Book Club (Part II):
“The Spiritual Combat”
by Lorenzo Scupoli (Scriptoria, 2009)
For an old confessor and counselor, I would have to say that for me the genius of Lorenzo Scupoli as displayed in his classic work, “The Spiritual Combat”, is patent. There, in both his practical and theoretical discussion of how to root out vice and struggle for virtue, or a virtue in a one by one uphill fight, he has singled out strategically the virtue of “patience” to illustrate his teaching in the book, not once, but he does so again and again. His definition of patience, however, has not so much to do with putting up with others or even with ourselves, but in having a clear idea of what we can expect of life (That may account for the good old Italian exclamation used even yet today “pazienza!”, which punctuates a lot of circumstances where English might provide an expletive).
Some would add to this analysis of the spiritual struggle centered on patience or to this approach to life the qualifying phrase: “if we choose to walk with Jesus”, but the point can fairly be made that patience, without ifs, ands or buts as described by Scupoli, yes, is part of what is involved in Christian perfection, but perhaps more importantly or by way of context is equally what we as integral human persons must be about if we are to face life as it is in the real world. I can expect and even demand this kind of patience from anybody regardless. In life, we are called or challenged not just to renounce the proverbial “champagne and caviar diet”, but to say “no” to beer and pretzels too, if we would be something other than self-serving or mere casualties to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune here on this earth.
How many people come and say, in effect, “Father, I deserve better from God! Why doesn’t He give me a break? Why doesn’t He answer my prayers for healing? (deliverance from trials, loneliness, or fill in the blank as you see fit)”. “Scupolian patience” looks at life quite differently. No doubt the old master would probably have more to say to such complaints from suffering or tried souls than to piously invite the person to a new and deeper sharing in the mystery of the Cross of Christ. Isn’t the admonition to “life without pretense” applicable here? I cannot help but think of the Book of Job and God’s teaching to Job toward the end of the book (Job: Chapters 38-41) before justifying him in the presence of his so-called friends and restoring to Job with surfeit the material prosperity which the world of Job’s time deemed to be the incontrovertible sign of God’s favor. Yes, indeed, there is much more, in terms of life, here at stake than the call to Christian perfection.
The whole truth about life and human existence as taught to us by God and His Church would banish both the fatalists and the Pollyannas. Charles Dickens’ work “Great Expectations” traces a character or two overcome because life didn’t go according to plan. Scupoli would probably be more determined and insist that beyond pointing out the tragedy of living life disappointed, disillusioned or in despair, in point of fact, life had better not go according to my individual plan or expectations. First question and response from the old catechism: Why did God make me? He made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this life, so as to be happy with Him in the next…
Scupoli insists that Christian perfection is indeed a victory over ourselves but that rigorous mortification itself is not its key or even essential component. He says “… it is not your duty to will and perform that which is in itself more excellent, but that which God before all else strictly desires and requires of you.” (p. 4) Scupoli spends himself to describe “four very safe and highly necessary weapons, that you may win the palm, and be finally a conqueror in this spiritual conflict – these are:
Distrust of Self. . . . . . I.
Trust in God. . . . . . . . . II.
Spiritual Exercises. . . III. (for our understanding, for our will, for governing our senses, for growing in virtue)
Prayer. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . IV.” (pp. 4-5)
What moved or provoked me to this return to my book club intervention from Saturday, March 5, 2001 was the 2nd Reading (Year A) from Mass for this the 2nd Sunday of Lent:
“With me, bear the hardships for the sake of the Good News, relying on the power of God who has saved us and called us to be holy – not because of anything we ourselves have done but for his own purpose and by his own grace. This grace had already been granted to us, in Christ Jesus, before the beginning of time, but it has only been revealed by the Appearing of our savior Christ Jesus. He abolished death, and he has proclaimed life and immortality through the Good News.” II Timothy 1:8-10
I think it fair to say that Lorenzo Scupoli did not “whip up anything in his own little kitchen”; his teaching in “The Spiritual Combat” stands within the tradition and bears no small resemblance to St. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy and to us. We have everything to be gained by enriching our Lenten reading with the approved authors of today and also of once upon a time.