I wear a ring that has some runic letters engraved on it. Rune is the written language of the ancient Germanic people (today the indigenous people of the U.K., Scandinavia, Iceland, Germany and Austria). The Vikings continued to use it until fairly recently in Old Norse, so its usually associated with them, but it actually has connections to all the ancient Germanic tribes. The writing on the ring reads in Old Norse “skáldskapr í bardagar er” which roughly translates into modern English as “poetry in battle is” or “poetry is in battle.” I don’t speak Old Norse, but I’ve been told the translation is rough and the writing itself tends to jump between different runic character sets, but it doesn’t really matter to me. It’s a symbol of my Germanic heritage, particularly the Anglo-Scandinavian side, and the writing is a constant reminder about something very important in my life. While the saying is probably representative of some ancient Nordic battle cry, I tend to take it in more of a spiritual way. To me, the battle my ring speaks of is spiritual warfare.
If you’re a Christian, you’re going to be engaged in spiritual warfare. Most basically, this involves the fight against sin in our own lives, but it also can have a broader aspect. It could also be the fight to preserve one’s faith in difficult situations. Or the fight to preserve the faith of family, spouses, children and friends. Sometimes spiritual battle erupts into the public square, particularly on hot-button issues like abortion, same-sex “marriage,” and religious freedom. Sometimes the battle is within the Church itself, manifesting in Church politics, such as fighting the influence of corrupt churchmen, or the spread of false doctrine. The point here is that spiritual warfare is real, and if you know anything about Church history, you are aware that there have been times when spiritual battle erupted into real physical wars, wherein people bled and died for the cause they were fighting for.
Thankfully, in early 21st-century America, we don’t have to worry about spilling our blood in the streets for our religious convictions — well, not yet anyway. I can’t predict the future, and I have no idea what the future holds for the next generation, but I feel pretty confident that my generation of Americans need not worry about religious bloodshed. I can’t say the same for my generation of Europeans. They may soon find themselves in a fight for their lives over the increasing push for Islamic, Shariah Law in places like Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany and parts of Britain.
Here in America, however, the fight is mainly to preserve our faith in the face of so much temptation, whether it be temptation to sin, or temptation to doubt and give up the fight.
In recent weeks, many of us have struggled to preserve our faith. We have discovered, shockingly, that the Church we thought ourselves to be members of, doesn’t really exist in the way we thought it did, and that it hasn’t existed that way in a couple generations. Often when we think of the Catholic Church, we think of the faith that came to us from the 1940s and 50s. We think of a Church built on that foundation, and a Church wherein our leaders exhibit an example of chastity we should aspire toward. That doesn’t exist. We have discovered, much to our horror, that the Church that really exists is a divided Church, between godly men and perverts, wherein the perverts and their protectors have been in control for a very long time, keeping the godly men down.
We may have known that something was amiss in the Church for a while. Indeed, if Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre didn’t remind us of that every second of his society’s irregular status with Rome, then we’ve been out to lunch. Something is terribly wrong in the eternal city, and that manifests itself in the form of liturgical abuse, doctrinal corruption, and now as we have seen, moral decay.
In the midst of all this, the greatest danger has been to our faith. As a convert, living in an area where Catholics make up less than 11% of the local population, I am constantly reminded that I am a convert, and I am constantly faced with the question of “why?” That question comes from local Baptists, Pentecostals, friends, neighbors, strangers, family, and yes, even myself. Why did I become Catholic? Why do I remain Catholic? This last weekend, the question was asked of me point-blank: “Why would you want to remain associated with an organization like that Shane?” It was a sincere question, asked by a sincere man, who had no interest in converting me to his ideology. He was an atheist, and he sincerely didn’t understand why I don’t just leave the corrupt Catholic Church and go to a Baptist or Pentecostal church of some kind. I tried to use his question as an opportunity to explain the difference and witness to the truth of Christ and his Catholic Church. I hope I was at least a marginally successful witness. Nevertheless, my entire answer had to be filled with acknowledgements that evil men had taken over the Church, and were perverting it in unspeakable ways. I have to admit, that’s not a very strong witness, but it is the truth, and I believe in giving people the truth. I don’t like to sugar-coat things.
The following day was rough for me, I can’t tell you why. It just was. I was driving around Springfield, Missouri with the overwhelming urge to go pray in an Anglican chapel. I used to be Anglican, so that’s why. I can’t explain it, except to say that I think I was looking for some kind of comfort and familiarity — a connection with my past — before the days of sex scandals and a bad pope. I resisted the urge, reminding myself that the chapel may be familiar, but our Eucharistic Lord is not there. I pulled into the Anglican Church’s parking lot, then turned around and drove out. This little indecisiveness, this erratic driving, this U-turn in the parking lot, all of it was a physical manifestation of the inner conflict, the doubt, the correction, the spiritual warfare. Thankfully, I overcame it. I stopped by a Catholic chapel instead, and prayed before the blessed sacrament. I have to say, this sort of conflict has been going on with me for weeks now. Each time the doubt comes more powerfully, and each time, by divine grace, I am able to put it away. If that’s what’s going on inside of me, I can only imagine what some of you might be going through.
I’m not alone in this struggle. Others in my family are dealing with the same thing. We are in a battle, a real battle, and it’s a battle for the very life of our Catholic faith. This doubt is brought upon us not by the world, nor by Christians of Protestant denominations, but rather by our own churchmen: our priests, bishops, cardinals, and yes, even our pope. My wife reminded me recently, we cannot place our faith in men. She’s right. Only Christ is worthy of our faith. For years now I’ve been saying that Pope Francis has done one positive thing for me. He’s chased out all trace of ultramontanism from my heart. Perhaps in the wake of the John Paul II and Benedict XVI papacies, I came to place too much trust in the office of the papacy itself. Perhaps I came to think of it as more than what Christ intended. After all, even Peter himself, in the face of our Lord’s passion, committed apostasy three times!
Poetry is in battle. There is something beautiful in fighting. Perhaps you’ve seen it in the martial arts. I’ve seen it when my son would work the fencing strip. There is a certain beauty just to the fight itself, a certain art, a kind of poetry in motion. Skáldskapr í bardagar er. This old Nordic saying means something special to me, and I have a long history of fighting I won’t go into here, except to say that each time I fought (whether physically, verbally, emotionally or spiritually), whether I won or lost, I would get a little stronger, a little wiser and a little more prepared for next time. Spiritual warfare is no different. It’s no different for me, and it’s no different for you. We all struggle to preserve ourselves from sin, and when we fall, we struggle to get back up, go to confession and right the wrong. Lately, we’ve all been struggling with our faith. If you say you haven’t been, you’re a liar. How could you not be struggling in the face of everything that’s been happening over the last few weeks? Unless you’ve kept your head buried under a rock! It’s okay. You can struggle, and you can admit it. I just have — publicly. You don’t have to do that, but you can admit it privately, to yourself and to God. It’s okay. You’re allowed to struggle. You’re allowed to have doubts. What you’re not allowed to do is give into them. Because you see, whether you win or lose the fight, there is a certain beauty in battle. There is a certain poetry that is found in any man willing to fight for what he believes in.
When we choose to fight, there are also consequences. I think of Cardinal Burke, who has lost his position at the Apostolic Signatura, only to be placed back in the court years later as a subordinate, all because he dared to challenge Pope Francis on the apparent error contained in Amoris Laetitia. I think of Cardinal Muller, who lost his position at the CDF, all because he dared to challenge Pope Francis on his handling of sexual deviants within the clergy. I think of a dear priest friend, who lost his position as pastor for daring to stand up for his parish against a tyrannical bishop. All three of them were derided by their enemies, and scorned for daring to do the right thing. It’s all part of the game. When you fight for what you believe in, you better be prepared to make some sacrifices. But again, in making those sacrifices, there is a certain kind of beauty, a certain poetry in motion. It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose. Winning would be nice, and we all hope for victory, but sometimes we aren’t the generation to see it. Sometimes, especially during these long conflicts that span decades, the parents make the sacrifices and die in public shame, while the children and grandchildren reap the benefits. The victory is pleasant, but the beauty was in the battle itself. Nobody goes to an action movie just to watch a bunch of characters reap the benefits of victory. People go to an action cinema to watch the battle itself, with all its grit and misery, knowing the victory comes later at the end of the film. Sometimes the hero lives to see the victory and reap the benefits. Sometimes he doesn’t, and sacrifices himself for the cause. In all of it there is a certain beauty, a certain poetry, or else we wouldn’t pay good money to see it.
So my message is to encourage you to fight for your faith. Do battle for what you believe in. Only then can we really know what kind of metal we’re made of. It’s easy to run away from the fight. It’s easy for a convert like me to revert back into what he was before. Its easy for a cradle Catholic to just give up and walk away from the Church. But there is no reward for cowards. There is no reward for those unwilling to fight. They may have peace, but they will have it at the expense of their honor. Catholics are born for combat. If we’re not fighting spiritual battles within our own Church, then we’re fighting spiritual battles with the forces of the world. Like it or not, every baptized Catholic is a warrior for the faith. We can accept it, learn what the real faith is, and fight for it. Or we can reject it, have a lukewarm experience within the Church, then walk away when the going gets tough. However, the glory of battle only belongs to those who stay and fight.
As the Old Norse saying goes “skáldskapr í bardagar er” or “poetry is in battle.” When it comes to spiritual warfare, if you’re willing to engage in the fight, something beautiful can come out of it. Perhaps you will conquer some sin that has plagued your life. Perhaps you might grow in faith. Perhaps you might become a better person. Maybe, just maybe, you may influence the life of another in some positive way. Possibly, dare we to imagine, we might become an inspiration to others. We may live to see the victory, or maybe we won’t. It doesn’t matter. Our names may shine as great war heroes while the battle rages, or maybe they will be marred in shame until some future generation honors them. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the battle itself, and our willingness to participate in it. Skáldskapr í bardagar er. Poetry is in battle.