SPIRITUAL COMBAT REVISITED
by Jonathan Robinson
(Ignatius Press, 2003, 305pp, $29.95. Available from AD Books )
This is a meat and potatoes, no-nonsense, down-to-earth guide to the spiritual life. Jonathan Robinson of the Toronto Oratory has synthesised, for the 21st century Christian who wants to get serious about following Christ, the wisdom of earlier writers on the ascetical life and on prayer.
Robinson uses Lorenzo Scupoli's 16th century work, Spiritual Combat, as the framework for Part One of this book, which deals with the fight every Christian is bound to engage in to overcome the vices and develop the virtues through an "asceticism of love", the goal of which is "an ever more intimate union in love between the individual and Christ".
The author presents challenging and unpalatable truths clearly. On self-distrust and humility he writes, "The important thing is that there should be no denial of truth or deliberate falseness about ourselves. We must not try to force ourselves into a false feeling either of inferiority and wickedness or, on the other hand, of superiority and holiness. Gradually, as we go on with life, and with our prayer, the truth of our incapacity for good when left to ourselves, as well as the strength of bad habits and of the forces of evil arrayed against us, become ever more apparent to us."
By closely following a 16th century work, Robinson rescues for us some important insights into spiritual combat that are less likely to occur to a 21st century Christian. For example, Scupoli addresses his spiritual exercises "concerning the understanding" to two major problems - ignorance and curiosity. The latter surprises us, but Robinson shows how curiosity can damage us in the spiritual life in several ways, including uncritical curiosity "inhibiting our capacity to judge what is really important" and the curiosity to actually experience sin (for example, sexual sin or drunkenness) just to "know what it is like".
Robinson gives a lucid explanation of the role the examination of conscience should play in the daily life of a serious Christian. He highlights Scupoli's "constructive attitude towards sin and evil tendencies; they must be fought; but setbacks and temporary failures are to be used to teach us patience and humility: 'So shall we extract honey from the poison and healing from the wound'."
No short cuts
Part Two of this book deals with the Development of Prayer. Robinson organises his discussion on prayer around a 12th century work, The Ladder of Monks, by Carthusian Abbot Guigo II. He stresses the "four rungs" of reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation. Robinson is insistent that there are no short cuts in prayer: "I believe that any doctrine of what today is called 'centering prayer', which is indifferent to the demands of the ascetical life, is seriously in error". Robinson effectively uses quotations from the classics of mystical theology, including St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila and the Cloud of Unknowing to buttress this point.
Part Three is really an extended exhortation to the reader to respond generously to Christ's call, to overcome our "divided hearts" by aiming to move "from the shadows of life, from timidity and a desire for security, into an existence led courageously for Christ in the full light of day."
As well as the works already mentioned, Robinson draws extensively on the writings of St Philip Neri (founder of the Oratory), the Venerable John Henry Newman, St Francis de Sales and St Jane Frances de Chantal, St Thomas Aquinas, John Cassian and Jean-Pierre de Caussade. He utilises the Catechism of the Catholic Church effectively to illustrate how the teaching he is presenting on the spiritual life is the ascetic tradition approved by the Church.
This book would make excellent reading for Lent, or indeed whenever we realise it is time that we got serious about the Christian life.
Richard Egan is WA State President of the National Civic Council.