The Warrior’s Heart

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu – the life-long friend of Gilgamesh – is lying upon his sick bed, slowly dying of disease.  He laments,

“I shall not die like a man fallen in battle; I feared to fall, but happy is the man who falls in the battle, for I must die in shame.” [1]

Such a sentiment was also found on the other side of the world among the ancient Native Americans.  One Winnebago, passing along the wisdom of old, told his son,

“It is not good to die in the village.  This we tell all those who are growing up.  Do not permit women to journey ahead of you in your village.” [2]

The meaning of the saying is that a man should not grow old in the village, but rather die in battle.  It is a shame to outlive the women in the village and for them to “journey ahead” into the afterlife.

In a spiritual sense, I think this is an important attitude for Christians to have.  We will all die, but in whatever state God finds us, there shall He judge us. [3]  When I die, will God find me diseased and stricken with the passions?  Will sin be latched onto me and my members causing me to lie in spiritual idleness?  Or will I go down in battle against the passions?

Whether or not I conquer the passions in this life is not the point; it is whether or not I keep fighting.  Most of us will not win the war against our sinful desires and attain a completely dispassionate state in this life.  As many monastic fathers have told us, the continual battle against the passions does more good for us than if we were to be completely delivered.

In the Nordic myths, the Valkyrie flew with the souls of fallen warriors to the banquet hall of Valhalla, whether or not the warrior won the battle.  In ancient mythology, perpetual victory was not as important as forming and preserving a warrior’s heart within.

While the true God is not so concerned with the literal battlefield, He has provided these lessons for us even in pagan mythology so that everywhere we turn we are reminded to preserve a warrior’s heart of courage in all spiritual struggles.  As a priest once told me, “It is not how many times you fall that matters, it is that you rise up one more time.”

We see this theme of heroic courage in many biblical stories as well: David who arose in repentance when he fell into the sins of adultery and murder; Samson who went down fighting; Caleb, Joshua, and many others who possessed great spiritual valor.  Most of them never received the promise at the end of their lives, but they are listed in the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews (chapter eleven) for their spiritual courage.

We are all going to die, so let us do so with the sword of the Spirit in our hands knowing that it is an honorable thing to die in battle so that the angels of heaven may come like the Valkyrie and escort our weary souls to the paradisaical bosom of Abraham.

For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing. (2nd Timothy 4:6-8, KVJ)

End Notes:

[1] The Epic of Gilgamesh. Penguin Books, 1972.  Page 93.
[2] Native North American Spirituality of the Eastern Woodlands: Sacred Myths, Dreams, Speeches, Healing Formulas, Rituals, and Ceremonials. Elisabeth Tooker, Paulist Press, 1979. Page 71.
[3] I’m paraphrasing an ancient saying of Jesus that is not in the Bible, but was recorded by St. Justin Martyr in the second century, “Wherefore also our Lord Jesus Christ said, ‘In whatsoever things I shall take you, in these I shall judge you.’” – Chapter 47 of Dialogue with Trypho.  This teaching is occasionally repeated by various monks and fathers.


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