When Darkness Surrounds Us, We Will Fight in the Shade

What does it look like to ‘fight in the shade?’ It looks like Jesus on the Cross, loving until it kills him.

Christoph Schwarz, “The Elevation of the Cross,” 1587, National Museum in Warsaw
Christoph Schwarz, “The Elevation of the Cross,” 1587, National Museum in Warsaw (photo: Wilczyński Krzysztof / Public Domain)

When the Persian army invaded Ancient Greece, the loosely associated city states banded together to fight for their homelands. When the Persian land forces came to a narrow pass at Thermopylae, a band of 300 Spartans, led by the legendary Leonidas, volunteered to fight and hold back the entire army.

As the soldiers were preparing for battle, they were told that the Persian army was so numerous that when they shot their arrows into the sky, the sheer number of them put out the sun. One of the Spartans replied, “That’s good, because then we get to fight in the shade.”

In the course of the ensuing battle, which has made its way into history and story books, that band of 300 Spartans killed so many of the enemy that they built a wall out of their dead bodies to block the pass. It was only by treachery that someone showed the Persians a secret trail around to the other side, and Leonidas and his men were defeated.

This event serves as an ancient example of courage: the willingness to die in battle in defense of a just cause. The cause in this case was the defense of their homeland. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Fortitude is properly about dangers of death occurring in battle.”

For us Christians, we recognize that there are many kinds of death, many fields of battle, and a higher cause for which we fight. Fortitude means firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good (CCC 1808).

St. Maximilian Kolbe was a Catholic priest who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. When one of his fellow prisoners escaped, 10 other men were chosen at random to be killed. One of those 10 begged to be spared since he had a wife and children. Kolbe stepped up to take his place. Those 10 men were stuffed into a bunker too small for them and were left no food or water. They began to despair and go insane from hunger, thirst and lack of air, but in the shade of that bunker, St. Maximilian Kolbe fought a battle for the salvation of their souls and the Kingdom of Heaven. He encouraged them, sang with them, prayed with them and blessed them as they died one by one until there was, in that narrow space, a pile of withered bodies ushered gently into death by a fellow prisoner. 

A new way of fighting. A new way of dying. A higher cause for which we fight. The ultimate model of all courage is the Cross. Every other courageous act in history finds its source and fulfillment in the Cross, just as every virtue is perfected at the crossroads of the horizontal beam of our world and the vertical beam of heavenly revelation.

The event of the Crucifixion was so momentous in history that the sun was blackened, and Jesus fought that battle in the shade. Instead of making a wall of the enemies’ bodies blocking their way into his homeland, he gave up his own body as the pathway through the narrow gate and into the heavenly homeland. The only thing he was given to drink was sour wine, and he promised his fellow prisoner that he would see him in paradise.

I am not a prophet or a seer or even a sage, but I have heard it said that we live in dark times. If that is true, then we will fight in the shade. 

And what does that look like? What does it look like to fight in the shade? It looks like Jesus on the Cross, our commander and our weapon, loving until it kills him. Self-sacrifice, prayer, mortification — all for the sake of Divine Charity and the Kingdom of God.

We may face times where we see no light at all. The shade overwhelms us to the point of complete darkness. Then we must truly live out what St. Paul says: we walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). 

The St. Benedict medal has the letters CSSML on the vertical beam of the cross. Those letters stand for Crux Sacra Sit Mihi Lux (“May the Holy Cross be my light”). In the shade of a fallen world, we are forced to that one light which only the eyes of faith, hope and charity can see and the courageous can put to use.