Archive for February 28, 2015

Discernment of Spirits – Good vs Evil

St. Ignatius of Loyola began to learn about the discernment of spirits while convalescing. He noticed different interior movements as he imagined his future. In his autobiography, Ignatius writes (in the third person):

He did not consider nor did he stop to examine this difference until one day his eyes were partially opened and he began to wonder at this difference and to reflect upon it. From experience he knew that some thoughts left him sad while others made him happy, and little by little he came to perceive the different spirits that were moving him; one coming from the devil, the other coming from God.

Ignatius believed that these interior movements were caused by “good spirits” and “evil spirits”. We want to follow the action of a good spirit and reject the action of an evil spirit. Discernment of spirits is a way to understand God’s will or desire for us in our life.

Talk of good and evil spirits may seem foreign to us. Psychology gives us other names for what Ignatius called good and evil spirits. Yet Ignatius’s language is useful because it recognizes the reality of evil. Evil is both greater than we are and part of who we are. Our hearts are divided between good and evil impulses. To call these “spirits” simply recognizes the spiritual dimension of this inner struggle.

The feelings stirred up by good and evil spirits are called “consolation” and “desolation” in the language of Ignatian spirituality.

Spiritual consolation is an experience of being so on fire with God’s love that we feel impelled to praise, love, and serve God and help others as best as we can. Spiritual consolation encourages and facilitates a deep sense of gratitude for God’s faithfulness, mercy, and companionship in our life. In consolation, we feel more alive and connected to others.

Spiritual desolation, in contrast, is an experience of the soul in heavy darkness or turmoil. We are assaulted by all sorts of doubts, bombarded by temptations, and mired in self-preoccupations. We are excessively restless and anxious and feel cut off from others. Such feelings, in Ignatius’ words, “move one toward lack of faith and leave one without hope and without love”.

The key question in interpreting consolation and desolation is: where is the movement coming from and where is it leading me? Spiritual consolation does not always mean happiness. Spiritual desolation does not always mean sadness. Sometimes an experience of sadness is a moment of conversion and intimacy with God. Times of human suffering can be moments of great grace. Similarly, peace or happiness can be illusory if these feelings are helping us avoid changes we need to make.

Good and evil spirits operate according to the spiritual condition of the individual. For people who have closed themselves off from God’s grace, the good spirit disturbs and shakes up. It stirs feelings of remorse and discontent. The purpose is to make the person unhappy with a sinful way of life. On the other hand, the evil spirit wants such people to continue in their confusion and darkness. So the evil spirit tries to make them complacent, content, and satisfied with their distractions and pleasures.

For people who are trying to live a life pleasing to God, the good spirit strengthens, encourages, consoles, removes obstacles, and gives peace. The evil spirit tries to derail them by stirring up anxiety, false sadness, needless confusion, frustration, and other obstacles.

Discernment of spirits is a challenging task. It requires maturity, inner quiet, and an ability to reflect on one’s interior life. Discernment takes practice. It is something of an art. We must be ready to improvise and adjust because God works in each of us so uniquely.

The good spirit usually brings love, joy, peace, and the like; the evil spirit characteristically brings confusion, doubt, disgust, and the like. When you are leading a seriously sinful life, a good spirit will visit you with desolation to turn you around; an evil spirit will keep you content so that you will keep sinning. Another clear pattern is the opposite of this: when you are seriously serving God, the spirits change roles. The evil spirit clouds your day with desolation to lead you away from God, while the good spirit fills your day with trust and love of God. And a final, easily grasped pattern: a spirit that works in light and openness is good, while a spirit cloaked in secrecy and deception is evil.

Later Ignatius had other occasions to discern “spirits” and to note how the evil spirit cloaks himself as an angel of light for those who have advanced a bit in their journey into a deeper intimacy with God. It is characteristic of the evil angel, who takes on the appearance of an angel of light, to enter by going along the same way as the devout soul and then to exit by his own way with success for himself. That is, he brings good and holy thoughts attractive to such an upright soul and then strives little by little to get his own way, by enticing the soul over to his own hidden deceits and evil intentions.

Ignatius discovered that God is not the only source of pious thoughts. The discernment of the spirits rests on the belief that the human heart is a battleground where God and the evil one struggle for mastery. Jesus of Nazareth himself believed this. In the desert he had been tempted by the evil one masquerading as an angel of light. Jesus came to recognize who the real enemy of God’s rule is. He cast out demons, and equated his power over the demons as a sign of God’s coming to rule: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” The majority party of the Pharisees and most Jews of the time saw the real enemy of Israel, and therefore of God, as the pagans, and especially the Roman occupiers. Over and over again Jesus warned his hearers that the real enemy was Satan.

It is important to realize that, in the view of Jesus, . . . human beings were not basically neutral territories that might be influenced by divine or demonic forces now and then. . . . Human existence was seen as a battlefield dominated by one or the other supernatural force, God or Satan. A human being might have a part in choosing which “field of force” would dominate his or her life, i.e., which force he or she would choose to side with. But no human being was free to choose simply to be free of these supernatural forces. One was dominated by either one or the other, and to pass from one was necessarily to pass into the control of the other. At least over the long term, one could not maintain a neutral stance.

Jesus’ own discernment of spirits rested on his Jewish belief that God was acting in history and that the evil one was acting to thwart God. Once again, we see that the discernment of spirits is a matter of faith put into practice. Indeed, faith is not just an intellectual affirmation of truths; faith is a verb. Faith is a graced response to our self-revealing God. This goes for the faith of the church as well as for the faith of the individual who is trying to discern a path through life.

Prayer to Know God’s Will: May it please the supreme and divine Goodness to give us all abundant grace ever to know his most holy will and perfectly to fulfill it.

Eat, Pray, Love – Lent

Shrove Tuesday (as in “to shrive“, to absolve or do penance) marks the last hurrah before the austerity of Lent begins. It’s the same concept as the festivals of Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) or Carnival (farewell to the flesh, carne). In some European countries, it is called Pancake Day as the pantry gets cleaned out of extravagant, fatty, cake-like foods that would be a temptation during Lent in favour of foods that were designated for a journey, such as unleavened bread.

With Ash Wednesday comes the time to look internally, to grow spiritually by becoming more disciplined followers of Jesus Christ. It sometimes feels like a chasm that spans the time from the party of Mardi Gras to the celebration of the resurrection on Easter Day; but if we view this time as an opportunity to forge deeper relationships with our family and with God, how much greater will the celebration be on Easter? The contrast only heightens our appreciation for the joy of Christ’s resurrection. Then, the feast is not a pancake supper but a banquet that is hosted by our risen Lord and Saviour. Bread and wine become the foretaste of a heavenly banquet for which we are preparing during and after Lent.

One meaningful way to spend these forty days of Lent is by taking a few moments on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday to set some definite goals and intentions.

Here are some ways to observe the traditional Lenten disciplines of fasting, penitence, and prayer.

FASTING

For many Christians fasting is either giving up some favourite food or not eating lunch one day a week and giving that money to charity. Either way, the intention is to draw closer to God when we are hungry and to ask God to fill the space with something other than food. Fasting can also mean refraining from certain things coming out of our mouth, such as unkind words, biting remarks, and criticism, to name a few.

PENITENCE

The act of repentance is one of the hardest for us in our culture today. But the simple words, “I’m sorry”, can be so powerful in healing relationships and building trust. Sometimes this is with other people, family, co-workers, church members, and sometimes it is with God. Penitence is an action that opens the door to atonement, becoming one with God. It is also an action that has to be begun by us, not by God. In a sense it is a reaction to God’s abundant grace.

PRAYER

If we do nothing else during the forty days of Lent except pray each day, we have accomplished a great deal. This is the simplest and most effective form of communication we have with God. Prayer also has great value for each one of us: it helps us reduce our stress level, slows our heart rate, allows us to breathe more deeply, and helps us listen to our own voice that can so often get lost in our hectic day-to-day lives.

Some places to pray are:

When you first open your eyes: “Thank you, Lord, for another day.

When you are driving (especially when you are in slow traffic), pray for all those around you (the people in the other cars) and for all those around you in your daily life: “God, today I lift up . . . ”. Keep a strand of prayer beads in your car to help you focus, or a cross you can hold.
When you get home and can relax for a few moments: “Thank you God for bringing me home. Fill this home with your love and warmth so that we can rest in you.

When you finally make it to bed: “Thank you, Lord, for this day and for walking with me. I saw you in . . . I give all this to you, knowing you will be with me while I sleep.

If we take small steps like this in our prayer life it will bring us closer to God.