Eighty-five years ago a term entered the language that enjoyed a long vogue. In 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, a general laying siege to Madrid was asked how many columns (of troops) he had. He replied that he had four columns outside the city, but a “fifth column inside.”
He meant a secret force of sympathizers and guerillas who would aid him from within the besieged city.
From that time, the term Fifth Columnist came to mean an “enemy within,” a secretive foe hidden within a society, a country, or an organization.
In today’s Gospel we hear of the attempt by the Devil to divert Jesus from His nature and mission by means of various temptations. At every turn, the Evil One was rebuffed. We are told in Saint Luke’s account that the Devil left him “to await another opportunity.” All through the public ministry of Jesus we see Him confronted with devils, demons, false witness, slander, and finally a murderous conspiracy.
It seems that Satan never let up till his apparent victory on Good Friday which proved his undoing. At the very end of public written Revelation, Saint John, in the series of visions recorded in the Book of Revelations, or Apocalypse, describes a frustrated and enraged Satan cast out of heaven and come to earth to “wage war upon those who give witness to Jesus.” That means US, dear friends.
You see, in Jesus the Incarnate Son of God, God and Man, he could find no “fifth column” to aid him in his siege of the Man from Nazareth. He could only peer at, and study, the outward human nature of this (to him) perplexing figure; and attempt to lead Him astray by the standard temptations of power, fame, or fear.
However, in us he finds a Fifth Columnist: what Saint Paul calls “the old self” and also “the flesh.” In us, the Devil finds an ally.
In our Baptism the “stain” or presence of what is called “Original Sin” was removed. Today, we are reluctant to advert too much to this: a mistake in my opinion. Saint Paul in his own blunt language says that we are born “children of wrath.” In a mysterious way, every one born into the world inherits the “sin of Adam” that debars the unaided human soul entry into God’s Kingdom. Jesus Christ is precisely the “Redeemer” in that through His Death and Resurrection He buys us back (the root meaning of the Latin redimere) from sin and perpetual loss.
That redemption is first applied to us at our Baptism and is renewed, restored, and strengthened by all the other Sacraments we will receive in our lifetime. This personal salvation however, is not assured to us. It can be lost. We retain within our very being, not Original Sin itself, but its lingering after-effects. We are like men and women who once having suffered a heart-attack and recovered always remain “a cardiac.”
We are all sinners, even if not at the moment in any serious sin. We carry with us the damage of a sin-weakened nature: a limited and often confused intellect, a weakened will, and a mortal body. Catholic doctrine holds that while the human being is essentially good, he is prone to sin. THAT is the “fifth column” within us that the Devil finds; and tries to work with. Our defects of temperament and character.
If we are by “nature” timorous, hesitant, fearful of responsibility, he tries to fan that into moral cowardice and spiritual sloth.
If we are ebullient and sanguine, he tries to make us rash and hasty.
If we are able and self-assured, he tries to push us into pride, arrogance; sharp-tongued and contemptuous of others.
f we are passionate and hot-blooded, he tries to make us angry, loud, gluttonous, drunk, lustful, addicted to self-will and ease, and easily discouraged at failure.
There are many such examples. In Jesus our Lord he could find no such “fifth column.” In us, well, we all know the truth that best describes us. Or, do we? Few people are good at “self-knowledge.” I know I am not. How often do we hear someone rattle on about the faults of others and we listen with a sardonic smile as we think he’s really describing himself?
One of the purposes of Lent is to help us know ourselves. Our Lenten penances should ideally aim at our sins and defects as God sees them, which might be at variance with our own estimation. We might be giving up some little snack for 40 days; while we really should maybe keep our mouths shut, stay off the phone, or turn off the computer for a couple of hours a week. Let us ask the Holy Spirit for the wisdom and courage both to know ourselves and where we need change and repentance.
Let us ask the Holy Spirit for the wisdom and courage both to know ourselves and to pen up that Fifth Columnist inside.