That those also, which lie a dying, do oftentimes by divine revelation foretell what shall happen afterward, we may learn by such things as have fallen out amongst us in divers Abbeys. For ten years since, there was a monk in my Monastery, called Gerontius, who, lying sore sick, saw by vision in the night time, certain white men beautifully apparelled to descend from above into the Monastery, and standing by his bed-side, one of them said: "The cause of our coming hither is to choose out certain of Gregory's monks, to send them abroad unto the wars": and forthwith he commanded another to write in a bill the names of Marcellus, Valentinian, Agnellus, and divers others, whose names I have now forgotten: that being done, he said further: "Put down also the name of him that now beholdeth us." By which vision he being assured of that which would come to pass, the next morning he told the monks, who they were that should shortly die out of the Monastery, adding also that himself was to follow them. The next day the foresaid monks fell more dangerously sick, and so died all in that very order which they were named in the bill. Last of all, himself also departed this life, who had foretold the departure of the other monks before him. (IV.xxvi)What interested me especially was the phrase used by the angel of death, that these monks were being recruited to be "sent abroad unto the wars." This imagery of the saints in Heaven engaged in warfare is not, to my knowledge, found elsewhere. It makes sense that the souls of holy men war against the Devil just as the holy angels do, but still the appellation Ecclesia Militans is applied to us here on earth, and Ecclesia Triumphans describes those safe in the harbor of Heaven.
The imagery in the Militant-Triumphant metaphor is clear: the soul of a man on Earth is in constant warfare against sin, the world, the flesh, and the Devil; while the soul of a man in Heaven has triumphed over all these enemies and is established forever in grace. St. Thomas Aquinas used the Militant-Triumphant dichotomy in his Summa (II-I.102.4), but I cannot otherwise trace the origins of this terminology.
I have to wonder why the Gregorian imagery of the holy dead being sent off to war did not gain purchase in popular piety. Was it because of a increasing consciousness of the middle state, the Ecclesia Dolens? Did Purgatory conquer so much of the imagination that theologians desired to emphasize the rest and triumph of the state of blessedness? The ecclesial phrases suggest a transition from activity to passivity, but if the holy angels truly rest in the Beatific Vision and yet are perpetually active on our behalf, why should not the great "cloud of witnesses" do the same? We might we not go from one sort of militancy to another?
Mind you, I am not being critical or especially skeptical of the popular terminology of Militant-Suffering-Triumphant. I am merely curious about its origins. If any of our good readers have knowledge of this aspect of Catholic piety, I would love to hear it.