“Spiritual Combat Revisited” is a summary of the classic book “The Spiritual Combat” by Lorenzo Scupoli (1530-1610). The original, “The Spiritual Combat”, is an uncompromising account of the ascetical life. The book presupposes a moral and theological outlook that has largely faded into the background. This is why Fr. Jonathan Robinson has taken up the task of writing “Spiritual Combat Revisited”. It is an attempt to communicate spiritual wisdom and put it into contemporary language while retaining the substance and integrity of what Scupoli sought to advance.
Both books, “The Spiritual Combat” and “Spiritual Combat Revisited,” presuppose a basic spiritual law that has been largely forgotten: That our union with Christ and our road to heaven involves real combat – a real tension – a real conflict.
“Spiritual Combat Revisited” reintroduces forgotten spiritual truths. Among these truths is what is known as “first principles.” For instance, knowing the truth about God and ourselves is essential for spiritual progress. That God is all-powerful and holy, and that we are finite, sinful and helpless creatures in comparison, is an awareness that needs to permeate our consciousness. Without it, we fall into pride. Furthermore, it is impossible to arrive at true humility if we are ignorant of this first principle.
From here, we learn to completely trust in God, but a preliminary step, even before trusting in God, is to distrust oneself. “Scupoli believes if we begin with confidence in God, we are all too liable to leave out the unpleasant part of the equation.” This is where humility is fostered. Too often we fail to consider the self-seeking motives of our behavior. To assuage this tendency, consecrated religious brothers and sisters renounce their will through obedience to their superior. For them, there is that check and balance. But as for laity, we have to daily examine our conscience and find ways to renounce our will; those that are conformable to our duties in everyday life. This way, we avoid being subject to the fleeting nature of emotions and passions.
Fr. Robinson adds, “Buried deep within ourselves is a conviction that we are really not that bad.” For many, especially at first sight, this realization can seem at odds in all that we cherish in self-esteem and being positive. However, this form of self-abandonment is quite liberating. When we fail and do wrong, we are at peace knowing that such imperfections are totally consistent with what we are. Far from being discouraged (which is not of God), we are given more reason to totally trust in the Lord and his grace to make us better.
It is easier, therefore, for the “self-conscious sinner” to apologize, to be the peacemaker and to move on after having floundered, and when applauded for virtue or some great achievement, he knows all too well that the Lord is the author of such goodness. Amid success, he can avoid an exaggerated sense of self. Indeed, neither failure casts him down nor does success puff him up. More than anyone else, he is at peace with himself because his hope is in the Lord.
This disposition of soul does not come automatically. St. Paul speaks of a kind of training that is useful for the good fight; one that requires work. He said, “I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” (I Corinthians 9:27) “Spiritual Combat Revisited” puts the necessity of spiritual exercises and training in the following context:
“This is not so much an effort to build up a series of virtues; no doubt spiritual exercises should have that effect; but even more so, progress in spirituality is intensely personal; it means growing in a more intimate union with Christ.”
Even in the drama of everyday life, sacrifices and even suffering are necessary for happiness. A successful career is impossible without them. But as it pertains to spiritual growth and moral development, they are even more important. Indeed, taking on sacrifices and enduring suffering for the kingdom introduces into the soul a foretaste of eternal happiness; a kind of peace and joy that physical pleasures are incapable of producing. So that we would better aspire to heaven, God will allow inconveniences in our life and even painful contradictions. As John Henry Newman said:
“And be sure of this: that if he has any love for you, if he sees a lack of good in your soul, he will afflict you, if you will not afflict yourselves. He will not let you escape. He has ten thousand ways of purging those whom he has chosen, from the dross and alloy with which the fine gold is defaced...Let us judge ourselves, that we may not be judged. Let us afflict ourselves that God may not afflict us.”
Too often, we want to have it both ways. We want to swing back and forth between the demands of the flesh and those of the spirit. Thinking that we can have the “best of both worlds,” in this respect, is one of the greatest illusions in our spiritual combat. If we were to be honest with ourselves, we would admit that we do not want to give ourselves completely to one or the other. Nevertheless, the struggle to renounce of our will for God’s sake teaches us just how powerful the flesh is over our decision-making. Without this ongoing struggle against our sensuality and selfishness, we cannot attain to the kind of perfection Christ bids us to. As Fr. Jonathan Robinson reminds us, “The danger is not that adversities will overtake us, but that prosperity and comfort will.”