Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Spiritual Combat Revisited

“The danger is not that adversities will overtake us, but that prosperity and comfort will.”

-Fr. Jonathan Robinson, Spiritual Combat Revisited

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.

It began when Lucifer, an angel of light, waged war against God and then was cast down. The combat continued when Adam and Eve rebelled against God by eating the forbidden fruit. No longer securely under God’s reign, all of humankind became vulnerable to the influences of evil. Through this combat and tension, each soul belongs either to God or Satan. In the middle he or she stands.

Spiritual Combat Revisited is not designed to dramatize the spiritual life. It merely lays out forgotten fundamental 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 even before this, given our human condition, is to distrust self. “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 us lay people, we have to find other ways to renounce our will, to be held accountable so as to make our will conform to faith and reason. 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 optimism. However, this form of self abandonment is quite liberating. When we fall 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 God 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. More than anyone else, he is at peace with himself. 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.” Fr. Robinson goes on to say: “The element of struggle with self, then, is not restricted to trying to deny ourselves things bad in themselves; it also concerns self-denial about anything that tends to make us spiritually soft…The desire for comfort is the great obstacle to physical well-being, and the desire for comfort is one of the most dangerous enemies of spiritual health.”

Even in the drama of everyday life, sacrifices and even suffering are necessary for happiness. A successful career, for instance, is impossible without them. But as it pertains to spiritual growth and moral development, they are even more important. Indeed, to take on sacrifices and to endure suffering introduces into the soul a foretaste of eternal happiness; a kind of peace and joy that physical pleasures are incapable of producing. Towards this end- the purpose of life which is 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. This is a kind of false conciliation. It is an attempt to have the best of both worlds. 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. However, the struggle to give up our will for the sake of the kingdom teaches us the appeal and the power of the flesh. Without this struggle, we cannot attain to the kind of perfection Christ bids us to.

And finally, this spiritual struggle enables us to see God’s hand in the events which unfold in our lives. Herein lies the secret to happiness. To be sure, it may even take a life time to sound its depths. It has a lot to do with what St. Paul wrote to the Philippians: “I have learned, in whatever situation I find myself, to be self-sufficient. I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.” (4:11-12)

The friend of God, therefore, with the eyes of faith, learns to see the value and purpose in misfortune. He not only thanks the Lord for that which is agreeable to him, but he musters up the courage and the faith to thank Him even for things that hurt and confounds him. He reasoning is as such: “If God is good and governs all things, it follows that whatever happens to those who trust in him must be for their good. Experience, though, often suggests a very different conclusion, it requires a deep faith in providence and in the goodness of God, not only to accept, but also to will what his providence ordains for us in the actual course of our lives.”