I’ve come to know that a serious Christian should be prepared to engage in combat. Of course, this is not a new idea – even for me. I have often read the passages of St. Paul that exhort Christians to put on the full armor of God (Ephesians 6:13-17). And in praying the Psalms during the Liturgy of the Hours, often I am reminded that we have an enemy and the battle is hot around us – whether we see it or not.
There was a time when I thought spiritual combat was relegated to the realm of angels and demons, as they fought invisibly for the souls of men. Frank E Peretti described this world for me, and it was frightening. The truth of spiritual combat, however, is not that spirits are arrayed against one another for my soul, even as I write these words – but that the most dangerous enemy to my soul is the one typing these words.
As a young man, I would see people who lived steady spiritual lives and envy them. My relationship with God was anything but steady. I would read the Bible and pray, but I’d often fall into what we’d call “the dessert”, experiencing the “spiritual rollercoaster”. When I became Catholic, I felt that I finally had some practical direction in my spiritual race. For some, I’m sure, simply telling them to gird themselves and run the race is enough. I seem to need a little more information. How do I put on the armor of God? What does it mean to gird myself with truth? Why do I always war against myself, and how do I win the battle?
In Catholicism, I have been given great gifts. Firstly, in the sacraments, God’s grace is richly distributed. His very life is offered, and I merely have to “taste and see the Lord is good.” I have spiritual medicine for my soul. Power for action. But along with the sacraments, there is a rich history of literature directing us in the spiritual life. Great works like The Imitation of Christ, Introduction to the Devout Life, and Interior Castle, are well-known throughout the world and have directed countless souls in the trenches of spiritual combat.
I would like to introduce whoever may read this post to another writer of spiritual direction: Lorenzo Scupoli, the author of The Spiritual Combat. When I was making my way into the Catholic Church by way of Eastern Orthodoxy, I bought a book named Unseen Warfare. The book was wonderful, but I discovered that the book was an “easternized” version of Scupoli’s work. I remembered this when I came into the Catholic Church and promptly found a copy of Scupoli’s original work.
The first topic that Scupoli approaches is “What does Christian perfection mean? And how do we get there?” Of course, many Christians may go their whole lives and not worry about Christian perfection at all. But those with ears to hear cannot forget the words, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).” Like any good teacher, Scupoli begins with what Christian perfection is not. It is not in long prayers, much bodily privation, or attending church every time the doors are open. Christian perfection, according to Scupoli
consists in nothing else but the knowledge of the Divine Goodness and Greatness, of our own nothingness, and proneness to all evil; in the love of God and the hatred of self; in entire subjection not only to God Himself, but for the love of Him, to all creatures; in giving up our own will, and in completely resigning ourselves to the Divine Pleasure; moreover, in willing and doing all this with no other wish or aim than the glory and honour of God, the fulfilment of His Will because it is His Will, and because He deserves to be served and loved.
I would like to take a few posts to unpack Scupoli’s work and hopefully apply it to my own life, as I grapple with my most deadly of enemies: me.