He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Spiritual Combat: Learning Our Weaknesses

You can listen to the embedded podcast version of this 3-part series or read the written version below.

I noticed many weaknesses in myself today.  Sore knees, rough feet, a bad attitude at times, and less prayer than I ought to do.

I didn't always notice my weaknesses.  When we are children, we often suffer from the illusion of invincibility if nothing teaches us over and over that we have many weaknesses, that we are fragile creatures.  A great setting in which to acquire that teaching is in martial arts training.  Even with all the stubbornness and pathological independence I brought to my teenage years, I was not able to maintain the illusion of invincibility after losing matches to men in their 60s who were faster and stronger than I was.

Getting punched in the face (by a man to whom my 6' 205lb self was giving several inches of height and a hundred pounds in weight) and seeing stars fill my vision as my skull was compressed by the force was an unavoidable lesson in my weaknesses in the face of a larger opponent.  My instructor, in his wisdom, had arranged for me to spar with many different opponents, to suffer from many different attacks so that I could learn my own weaknesses and learn to defend myself from the attacks.

He didn't do this to be cruel, but rather to help me to be transformed into an effective fighter who could train others in combat and defend others who were being attacked.  He was helping me to learn the lessons needed to survive and thrive so that I might help others survive and thrive.  He was helping me to unlearn my youthful pride, the pride that is deadly in combat against any or many opponents who may be faster or stronger than we are.

This pride that is often deadly in physical combat is also deadly in the spiritual combat, the fight to unite ourselves with divine love.  We need a teacher who can help us to overturn our deadly pride and learn our weaknesses, as Lorenzo Scupoli explains in The Spiritual Combat.

"If God Himself, in order to open their eyes and to show them the true path of perfection, should send them crosses, sickness, or severe persecutions, the surest trials of His servant's fidelity, which never happen unless by his plan and permission, then the degenerate condition of their hearts is laid bare through their own extravagant pride. In all the events of this life, whether happy or not, they know nothing of a proper conformity to the Will of God. They do not know how to yield to His almighty power, to submit to His judgments which are as just as they are secret and impenetrable. They do not know how to imitate Christ Crucified, as He humbled Himself before all men; nor do they know how to love their enemies as the instruments used by God's goodness to train them to self-denial and to help not only in their future salvation, but in greater sanctification of their daily life.
This is the very reason why they are in imminent danger of being lost. With eyes blinded by self-love, they examine themselves and their actions which are  not otherwise blameworthy, and they are inflated with vanity. They conclude that they are far advanced towards God and they readily look down on their neighbor: in fact, their pride often will so increase their blindness, that their conversion cannot be effected without a miracle of grace.
Experience proves that acknowledged sinners are reformed with less difficulty than those who wilfully hide themselves under the cloak of a false virtue. From this you can easily understand that the spiritual life does not consist in the practice enumerated above, if they are considered only in their outward appearance."

In the spiritual combat, our teacher is God Himself, the Saints are students who are advanced, and we are generally the beginners.  Just as my martial arts instructor helped me to find my weaknesses so that I could grow in strength and learn effective physical combat, God helps us to find our weaknesses so that we can grow in love and learn effective spiritual combat.

When I was younger, I thought that God was being cruel, sending me struggles just to watch me squirm.  But now I have learned that he is the eternal teacher; He was helping me to learn the lessons needed to overcome my reliance on my own strength while ignoring my own weaknesses.

In those moments when I find myself facing off against a strong temptation which is much larger than my self-control, I know that this is part of training in the spiritual combat, that it is teaching me my weaknesses so that I do not fall prey to pride and helping me to learn how to fight for the sake of love.

He is teaching me so that I can grow strong, able to help others who are fighting their own battles in the spiritual combat, so that we can fight together and die to sin together and rise to new life in Love together.

Learning How to Fall - Learning Our Weaknesses - Learning of True Victory

Note:  This is the cover photo on my copy of The Spiritual Combat.

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