Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Spiritual Armory: Top Ten Guides To Spiritual Warfare

The spiritual life of a Christian is not easy - nearly every moment presents new challenges, new and harder decisions to make, new opportunites to serve or reject Christ, new temptations, ad infinitum.  I quote it all the time, I know, but the words of St. Symeon the New Theologian are dead on when he says that the soldiers of Christ must engage in this warfare constantly.

If this be true, and if the devil really is prowling like a roaring lion, then we are going to need to be equipped for the battle.  Here then are ten weapons that comprise a small but effective armory in the spiritual war against the flesh and the devil:

1.  The Sinner's Guide - Ven. Louis of Granada

"To turn a river from its course is hardly more laborious than to change a life confirmed by inveterate habits. The world, as powerful as it is cruel, will wage a fierce war against you. Armed with its pleasures and bad examples, it will hasten to compass your downfall. At one time it will seek to captivate your heart with its pomps and vanities. At another time it will strive to entangle you in the net of its ways and maxims. Again it will boldly attack you with ridicule, raillery, and persecution. The devil himself, the arch-deceiver, will renew his warfare and turn all his forces against you. Enraged at your desertion from his party, he will leave nothing undone to ruin you...That you may not be discouraged, bear in mind that the prize for which you are striving is worth more than all you can ever give to purchase it. Remember that you have powerful defenders ever near you. Against the assaults of corrupt nature you have God's grace. Against the snares of the devil you have the almighty power of God. Against the allurements of evil habits you have the force of good habits confirmed by grace. Against a multitude of evil spirits you have numberless angels of light. Against the bad example and persecutions of the world you have the good example and strengthening exhortations of the saints. Against the sinful pleasures and vain joys of the world you have the pure joys and ineffable consolations of the Holy Ghost."1

One of the favorite handbooks of such famous saints and Doctors of the Church as St. Teresa of Avila and St. Francis de Sales, The Sinner's Guide is a chunky work, chock full of detailed meditations on the Last Things, spiritual weapons to employ in the fight against sin and the Devil, and a whole host of other spiritual admonishments. 

2.  The Handbook of Spiritual Counsel - St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite

"Briefly we can say that angels are invisibly present, holding crowns in their hands.  Christ Himself is the one who will crown you every time you are victorious in the battle against the evil passions of the senses and you do not succumb to them...Be not completely overcome.  Stand firm and courageous, calling upon God for help."2

One of two Orthodox saints who originally compiled the Philokalia, St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain wrote this interesting spiritual guide knee-deep in the tumult of the Enlightenment.  To be sure, the work reflects this era in the sense that it seems to speak to in a language that those of that time period could relate to.  He remarks that man himself is a macrocosm, not a microcosm, and focuses in on the guarding of the five senses.  As with any Orthodox text, Catholics should be prudent whilst reading it due to an occasional polemical statement against "Latin errors". 

3.  The Spiritual Exercises - St. Ignatius of Loyola

“It is a sign that you have little love of Christ in your heart, or you would not deem it so hard a fate to be in chains for His sake.  I declare to you that all Salamanca does not contain as many fetters, manacles, and chains as I long to wear for the love of Jesus Christ."3

This work should need no introduction for Catholics. To be honest with you, I was never a huge fan of the work or of Ignatian spirituality in general for a long time.  The key word with St. Ignatius is "militant" - the Spiritual Exercises reads like some kind of field manual given to soldiers on the front lines.  I often wonder if, when people take Ignatian retreats, if they actually follow the rigors of this manual as they are - given the stark demands, encouragement of mortification, rigorous meditations, and all the rest, I would admire anyone who could keep up with the exercises at all.  But as a manual for advice on spiritual warfare, I think it is surely one of the best. 

4.  The Institutes - St. John Cassian

"...perfection in holiness can only be achieved through humility.  Humility, in received turn, can be achieved only through faith, fear of God, gentleness, and the shedding of all possessions."4

St. John Cassian was responsible for bringing the monasticism of the East to the West.  In the Institutes, Cassian puts all of the wisdom he learned from the Egyptian ascetics into a rule for monastic life.  In the pages of the Institutes, one can find all kinds of advice for the spiritual life - most importantly, his treatise on the eight vices.

5.  Spiritual Combat - Lorenzo Scupoli

"The rain falling on the earth will call to mind the bloody sweat with which He watered the Garden of Olives."5

Though not as well known as the Spiritual Exercises, this work is of the same militant nature.  It is one of the most influential works on spiritual struggle ever written - so much so that despite its Catholic origins, it was adapted for use by Eastern Orthodox Christians as well by St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite and St. Theophan the Recluse under the title Unseen Warfare

6.  On Ascetical Life - St. Isaac the Syrian

"Close your eyes to the precious things of the world, that you may deserve to have the peace of God reign in your heart."6

Ironically, though one would think that such a work as this would be the harshest of all works on spiritual warfare, it is actually one of the most joyous and forgiving.  The counsels of St. Isaac here demonstrate his overwhelming emphasis on the mercy of God and contrition of heart. 

7.  Turning the Heart to God - St. Theophan the Recluse

"God abandons no one. For Him all are children. None are stepchildren. And the hard occasions and situations - all is sent for our benefit."7

Turning the Heart to God is the second of three parts of a greater work, The Path to Salvation.  It is neither a daunting read, nor is it a difficult one, as St. Theophan has a way of writing simply and yet very powerfully at the same time.  The writing is focused entirely on repentance and changing one's life, or as he puts it, awakening from the slumber of sin.  I cannot recommend it enough - though it is Orthodox, Catholic readers don't need to worry about having to sift out any polemics or other bits.  It's straight spiritual nourishment. 

8.  The Ladder of Divine Ascent - St. John Climacus

"The man turning away from the world in order to shake off the burden of his sins should imitate those who sit by the tombs outside the city."8

This work is essentially the standard when it comes to Eastern Christian monastic life. It is not an easy work, but my very rudimentary and ignorant understanding of it has so far shown me that it has much within its pages to offer to the Christian seriously waging war against sin and vice in their life.  Much of this kind of desert wisdom and patristic writing might seem like it can't even be remotel applied to the life of an average lay person in the Church, but I do not see personally why this is.  We are called, though in separate vocations, to live the Christian life in service to Christ.  Few works that I know of could be of more benefit than this one. 

9.  A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life - William Law

"And if you will here stop, and ask yourself, why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you, that it is neither through ignorance, nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it."9

There are few books out there as impacting on one's own personal spiritual life as this one.  If Catholics are wary and prudent enough to sift out the occasional Protestant errors in the text, they will be rewarded with a fantastic work.  In some ways, it reminds me of the self-examinations written by John Wesley, but instead of asking questions to the reader, it has a way of always making the reader look in the mirror.  This is a frightening thing to do for many of us, I think - though we are always tempted to look outside ourselves at the failings of others, we are actually to look straight at ourselves.  This work forces the reader to do just that.  No, it's not a comfortable read.  But neither is Christianity comfortable either. 

10.  The Spiritual Ascent - Gerard Zerbolt

"Consider the behavior of Christ in the wilderness, what he did there, and His devout prayers and meditation...Think upon his wondrous patience: He is taken up by the devil, and yet he beareth it."10

I had never heard of this work in my life until I picked up the excellent volume in Classics of Western Spirituality series called Devotio Moderna: Basic Writings.  Since then, I have had a great love of the Modern Devotion movement begun by Geert Grote in the 1300s and reaching its zenith in the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.  In this little-known work, one of the figures in the movement pens a Western version of Eastern ascetic spirituality.  Influences of Cassian, Climacus, and the Desert Fathers in general abound, as well as specific directions on combatting various vices and sins in one's life. 

1 - The Sinner's Guide, ch. 29
2 - Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, ch. 8
3 - Butler's Lives of the Saints, 1894 ed., "St. Ignatius of Loyola"
4 - "On the Eight Vices", qtd. in The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Volume One
5 - Spiritual Combat, ch. 22
6 - On Ascetical Life, III:38
7 - Qtd. in "Theophan the Recluse",
8 - The Ladder of Divine Ascent, "Step 1"
9 - A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, ch.2
10 -  The Spiritual Ascent, ch. 30


  1. Jason...Please stop adding to my *book gluttony* will you?

    I do have *Unseen Warfare* but haven't read any of the others. I have my eye on *On Ascetical Life* now that I see it. I am up to my ears in books: Merton's *The Climate of Monastic Prayer* as well as *New Seeds of Contemplation* and *The Silent Life*, Grimlaicus' *Rule for Solitairies*, many books, so little time. *sigh*

    I appreciate you sharing your little treasures. When the heck do you have time to read them all?
    {Do you detect a hint of jealousy there?}

  2. The devotion to Divine Mercy and the awareness of need to pray for those who have gone ahead of us can make it easier for us , to pray 'always ' !

    Trusting in the goodness of God and His power , we can bring all our past generations from Adam on , as well as of anyone whose weaknesses bother us now , to His mercy , to His Sacred Heart , which can take away the sting of even the idolatry of negative feelings towards them or the guilt of our own actions ..the Old Testament give us an inkling of all we need to bring to The Lord , as our own past !

    True, trying our best to live right possibly has to be there too .
    we or rather The Lord and His Mother do so for us possibly , esp. as every Holy Mass too..thus The presence of The Lord undoes what the enemy does with all its accusations and we get to stay more and more in the awareness of His mercy for all !

  3. Well, that didn't take long. Less than a page of Scupoli's Spiritual Combat & I am thoroughly punctured. Many thanks for that.

    Here's the link to Sinner's Guide on
    And a very poor, but readable copy of Spiritual Combat

  4. This may be slightly off topic, but...

    your comment about The Spiritual Excercies and whether people keep up with them during retreat is a good point. I have witnessed on more than one occassion where the Jesuit did not seem to follow this work of St Ignatius much at all during retreat (and I admire many Jesuits, so I am not out to say this represents all of them). So in that setting (apart from spiritual growth through reading as is the focus of the post), the focus is clearly led by retreat master.

    With that said, for those attracted to Ignatian spirituality and/or a solid retreat, I would strongly recommend attending a retreat held by Miles Christi if possible. My wife and each attend them yearly when they host retreats in our area (each mens and womens retreats) and they are such a solid group of faithful young priests to Holy Mother Church and they do follow The Exercises by the book.

  5. Book gluttony, my biggest greed! But then, if God did not want me to have these tools, he would not allow me to have them, right? Would he not replace the desire for these works, with different desires? I like to think, I have been entrusted with these works for a purpose :)
    If I'm wrong, I trust God will correct me (as He has so many times taken things from me by force when I would not let them go willingly!)

    Although, lately I've been seeing the folly of getting the books before I have the time to read them.. As is, now I have enough books for at least a year (or 2!) being a slow reader, and one of poor memory.

    But if I may, I'd like to suggest a few more books for all of us greedy bookworms (at least we're trying to learn of God, hopefully! :)

    The Collected works of St. John of the Cross
    The Collected Works of St. Louis Marie de Montfort
    The Imitation of Christ - Thomas Kempis
    Introduction to the Devout Life - St Francis de Sales
    Humility of Heart - Fr Cajetan Mary da Bergamo
    The Twelve Steps to Holiness And Salvation - St Alphonsus Liguori
    The Way of Divine Love - Sr. Josefa Menendez
    Collected Works of St Terese of Avila
    The Three Ages of the Interior Life - Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange (read online here: )

    The list is endless, but these are among the most useful I've been directed to so far! :) I am still reading Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange's book online, and Sr. Josefa's work. At least reading keeps me off the streets and out of trouble! :))