scarcity for spiritual resources, that the very avenues of grace’s resupply lines where woefully under managed. I could not feed the very elements I needed to fight for me. I was defecting. One by one, I began to humor the notion of slavery. How easy the life, how prosperous those who dwell in the state. These grumblings were the undermining tactics of my occupier that nearly ruined me. Yet softer than the sabotaging whispers of the slaver, were the rumors of aid that was to come.
If I’ve lost you in the rather imaginative recounting, all I mean to say is my struggle for holiness was a constant internal battle. As I am, no doubt it is for everyone whoever takes up the mantle. However, this past year, during one of my confessions, a priest addressed me as a soldier engaging in warfare with the enemy. He spoke of tactics and strategy, and I felt the affirmation of this mental image renewed and strengthened as I continued to translate my real life actions into metaphorical martial endeavors. The priest had no idea who I was, the imagery was serendipitous at worst. This lasted for a while, a minor victory here, a major defeat there, until January 5th, 2019 when I negotiated the terms of my surrender.
You would think the call of God to each of us is an undeniable, irrevocable one. When God called me to fight, I never imagined it would be against any other enemy than the devil. It stands to reason that there is only one way to fight the powers of darkness, inspire the broken-spirited people into rising up through example, and to usurp the occupied city of God so as to swing wide the doors and allow the true King of Kings his rightful place on the throne. What in that first meeting did I not understand? Apparently everything, because January 5th I went to a confession that changed my life forever.
We all know what happens in confession. I go before a priest, I confess my sins, I receive absolution, and move on, hopefully for the better. However, in my mind, my confession went more like this:
Word had just been received of the Lord awaiting me outside the city walls. We had organized a route through one of our many tunnels and secret passage ways to smuggle me out of the city. In this latter end of days, the occupation had been on high alert, and the people were offered exorbitant rewards to turn in my comrades and me. I felt horrible putting them in such a dire situation between the choice of my life and their own. For this reason, I had entirely ceased recruitment and worked with only the very little I had left. I was set to meet with the Lord later that evening in a cove just outside the city wall.
Getting out was easy and finding the meeting place was not difficult. I had been told to come alone, and seeing how he was the one who commissioned me on this quest, I would not disobey even the slightest of conditions to see him. I waited for a few moments before I realized he had been standing there the whole time. He was cloaked in night and nothing of him was visible save the shadow of a hand that was darker than the surrounding area. Though I knelt he bid me rise.
“Lord, you know I am overwhelmed. I have had faith in your great directive to free your people, but I find myself before the very valley of death itself. I have no one to fight alongside me, no supplies to arm those who will, and we have been routed and forced to live in hiding. I do not know how much more I can take before the enemy finds us and scatters us like dust.” He stood there silently, patient as the stars in the sky reflecting off his robe. “Lord, please, instruct me. All that I’ve tried has been ruin and failure. I cannot do this alone. What would you have me do?”
“Surrender,” was what he said.
“What?!” the exclamation rang of every existential danger I could ever conceive, “How could you ask that of me? What of the time? The sacrifice?! You would have me throw all of that away?! And surrender?!”
“Surrender,” was his echo and nothing more. This was the lowest point in all my life. To give up my ways, my strategies, my efforts. To give up this warfare I could not have considered more noble. The very one who called me to fight was now calling me to surrender. And what was I to do? I returned to my fellow fighters where I shared with them my revelation. They were as I was: frustrated, woeful, distraught, but above all, tired. If this was the command of the Lord, then we would die God’s good servants.
At first light, we walked out to the town square, and were arrested on the spot. We were not even given due process. Because we had admitted to our crimes openly, our execution was to be there and then. Kneeling us before a gathering crowd, I was given the superficial formality of last words before the dispirited people I had been trying so hard to liberate. Looking into their faces I could not see a shred of empathy; not a drop of lament.
“I am sorry,” voice cracking, “how could I impress onto your hearts what was not impressed on mine? I sent soldiers to die in my war against an enemy who has long since become a slaughterer of hopes and dreams not unlike my own. I tried to convince you to join a cause, when you can hardly join the cause of your daily living. Freedom is not something I can give you. I realize that now. If you so desire a change, find it within you to want it. As for me I surrender. Do with me what you will. It does not matter now.”
The cowls went over the heads, a heavy hand forced me to my knees, and I could hear the uniformed steps of the firing squad lining up. A first one softer, milder pair of steps drew near, but then several, until the gentle shuffling sound of moving bodies began to flank my every surrounding area. I felt the tight press of a multitude surround me.
“Get out of the way,” the voice seemed so muffled and so far away.
“No,” this one was right in front of me.
It lasted for what seemed like forever, until my cowl was removed, and there in front of me were the faces of countless citizens, eyes livened, and face smiling as the officers were seen rounding an alleyway corner and quickly out of sight. Their eyes were brimming with tears, and a dialogue between us of thanks and understanding spread throughout the people of this place. I did not have a grasp of what had happened, but as I was lifted from off my knees and freed from my bondage, I saw a man, a ways off amid the crowd, hooded and concealed, smiling proudly at what perhaps is my greatest victory.
It’s a strange thing, this gift of imaginative prayer my Lord has deigned me worthy to have. Because it wasn’t until a couple of nights ago when my friends and I were watching The Incredibles 2 again that I realized what exactly had happened to me more than a month ago:
“You want out of the hole? First you gotta put down the shovel.” -Agent Rick Dicker
I laughed quietly at how obvious this revelation was. How much time could I have saved if I simply took to heart the words my savior uttered, “Not my will Lord, but yours be done”? How much more successful would I be if I simply surrendered my ways to God’s more effective ones.
It will take time to recover and repair the damage of my own ill fought spiritual warfare, but I’ve long since stopped fighting.