Saturday, March 5, 2011

Book Club Material

“The Spiritual Combat”
by Lorenzo Scupoli (Scriptoria, 2009)
“Spiritual Combat Revisited”
by Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory (Ignatius, 2003)

            This is the one time so far in my life when I really wished I were part of a book club or where I was half-tempted to organize one. I would love to have not only blog comment input on why one of the spiritual best sellers of the last half millennium passed me by until age 60, but I’d love to hear what others have to say about both of these books. I’d want to ask the members of my club about their reading and make with them a plan for re-launching Scupoli. The Spiritual Combat by Lorenzo Scupoli should be on that same “active shelf” of a Catholic’s hand library together with The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.
I’ve asked folk younger than me: “Have you ever heard of The Spiritual Combat by Lorenzo Scupoli?” and gotten reactions similar to my own after my last reread on retreat of St. Francis de Sales “Introduction to the Devout Life”. St. Francis recommends Scupoli as an authority and now that I have finally found and read the book for the first time and not the last, I can see why. After a couple of Google Searches, I would have probably given up on the book as hopelessly out of print had I not stumbled upon Fr. Robinson of the Toronto Oratory’s book and found there even more encouragement, discovering more of the de Sales link to the book and also of Blessed Cardinal Newman’s enthusiasm for Scupoli.
Fr. Robinson quotes a London, Burns and Oates edition of 1963. Amazon actually offers a couple English editions, but I am glad I happened upon the Scriptoria choice which is less antique and eminently readable in English.
Fr. Robinson succeeds well in describing the importance for the spiritual life of Scupoli’s work by mining the riches of St. Francis de Sales and Blessed Cardinal Newman. He analyses and confronts contemporary disenchantment with the central motion of Scupoli’s book, namely struggle to attain virtue for love of God and the longing to be with Him in His Kingdom. In his Epilogue, Father Robinson respectfully confronts the criticism which Hans Urs von Balthasar leveled at St. John of the Cross, as contemplative or mystic author par excellence, the “remarkable lacuna in St. John’s thought, the yawning gap where the Church should be” (p. 282). Perhaps here Fr. Robinson offers his own answer to my search for an explanation to the half century or more “eclipse” of Scupoli?

“Whether or not this criticism can be sustained in the case of St. John of the Cross, it certainly does give expression to the suspicion that the spiritual life is essentially a selfish one. It is thought to be selfish, that is, both in the sense that it is an isolated and introverted cultivation of the self as well as in the sense of its having no interest in, or concern for, other people. Neither of these understandings of selfishness can be taken as applying to either St. Jane Frances or St. Francis. At the center of the most fundamental relationship of all, that is, between the soul and God, there is (for both of them) the presence of the beloved other; a beloved loved indeed, in God, and not in the place of God, but loved and served as what God has created and God loves.” (p. 282)
“If we today, with some right, demand a more open and less constricted way to divine intimacy, then we must also relearn the Gospel lesson, repeated by the saints and prophets of the spiritual life, that the pearl of great price does not come cheap. We will have to learn to make the words of the dying saint (St. Jane Frances reflecting on the spiritual dialogue in Ostia between St. Augustine and his mother, St. Monica) our own: “And that is meant for me.” (p. 283)
For now I’ll stop at that with the firm purpose not to bury Jonathan Robinson’s book in my hand library and to come back very soon to “The Spiritual Combat”. It is my hope, in the not too distant future, to encounter folk who, when I ask about Lorenzo Scupoli will respond with a smile and tell me something of their dialogue with an old friend who has, I am convinced, much to say that would fill some if not most of the “yawning gaps” in the spiritual direction of the last 50 years!


From George said...

I am not so respectful of Hans Urs von Balthasar's comments about St John of the Cross. His lack of understanding of this great mystic whose Ascent of Mt Carmel and first book of The Dark Night of the Soul, are accessible to any serious student of the spiritual life. What gap, yawning or otherwise is there in his writing? Maybe the casual attention to perfection has brought on the present crisis in the Church? And anyone entertaining the thought that the spiritual life is selfish doesn't understand its source: Christ's crucifixion.

Thomas Gullickson said...

Your "casual attention to perfection" is what I suspect is rather a denial of the power of God's grace in the life of the individual: that quiet desperation creeping out of the Protestant Reformation. This denial of the freedom of the children of God invites us to come to know St. John of the Cross, all the Church Fathers and Doctors, and of course my new found friend Lorenzo Scupoli :) who knew, thought and taught otherwise.

Anonymous said...

I recently purchased Spiritual Combat - the English translation from Sophia Institute Press - and will now add it to my Lenten reading pile. Maybe you should start a virtual book club :).

Anonymous said...

Whoops...Respect Life is me, Kelly Benson. I'm a blog posting rookie.:)

Thomas Gullickson said...

Hi, Kelly!