Waging War

Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?
Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?
You covet but do not possess.
You kill and envy but you cannot obtain;
you fight and wage war.
You do not possess because you do not ask.
You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly,
to spend it on your passions.
James 4:1-3
This verse reminds me of a scene from Jane Eyre in which Rochester compares Jane to a bird in a cage that he can’t reach. Because he is already married, and therefore cannot enter into a valid, virtuous marriage with her, she refuses to stay with him and withdraws all external displays of her affections. So though Rochester is still burning with some mixture of love/lust for Jane, he cannot reach what he really values–her virtuous heart, which is no longer his.

I look back at that novel and think about how the critical hinge of the plot would be so foreign to many people today. And that brings us back to James, who prophetically proclaims that the reason we are in conflict with one another is that we are in conflict with ourselves, reaching for things that will not satisfy us even though, on some deep level, we know they won’t. Only the virtuous and pure will ultimately fulfill us. Are the things we ask for in prayer things that are for our good, or do we ask for more things to “spend on our passions”? Do we ask for things that will increase our glory or God’s? And do we know the difference?

This is why we need frequent confession and penance to train our bodies and passions, which are always ready to jump to war. “If you get rid of the fuel,” one priest once told me, “you can’t start a fire.” Similarly if we humble our pride through penance (some voluntary, but, I’m sure, some involuntary–but which can be offered up!), the evil one is left with less to work with.

Over the next week if you attend daily Mass you will hear more of the wisdom of James–I invite you to listen (or read the short book on your own), because it’s packed with so much advice for daily living!

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