The Spiritual Combat


The Spiritual Combat
by Father Dom Lorenzo Scupoli

"Novi coronabitur nisi qui legitime certaverit." 2Timothy 2:5

(None is vanquished in this spiritual combat but he who
ceases to struggle and loses confidence in God.

"He does not receive the Victor's Crown unless he fights well" - 2Timothy 2:5)

Of the Essence of Christian Perfection -
Of the Struggle Requisite for its Attainment -
And of the Four Things Needful in this Conflict


Would you attain in Christ the height of perfection, and by a nearer and nearer approach to God become one spirit with Him? Before undertaking this greatest and noblest of all imaginable enterprises, you must first learn what constitutes the true and perfect spiritual life. For many have made it to consist exclusively in austerities, maceration of the flesh, hair-shirts, disciplines, long vigils and fasts, and other like bodily hardships and penance's. Others, especially women, fancy they have made great progress therein, if they say many vocal prayers, hear many Masses and long Offices, frequent many churches, receive many communions. Others (and those sometimes among cloistered religious) are persuaded that perfection depends wholly upon punctual attendance in choir, upon silence, solitude, and regularity. And thus, some in these, others in various similar actions, suppose that the foundations of perfection may be laid.

But it is not so indeed; for as some of these are means to acquire grace, others fruits of grace, they cannot be held to constitute Christian perfection and the true life of grace. They are unquestionably most powerful means, in the hands of those who use them well and discreetly, of acquiring grace in order to gain strength and vigor against their own sinfulness and weakness, to defend themselves against our common enemies, to supply all those spiritual aids so necessary to all the servants of God, and especially to beginners in the spiritual life. Again, they are fruits of grace in truly spiritual persons, who chastise the body because it has offended its Creator, and in order to keep it low and submissive in His service; who keep silence and live solitary that they may avoid the slightest offense against their Lord, and converse with heaven; who attend divine worship, and give themselves to works of piety; who pray and meditate on the life and passion of our Lord, not from curiosity or sensible pleasure, but that they may know better and more deeply their own sinfulness, and the goodness and mercy of God, _ enkindle ever more and more within their hearts the love of God and the hatred of themselves, following the Son of God with the Cross upon their shoulders in the way of self_abnegation; who frequent the holy sacraments, to the glory of His Divine Majesty, to unite themselves more closely with God, and to gain new strength against His enemies.

But these external works, though all most holy in themselves, may yet, by the fault of those who use them as the foundation of their spiritual building, prove a more fatal occasion of ruin than open sins. Such persons leave their hearts unguarded to the mercy of their own inclinations, and exposed to the lurking deceits of the devil, who, seeing them out of the direct road, not only lets them continue these exercises with satisfaction, but leads them in their own vain imagination to expatiate on the delights of paradise, and to fancy themselves to be borne aloft amidst the angelic choir and to feel God within them. Sometimes they find themselves absorbed in high, or mysterious, and ecstatic meditations, and, forgetful of the world and of all that it contains, they believe themselves to be caught up to the third heaven.

But the life and conversation of such Persons prove the depth of the delusion in which they are held, and their great distance from the perfection after which we are inquiring; for in all things, great and small, they desire to be preferred and placed above others; they are wedded to their own opinion, and obstinate in their own will; and blind to their own faults, they are busy and diligent observers and critics of the deeds and words of others.

But touch only with a finger their point of honor, a certain vain estimation in which they hold themselves and would have others to hold them, interrupt their stereotyped devotions, and they are disturbed and offended beyond measure.

And if, to bring them back to the true knowledge of themselves and of the way of perfection, Almighty God should send them sickness, or sorrow, or persecution (that touchstone of His servants' loyalty, which never befalls them without His permission or command), then is the unstable foundation of their spiritual edifice discovered, and its interior, all corroded and defaced by pride, laid bare; for they refuse to resign themselves to the will of God, to acquiesce in His always righteous though mysterious judgments, in all events, whether joyful or sorrowful, which may befall them; neither will they, after the example of His Divine Son in His sufferings and humiliation, abase themselves below all creatures, accounting their persecutors as beloved friends, as instruments of God's goodness, and cooperators with Him in the mortification. perfection, and salvation of their souls.

Hence it is most certain that such persons are in serious danger; for, the inward eye being darkened, wherewith they contemplate themselves and these their external good works, they attribute to themselves a very high degree of perfection; and thus puffed up with pride they pass judgment upon others, while a very extraordinary degree of God's assisting grace is needed to convert themselves. For the open sinner is more easily converted and restored to God than the man who shrouds himself under the cloak of seeming virtue.

You see, then, very clearly that, as I have said, the spiritual life consists not in these things. It consists in nothing else but the knowledge of the goodness and the greatness of God, and of our nothingness and inclination to all evil; in the love of Him and the hatred of ourselves, in subjection, not to Him alone, but for love of Him, to all His creatures; in entire renunciation of all will of our own and absolute resignation to all His divine pleasure; and furthermore, willing and doing all this purely for the glory of God and solely to please Him, and because He so wills and merits thus to be loved and served.

This is the law of love, impressed by the hand of the Lord Himself upon the hearts of His faithful servants; this is the abnegation of self which He requires of us; this is His sweet yoke and light burden; this is the obedience to which, by His voice and His example, our Master and Redeemer calls us. In aspiring to such sublime perfection you will have to do continual violence to yourself by a generous conflict with your own will in all things, great or small, until it be wholly annihilated; you must prepare yourself, therefore, for the battle with all readiness of mind; for none but brave warriors shall receive the crown.

This is indeed the hardest of all struggles; for while we strive against self, self is striving against us, and therefore is the victory here most glorious and precious in the sight of God. For if you will set yourself to trample down and exterminate all your unruly appetites, desires, and wishes, even in the smallest and most inconsiderable matters, you will render a greater and more acceptable service to God than if you should discipline yourself to blood, fast more rigorously than hermits or anchorites of old, or convert millions of souls, and yet voluntarily leave even one of these evils alive within you. For although the conversion of souls is no doubt more precious to the Lord than the mortification of a fancy, nevertheless nothing should in your sight be of greater account than to will and to do that very thing which the Lord specially demands and requires of you. And He will infallibly be better pleased that you should watch and labor to mortify your passions than if, consciously and willfully leaving but one alive within you, you should serve Him in some other matter of greater importance in itself.

Now that you see wherein Christian perfection consists, and that it requires a continual sharp warfare against self, you must provide yourself with four most sure and necessary weapons, in order to secure the palm and gain the victory in this spiritual combat. These are:

Distrust of self, Trust in God; Spiritual exercises; Prayer.

Of all these we will, with the Divine assistance, treat briefly and plainly (in following Chapters)



Distrust of Self


So necessary is self-distrust in this conflict, that without it you will be unable, I say not to achieve the victory desired, but even to overcome the very least of your passions. And let this be well impressed upon your mind; for our corrupt nature too easily inclines us to a false estimate of ourselves; so that, being really nothing, we account ourselves to be something, and presume, without the slightest foundation, upon our own strength.

This is a fault not easily discerned by us, but very displeasing in the sight of God. For He desires and loves to see in us a frank and true recognition of this most certain truth, that all the virtue and grace which is within us is derived from Him alone, Who is the fountain of all good, and that nothing good can proceed from us, no, not even a thought which can find acceptance in His sight.

And although this very important self-distrust is itself the work of His Divine Hand, and is bestowed upon His beloved, now by means of holy inspirations, now by sharp chastisements and violent and almost irresistible temptations, and by other means which we ourselves do not understand; still it is His will that we on our part should do all in our power to attain it. I therefore set before you four methods, by the use of which, in dependence always on Divine grace, you may acquire this gift.

  • The first is, to know and consider your own vileness and nothingness, and your inability of yourself to do any good, by which to merit an entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
  • The second, continually to ask it of the Lord in fervent and humble prayer; for it is His gift. And in order to reach its attainment we must look upon ourselves not only as destitute thereof, but as of ourselves incapable of acquiring it. Present yourself, therefore, continually before the Divine Majesty, with an assured faith that He is willing of His great goodness to grant your petition; wait patiently all the time which His Providence appoints, and without doubt you shalt obtain it.
  • The third is, to stand in fear of your own judgment about yourself, of your strong inclination to sin, of the countless hosts of enemies against whom you are incapable of making the slightest resistance, of their long practice in open warfare and secret stratagem, of their transformations into angels of light, and of the innumerable arts and stares which they secretly spread for us even in the very way of holiness.
  • The fourth is, whenever you art overtaken by any fault, to look more deeply into yourself, and more keenly feel your absolute and utter weakness; for to this end did God permit your fall, that, warned by His inspiration and illumined by a clearer light than before, you may come to know yourself, and learn to despise yourself as a thing unutterably vile, and be therefore also willing to be so accounted and despised by others. For without this willingness there can be no holy self-distrust, which is founded on true humility and experimental self-knowledge.
This self-knowledge is clearly needful to all who desire to be united to the Supreme Light and Uncreated Truth; and the Divine Clemency often makes use of the fall of proud and presumptuous men to lead to It; justly suffering them to fall into some faults which they trusted to avoid by their own strength, that they may learn to know and absolutely distrust themselves.

Our Lord is not, however, wont to use so severe a method, until those more gracious means of which we have before spoken have failed to work the cure designed by His Divine Mercy. He permits a man to fall more or less deeply in proportion to his pride and self-esteem; so that if there were no presumption (as in the case of the Blessed Virgin Mary), there would be no fall.

Therefore, whenever you shall fall, take refuge at once in humble self-knowledge, and beseech the Lord with urgent entreaties to give you light truly to know yourself, and entire self-distrust, lest you should fall again. perhaps into deeper perdition.



Of Trust in God


Self-distrust, necessary as we have shown it to be in this conflict, is not alone sufficient. Unless we would be put to flight, or remain helpless and vanquished in the hands of our enemies, we must add to it perfect trust in God, and expect from Him alone succor and victory. For as we, who are nothing, can look for nothing from ourselves but falls, and therefore should utterly distrust ourselves; so from our Lord may we assuredly expect complete victory in every conflict. To obtain His help, let us therefore arm ourselves with a lively confidence in Him.

And this also may be accomplished in four ways:
  • First, by asking it of God.
  • Secondly, by gazing with the eye of faith at the infinite wisdom and omnipotence of God, to which nothing is impossible or difficult, and confiding in His unbounded goodness and unspeakable willingness to give, hour-by-hour and moment-by-moment, all things needful for the spiritual life, and perfect victory over ourselves, if we will but throw ourselves with confidence into His Arms. For how shall our Divine Shepherd, Who followed after His lost sheep for three-and-thirty years with loud and bitter cries through that painful and thorny way, wherein He spilt His Heart's Blood and laid down His life _ how shall He refuse to turn His quickening glance upon the poor sheep which now follows Him in obedience to His commands, or with a desire (though sometimes faint and feeble) to obey Him! When it cries to Him piteously for help, will He not hear, and laying it upon His Divine Shoulders, call upon His friends and all the angels of heaven to rejoice with Him? For if our Lord ceased not to search most diligently for the blind and deaf sinner, the lost drachma of the gospel, till He found him; can He abandon him who, like a lost sheep, cries and calls piteously upon his Shepherd? And if God knocks continually at the heart of man, desiring to enter in and sup there, and to communicate to it His gifts, who can believe that when that heart opens and invites Him to enter, He will turn a deaf ear to the invitation, and refuse to come in?
  • Thirdly, the third way to acquire this holy confidence is, to call to mind that truth so plainly taught in Holy Scripture, that no one who trusted in God has ever been confounded.
  • The fourth, which will serve at once towards the attainment of self-distrust and of trust in God, is this: when any duty presents itself to be done, any struggle with self to be made, any victory over self to be attempted, before proposing or resolving upon it, think first upon your own weakness; next turn, full of self-distrust, to the wisdom, the power, and the goodness of God; and in reliance upon these, resolve to labor and to fight generously. Then, with these weapons in your hands, and with the help of prayer (of which we shall speak in its proper place), set yourself to labor and to strive.
Unless you observe this order, though you may seem to yourself to be doing all things in reliance upon God, you will too often find yourself mistaken; for so common is a presumptuous self-confidence, and so subtle are the forms it assumes, that it lurks almost always even under an imagined self-distrust and fancied confidence in God.

To avoid presumption as much as possible, and in order that all your works may be wrought in distrust of self and trust in God, the consideration of your own weakness must precede the consideration of God's omnipotence; and both together must precede all your actions.



How a man may know whether he is active in
Self-Distrust and Trust in God


The presumptuous servant often supposes that he has acquired self-distrust and trust in God when the case is far otherwise.

And this will be made clear to thee by the effect produced on thy mind by a fall. If thou art so saddened and disquieted thereby as to be tempted to despair of making progress or doing good, it is a sure sign that thy trust is in self and not in God. For he who has any large measure of self-distrust and trust in God feels neither surprise, nor despondency, nor bitterness, when he falls; for he knows that this has arisen from his own weakness and want of trust in God. On the contrary, being, rendered thereby more distrustful of self, more humbly confident in God, detesting above all things his fault and the unruly passions which have occasioned it, and mourning with a quiet, deep, and patient sorrow over his offense against God, he pursues his enterprise, and follows after his enemies, even to the death, with a spirit more resolute and undaunted than before.

I would that these things were well considered by certain persons so called spiritual, who cannot and will not be at rest when they have fallen into any fault. They rush to their spiritual father, rather to get rid of the anxiety and uneasiness which spring from wounded self-love than for that purpose which should be their chief end in seeking him, to purify themselves from the stain of sin, and to fortify themselves against its power by means of the most Holy Sacrament of Penance.



Chapter V
Of the Error of Many, Who Mistake
for a Virtue


Many also deceive themselves in this way, they mistake the fear and uneasiness which follow after sin for virtuous emotions; and know not that these painful feelings spring from wounded pride, and a presumption which rests upon confidence in themselves and their own strength. They have accounted themselves to be something, and relied unduly upon their own powers. Their fall proves to them the vanity of this self-dependence, and they are immediately troubled and astonished as at some strange thing, and are disheartened at seeing the prop to which they trusted suddenly give way.

This can never befall the humble man, who trusts in his God alone, and in nothing presumes upon himself. Though grieved when he falls into a fault, he is neither surprised nor disquieted; for he knows that his own misery and weakness, already clearly manifest to himself by the light of truth, have brought all this upon him.



Chapter VI
Further directions how to attain Self-Distrust
and Trust in God


Since our whole power to subdue our enemies arises principally from self-distrust and trust in God, I will give you some further directions to enable you, by the Divine Assistance, to acquire it. Know, then, for a certain truth, that neither all gifts, natural or acquired, nor all graces given gratis, nor the knowledge of all Scripture, nor long habitual exercise in the service of God, will enable us to do His will, unless in every good and acceptable work to be performed, in every temptation to be overcome, in every peril to be avoided, in every Cross to be borne in conformity to His will, our heart be sustained and up-borne by an especial aid from Him, and His hand be outstretched to help us. We must, then, bear this in mind all our life long, every day, every hour, every moment, that we may never indulge so much as a thought of self-confidence.

And as to confidence in God, know that it is as easy to Him to conquer many enemies as few; the old and experienced as the weak and young.

Therefore we will suppose a soul to be heavy-laden with sins, to have every possible fault and every imaginable defect, and to have tried, by every possible means and every kind of Spiritual Exercise, to forsake sin and to practice holiness. We will suppose this soul to have done all this, and yet to have failed in making the smallest advance in holiness, nay, on the contrary, to have been borne the more strongly towards evil.

For all this she must not lose her trust in God, nor give over her spiritual conflict and lay down her arms, but still fight on resolutely, knowing that none is vanquished in this spiritual combat but he who ceases to struggle and loses confidence in God, whose succor never fails His soldiers, though He sometimes permits them to be wounded. Fight on, then, valiantly; for on this depends the whole issue of the strife; for there is a ready and effectual remedy for the wounds of all combatants who look confidently to God and to His aid for help; and when they least expect it they shall see their enemies dead at their feet.



Chapter VII
Of Spiritual Exercises,
and first of the Exercise of the Understanding,
which must be kept guarded against ignorance and curiosity


If in this warfare we are provided with no weapons except self-distrust and trust in God, needful as both these are, we shall not only fail to gain the victory over ourselves, but shall fall into many evils. To these, therefore, we must add the use of Spiritual Exercises, the third weapon named above.

And these relate chiefly to the Understanding and the Will.

As regards the Understanding, we must guard against two things which are apt to obscure it.

One is ignorance, which darkens it and impedes it in acquiring the knowledge of truth, the proper object of the understanding. Therefore it must be made clear and bright by exercise, that so it may be able to see and discern plainly all that is needful to purify the soul from disorderly passions, and to adorn it with saintly virtues.

This light may be obtained in two ways. The first and most important is prayer, imploring the Holy Ghost to pour it into our hearts. This He will not fail to do, if we in truth seek God alone and the fulfillment of His holy will, and if in all things we submit our Judgment to that of our spiritual father.

The other is, to exercise ourselves continually in a true and deep consideration of all things, to discover whether they be good or evil, according to the teaching of the Holy Ghost, and not according to their outward appearance, as they impress the senses or are judged of by the world.

This consideration, if rightly exercised will teach us to regard as falsehood and vanity all which the blind and corrupt world in so many various ways loves, desires, and seeks after. It will show us plainly that the honors and pleasures of earth are but vanity and vexation of spirit; that injury and infamy inflicted on us by the world bring true glory, and tribulations contentment; that to pardon our enemies and to do them good is true magnanimity, and an act which likens us most nearly to God; that to despise the world is better than to rule it; that voluntary obedience for the love of God to the meanest of His creatures is greater and nobler than to command mighty princes; and that the mortification and subjugation of our most trifling appetite is more glorious than the reduction of strong cities, the defeat of mighty armies, the working of miracles, or the raising of the dead.