“St. Paul… was not the first to speak of life as a battle, nor was he the last; but familiar and hackneyed as the metaphor has become, it is also true,” Frederick Buechner begins, in one chapter of The Magnificent Defeat.

I’m in the Redwood forest right now, breathing among trees I haven’t seen since childhood. Life doesn’t seem like a battle. Until I read further…

From “The Two Battles,” in The Magnificent Defeat:

To grow, to move, to become, is to wage war against many adversaries. Most of the time it is an undeclared war. We do not announce publicly what we are fighting for or what we are fighting against or why we think that it is worth the fight, and very often we do not know the answer to these questions ourselves; but a kind of war is nonetheless what we are all engaged in, and the history of each individual no less than the history of nations rings loud with the tumult of it – advances and retreats, truces and delaying actions, here a victory, there a defeat, all of it. Even in the silence of a church, for instance: the preacher advances, his tattered banners flying – maybe even God advances – and what do we do? Surrender? Retreat behind our shields? Launch some kind of counterattack of the heart, the mind? Who knows. But whatever we do, to live is to do battle under many different flags, and of all our battles, there are two, I believe, that are major ones.

The first is a war of conquest, which is a war to heat the blood of even the most timorous, because one way or another we all fight to conquer, and what we fight to conquer is the world. Not literally the world, perhaps, although like Walter Mitty we may dream a little in that direction sometimes; but for the most part our goal is a more realistic one: just a place in the world, a place in the sun, our place. And that takes fighting too, of course. All our lives we fight for a place in the sun- not a place in the shadows where we fear getting lost in the shadows and becoming a kind of shadow ourselves, obscure and unregarded… We fight to be visible, to move into a place in the sun, a place in the family, the community, in whatever profession we choose, a place where we can belong, where there is light enough to be recognized as a person and to keep the shadows at bay. The Germans use the word lebesnraum, room to live in…

If that is the goal of this war of conquest that we all must wage, there are also the adversaries with whom we have to wage it; and they are adversaries of flesh and blood. They are human beings like ourselves, each of whom is fighting the same war toward the same end and under a banner emblazoned with the same word that our banners bear, and that word is of course Myself, or Myself and my Family, or Myself and my Country, Myself and my Race, which are all really MYSELF writ large. It can be the most ruthless of all wars, but on the other hand it need not be. Saints and sinners fight it both. Genghis Khan fought such a war under such a banner, but so does Martin Luther King…

But there is another war that we fight, of course, all of us, and this one is not a war against flesh and blood… Then against what? What worse is there to contend against in this world than other men? “The principalities… the powers… the world rulers of this present darkness… the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places,” Paul writes. “The wiles of the devil.” This language is so foreign to modern thinking and so offensive to modern ears that when this famous passage is read at commencements and baccalaureates every year, I suspect that most people tend not really to hear it…

The other war is the war not to conquer but the war to become whole and at peace inside our skins. It is a war not of conquest now but of liberation because the object of this other war is to liberate that dimension of selfhood which has somehow become lost, that dimension of selfhood that involves the capacity to forgive and to will the good not only of the self but of all other selves. This other war is the war to become a human being. This is the goal that we are really after that God is really after. This is the goal that power, success, and security are only forlorn substitutes for. This is the victory that not all our human armor of self-confidence and wisdom and personality can win for us – not simply to be treated as human but to become at last truly human.


St. John’s Wort

Hemlock (extremely poisonous)






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