In his monumental work The Drama of Atheist Humanism Cardinal Henri de Lubac, S.J. discusses the seminal characters in the battle to destroy the Christian underpinnings of society – Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Comte, and Marx. In the chapter entitled “The Spiritual Battle” he discusses the animus of Friedrich Nietzsche against the Christian ethos and lays out the proper approach that a faithful Christian should take against Nietzsche’s attack.
The seniors in my Christian Manhood classes read this chapter, and in our classroom discussion of the work of this preeminent Jesuit thinker I brought up the relationship between what de Lubac had to say and what St. Ignatius discusses in the Spiritual Exercises. Considering the training of de Lubac it is no surprise that the section of “The Spiritual Battle” entitled “The Battlefield” owes much to the pages of the Exercises dedicated to the Meditation on the Two Standards.
Because de Lubac is dealing specifically with Nietzsche he proposes the battlefield to be between the forces of Jesus and Dionysus rather than, as Ignatius does in his meditation, between Jesus and Satan, but the same understanding applies in both cases.
Ignatius asks his readers to imagine a battlefield where the forces of Jesus and those of Satan are lined up in opposition to each other. The “standards” mentioned in the title of this meditation are not the standards or rules by which we live, but the flags or banners under which we fight. The ultimate question asked by Ignatius is: If the battlefield is your soul, whose standard has your allegiance – that of Jesus or of Satan?
For de Lubac, the question is slightly different, but when expanded gives a more modern and clearer picture of the battle at hand. In his writings Nietzsche clearly sees Christian ethics as the approach of the weakling and loser – one that goes against the grain of the Übermensch: the Overman or Superman. The Overman lives by the rule of power, the lust to dominate (libido dominandi) and not by the Golden Rule or the Beatitudes.
The Greek god Dionysus was, for Nietzsche, the opposite of Jesus. Dionysus was the god of wine, revelry, and unbridled passions. Dionysus was the god who in the Greek tragedy The Bacchae is the cause of all of the social disorder in the Kingdom of Thebes. The end of the play shows what happens when Dionysus (also known as Bacchus) is fully unleashed. The play’s author Euripides had a clear message in mind when he had the Bacchan women – including Agave, the mother of Pentheus – tear King Pentheus limb from limb in the penultimate scene: Unleashed and unbridled passion destroys society.
In the play’s last moments the severed head of Pentheus rests in the lap of his mother Agave representing, as it were, an anti-Pieta, and she is so entranced in her Dionysian frenzy that she believes that she is holding a trophy of a lion’s head. Only when her father Cadmus asks her a second time what she is holding does her head clear and she says that she sees “the greatest grief.”
What any reader of any age can take from this play is the understanding that Dionysus is the conductor of a train without brakes, and after a frenzied ride there is a crash into the final destination, grief. Dionysian frenzy and ecstasy will always end in personal and societal destruction. Whether the battlefield be the streets of Paris in the French Revolution or the individual human soul, the Christian must always keep her or his wits about them and not devolve into a Dionysian frenzy of a lust for power controlled by the passions.
Engaging in the Meditation on the Two Standards should be a common practice in our lives even when not specifically involved in an Ignatian retreat. Seeing our souls as a battlefield helps us to understand the seriousness of what is at stake as we make our ordinary daily decisions. There are flanks where each of us is weak – maybe pride, maybe lust, maybe greed, etc. – and we must always be looking to our Leader for reinforcements – through prayer and the sacraments – so that when we look up we can see that we are still standing under the banner of Jesus.