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Spiritual Combat Revisited.

Spiritual Combat Revisited Jonathon Robinson of the Toronto Oratory San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2003 pp. 303, paperback,

On the front cover of this volume is a quotation from the book which inspired it, Lorenzo Scupoli's Spiritual Combat:

"This is indeed the hardest of all struggles; for while we strive against self, self is struggling against us, and therefore is the victory here most glorious and precious in the sight of God."

Each of the seven chapters in Part One, "Spirtual Combat," is prefaced with an appropriate, and memorable, quotation from Father Robinson's fellow Oratorian Cardinal Newman. The Prologue, entitled "Spiritual Combat Today," is headed with a quotation from John M. Rist's Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized."

"The function of grace, according to Augustine, is not to drag us kicking and screaming to salvation, but to allow us to want and to do the things that are right and in every sense desirable. For no one is just against his will. We shall want to do the right if we love the right, so that once we are 'prepared' to love well, we shall need no manipulation, but simply God's support to keep us going."

It is a part of the unvarying tradition of the Church, Father Robinson declares, that there must be a continuing effort to bring the way we live into harmony with the demands of our faith. This effort involves a struggle with ourselves because we are divided creatures, pulled toward the good and leaning to the evil. As Newman writes, "what a dreadful state, to have our desires one way, and our knowledge and conscience another...."


The struggle to bring our lives into harmony with the demands of our faith is called asceticism, an essential element of Christianity--the ordered effort to imitate "Christ Jesus, and him crucified." It can be understood in the light of a tradition that stretches from the New Testament to our own day.

Lorenzo Scupoli's little book The Spiritual Combat was published in 1589, and has had an enormous influence; by the time of his death in 1610 there had been at least sixty different editions. St. Francis de Sales read the entire book once a month; and Newman found in it and The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola evidence of the saintly tradition which took him into the Catholic Church.

The spiritual life consists in five principles, Scupoli says; three of them are: (1) the knowledge of the goodness and greatness of God and our nothingness and inclination to evil; (2) the love of him, and hatred of ourselves and (3) the entire rejection of all will of our own, and absolute resignation to his divine pleasure.

Spiritual combat is directed toward perfection, Robinson writes, and it really is a combat; true holiness and spirituality do not consist in exercises which are pleasing to us and conformable to our nature but in those that "nail that nature with all its works to the cross."

In his first chapter Robinson discuses these basic principles, and supports them with scriptural quotations. The following six chapters deal with the weapons we have at our disposal: humility and self-distrust; the practice of hope and confidence; spiritual exercises--systematic efforts to cooperate with God's grace; and the practice of prayer, which ought to be at the centre of our lives. As Cassian, one of the early Church fathers, wrote, 'The flesh delights in luxury and pleasure, but the spirit does not give in even to natural desires."

Four Rings of the ladder

Robinson writes that asceticism is an indispensable aspect of Christian living, and prayer is an enduring element in this effort to fight sin and draw closer to God. A medieval work which he quotes, called in English the Ladder of Monks, says that there are four rungs by which we obtain union with God: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation.

The reading must be slow and attentive, and it must be related to God's revelation to us. Meditation seeks with the help of reason to discover hidden truths--including the mysteries of Christ's life. It requires a knowledge of the faith, and a knowledge of one's self--which comes from the examination of conscience. Also, it leads to an understanding of what we need and a desire for it. Prayer, then, involves supplication for that which we need, in a humble and personal way.

Contemplation begins when the life of prayer starts to be dominated by the Holy Spirit. It involves a direct experience of God, and an awareness that this experience is not something we obtain through our own efforts but is a gift of God. The test of good prayer, Robinson writes, is its effect on our lives: does it lead us to strive for Christian holiness? It is "the love for God that dominates your consciousness, in an obscure way."

Robinson insists, however, that Christian living is going to require us to live in the world as it is. The whole idea of an interior life unrelated to everyday existence with its ordinariness, complexities, and confusion is a mistaken one. Hegel mocked "the beautiful soul" that lives in dread of besmirching the splendour of its inner being by action and existence, and flees from contact with the actual world. It is in our daily experience, however, that the will is trained and strengthened; it is only a will toughened up by doing the right thing in practice that can keep our minds focused on the truths of faith.

Newman said that "he, then, is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly." St. Jane Frances de Chantal, the disciple of St. Francis de Sales, complained that her prayer "is usually nothing but distractions and a little suffering, for what can a poor pitiful mind filled with all sorts of business do?' Yet at a time when she was suffering from interior trials, Cardinal de Berulle said after a conversation with her, "I have just been speaking with one of God's greatest lovers on earth." Father Robinson comments that ascetical prayer is not always a very exciting business, and reading some of the passages from St. Jane Frances we might conclude that she was a very ineffective person. But "during her lifetime the foundress of the Visitation established eighty-six houses of her order, and she was the moving spirit of them all. Over two thousand of her letters remain, and it is estimated that she wrote eleven thousand. She kept three secretaries busily at work, so it is clear that she lived in the turmoil of affairs and that her prayer, however difficult it may often have been for her, was the instrument that made a saint. If such sanctity requires the spiritual combat, and it does, then let us return to it."

Doing so, however, goes against the temper of our times. Iris Murdoch thought that "the Christ 'lie' about the conquest of death by Jesus" was deeply vulgar, and in saying that she gave voice to what many moderns think or feel. By Newman's time, the belief in immortality was used as a prime example of what was wrong with religion.. It was "pie in the sky," designed to distract the poor and the persecuted from injustice they suffered. The nineteenth century saw endless variations, Robinson, writes, on Ludwig Feuerbach's theme that God and heaven are nothing but human constructs that rob mankind of its best qualities. Feuerbach wrote that "The impoverishing of the real world and the enriching of God is one act. Only the poor man has a rich God." He argued that salvation does not lie in another world but depends on our taking back for ourselves those qualities that are really ours in the first place. Forget about heaven; concentrate on enriching this world with the qualities which religion has stolen from it.

George Eliot, walking in the gardens of Trinity College, Cambridge, reflected on the words, God, immortality and duty: "How inconceivable is the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third."

The twentieth century produced Marx and Freud and liberation theology and all other sorts of movements which created a climate of opinion in which Christian concepts of immortality seemed both insubstantial and morally wrong. Doesn't the Christian promise of immortality discourage the creation of a just society?.

But Father Robinson replies that for the believer the promise of Christ, "deeply vulgar" or not, is an assurance that the spiritual combat makes us the servants of the incarnate Son of God, who will take us finally to where He is now. As Newman said, faith has ever been the substance of what we must believe, not what we can prove. A deep faith lies at the heart of this profound work of spirituality, worthy to be added to the list of classics of the genre.

David Dooley is a professor emeritus of English, St. Michael's College, University of Toronto
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Author:Dooley, David
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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