I began to spiritually prepare for Lent a few weeks ago by learning more about a subject I knew little about: spiritual combat. This is a broader subject than I expected to find. I pictured literature littered with angels, demons, St. Michael the Archangel, and prayers in Latin (actually I hoped for Latin).
In reality, this includes a variety of texts such as C.S. Lewis\’ The Screwtape Letters, The Interior Castle by St. Theresa of Avila, Abandonment to Divine Providence by Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, The Secret of the Rosary by St. Louis de Montfort, Imitation of Christ by St. Thomas á Kempis, The Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius of Loyola, and many others. Several of these may be found online, legally, for free.
My current reading, Spiritual Combat by Fr. Lawrence Scuopli, was recommended to me as a serious introduction into spiritual combat. This work was written in the late sixteenth-century and was a favorite of St. Francis de Sales.
First, why do we characterize anything in the spiritual as combat? What are we fighting over or for? The answer is our souls.
Fr. Scuopli summarizes this combat in the maxim \”Fight or die.\” The death he speaks of is eternal separation from God. In other words, we must move forward lest we be thrown back by the Evil One. Think of this as the spiritual equivalent to fight or flight without the \’flight\’ part.
Spiritual combat is for the salvation of our souls. In this battle there can be no non-combatants or inactivity. Each of us must engage in this battle against temptation, selfishness, sin, and spiritual attacks. The battlefield may yield temporal difficulties or benefits but the main point of conflict is in the will of a person — turning the will away from ourselves and conforming it to the Divine will.
\”Fight or die.\” I found this both frightening and encouraging at first. Frightening because there is no safe zone or easy path, and the consequences of giving up or refusing to fight are eternal. I found solace in this directive because, from my point of view, there is no choice. I must fight.
Even though I am in my late-20s, I’ve never thought of my prayer life or the sacraments as aids in a battle for my soul or that I was even engaged in spiritual warfare. I saw them as channels of grace but certainly not weapons or anything of the sort. This was probably because I was very skeptical of spiritual warfare. But, as I was once told, the Devil is happiest when you think he doesn’t exist or is ineffective.
Scuopli\’s work gives four weapons for the spiritual combatant: distrust of self, trust in God, spiritual exercises, and prayer. Before continuing, I have found in the majority of works on spiritual warfare they describe, either explicitly or implicitly, the severe difficulty the warrior faces at the onset of leaving their old self behind.
We are still weighed down by sin and temptation. This is not to say the actual sin itself, if absolution has been given, but the habit of sin, the mental outlook sin causes or encourages, and all the desires that feed our sinfulness. A part of this is severing the bonds with worldly desires and honors that impair our ability to follow the Divine will in all things. The large, obvious vices are easy to spot, hopefully. The need to overcome them is clear and we can overcome them through prayer and perseverance. But, it is the small vices and indulgences we make excuses for that bind us tightest. Those little pleasures we are unwilling to part with that keep us furthest from following God in all things. Since we are in the Lenten season, this is a good time to begin our denial of self and those worldly weights.
Of the four weapons, ‘distrust of self’ may seem confusing at first, and it is a part of the foundation for the rest of Spiritual Combat. An important aspect of this is the fact that you are incomplete and unable to achieve victory alone. Self-reliance is ok, but in spiritual combat you need to rely on the Lord and any aid he sends you.
How often do we trust our own will to overcome a sin without prayer or the sacraments? By distrusting our ability to go it alone we can more easily place our faith in Christ. Self-knowledge is key to the distrust of self. Our individual inclinations to sin, our pride, our inability to follow Christ in all things, our excuses, and our own weakness are all characteristics of ourselves we should know well.
The rest of Spiritual Combat holds several other themes, but an important one is that suffering and conflict is good for us. St. Thomas á Kempis wrote, “Without labor, there is no rest, and without fighting, no victory.”
It is easy to become war-weary in the spiritual life. When we overcome those big vices in our lives, we can become complicit in the smaller ones with the simple phrase “at least I am not doing X”. But, that is giving up the fight. Excuses give us reasons to justify our actions and thoughts even when they blatantly contradict God’s will.
“This alone is your concern, to fight manfully, and never, however numerous your wounds, to lay down your arms or take to flight. Lastly, that you fail not to fight courageously bear in mind that this is a conflict whence there is no escape; and that he who will not fight must needs be captured or slain. Moreover, we have to deal with enemies so powerful, and go filled with deadly hate, as to leave us no hope of either peace or truce.”
Fr. Scuopli’s work guides you through these conflicts with very practical approaches. Spiritual warfare is so much more than simply memorizing prayers. What Spiritual Combat outlines is way to reorient yourself to God in your will. The chapters are short and each aspect of spiritual warfare has step-by-step methods to strengthening your spiritual arm. This is neither a short nor easy process. The battle only ends with death.
During Lent we abstain from meat, sacrifice by adding and subtracting from our lives and, hopefully, pray more. It is important to remember why we do these things in the first place. These Lenten promises have turned into just another thing we Catholics do around this time of year, but the point of sacrificing is to draw closer to Christ and to paradoxically strengthen ourselves by not focusing on our own desires.
When you are making your Lenten promises keep in mind their primary purposes is your relationship with God and the good of your soul not your waistline.
“Moreover, I warn you that you must bring great steadfastness of soul to this conflict. And this gift you will readily obtain if you beseech it of God; considering, on the one hand, the undying hatred and fury of your enemies, and the vast multitude of their ranks and squadrons; and, on the other, how infinitely greater is the goodness of God and the love wherewith He loves you, and how much mightier, too, are the angels of heaven, and the prayers of the saints, which fight for us.” – Fr. Scuopli Spiritual Combat