Why You’re a Soldier for Christ (With the World as Your Trench)

Why You’re a Soldier for Christ (With the World as Your Trench)

Are you a monk? No? Are you a U.S. Marine? 

Most of you will arch an eyebrow and say, “Of course not! Do I look like one?!” 

Well, me neither. I’m just a wife and mother, sitting on a sofa (I call it “the Archetypal Sofa”) surrounded by scribbled notebook paper. Across from me is a piano bedecked with flowers, a St. Michael statue, a Fatima statue, a lit candle—and a large crucifix on the wall. 

No one would mistake me for a monk or a Marine. Yet I am a veteran of domestic wars, countless battles, wounds of the heart. I have acted the office of judge, canon lawyer, mediator. 

“He who lives by the sword shall be spanked by the sword!”

A certain mom driving a 15-passenger van and wielding a blunt toy sword in the general direction of scuffling sons somewhere in the backseat

Mainly, I’ve pondered many things, and often experienced a sense of a failure in my vocation. Overall, I experience joy and gratitude for my husband and our kids. 

I am just one of countless members of the Domestic Church. 

Young Adoration by Cornelia Elisabeth Gallas
Young Adoration by Cornelia Elisabeth Gallas

In my “young mom” years, I was blessed with several friends who were fellow warriors in the Trenches of the Domestic Wars—so we called it, with laughter, and sometimes tears. 

We often felt like Martha because we desired to be like Mary. We are all familiar with the story of Martha and Mary and dinner with Jesus. Martha wages domestic hospitality; her sister sits in idleness at the feet of Christ. 

We readily understand Martha’s complaint that Mary is not helping her; at the same time, we wish that we, too, could be close to Jesus, hearing His voice and absorbing His words. 

Why is it that we think in terms of “either/or” and not “both/and”? St. Teresa of Avila said that we need to learn how to be Mary and Martha, the one serving the other. 

Mary, Martha, Soldier, Nun

Soldier praying the Rosary

I’ve been pondering a concrete example. It’s this: in our family, we have the privilege and blessing to have a nun-daughter and a Marine-son. 

While these identities may appear to be Mary vs. Martha and spiritual vs. active, I’ve learned that it’s a both/and. Both the nun and the soldier require the dispositions of Mary and the work of Martha.

When our Marine was presented to us at his graduation ceremony, he had been transformed from a good-but-rather-lazy kid into a confident young man who had gone through the Crucible with his brother Marines. 

And although we were not privy to the interior battles our daughter fought in the religious life, we saw and experienced her joy when she became a Bride of Christ at her Solemn Profession. 

Nuns: Tough as Marines?

Carmelite nuns
Photo: CNS photo/Sean Gallagher, The Criterion

Our Carmelite daughter left home at the age of eighteen. Our two oldest kids were away at college at the time, but she was the first of our kids to truly leave home. We were invited by the nuns to witness her entrance ceremony at the monastery. This very brief ceremony would take place after morning Mass. 

However, due to our particular circumstances, we could not accompany our daughter as she entered religious life. We sent her alone by plane with the clothes on her back after a family goodbye at home. 

It seemed appropriate, somehow, that she made that pilgrimage on her own. She was answering an interior call. 

Only later did we learn how very unusual it was for a family to do what we did. 

In fact, when a second daughter entered that monastery in the same way, one of the nuns commented, “The Cunninghams are like Marines.”

I guess we appeared emotionally “tough”—sending our daughters off to the monastery by themselves rather than accompanying them with great emotion, as normal families did! “The Cunningham Marines.”

Little did we know that the Marine Corps was coming for us. 

Marines in the Vietnam War

Boot Camp: Almost Like Life in a Big Family…

Our youngest son decided to take time off from college because he just had to be a U.S. Marine. I wondered at this particular son making the decision to join the Marines. He’s on the smaller side and has a naturally gentle disposition. I admit, before he went I asked him if he met the minimum-height requirement. “Yep!” he replied. “The little wiry guys like me come in pretty handy.”  

His Dad and I and our youngest three delivered him to the local Marine recruiting center on the day of his departure for Boot Camp at Parris Island. 

There were a few other recruits there with crying moms. We were pretty brief as we hugged him goodbye. Future deployments would be the real goodbye test for me as a mom. 

Boot camp, though? Shouting drill sergeants, hours in the terrible place that Marines called “the Sandbox,” scrubbing tiled floors with toothbrushes? Heck, sounds like a typical day at our house!

Truthfully, I was choked up a bit, but we had already experienced the bittersweetness of kids growing up and wanting to do great things.   

The Similarities Between Nuns and Soldiers

Soldier engaged in earthly warfare
Earthly warfare.
Carmelite nun, spiritual warfare
Spiritual warfare.

Our exhausted, grimy, limping son shed unabashed tears when the Eagle Globe and Anchor insignia was placed in his hands at dawn on a humid South Carolina morning. 

When he later summarized his experience on Parris Island, it struck me that boot camp has a very real, arduous counterpart in the postulancy and novitiate of the religious life. 

Here are some spiritual lessons I learned from our son’s boot camp and our daughter’s monastic formation:       

  • Personal liberty is set aside, in order to serve souls we will never know in this life.  
  • The use of the pronoun “I” does not exist in boot camp or in a Carmelite monastery. A Carmelite nun may only use the pronoun “we” when speaking of herself.
  • There is no talking unless one is spoken to. One may not answer or ask questions without asking for permission.
  • Life is based upon obedience and humility. The old self has abandoned civilian life, entering a new life of self-sacrifice for others.
  • The individual is “dead” to ownership, personal tastes, etc. For example, both recruits and nuns are taught how to sit, how to eat, when to eat, when to sit, etc. Marine recruits have to eat with their chest against the table and eyes looking straight ahead. Can you imagine wolfing down a meal in five minutes without looking to see where the food is on your plate or what you are eating?
  • Every exercise is done in the midst of loud, intense shouting (boot camp) or loud, intense silence (monastery)—which amounts to the same thing: recruit or nun, there is a lot of interior distress in learning that you are “nothing” before you can become “something.”

These have been valuable comparisons for me, especially in witnessing the development of interior strength and maturity in this particular son and daughter. 

Tough Soldiers, Childlike Hearts

The Church Militant and the Church Triumphant, fresco by Andrea da Firenze in Santa Maria Novella, c. 1365
The Church Militant and the Church Triumphant, fresco by Andrea da Firenze in Santa Maria Novella, c. 1365

For those of us more or less reluctantly learning that we are members of “the Church Militant,” it is worth considering what Marines and Carmelites have in common. It will help us see that laymen, too, are indeed soldiers for Christ. 

That is what happened when we received the Sacrament of Confirmation: we were confirmed as soldiers of Christ in the Church Militant.

Most of us will never enter boot camp or the monastery, but we can certainly toughen up as soldiers of Christ. It seems strange that Our Lord calls us to Perfection by instructing us to be like little children while revealing that heaven suffers violence and is taken as booty by the violent. What does He mean by such a paradox? If violent warfare is required by His Children, what sustains us in this strange effort?

It seems to me that we can understand ourselves as children in several ways. I am always humbled to witness a disciplined toddler (crying copious tears) flinging his arms around his father and sobbing spontaneously, “I love you, Daddy!”  

Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.  

Matthew 18:3

It’s a deep lesson for us adults who are more inclined to gripe to our Father when He chastises us. Children are also subject to we the parents: we hold their hands, teach them manners, teach them how to speak courteously, how to sit still, when they must sleep. We have a lot to gain by humble obedience, however painfully we have to learn it from Our Father. He is not a drill sergeant, but He does desire the best for us, and the Best in us. 

For myself, I am often humbled by my personal stubbornness and the “violence” of the effort to shut my mouth or learn a difficult task at my new job. When my nine kids ranged in ages from sixteen years to three months, it was a particularly tough time. How on earth could God hold me to perfection? How on earth could I be a good example when I was personally overwhelmed by my duties? 

And yet I have wonderful memories of my “boot camp” of motherhood and wouldn’t trade this labor for anything on earth.

Your Mission as a Soldier of Christ

Art by Charles Bosseron Chamber

Members of the Church Militant: what sustains you and I in our personal warfare against our selfish Self? Do we have a mission? Do we belong to “something bigger than myself,” an idea which is so attractive to military and religious alike? Has our Commander provided us with “tuck” for the journey? 

We don’t receive a religious habit that dignifies us, nor a classy uniform that identifies us. We tend to leave the house with diaper bags, travel mugs, or various devices that distract us from keeping our attention on God. Are we like the rich young man who cannot make the break from worldly possessions to the riches found in childlike faith?   

My husband and I have had the incredible blessing to observe and assist in two daughters’ religious discernment and a son’s recruitment process. I found myself experiencing a sort of envy for their youth and the opportunity to leave everything behind for a Mission on behalf of themselves and others whom they wouldn’t meet in this life.  

The Spirit Of Evil Is Hurled Into The Abyss After The Arrival Of The Messiah by Guillaume-Francois Colson

We members of the Church Militant can ask ourselves if we are monks or Marines. We better answer, “Both!” (In a spiritual way, of course!)

If we aren’t engaging in warfare against Self, we will lose the Mission. Our Mission is Heaven, and our Chief Priest has given us Divine Food (the Eucharist) to sustain us.

Life is our boot camp if we make good use of our time on earth. Spiritual growth is often painful, but the stakes are high, so let us be on our way. 

The victory will be glorious.

How often do you think of yourself as a soldier for Christ?

What are your thoughts on how we can “wage war” against our own selfishness in everyday life? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

If you desire to embrace spiritual combat as a true soldier of Christ, find the guidance and instruction you need by signing up for Spiritual Warfare. This fascinating online program is co-hosted by retired Chaplain Colonel Matt Pawlikowski. We’d love to have you join us and the other thousands of other Catholics who have taken the journey.