General Patton and Spiritual Warfare

On June 6, 1944, General George S. Patton took time away from training the Third Army for the battles that would follow the invasion at Normandy to write his twenty-year-old son, George Jr., a student at West Point (you can read the letter here). Reflecting on a soldier’s fear before going into battle he offers the following for his son’s consideration:

All men are timid on entering any fight; whether it is the first fight or the last fight all of us are timid. Cowards are those who let their timidity get the better of their manhood. You will never do that because of your blood lines on both sides. I think I have told you the story of Marshall Touraine who fought under Louis XIV. On the morning of one of his last battles—he had been fighting for forty years—he was mounting his horse when a young ADC [aide-de-camp] who had just come from the court and had never missed a meal or heard a hostile shot said: “M. de Touraine it amazes me that a man of your supposed courage should permit his knees to tremble as he walks out to mount.” Touraine replied “My lord duke I admit that my knees do tremble but should they know where I shall this day take them they would shake even more.” That is it. Your knees may shake but they will always take you towards the enemy. Well so much for that.

There are certainly many differences between the work of an army general and a spiritual father, they share a common trait. Like the general, the spiritual father is responsible for leading otherwise ordinary men and women into combat. While the fight is sometimes physical, it is always (as it is for the soldier) spiritual.  “To win battles you do not beat weapons–you beat the … enemy” Patton the general reminds his son. As in physical warfare, the spiritual coward in is not the one who is timid or filled with fear but the one who allows fear to cause him to betray his obligation to Christ.

Among some Christians it is considered in bad taste to speak about the spiritual life in terms drawn from warfare.  Even for those of us who do not reject the use of frankly marshal language there is a temptation to soften the edges of spiritual conflict, to help others (or ourselves!) avoid the wounds that must inevitably be inflicted upon the souls (and sometimes even the bodies) of those who would follow Christ and not mere, human will.

None of this is to say that we will be free from the icy grip of fear, the red heat of anger, or the paralysis of despair and indecision. There will be times in our spiritual lives when, like the soldier, we advance against the enemy of souls on shaking knees, But we can do this if we draw our strength not for ourselves but from Christ.

It is here that the work of the spiritual father, the priest and the bishop, becomes most important; his task is to point the us again and again to Christ. “Soldiers, all men in fact,” Patton writes “are natural hero worshipers.” We have a desire to follow those who are greater than ourselves. “Officers with a flare for command realize this and emphasize in their conduct, dress and deportment the qualities they seek to produce in their men.” Likewise for the spiritual father, all that he does must be concerned with inspiring in others a deep and abiding love and fidelity not to himself but to Christ.

There is no better summary of spiritual fatherhood than Paul’s words. “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” St Paul writes (1 Corinthians 11:1). This imitation is critical not simply to help us cultivate divine mercy and a generous spirit of forgiveness but also the same courage that allowed Christ to ascend the Cross to do battle with the enemy souls. ithout a solider’s courage, our preaching of mercy and forgiveness is weak and lacks the power to liberate the soul from sin and to transform death into life.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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