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February 19, 2024

The Spiritual Combat: Book Review

By Bernie Pilarski

The Spiritual Combat, by Lawrence Scupoli.

My copy of The Spiritual Combat, a 1948 edition four inch by six inch hardcover volume from Catholic Book Publishing Company, sat on my bookshelf for close to twenty years before I got around to reading it. I can't give you a really good reason why I waited that long, it's just that I was busy, and admittedly, The Spiritual Combat is one of those books that you really have to have a good reason to want to read. It is a book of Catholic asceticism; it is a presentation of a strict regimen of thought and practice for the purpose of attaining spiritual perfection.

[Spiritual perfection] properly consists in knowing the infinite greatness of God, joined to a true sense of our own wretchedness and proclivity to evil; in loving God and hating ourselves; in humbling ourselves not only before him, but for his sake, before all men; in renouncing entirely our own will in order to follow his; and, to crown the work, in doing all this for the sole glory of his holy name, with no other view than that he ought to be loved and served by all of his creatures. - from The Spiritual Combat, Chapter 1 -

In the battle to attain spiritual perfection, there are arrayed on one side the forces of good: Jesus, his Mother Mary, the angels and the saints. On the other side, there are very real agents of evil, the enemy: the devil and his minions. The battle itself occurs within us, and our senses -- our natural inclinations and our very nature -- can work for or against us.

The greatest care and unwearied application is necessary for the right use of our senses, because the sensitive appetite from which all the motions of corrupt nature proceed, is dotingly fond of pleasure; and, as it is incapable of satisfying itself, it employs the senses for attracting their several objects, whose images it transmits to the mind. Thus do sensual pleasures, by means of the union which subsists between the body and the soul, after spreading themselves through all the senses capable of them, seize like a contagious infection on the spiritual faculties, and effect the corruption of the entire man. - from Chapter 21 -

Have no doubt, the author maintains, that the task is formidable and the enemy real and powerful. If success is to be achieved,

...you must resolve on a perpetual war with yourself, begin with providing yourself with four things, as so many weapons without which it is impossible to gain the victory in this spiritual combat. These four things are: a distrust of yourself, a confidence in God, a good use of the faculties of body and mind, and the duty of prayer. Of these, through God's grace, we shall treat clearly and to the point... - from Chapter 1 -

Opening and reading this book is the spiritual equivalent to stepping off the bus at Parris Island, the Marine Corps recruit training facility. There is a sense of excitement and fear, a longing to be transformed but trepidation at what that might entail. And from the very first moment when you are called "maggot," and your identity begins to be stripped from you to be replaced by a simulacrum of Ares, god of war, you are forced to absorb a different world view that entails a new lexicon and totally different values.

The Spiritual Combat first appeared in bookstores in 1589, just a few years before Shakespeare would begin to publish his works. Like Shakespeare, it is still in print after more than 400 years. It is available from Tan Books in paperback or ebook, and is available free on line from catholictradition.org. The Spiritual Combat was written in Italian, so obviously the English editions are translations. The online translation is a little different from the one I have, but there is significant agreement between the two translations, and neither stands out as being particularly better than the other.

Still, language is a key to both understanding and enjoying this book. When I read Shakespeare, it takes me a while to get used to the rhythm of the language, to begin to sink into his clever playfulness with words and phrases, and of course I need some footnotes to understand some of the arcane language. Similarly, The Spiritual Combat, even in these "modern" translations, is steeped in language that is dated and might even raise a few eyebrows. In the first quoted passage above, the word "crown" is a good example of use of a word that simply is not common anymore. In the phrase to crown the work, the translator employs crown to mean "worthily complete." Yes, that meaning is in the dictionary, but it is rarely used that way. Still more to the point, that same passage begins with a phrase that surely is unsettling. The reader is asked to develop a true sense of our own wretchedness and proclivity to evil.

Oh my. The priest doth protest too much, methinks. Or does he?

Fr. Scupoli is unapologetic about presenting his subject in the starkest of terms. There is nothing, nothing more important than the will of God. Conformity to God's will takes a heroic effort to overcome our natural weaknesses. Conformity to God's will is only possible with God's help. Scupoli is the drill sergeant intent on transforming raw recruits into soldiers capable of sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the corps. What seems like hyperbole on the author's part, when seen in historical and literary context, is simply Catholic dogma. Our own wretchedness and proclivity to evil is the condition in which Man finds himself as the result of Original Sin. We find ourselves separated from God, and we struggle to contain our appetites. (See concupiscence)

The brilliance of Fr. Scupoli's work is that it is supremely pragmatic. The Spiritual Combat is a how-to manual with step by step instructions on how to accomplish its plan for spiritual excellence. What four actions can you take to gain a distrust of self? See chapter 2. Struggling with sensuality? Chapter 13 provides four steps to combat it. Need to know how the Devil will try to trip you up? Chapter 42.

Despite all the military affectation, there is also a compassion that comes from a full understanding of the nature of man. Chapter 26 is a discussion of what to do when you find that you have sinned. It might be expected that sin would be an occasion for punishment and the gnashing of teeth. However, Fr. Scupoli suggests instead that you not overreact. Rather, acknowledge that you've sinned, examine the circumstances of the sin to see how it may really have been worse had not God protected you, and "return millions of thanks to that Father of mercies, who, far from resenting the affront you have given, stretches forth his hand, lest you fall into the same disorder again."

It takes some work to mine The Spiritual Combat, just as it does to read Shakespeare, but the effort is rewarded with a classic presentation of Catholic spirituality. I should probably look through my bookshelves to see if there are any other gems collecting dust there.

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-10-17
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