Father Rutler is Pastor of the Church of Saint Michael in New York City. He is the author of twenty-five books and many essays, and has lectured widely at home and abroad.
The pilings on the east side of the Brooklyn Bridge are on the spot where the great Father of Our Country, having evacuated eight thousand Continental troops after their defeat in the Battle of Long Island, boarded the last small boat. In the mist, he did not seek safety until all his men had crossed the East River, earlier known as the Sound River. This was what military strategists call a “tactical withdrawal” because it would rescue victory from defeat. Even so, while unlike the desperate retreat of Napoleon from Moscow, riding in his cushioned coach past the frozen remains of thousands of his hapless troops, it was the course of desperation, not unlike the withdrawal of the ten thousand Greek mercenaries of the Persian prince Cyrus the Younger, trekking 1,500 miles until they reached the sea, and the withdrawal from Gallipoli in World War I, and the more modern rescues of Dunkirk in World War II.
There is another kind of withdrawal, a strategy called “feigned retreat.” William the Conqueror earned his nickname in 1066 by pretending to withdraw, luring the army of King Harold into a trap. Sam Houston used the strategy at the Battle of San Jacinto. Fast forward, and you have Field Marshall Rommel doing the same with the 21st Panzer Division in 1943 at the Kasserine Pass, devastating the American forces in their first foray in World War II. The American troops soon learned the enemy’s strategy, and thankfully so, otherwise we would not be in our recognizable world today.
Our Blessed Lord was not a pacifist. When he said to turn the other cheek when attacked, he was using the shrewdest kind of tactical strategy in spiritual combat against the Prince of Pride, who can only be mortally wounded by humility. While he refused a sword when he was captured, because he had come into the world to fight Satan on the Cross, he approved Peter carrying two swords should they be needed.
Saint Gregory of Nyssa knew that the most effective tactic in spiritual combat is contempt for arrogance, which appears foolish in the eyes of cynics: “People are often considered blind and useless when they make the supreme Good their aim and give themselves up to the contemplation of God, but Paul made a boast of this and proclaimed himself a fool for Christ’s sake. The reason he said, ‘We are fools for Christ’s sake,’ was that his mind was free from all earthly preoccupations. It was as though he said, ‘We are blind to the life here below because our eyes are raised towards the One who is our head.’”
Christ often withdrew into the wilderness for prayer (Luke 5:16). These retreats were not flights from defeat. They were a calculated strategy, in preparation for the final victory over sin and death.