Back to the Basics: The Foundations of the Spiritual Life and Our Relation to Sin

By: Colton Marks, Student of St. Louis University

The age following the Protestant Revolution sparked many of the greatest saints and spiritual masters known to mankind. This time period spanning the 16th and 17th centuries produced numerous Doctors of the Church such as Francis de Sales, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Alphonsus Liguori as well as other great saints, which include Ignatius of Loyola, Philip Neri and Charles Borromeo. In this golden age of great saints, ascetical and devotional writings on the spiritual life also reached a height of mystical greatness. In reading these great works prayerfully such as The Interior Castle, The Introduction to the Devout Life, Dark Night of the Soul, etc., the  heart begins to experience sincere conversion as the sanctity of the author infuses itself into the greatest depths of your soul. Because of their challenging, sanctifying and intense qualities, these writings deserve great praise. Though esteemed writers themselves, the saints also read great spiritual writings which inspired their sanctity. Amongst these great Saints of the 16th and 17th centuries, there lies a man whose spiritual writings became loved by many even though Holy Mother Church never canonized him.

Known by legend as the favorite writer of St. Francis de Sales, Dom Lorenzo Scupoli (1530-1610), an Italian Theatine, penned The Spiritual Combat which contains a guide to spiritual perfection and warfare against Satan. The Doctor of Charity, St Francis De Sales, not only read this esteemed text every day but also recommended it to all those under his direction. Legend also recounts that Scupoli personally gave this treatise to St. Francis De Sales when they met in Padua. The great praise and recommendation of a Church Doctor seems to be good enough reason to probe into Scupoli’s writings. As we walk in our path of sanctity, reading hidden gems such as The Spiritual Combat will give us a good understanding of how the saints ascended to holiness through the help of intense writings, and likewise, will motivate us to imitate them.

After many months of acknowledging the existence of this book and being willing to read it, my friend sent me a copy in the mail for a casual quarantine spiritual journey. However, my experience thus far has been anything but casual. The Spiritual Combat, in the first twelve pages, flipped my soul on its head, leading to intensive reflection and engagement with my path towards spiritual perfection. Not only does this work introduce concepts which happen to be essential to the spiritual life and are rarely taught anymore, it also is so engaging that one cannot possibly read it with sincere attention and remain lukewarm. This book embodies great spiritual writing since it draws you in and forces you either to reject its diagnosis for the soul, or intensely run towards Christ and pursue deeper sanctity. Therefore, in this article I aim to present the foundations of the spiritual life according to the first six chapters of this holy treatise which revolve around distrust of self and total confidence in God, and our relationship to sin, and hopefully, through a movement of the Holy Ghost, you may feel inclined to accept Dom Lorenzo Scupoli as a director of your soul. So let us now venture, with a contemplative soul, into this profoundly humbling treatise of Dom Scupoli as we explore the foundational principles of the spiritual life, why they are important, and how we must proceed with this newfound understanding, primarily in our relation to sin. Back to the basics we go. 

“CHRISTIAN SOUL! If you seek to reach the loftiest peak of perfection, and to unite yourself so intimately with God that you become one with spirit with Him, you must first know the true nature and perfection of spirituality in order to succeed in the most sublime undertaking that can be experienced or imagined” (3). This true nature and perfection of spirituality, of which Dom Scupoli finds entirely necessary to understand before any attempt may be made in a noble pursuit of Heaven, dwells primarily in the interior of the human soul. This impulse for holiness begins from our inward dispositions which ultimately inspire and affect but are not caused by our outward actions. “Since exterior works are nothing more than dispositions for achieving true piety, or the effects of real piety, it cannot be said that Christian perfection and true piety consist in them” (3). Scupoli even goes as far to say that these external actions, when treated as more important than internal depth of intimacy with Christ, can drastically increase vanity and pride which are the greatest forces against sanctity. This distinction is crucial since an improper ordering of internal movements of the heart and external actions can cause the loss of one’s soul to eternal fires. “It [the spiritual life] actually consists in knowing the infinite greatness and goodness of God, together with a true sense of our weakness and tendency to evil, in loving God and hating ourselves, in humbling ourselves not only before Him, but for His sake, before all men, in renouncing entirely our own will in order to follow His. It consists, finally, in doing all of this solely for the glory of His Holy Name, for only one purpose—–to please Him, for only one motive—–that He should be loved and served by all His creatures” (6).

To attain this sole end of the spiritual life, one must wage warfare against his fallen nature and the attacks of Satan. This task will be the most arduous of one’s life and will need the utilization of necessary tools. No great saint, in order to reach full union with God in Heaven, lived within the comfortable means of their earthly lives. Great saints recognized that this life is in no way for them but instead an opportunity to give their lives back to God who shed his blood for them. This intensity of surrender, required for salvation, is rarely preached from the pulpits and seldomly engaged with in Catholic discussions. But now is the time to swallow our pride, give our lives to Christ and live for no other reason than the consolations of Heaven. If we take our salvation seriously, we must be willing to die to self and intensely pursue the cross which cannot occur in the slightest if we are not surrendering our lives to God, thus, leading us to the four weapons which Dom Scupoli demands we employ in order to win the war for our souls. These weapons include total distrust of self, unwavering confidence in God, proper use of the faculties of body and mind, and the duty of mental prayer. Here, I plan to expound upon the first two, for they hold primary importance and comprise, when united with a strong prayer life, the foundations of a holy life.

“DISTRUST OF SELF is so absolutely requisite in the spiritual combat, that without this virtue we cannot expect to defeat our weakest passions, much less gain a complete victory” (9). Why distrust ourselves? Because we are so fallen and incapable of good, due to the original sin of the first man, that left to our own merits we would destroy ourselves, becoming further and further trapped in the chains of Satan. To save our souls and live in eternal happiness one must surrender himself entirely to God, the Author of all Creation, and completely distrust himself because 1) He is owed our lives since He created us out of His love, 2) God ultimately wishes for us to recognize that only through his grace can we ascend to anything heavenly and longs for our salvation, knowing that only through total surrender to him can we attain it, and 3) we cannot possibly do this alone, for the human condition only naturally knows sin. This distrust will be an immensely difficult task because humans, by nature, are inclined to esteeming themselves and granting unearned merit to their actions; therefore, in order to obtain distrust, we must turn our souls away from their most natural inclination. This distrust of self must originate from the grace of God for it is a virtue which we are not naturally disposed to.

Dom Scupoli, in his fantastic direction provides four means to grow in distrust of self (9-10):

  1. We must meditate upon our own weaknesses. This act will be one of the most gut-wrenching yet sanctifying contemplations we will ever embark upon because of how contrary this practice will be to our fallen human nature. However, without a sincere reflection on what ways we specifically fail God the most, we can never progress to any level of sanctity worthy of intimacy with our Lord. These weaknesses and grave faults drastically hinder our ability to encounter our Lord and respond to His will for us. We should zealously glue ourselves to pen and paper until we have accounted for all the barricades which block our pursuit of Divine Love.
  2. We must beg humbly, earnestly, perseveringly and with great confidence for this virtue which must come from God alone
  3. We must continually and with greater increase distrust our own strength in relation to fighting temptation because when we try to fight Satan alone, his trickery and fiery deception will always reign supreme to our weak wills.
  4. In every occasion which sin and commit faults, we must immediately probe our souls to recognize points of vulnerability. Human weakness hinders our ability to take account of our offences and our sins if we do not take initiative within minutes or even seconds. Satan wishes intensely for this exact cycle to occur where we fall into sin, mindlessly carry on with our lives, say we will address the fault later in our nightly examination and fall asleep without ever scorning ourselves for acting contrary to charity. We are far too frail to wait and examine our minds too far into the future, so we must begin to probe and make resolutions as soon as we commit even the slightest fault. Without a diligent custody of our souls we will never overcome even minor sins, thus, remaining slaves to Satan. “As often as you commit a fault, therefore, immediately strive to probe your inner consciousness; earnestly beg our Lord to enlighten you, that you may see yourself as you are in His sight, and presume no more on your strength, otherwise you will fall again into the same faults, or perhaps much greater ones to the eternal ruin of your soul” (11).

Dom Scupoli then introduces us to the second foundation of the spiritual life: confidence in God. “ALTHOUGH DISTRUST of self is absolutely necessary as we have shown it to be in spiritual combat, nevertheless, if this is all we have to rely on, we will soon be routed, plundered, and subdued by the enemy. To it, therefore, we must join firm confidence in God, the Author of all good, to whom alone the victory must be expected” (13). Distrust of self can be warranted simply by observing your capacity to face temptation and evil apart from the grace of God, prayer, and spiritual weapons; however, confidence in God, when channeled in the exercises of prayer further fulfills our pursuit of salvation, for “There is nothing of greater efficacy in obtaining the assistance of Heaven than placing complete confidence in God” (13).

Scupoli also provides four means for attaining confidence in God (13-14).

  1. Ask God for this profound virtue with great humility. We must remember that to ask humbly we must be ready to change our lives and our hearts in total surrender to Our Lord. We must stir up a desire to lay down our lives at the foot of the cross, knowing that our sinful ways will lead to nothing more than eternal misery. This requirement of humility can only be fulfilled when we recognize how infinitely much we NEED God.
  2. “Contemplate with an ardent faith the immense power and infinite wisdom of the Supreme Being” (13). We must always and everywhere attempt to grasp the eternal glory of God. In doing so, we will eventually realize the insufficiency of our ability to understand His heavenly realities. This recognition of our inability should all the more show us just how magnificent, infinite and glorious He really is. 
  3. Recall the promise of the Holy Scriptures that “no one who puts his trust in God will be defeated” (14). David acts as our prime example both in how to totally trust God with all faculties and how to do the exact opposite. The epitome of David’s trust comes with his battle against Goliath in which, by the power of God, he conquered such a fierce warrior against all odds. However, David, specifically in his betrayal of Uriah and affair with Bathsheba, clearly displays how confident he became in his worldly and kingly power, thus, leading to his own sin and despair.
  4. With every action we must continually keep in mind our own weaknesses and the eternal power of God. This balance of contemplation between distrust in self and confidence in God allows us to constantly recall what we fear in ourselves and what we hope for in the divine love of God, thus, properly ordering our lives towards total surrender.To love God involves a constant mindfulness of his grace and how we fail him. Without a constant account and recourse to God throughout our days, we allow for Satan’s deceptions to slip through the cracks.

Dom Scupoli, confident in his direction, writes, “But if we neglect this method, though we may flatter ourselves that we are actuated by a principle of confidence in God, we will usually be deceived” (14). This deception comes at the hand of presumption in which we fail to recognize our continual lacking of such a profound virtue, insisting that we now possess it. Therefore, constant recollection of the power of God and weakness of ourselves is requisite in ridding us of false confidence, thus, saving us from the snares of pride. “Consequently, in order to destroy all presumption and to sanctify every action and the two virtues opposite to this vice, the consideration of one’s own weakness must precede that of the Divine Power. Both of these must precede all undertakings” (15).

Our progress in attaining these virtues can be seen through how we interact with and respond to sin. This will become another crucial step in the attainment of spiritual perfection. Dom Scupoli exclaims,

“The man who has a deep distrust of himself and places great confidence in God is not at all surprised if he commits a fault. He does not abandon himself to confused despair; he correctly attributes what has happened to his own weakness and lack of confidence in God. Thus, he learns to distrust himself more, and he places all his hopes in the assistance of the Almighty. He detests beyond all things the sin into which he has fallen; he condemns the passion or criminal habit that occasioned his fall; he conceives a deep sorrow for his offense against God. But his sorrow, accompanied by peace of mind, does not interrupt the method he has laid down, nor does it prevent the pursuit of his enemies to their final destruction” (17).

Why is this response to sin so fundamentally important to our development in virtue? Because how we respond to sin indicates how we trust in Christ, primarily in the merits of his cross. It will also make clear whether we care more about ourselves or Christ. When we sin, if we proceed with a heart confidently entrusted to the love of Christ, then we will ardently examine and prepare our consciences for the confessional in order to cleanse our souls and return to perfect union with Christ. Through this sentiment we show a trust in the merits of the cross and a longing for salvation. On the contrary, if sin drives us into despair where we mope around and stray from prayerful practices, then we, in our extensive pride, show a distrust in the fact that Christ has won. This sentiment usually delays our arrival to the confessional significantly because we turn so inward that we only see life as it relates to our improperly ordered sorrow. Why do we struggle so much to place our confidence in the victory of Christ? Did he not endure betrayal, mockery, scourings, immense tortures, agony, despair, and the total pouring forth of his own blood for our sake? Did he not carry the cross up that most sacred hill along the via dolorosa? In looking at the passion and death of our Lord, we should be filled with the greatest of all confidences because Christ has won, and Satan has been devastatingly crushed. Christus Vincit. Christus Regnat. Christus Imperat. Christ wills for us to be united to him and likewise conquered the grave so that exact desire of his will could be fulfilled. Why bother wallowing in your sin and shame when you can expediently be reunited to the God who loves you so much?

Of course, we should be immensely sorrowful for our sins; however, let us rejoice, be glad and trust in the Lord because these were the exact sins He suffered for so that they may be pardoned. This sentiment leads Dom Lorenzo to write, “Their principal care should be to wash away the guilt of sin in the Sacrament of Penance and to fortify themselves with the Eucharist against a relapse” (18). Too often in the spiritual life we fall into deep sin, and, before asking for Our Lord’s forgiveness with a sorrowful and contrite heart, we begin to converse with friends and elders regarding the state of our soul and the despair we have encountered since sinning in such a grave way. Has not Christ given you intimate and sacramental means in order to attain pardon for your sins and the graces necessary to pursue virtue? Then why do we find it necessary to trouble others with our sorrow in a rather self-centered way instead of running to the confessional in full confidence of Our Lord’s profound forgiveness? As much as I probably wish my friends could forgive my sins sacramentally, this will never be the case, and I only do greater harm to my soul the longer I wait to receive the sacramental graces of which our Lord desires to grant. Nothing is more purifying than the confessional and nothing can surpass the Holy Eucharist in its sustaining and sanctifying effects. Therefore, profound confidence in God will show us how important it is for the soul to immediately seek these holy Sacraments as our sole refuge. Let us remember to never give sin more heed than needed. Therefore, we must reserve discussion of our sin for only those times of necessity (during private examination, spiritual direction with a director and when they can be forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation).

This pursuit of total confidence in God and distrust in self will be most necessary in the attainment of salvation, warranting our total attention always and everywhere. The praise and contemplation of the greatness of God, which aids in our confidence, must continually be in our minds and hearts, thus, never stopping in our surrender to God. It is time we ardently pursue Christ and take intense reign over our spiritual lives. In the end, to be great Saints we must WILL it. Lorenzo Scupoli, in The Spiritual Combat, speaks with great dignity regarding the need for a zealous and ardent surrender to our Creator. To do anything less will bring about the ruin of our souls. Through this article, I have aimed to show the necessity for focusing on the foundational virtues, distrust in self and confidence in God, needed to attain salvation, yet I only scratched the surface of the contemplative genius contained within this most holy treatise. Only through God’s grace could I give any worthy recounting of such a masterpiece of devotional piety. The only thing that remains is a challenge to engage with this profound text on your own, take Dom Lorenzo Scupoli as a director, and with great fervor give your life to God in full confidence. The choice is now yours and the adventure awaits.

Sancte Francisce De Sales, Ora Pro Nobis!

Scupoli, Lorenzo, et al. The Spiritual Combat and a Treatise on Peace of Soul. TAN Classics, 2010.

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

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