Category: Spiritual Warfare

How Does a Martial Artist Love his Enemies as a Catholic?

Before we get into how a martial arts practitioner combines faith and love with the art, we should talk a bit about what martial arts really are. First, there is a misconception that true martial arts are Asian; however, the truth is that the term “martial arts” is a European term that refers to the “arts of mars” – the Roman god of war. Therefore any system of self-defense is a “martial art”, including one’s which use modern weapons. The Europeans in the late-Medieval and Renaissance periods created a comprehensive system of self-defense that was documented in books – some of those were written by priests and monks, and many others written lay Catholics. As with any other skill, self-defense systems can be used for good or evil depending on the person.

The next question we need to ask before dealing with our main question, is how does the Church define love? Since you, the reader, are English-speaking you realize that English uses “love” to describe many different feelings. For instance, “I love pizza” has a totally different meaning than “I love my wife”, which describes a different feeling from “I love my parent/child/sibling.” In other languages that catch-all word of love, gets translated into separate words to more accurately describe the feeling. In Greek (which is what much of the New Testament was written in) we would use Agape, Phileo, Storge, and Eros in place of the English “love.” You can find good explanations at many places on the internet, so I won’t delve into that here (this article has a short explanation). To sum it up, though, we would say:

  • “God has love (agape) for us”
  • “I love (storge) my grandfather”
  • “I love (phileo) my best friend”

With those two definitions down, we now need to explore the 5th commandment, which is typically expressed in English as “You shall not kill.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraphs 2259-2269 explores exactly what was meant by this commandment. Briefly, in Exodus 2:7, the bible says “The innocent and just person thou shalt not put to death” which is clearly a prohibition against murder and not a wider prohibition killing. The Church has always recognized a right to self-defense (both individually and as a group or country) as well as a moral obligation to protect those in your care.

Though it took some time to build up our background knowledge, we can now apply what we’ve covered to our initial question – “How does a Catholic martial artist love his enemies?” The answer seems to be clear – although we do not show eros, phileo, or storge love to our enemies, we can show agape love. The essence of agape love is an exercise of the will, causing an action where we choose to do something that is in the best interest of another. A practitioner of a martial art who steps in to stop an unjust aggressor from harming an innocent person shows that innocent person agape love. The act of protecting another, while subjecting oneself to possible harm clearly meets that agape definition. If our fictitious doer-of-good-deeds only uses the amount of force necessary to stop the attack (even if that might require deadly force), you could make the argument that agape love was shown to the attacker through restraint. However as a further action, our protector in the story could offer forgiveness to the attacker and pray for his or her conversion (once the danger of aggression has been stopped) and show an even greater example of agape love.

People who train in martial arts are typically motivated by a strong desire to protect – both themselves and others – from unjust aggression. If that desire is linked to the Catholic faith’s teaching on agape love, as well as an application of the saying from Saint Augustine “hate the sin and love the sinner” we can achieve a loving interpretation and implementation of the arts of self-defense.

The Rosary, Western Martial Arts, and “The Lord of the Rings”

I was reading an article from Br. Joseph Bernard Marie Graziano that was published on Bishop Barron’s excellent Word on Fire blog, titled “Where the Rosary appears in ‘The Lord of the Rings’” which got me to thinking about the how those things relate to what we at the Order of Lepanto are doing. In the article, the author outlines the connection between the phial containing the light of Eärendil, Lady Galadriel’s gift to Frodo, and the Holy Rosary, the Blessed Mother’s gift to us.   Just as the phial provided Frodo and Sam with light and hope, the rosary does the same for us, and both the phial and the rosary are: “terror to evil ones.”

However, the article misses an important point about the Rosary and the light of Eärendil in regards to action through faith. This critical point appears in the Bible in James 2:14-17,

“What shall it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but hath not works? Shall faith be able to save him? And if a brother or sister be naked, and want daily food: And one of you say to them: Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; yet give them not those things that are necessary for the body, what shall it profit? So faith also, if it have not works, is dead in itself.”

If you are looking for an historical example of this phenomenon, you can study the battle of Lepanto from 1571. While many will write about the power of the Rosary: the Pope had asked all of the faithful to pray the Rosary for intention of victory, the commander of the Catholic forces ordered his men to pray the Rosary on the morning of battle before the fighting began, and finally the men carried their Rosaries into the battle. Indeed, the prayers of the faithful had been heard, but without the “yes” of those men, without their dedication to fighting against evil and for good the prayers could not have been answered. That very Catholic combination of works in faith is what made the victory possible.

Interestingly enough, this point is not overlooked by Tolkien: Frodo’s use of the light of Eärendil to get Shelob to stop her attack is quite similar to prayer, but he must use his elven sword, Sting, together with the light to finally drive the spider away. The combination of faith and works, of martial spirit with prayer is what saves Frodo from this initial attack. When Frodo’s sword is used with the phial it displays “at its edges a blue fire,” symbolizing the amazing strength of prayer and action. The message to us is that the prayers of the Rosary combined with the strength a “yes” to go and physically engage evil creates a force that cannot be withstood. Shelob, though larger and more aggressive than the Hobbit, could not stand up to the incredible mixture of prayer and martial arts, fleeing from Frodo. By extension of the symbolism, Tolkien is trying to communicate to us that the malevolent people in the world cannot stand the combination of prayer and action. What happens next in the story is just as important – once Frodo realized that the immediate danger had passed, he let down his guard. This happens to us too. We turn to God in the dark times, yet as soon as the situation improves we go back to ignoring Him (sometimes not even bothering to say thank you for His help). When we turn from prayer and action too soon, or for too long, the evil that had threatened, returns. In the story Shelob sneaks into a hiding place and sets a trap. Her next attack deprives Frodo of his phial and sword – unable to pray or to defend, he is quickly defeated. How often this occurs to us. We leave our prayer life and our taken by surprise by Satan and sin. Without the protection offered by the spiritual graces, we are quickly subdued and taken. If we are lucky, we have a friend like Samwise Gamgee who will pray for us, defend us, and rescue us when we are in the deepest need.

The mission of Order of Lepanto is to create an active movement of men, who enjoy physical activity and camaraderie in a setting that is faith-building. The decisiveness and audacity required to be a good martial artist is key to getting men prepared to defend their family, the Church, and the society from spiritual threats. When these skills are combined with an active prayer life, men gain the insight and wisdom to lead their families towards God. Our goal is to get men involved and connected with each other and the Church, while building their courage and confidence so as to give glory and honor to God.

Martial Arts helps physically, mentally, AND SPIRITUALLY?

The most obvious short-term benefit of engaging in a martial art is an increased ability to defend oneself if needed. Beyond that benefit, it is fairly common knowledge that a martial arts program can help people in their physical fitness. Some of these benefits are:

  • Strengthen muscles – As a person ages muscles begin to age too, possibly causing the loss of some muscle density and strength. This is why it is important to keep muscles in use and to work on strengthening them. Martial arts activities require a person’s muscles to be in constant use, helping them to stay strong. The desire for better performance in a martial art will often drive people to begin other types of physical conditioning, resulting in a faster increase in benefits. In addition to strength, you also increase your agility, balance and flexibility.
  •  Help you lose weight – Practicing martial arts as an adult requires you to remain active, which will keep you burning the calories and losing weight. Additionally, as previously discussed, you will be building muscle mass, which will also help improve your metabolism and allow your body to burn more calories at a rapid pace.
  • Relieve stress – It’s easy for us to feel overwhelmed and stressed out. Between work, kids, and general household duties, it seems like the worries never end. The exercise and concentration involved in the practice of martial arts allows you to be able to blow off some steam and relieve some of life’s stresses in a healthy and efficient manner.

In addition the obvious physical benefits, there are mental benefits too:

  • Improve confidence – There is a definite increase in confidence for people who are comfortable using self-defense techniques from martial arts. If you ever find yourself in a dangerous situation, you will be better able to manage your emotions and not be afraid. Knowing that you have the skills necessary to protect yourself from harm will help you to be confident and act in a more effective manner, even during the most troubling of times.
  • Improve concentration – Martial arts of any kind requires great skill and concentration. Practitioners learn to act fast in order to defend against attacks. This will not only help you to improve your reflexes, but your concentration, as well. You will be required to focus with intensity on details and anticipate your opponent’s next move before they’ve even blinked.

Listed above are the usual benefits anyone can expect from any credible martial arts program, regardless of its focus. However, a well-tailored program that includes a Catholic faith-based perspective has additional benefits to your vocation and your spiritual life:

  • Deepen your faith –Our group reads, studies and discusses writings from saints and other significant, orthodox works from the Medieval and Renaissance. We are learning from the authors and from each in other about spiritual warfare and how to apply the lessons of European martial arts to that spiritual war. We also actively engage in group prayer and stress the importance of personal and family prayer time each day. In combining faith and sparring, we build a bond of brotherhood between the men in our groups. This bond allows us to offer each other fraternal correction and support from a position of trust and respect. We truly help each other to be better men.
  • Be a better husband – As a husband, you are the spiritual leader of your family. Good leadership requires courage, confidence, strength tempered by faith, wisdom, caring, and love. The martial arts that is practiced in the Order of Lepanto requires that men learn not only how to use a sword, but also how to control strikes so as not to injure your partner. The control exhibited in while being influenced by adrenaline, helps you to control yourself in other areas of life and to care about the well-being of others. The study of medieval and renaissance fighting masters and great saints increases your knowledge of the art and your faith; while working on these skills with your fellow practitioners puts that knowledge into action, forming the building blocks of wisdom. Finally, there is a concept of being “in the moment” or as the German fight masters called it “In Des” – this is the ability to take what you have learned and practiced and apply it in the 1 or 2 seconds you have to react in a sparring match (or real combat). Being able to do this will help you to better respond to the needs of your spouse, family, and faith community.
  • Be a better father – The improved physical conditioning of a student of martial arts comes in handy as a father, when pressed into to duty carrying children, their paraphernalia, or both. Your improved health and vitality will be a treasure that you can pass on to your children in habit and by your presence in their lives for as long as possible. As with being a husband the skills of caring while being strong and being able to act in the moment will be a tremendous help to you. Besides, you will love the look on the boy’s face who comes over to date your teenage daughter and you inform him that you are a full-contact sword fighter!

The participation in martial arts, while not for every man, offers great benefits to you in your physical, metal, and spiritual well-being. The Order of Lepanto is on a mission to get men involved and connected with each other and the Church, while building their courage and confidence.

Bishop issues a call to arms!

As many of us are painfully aware, there has been a lack of evangelization directed towards men. Men are not hearing what they need from the pulpit and there have been few resources to help in our faith journey. The good news is that this has been changing in recent times, The Order of Lepanto is one of the resources aiding in the shift along with many other fine Catholic men’s blogs. But for many, the call to arms from the hierarchy of the Church was a missing piece of the puzzle.

Today, I am pleased to share that Bishop Thomas Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix has started putting that piece into place. This is an amazing letter which I implore all of you to read in its entirety. However, I would also like to present you with a few excerpts:

“Men, do not hesitate to engage in the battle that is raging around you, the battle that is wounding our children and families, the battle that is distorting the dignity of both women and men. This battle is often hidden, but the battle is real.”

“One of the key reasons that the Church is faltering under the attacks of Satan is that many Catholic men have not been willing to “step into the breach” – to fill this gap that lies open and vulnerable to further attack”

This is call many men have been eagerly waiting for.

The Hard Part

The call of Bishop Olmstead is wonderful and timely. It fits what many us believe is the right course of action for re-invigorating Catholic men. But it requires action our part – if this call goes unheeded, it may be a long time until we hear it again. We need to organize local men’s groups, like the Order of Lepanto and others, to help men in this quest.

I find the title, Into the Breach, most interesting since it is of medieval origin and has a direct tie in to the Order of Lepanto. During a battle, siege weapons were used to try and knock holes (breaches) in the protective wall surrounding the castle. If a breach were to occur, the defenders would run to that area and attempt to build a human wall to replace the protection of the missing stones. We find ourselves in a similar situation today: Secular culture has laid siege to the Christian way of life and has managed to blow huge holes in it. We now need men to pour into those breaches to provide cover for our families and our faith. Instead of standing up to arrows and swords, we must now stand up to embarrassment and possible ridicule. Although the risk is great, the rewards are greater.

The priests and bishops need our help, it is time to rush to the wall and stand in the breach!

Deepening your faith through martial arts

Just as the gifts that God bestows on each person are unique, every member of the Church is called to bring those unique gifts and their varied backgrounds to the community for the betterment of all. There are gifted speakers who are engaged in apologetics, writers who excel in bringing distinctive viewpoints to age-old teachings thereby refreshing them for all, there are builders, singers, and countless others. This article, though, is about a passion and skill that does not often get equated with men of faith – martial arts. The practice of specific forms of martial arts, however, is an excellent venue to bring men closer to their faith.

 

Much has been written about a lack of men in the faith. The truth is that many men see Catholicism and Christianity as a feminine pursuit, even those who are believers. The truth, however, is strikingly different. God created masculinity just as much as He created femininity, and both must have a place in the Church. The masculine spirit thrives on challenge, adventure, and truth. We want to hear God’s teaching about the right way to do things and be personally challenged to achieve that lofty goal. The true masculinity that God has called us to is not the one where we watch sports all day on Sunday and drink beers with the guys; it is a vibrant and strong relationship where we strive to live God’s calling as spiritual leader and that of beloved son of the Almighty. While there is nothing inherently wrong with those activities, when they are pursued without regard to faith and family our lives become focused on the wrong goal. Too many men are missing from the pews today, and that is just a visible sign of the deeper problem: Too many men are absent from their roles as spiritual leader of their homes. How can we attract men back to the faith? My proposition is that a strong, faith-based martial arts program is one avenue to accomplishing this.

 

Obviously not every man is interested in martial arts, but many are and they see it as a path to self-discipline, physical fitness, and an ability to protect themselves and others from the darker parts of humanity. While those are all good goals, not every martial arts program is easily integrated with Catholicism. The eastern martial arts (Karate, Tae-kwon do, etc.) are based in eastern mysticism and spirituality which are not entirely compatible with the Christian faith. Many modern people think only of eastern martial arts, but there is a rich history of martial arts in Western Europe, too. The Europeans, with their Catholic faith, created their own martial arts which were (and still are) quite effective. This system covered the use of weapons as well as unarmed confrontations, and many parts were written down so that today, several hundred years later, we can know how many of their techniques worked. Not only are western martial arts effective and compatible with Catholicism, they actually offer the practitioner unique and valuable insights into the spiritual journey and answering the calling of men by God.

 

Effective use of the traditional European longsword bears a striking similarity to spiritual warfare. Also, the way in which we learn western martial arts parallels how we learn about the faith. In regards to learning, think about the foundations of faith in childhood. We learn to memorize our standardized prayers first: Our Father, Hail Mary, Nicene Creed, etc. These foundational prayers are the basic tools of the spiritual life. Once we can recite them from memory, we learn about the richness of their meaning and then combine them with each other to form even more powerful prayers, such as the rosary. In western martial arts, there are foundational stances and cuts that a beginning student learns. After mastering the basic moves, we combine them into drills and finally into unscripted, unique demonstrations of martial skill called flouryshes (pronounced the same as flourish). The flouryshes prepare us for sparring in much the same way that practicing our prayers help us to prepare for the spiritual battles we will all face in our lives.

At the Order of Lepanto, we stress that early and frequent sparring is necessary to building up a man’s martial skills, but it has the added benefit of preparing him for spiritual combat, too. In sparring with a sword, a man learns to face a practice version of a deadly weapon without fear, hesitation, or even blinking. (By the way, the practice version does have the ability to hurt if wielded incorrectly.) Sword fighting requires being “in the moment” or In des as described in the old fighting manuals. In the moment you must combine your skills and knowledge, applying them actively to defend and attack in such a way as to protect yourself and defeat your opponent. This is exactly what spiritual warfare is too – the difference is your opponent cannot be seen, your weapons are faith-based, and stakes are much higher if you fail too often. This defense, spiritual or martial, requires courage as well. Standing up to a sword being swung at you demands the control of fear, and standing up to a culture of death and unbelief demands the courage to face ridicule and embarrassment from the culture. But failure to act in either circumstance is disaster, either getting hit by the sword or losing your country or family to the “wickedness and snares of the devil.”

 

The skills learned in martial arts build a man’s courage, build friendships, emphasize spiritual leadership, and strengthen prayer lives. In short, they make a better Catholic man. There are plenty of excellent programs for men that use the name of Knight or the symbols of Knighthood, but only in the Order of Lepanto do you actually learn the real martial skills of the Catholic Knights.