Broken Windows and Spiritual Warfare: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

We’re starting yet again another Lenten season.  The streets of New Orléans (and doubtless other cities which go out for Mardi Gras and Carnival in a big way) are full of trash but quiet.  If you’re not Roman Catholic and on fast and abstinence, it’s a great time to eat in the French Quarter.

But it’s a great time for everyone–the January “Daniel Fast” types notwithstanding–to stop and think penitentially about their spiritual state.  It’s the time when we consider Our Lord’s own forty-day visit to the desert and how Satan came to call with his own agenda, which was frustrated then and certainly on Calvary and the empty tomb.

There is a lot of stuff out there on spiritual warfare, how to wage it and how to win it.  I don’t spend a lot of time on the subject, but when I do I turn to another realm I deal with a lot here: politics.

The 1960’s saw, among other things, a skyrocketing in the crime rate, especially in the urban areas of the United States.  Boomers who grew up in the sticks wistfully speak of a time when they could live in their houses with the doors unlocked.  Having grown up in South Florida, I wonder what country these people came from.  The high crime rate came in part with migration from Northern cities where it was also high, as New York proved when the lights went out in 1977.

In the early 1990’s even New Yorkers had their canful of the high crime rate.  Into this situation stepped Rudy Giuliani, who along with his police Commissioner Bill Bratton aggressively pursued the “broken windows” policy.  The idea behind this was simple: if you cracked down on petty crime such as the squeegee masters, graffiti, etc., you would make it clear to everyone that crime wasn’t tolerated and the rate would drop.  It worked: crime fell throughout the 1990’s and into the new millennium, and New York became a safer city to work in and a better place to visit, as my wife and I found out in 2006.  (My guess is that the current mayor will undo a lot of this, with a resulting rise in the crime rate to be expected).

The same principle works with spiritual crime: take care with the small things the Enemy puts in front of you, and chances are the big stuff won’t be a problem.  As St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out in Summa Theologiae, 3 q.41 a. 4 (emphases and bullets mine):

The temptation which comes from the enemy takes the form of a suggestion, as Gregory says (Hom. xvi in Evang.). Now a suggestion cannot be made to everybody in the same way; it must arise from those things towards which each one has an inclination. Consequently the devil does not straight away tempt the spiritual man to grave sins, but he begins with lighter sins, so as gradually to lead him to those of greater magnitude. Wherefore Gregory (Moral. xxxi), expounding Job 39:25, “He smelleth the battle afar off, the encouraging of the captains and the shouting of the army,” says: “The captains are fittingly described as encouraging, and the army as shouting. Because vices begin by insinuating themselves into the mind under some specious pretext: then they come on the mind in such numbers as to drag it into all sorts of folly, deafening it with their bestial clamor.”

Thus, too, did the devil set about the temptation of the first man.

  1. For at first he enticed his mind to consent to the eating of the forbidden fruit, saying (Genesis 3:1): “Why hath God commanded you that you should not eat of every tree of paradise?”
  2. Secondly [he tempted him] to vainglory by saying: “Your eyes shall be opened.”
  3. Thirdly, he led the temptation to the extreme height of pride, saying: “You shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”

This same order did he observe in tempting Christ.

  1. For at first he tempted Him to that which men desire, however spiritual they may be–namely, the support of the corporeal nature by food.
  2. Secondly, he advanced to that matter in which spiritual men are sometimes found wanting, inasmuch as they do certain things for show, which pertains to vainglory.
  3. Thirdly, he led the temptation on to that in which no spiritual men, but only carnal men, have a part–namely, to desire worldly riches and fame, to the extent of holding God in contempt. And so in the first two temptations he said: “If Thou be the Son of God“; but not in the third, which is inapplicable to spiritual men, who are sons of God by adoption, whereas it does apply to the two preceding temptations.

And Christ resisted these temptations by quoting the authority of the Law, not by enforcing His power, “so as to give more honor to His human nature and a greater punishment to His adversary, since the foe of the human race was vanquished, not as by God, but as by man“; as Pope Leo says (Serm. 1, De Quadrag. 3).

In the case of Our Lord, Satan was beaten from the start, so no matter what level he went to he hit the wall.  But in the beginning it was not so: man gave into the first temptation and things went downhill from there.

If we want victory in life and spiritual warfare, we must resist the small things lest we then graduate to the larger ones.  Remember, “the devil is in the details.”

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