"The Spiritual Combat and a Treatise on Peace of Soul" by Dom Lorenzo Scupoli
“And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away” (Matthew 11:12).
Our Lord declares that salvation is to be secured by the use of force, and holiness to be the product of violence done to our own wills in subjecting ourselves to God. We are commanded to fight, and lawfully at that, as Saint Paul explains, if we should be crowned in heaven. The work of our salvation is not only a battle, therefore, but one in which victory calls for a specific course of action, a definite strategy.
The Spiritual Combat by Dom Lorenzo Scupoli instructs us in this fight of our lives. This ‘golden book’, as cherished by Saint Francis De Sales, explains to us the weapons we shall use, how we must use them, the essential strategies, and how we will counter those employed against us by the enemy. It has been aptly described as a ‘course of spiritual strategy’, and the book is perhaps most commendable for the special effectiveness of its instruction. Its wisdom on the spiritual life secures itself as a classic, yet this is so much more enhanced by the facility with which it communicates and impresses upon the reader the essential points of Christian spirituality, with a clear practicality, brevity and simplicity in style that is unique and appealing to all who pick it up.
It numbers sixty-six chapters, most of which are three pages in length. Short paragraphs most often suffice to contain each spiritual recommendation, though this does not give the book the impression of being brief, but wonderfully compact. Its succinctness enables it to be easily taken up for even just a spare minute of the busy work day. This will appeal to any working Catholic who may feel dissatisfaction at the gap that separates their morning and night spiritual exercises. A chapter or short passage of this book, frequently punctuated by the author’s stirring encouragement, might serve as a hill on which to rally and bolster one’s spiritual resolutions before returning to the fight.
Across the variety of its chapters, the book has three general divisions. Part one gives the author’s preliminary words on perfection, and it begins with a call to action. The author salutes the reader as the Christian who has already resolved to do all to attain to their spiritual perfection – which, as he says, is ‘to unite yourself so intimately with God that you become one in spirit with Him’. With a burning intensity does he fix our concentration on ‘the most sublime undertaking that can be expressed or imagined’!
The author dedicates his first chapter to have the reader grasp the true nature of his objective, and what is in fact illusory. Some consider perfection to consist in penances, says the author; some in long vocal prayers, much time spent in church and the frequenting of the sacraments, and some in the silent and strict observance of their rule. He bluntly writes that ‘it is certain they all equally deceive themselves’.
True perfection, he explains, that perfection by which one knows how to live in proper conformity to the will of God, to yield to His almighty power, to submit to His judgments, to imitate Christ humbled in His Passion, and love their enemies as the instruments used by God’s goodness; these, he says, are alone the fruit of continual warfare against our vicious inclinations, requiring all our resolve, our courage and our strength. ‘No one shall be rewarded with a crown who has not fought courageously’.
Part two then explains how we will fight, and forms the majority of the book. It prescribes the weapons we must use in detail, and ‘without which it is impossible to gain victory in this spiritual combat’: distrust of one’s self, confidence in God, proper use of the faculties of body and mind, and the duty of prayer (with much more written concerning the latter two).
If we fight ‘unarmed’ or lack even one of these weapons, Dom Scupoli says we will only be beating the air with our fists. If we have judged this of ourselves at times, The Spiritual Combat will be to our tremendous benefit. The author stresses that these four must be assumed collectively, each dependent on the other. While “distrust of self is so absolutely requisite […,] if this is all we have to rely on, we will soon be routed… To it, therefore, we must join firm confidence in God, the Author of all good, from Whom alone the victory must be expected”. These virtues must in turn be prudently directed by right understanding, sound judgment, and a pure will. How these are acquired and practised are given considerable detail, covering the use of the different senses, the unique tactics against certain vices (impurity and sloth particularly), and the ways in which our faculties can be supplanted by the devil. Surpassing these in importance is prayer, “the channel of divine grace”, by which these virtues and “everything requisite for our salvation is obtained”. These lay a foundation meant to be infallibly returned to and used throughout our entire lives. A real consolation!
We further receive invaluable recommendations as how to manage defeat, what are the many deceits the devil uses to induce us to forfeit our struggle, and the delusions we may suffer as we make progress.
Part four concerns how we are to sustain the spiritual combat until death. The battles fought at the hour of death will be the most crucial, and the devil’s attacks the most cunning. Dom Scupoli’s acute descriptions of the temptations that will assail us when we are dying and how we should resist them is recommended reading for all Catholics.
While this concludes The Spiritual Combat, the TAN edition contains additionally the author’s ‘Treatise on Peace of Soul’. This work is similar in its merits, though its inclusion in the present edition would incline us to think of it as the perfect supplement to the preceding work’s treatment of the right use of the mind and body.
It has pleased Almighty God to have bound Himself, by His own promises, to grant heaven to those who truly fight to obtain it. This book tells us how to do it. Since its publication it has conveyed the essential truths of Catholic spirituality to persons of whatever state in life. For this reason, it has been historically a bestseller, and we simply cannot pass up reading such a book, indeed studying it over the course of years, if not our whole lives.
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