JL: What forces need to be overcome in this struggle against alienation?
BD: Well, in the classical discussion of holy warfare in the writings of the Eastern Elders of the early Church, these forces are personified as demons. Even in the New Testament Paul says that it is not against “flesh and blood” that we are struggling, but against principalities and powers of evil. But it’s not necessary to take these powers literally, in a fundamentalist way, and in fact to do so we probably would do an injustice to the early Fathers who wrote in those terms. They were no doubt as alert to the metaphorical nature of this imagery as we are, just as Buddhists have long known that the different hells in their tradition are best understood as mental or psychological states, not actual places.
JL: Can you give examples of some of these personified forces and some indication of how you might express them today?
BD: The three great forces that the Christian Elders in the Egyptian desert identified as the enemies against which we’re battling are anger, lust, and laziness. The third one is called the noonday devil. It is in the middle of everything — of a day, of a life — that you can lose your resolve, that torpor can set in. When you’re in the middle of swimming across a river, it’s too far to go back and seems too far to reach the other side, and you are tempted to give up. Well, these three elements—anger, lust, and laziness—are precisely the three ways that we can fail to be present where we are, and the whole idea of getting yourself together is to be present where you are and, in the Christian context, to respond to the presence of God.
Anger really means impatience (as opposed to the righteous anger that is desirable in many circumstances). Impatience makes us get ahead of ourselves, reaching out for something in the future and not really being content with where we are, here and now.
Lust extends much wider than the sexual sphere, and essentially means attachment to something that is not present, or is not the appropriate thing right now.
And one by-product of laziness, of being victimized by the noonday devil, is sadness — not the genuine sorrow of compassion, but the lifeless ennui of never really being involved in the present, with what’s happening.
If you would like another contemporary interpretation of the idea of spiritual warfare, there is C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters , in which he translates the tradition with great wit and insight into a modern idiom. It’s all about struggling with the forces that are all around us in the world and within us and that distract us from being really unified, in one piece.