Monday, May 16, 2011

Spiritual Discernment

Helpful criteria in discerning the spirits and discovering if an inner prompting is from God or not

by Robert Faricy, S.J.

Spiritual discernment is that prayerful process by which I examine, through love and in the light of faith, the nature of my experience. Discernment involves knowing the Lord affectively, with the heart. Does this particular impulse or idea or plan or project or word come from the Lord or not? Is it from the Spirit of Jesus or from some other source? Knowing where a particular thought or plan or word comes from will help me in making decisions; I want to follow up and carry out what comes from the Holy Spirit. And I want to reject and avoid what does not.

Ignatius of Loyola, in his “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits” (The Spiritual Exercises, sections 313-336) distinguishes between “good spirits” and “bad spirits.” “Good spirits” are the Holy Spirit and angels. Any interior idea or impulse that comes somehow from the Lord, Ignatius attributes to the “good spirit.” Any idea or impulse that comes from the traditional sources of temptation--the world, the flesh, and the devil (or the evil spirits that are his minions), Ignatius identifies as from the “evil spirit.” What criteria do I judge by? What norms do I use for judging my interior experience? There are objective norms and subjective norms. The objective norms exist outside me, go beyond me. The subjective norms are my own conscience and other interior feelings, thoughts, and urgings.

Objective norms and discerment

Objectively, the Lord speaks to me, gives me guidelines for living, in the bible, in the doctrines and teachings of Christianity, and through whatever legitimate authority I am subject to. So, any idea or impulse I might have, if it seems to contradict my objective norms, needs to be looked at carefully. God does not contradict himself, telling one thing through the bible or the Church and something else in my heart. Often, the objective norms are insufficient. For example, it might very well be an objectively good idea; the question is: is this idea here and now from the Lord for me? The bad spirit might want to lead me to do an objectively good thing at the wrong time, or under unsuitable circumstances, or when I am not the person the Lord wants to do it.

In many cases, I need to rely on subjective norms. If my conscience tells me that a certain idea or impulse is wrong, then I know not to follow up on that. But often my conscience does not object. The choice is never between “moral” and “immoral”, but rather between two goods. Is this idea or feeling or plan--granted that it is good, not sinful, and objectively feasible--really now from the Lord? How can I tell?

Subjective norms of discernment

The interior or “subjective” norms that I have for evaluation whether or not this thought or impulse is from the Lord are not subjective in the sense of being arbitrary. They are reliable norms, grounded in the Christian tradition of the discernment of spirits. The first norm Ignatius of Loyola gives us is this. If I am moving away from the Lord, living a life of serious sins, then the evil spirit makes me feel good, helps me to find pleasure in whatever leads me further from the Lord. When I am moving away from the Lord, I find a certain pleasure in ideas and urges that push me to continue in that direction. Whereas the good spirit causes pain and remorse in my conscience, and uneasiness or even anxiety or other negative feelings, because the good spirit is against the direction my life has taken.

On the other hand, if I am trying to lead a Christian life, advancing in the ways of the Lord, the evil spirit causes me sadness, upset, uneasiness, fear of obstacles, which impede my progress in the Christian direction. The good spirit, however, gives me courage, consolations, sorrow and even tears for my sins, inspirations, ease of action in serving the Lord, and a peaceful mind when I am with the Lord, heart to heart, eyeball to eyeball. And that is how I can tell what comes from the good spirit and what comes from the bad spirit: by the results in me, by my feelings, intuitively.

Ignatius writes: “Persons who are going from good to better the good spirit touches gently, delicately, sweetly, like a drop of water soaking into a sponge; those who are going from bad to worse, the good spirit touches in the opposite way. The reason for this is to be found in the disposition of the person touched, whether he or she is in concord with or contrary to the good or evil spirits touching that person. When the person’s disposition is contrary to that of the spirits, they enter with noise and disorder; when it is in concord with the spirits, they enter silently, like someone coming home when the doors are open” (Exercises, section 334). Notice that the point here is not where I am spiritually, but what direction my life is taking. Am I going toward the Lord or away from Him?

What is Consolation?

Very often, my best criterion for judging the origin of a thought or a proposed action or an inner urging will be what Ignatius calls “consolation.” What does he mean by consolation? I have consolation whenever I begin to be aflame with love for the Lord, when I cannot love anything or anyone on earth except in the Lord and Creator of them all, or when I pour out tears of sorrow for the sufferings and death of the Lord or for my sins or the sins of the world. Or, finally, consolation can be any felt increase of faith, of hope and trust in the Lord, of love, and also every inner gladness that attracts me to the things of the spirit and that brings me interior repose and peace in the Lord. Briefly, a thought or plan or feeling or impulse brings me consolation when it brings me closer to the Lord, gives me a certain facility in relating to Him, in finding Him, in being united with Him.

For those trying to live a Christian life, trying to live according to the Holy Spirit, consolation is a useful criterion for evaluating interior experience. When I am face to face with the Lord in prayer looking at him with the eyes of faith and trust and love, how comfortablewith- him do I feel in terms of this particular idea, project, urging? When I contemplate Jesus, offering him this particular thought or impulse, how do I feel in terms of my relationship with him? Do I feel a certain rightness, a certain peace, or perhaps even gladness or joy when I propose this particular thing to the Lord in contemplation? If it gives me what Ignatius calls consolation, then that consolation is a sign that it comes from him.

What is desolation?

Ignatius calls “desolation” whatever seems to separate me from the Lord: temptations to sin or to move away from the Lord in any way, gloominess of heart and mind, confusion, whatever causes distrust in the Lord, lack of faith and hope, coldness of love. The result of my discernment process can be consolation or desolation or simply nothing at all (in which case, I have a problem, usually because I am secretly attached to a particular result of the discernment process, to a “yes” or a “no’). Briefly, desolation is whatever is contrary to consolation. Is desolation the sameness as darkness in prayer or dryness, what writers like John of the Cross call “the dark night”? No. I can, in the dark night of prayer, have either desolation or consolation at different times. The dark night often is, in fact, a time of real peace and rest in the Lord, of being content to be united with him in the dark, and so it is generally a time of consolation.

What to do in desolation.

For one thing, a time of spiritual desolation, a time of feeling upset and somehow distant from God, is no time to change purposes or decisions that were made in times of consolation. If I am tempted to change my good intentions, I can even act in a manner that goes against the temptations, opting, for example, for more prayer, more fasting. In desolation, I can humble myself, learning from the experience how weak and helpless I am and how much I need to depend on the power of the Lord’s love for me even when--especially when--I cannot feel it. In desolation, I can hold on in patience, looking ahead to the time when the Lord will again console me. And I should certainly try to work through the desolation.

What to do in consolation.

In times of consolation, I should gather energy for more difficult and perhaps desolate times ahead. And I can humble myself before the Lord recognizing how much I depend on him and how weak and helpless I am without his consolation. Consolation comes from the Lord and has as its reason my salvation, my greater union with him. Desolation comes ultimately, in one way or another, from the devil, whose strategy is to get me to think I am no good, to hate myself the way he hates me. But why does the Lord allow desolation? What are the reasons for it? There are, Ignatius points out (Exercises, section 332), three principal reasons for desolation. First, I might be tepid with regard to my prayer life and my whole relationship with the Lord; as a result of my failings, consolation leaves me. Secondly, the Lord might be putting me to the test, training me in adversity and helping me to build strength the way a coach has a runner run many practice laps to get in shape. Thirdly, the reason for my desolation might be to teach me humility, to help me recognize how little I am by myself, how much I depend on the Lord. Desolation can keep me from building on the sand of my own virtuousness and righteousness and apparently good life; it can strengthen me by leading me to build more securely on the Lord, the rock of my life.

Evil spirits can appear as angels of light

My discernment will not be infallible. It, too, often needs to be discerned, monitored, evaluated, and perhaps revised. The problem, as Ignatius puts it, is that the evil spirit can appear as an “angel of light.” The evil spirit can first prompt me to have good and holy thoughts and then, little by little, show his true nature by leading me to his own hidden agenda of lies and sin. Therefore, I have to pay attention not only to the beginning of my ideas, but also to their middle and end. If beginning, middle, and end are completely good and tend toward what is right, then I have a sign of the influence of the good spirit. But if good thoughts end up in something evil or distracting or less good than what I had originally thought of, or if they confuse me or weaken me or take away my peace in the Lord, then I have a sign of the influence of the evil spirit.

But can the evil spirit cause in me consolation?

But can the evil spirit cause in me consolation, even for his own sinister purposes? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that he can prompt in me good ideas and plans that seem right and good and from the Lord, and then lead me from those thoughts down his own path. He cannot, however, cause consolation that just comes without any adequate previous cause. In other words, if I cannot account for my consolation, either because it just came to me all of a sudden, perhaps together with an idea or insight, or if what led to the consolation is just not enough to provoke such great consolation, such as - for example - the baptism in the Holy Spirit, then I can be sure that the consolation is from the good spirit, from the Lord. Here are some examples: many people, when they receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the charismatic renewal (when they receive what is called “the baptism in the Spirit”) experience great consolation, joy, strong peace, closeness to the Lord. If this consolation goes far beyond the prayer setting and the excitement of the moment, then they can be sure that the consolation comes from the Lord. Or if, in my prayer, I experience a kind of touch of the Lord, a great surge of love for him that I know is from him, perhaps together with some insight or plan for action, and if the “touch” goes quite beyond what my own prayerfulness could cause, I know that the consolation comes from the Lord.

Discernment can take time

Can the evil spirit come to me as an angel of light even in the case of consolation without an adequate cause? Yes. He can sneak in afterwards with apparently good alternatives to or modifications of previous ideas, or with his own plans and lies, fooling me and then leading me to his own conclusions. This is why discernment, especially in important matters, can take time. I need to see where the thoughts proceed to, how I feel after a while, in order to evaluate not just the beginning (which can be from the Lord, and is when the consolation comes without adequate cause) but the middle and the end. Discernment, too, often needs discernment. In discernment, and especially in discerning a discernment itself, sometimes a prayerful friend, a regular confessor, or a spiritual director can be helpful.

Fr Bob Faricy SJ is the author of many books on the spiritual life and a gifted speaker who travels the world giving talks and leading retreats.

Source: Good New Magazine

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