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

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Spiritual Combat: Learning How to Fall

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

Today, I fell.  It wasn't the first time, and it probably won't be the last.

One of the most valuable lessons I ever learned from my martial arts training was the lesson on how to fall.  Whether falling because of a punch, a kick, or a reaping throw, it's important to avoid compounding the injury by falling in such a way that one aggravates the injury further or causes an additional injury.  In combat, particularly combat in earnest in which one's life is in danger, a poorly-managed fall might be a personally eschatological event: The End.

It is always better to fall in such a way that one ends up in a position to recover, facing one's opponent and being ready to continue the fight; it is best not to give up the fight for one's life prematurely.  And this is easy to do; battle-weariness can set in relatively quickly, especially without undergoing the training necessary to acclimatize to extended combat in both the toll it takes on our musculature and the toll it takes on our mind as we reel from being in crisis mode and the rush of adrenaline.

The longer our fight, the more tempting it becomes to see the battle as a futile exercise that we cannot win, to lose hope and let ourselves be destroyed by the one would take us to the end of our story.  It becomes difficult to see how the author might write a happy ending to our story, so why not resign ourselves to the catastrophic and tragic end?  Why not lie down, exhausted from the combat, after fighting for a time?

This same malaise that can get us killed, our physical bodies ruined and tossed in the dirt, very much afflicts the spirit as well.  It is tempting to see the spiritual combat as a futile exercise, a battle that we cannot hope to win, and let ourselves be destroyed by our adversary.  When we fall in the spiritual combat, we so often do not fall very well; we fall in such a way that we will aggravate our existing spiritual weaknesses and even cause new spiritual wounds to be opened.  So we need someone to teach us how to fall.

Lorenzo Scupoli has a valuable lesson on falling in The Spiritual Combat, a spiritual classic in both Western and Eastern Christianity.

"The presumptuous man is convinced that he has acquired a distrust of himself and confidence in God, but his mistake is never more apparent than when some fault is committed. For, if he yields to anger and despairs of advancing in the way of virtue, it is evident that he has placed his confidence in himself and not in God. The greater the anxiety and despondence, the greater is the certainty of his guilt.
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."

It is natural to feel sorrow when we fall, because it strikes at our sense of self-confidence, but Scupoli advises us that the right way to deal with a fall is to both feel the sorrow and peace of mind as we fall.  He points out that we should expect to fall, knowing that our limitations and weaknesses make us prone to it, and this is true physically as well as spiritually.  We are indeed fragile creatures who can be pushed over easily or lose our balance on our own without any prodding.

And just as peace of mind is important to surviving a spiritual fall and continuing the fight, I've learned that peace of mind is important for doing the same in a physical fall.  It seems counter-intuitive given our instincts, but the best thing to do when falling is to relax.  This reduces the likelihood of injury and mitigates the damage done by injuries which do occur because rather than being brittle when we hit the ground, we can roll with it and transfer the force so that our bodies are not absorbing the entire impact.

And in the same way, peace of mind is important when falling in the spiritual combat; it reduces the damage done to us because when we fall trusting in God to catch us, He absorbs some of the impact and we do not have to absorb the full impact of our falls so that it wounds us severely.  In the same way that we trust that the earth will be there to catch us when we fall physically (though it will hurt when we are caught), we must learn to trust that God will be there to catch us when we fall spiritually.

Though it will likely hurt when we fall upon the Rock of Love, our insecurities shattering upon impact, we will survive and be better for the fall.  Learning how to fall is not merely a matter of self-protection, but also a matter of development; falling well is a habit which will serve us well in the spiritual combat we all face as we seek the light of His face in the Beatific Vision.

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