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The Discernment of Spirits
An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living
By Timothy M. Gallagher
The Crossroad Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2005 Timothy M. Gallagher, O.M.V.
All rights reserved.
When a Person Moves Away from God (Rule 1)
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Halts by me that footfall: Is my gloom, after all, Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly? — Francis Thompson
An Experience of Spiritual Liberation
Following the pattern of the previous chapter, we will once again approach Ignatius's text from the perspective of a concrete spiritual experience. As noted, because Ignatius's rules themselves arise from and describe spiritual experience, this methodology places the rules in their natural setting and more effectively permits us to uncover the full richness of the spare language Ignatius employs. In this chapter we will discuss the first of these rules. Since, however, the first and second rules are intimately related and must be understood together, we will explore one spiritual experience that incorporates both, returning to this experience in the following chapter when we examine the second rule.
Perhaps the best-known conversion experience in our spiritual tradition is that of Augustine, famously described in his Confessions. This is the grace-filled moment in the garden, under the fig tree, when Augustine's long search for spiritual renewal is finally fulfilled. Through his tears he hears the chanting of the child beyond the garden wall: "Take and read, take and read." He opens the Scriptures, and finds the words of St. Paul: "The night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us, then, cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light ..." (Rom 13:12ff.). In that instant Augustine's life is remade, and he commences a spiritual journey that will lead to great holiness.
Our focus here will be the complex set of interior movements in Augustine's heart that immediately precedes this moment of conversion. We will see these first in their broader context and then specifically in their actual unfolding.
In a very real sense, this story originates in Augustine's adolescent years when he adopts an increasingly self-indulgent lifestyle. As he rather soberly writes: "In my youth I burned to fill myself with evil things. ... I dared to run wild in different and dark ways of passion." This process begins in the idleness of his fifteenth year in Tagaste, when his studies were interrupted for lack of economic means, and is solidified when he resumes these studies in the larger city of Carthage. All this is tellingly captured in the energypacked words: "I burned...." A powerful movement toward unrestrained self-indulgence stirs in Augustine's young heart and largely shapes the course of his life for years to come.
But this movement, though dominant, is increasingly challenged by another. His life of "fruitless seedings of grief" and "restless weariness" weighs more and more on Augustine, and he yearns for a profound spiritual change in his life. Years pass as the tension between these two movements mounts, and still he remains unable to act.
As all this is stirring in Augustine, a day comes when he sits in conversation with Ponticianus, an official in the emperor's court, and Alypius, his intimate friend. Ponticianus, unaware of the impact his narrative will have on Augustine, shares an anecdote of the day. Two acquaintances of his, minor officials in imperial Rome, had been out walking, had entered the house of some devout Christians and found there a copy of the Life of St. Anthony by St. Athanasius. One of these officials had begun to read the Life and learned of how the young Anthony had decisively and joyfully put into practice the words of Jesus to the rich young man: "If you would be perfect, go and sell what you have, give it to the poor ... and come, follow me." He read of Anthony's holy life of total dedication to the Lord. Deeply struck by this account, the official and his companion decided immediately to do the same. They, too, gave up their former prospects in life and dedicated themselves to following the Lord as had Anthony.
Ponticianus recounts this event and then takes his leave, without suspecting the effect of his words on Augustine. The story of the two officials awakens a profound anguish in Augustine as he compares their immediate and vigorous response to God with his own protracted helplessness and wavering. The inner distress Augustine feels is markedly evident as he describes this moment:
This was the nature of my sickness. I was in torment, reproaching myself more bitterly than ever as I twisted and turned in my chain. I hoped that my chain might be broken once and for all, because it was only a small thing that held me now. ... And you, O Lord, never ceased to watch over my secret heart. In your stern mercy you lashed me with the twin scourge of fear and shame in case I should give way once more and the worn and slender remnant of my chain should not be broken but gain new strength and bind me all the faster. In my heart I kept saying "Let it be now, let it be now!," and merely by saying this I was on the point of making the resolution. I was on the point of making it, but I did not succeed.
The vocabulary is filled with tension. Augustine is in "torment"; he "reproaches" himself "more bitterly than ever"; he "twists and turns in his chain." Yet he is aware that God is at work in his affliction of heart and expresses this in his striking phrase "your stern mercy." His account continues:
I stood on the brink of resolution. ... I tried again and came a little nearer to my goal, and then a little nearer still, so that I could almost reach out and grasp it. But I did not reach it. (175)
Clearly there has been a shift of direction in Augustine at this point. If we compare the direction he pursued earlier, that is, the quest for self- indulgence without regard for God, with the "goal" toward which he now "comes a little nearer," that is, a turning toward God, the change is evident. The two goals are radically opposed. He has pursued the selfindulgent goal for many years. Now, though in a fragile and hesitant way, he is moving in a contrary direction, toward God. Caught between these two goals, he lives a moment of intense spiritual struggle brought now to a high point of tension through the narrative of Ponticianus.
A subtle yet powerful movement of the heart restrains him from progressing toward his new goal:
I was held back by mere trifles, the most paltry inanities, all my old attachments. They plucked at my garment of flesh and whispered, "Are you going to dismiss us? From this moment we shall never be with you again, forever and ever. From this moment you will never be allowed to do this thing or that, for evermore...." These voices ... no longer barred my way, blatantly contradictory, but their mutterings seemed to reach me from behind, as though they were stealthily plucking at my back, trying to make me turn my head when I wanted to go forward. Yet in my state of indecision, they kept me from tearing myself away, from shaking myself free of them and leaping across the barrier to the other side, where you were calling me. (175–76)
The directional language is again worthy of note: "I was held back"; "their mutterings seemed to reach me from behind"; "they were stealthily plucking at my back"; "when I wanted to go forward." "Forward" and "back." Forward toward God, and backward away from God, back into the former life of self-indulgent separation from God. And the whisperings that pluck at his heart, the images of irretrievably lost opportunities of selfindulgence, do effectively hold him "back" from moving "forward." Still, though more attenuated now, the tense, conflicted tone remains.
But now something new enters this swirl of contrasting movements in Augustine's heart. A fresh movement, filled with peace and hope, meets the inner torment. His wording changes and becomes warm and heartening:
But by now ... I had turned my eyes elsewhere, and while I stood trembling at the barrier, on the other side I could see the chaste beauty of Continence in all her serene, unsullied joy, as she modestly beckoned me to cross over and to hesitate no more. She stretched out loving hands to welcome and embrace me, holding up a host of good examples to my sight. With her were countless boys and girls, great numbers of the young and people of all ages. ... And in their midst was Continence herself, not barren but a fruitful mother of children, of joys born of you, O Lord, her Spouse. She smiled at me to give me courage, as though she were saying, "Can you not do what these men and women do? Do you think they find the strength to do it in themselves and not in the Lord their God? ... Why do you try to stand in your own strength and fail? Cast yourself upon God and have no fear. He will not shrink away and let you fall. Cast yourself upon him without fear, for he will welcome you and cure you of your ills." (176)
Once more the directional vocabulary is evident, centered now on the forward movement toward God: "by now ... I had turned my eyes elsewhere"; "on the other side"; "she modestly beckoned me to cross over."
And now, too, the twisting and turning, the sternness, the scourge of fear and shame, have faded and are replaced by a movement of serenity and joy. Augustine senses loving hands outstretched to welcome him, a smile that gives him courage. He perceives that he is not helplessly alone in his struggle to move toward God. New hope stirs within as he is led to consider the example of others who have struggled and have found strength in God to renew their lives spiritually. A warm invitation to trust rises in his heart: "Cast yourself upon God and have no fear ... he will welcome you and cure you of your ills." As we read his words we sense something beautiful, something blessed at work in Augustine, gently and powerfully giving him hope, moving him "forward" toward God.
At this point Augustine can contain himself no longer and flings himself under the fig tree as his tears begin to fall. The decisive moment of grace is now at hand. He hears the voice of the child calling to "take and read," opens the Scriptures, finds the words of Paul to the Romans mentioned above ... and his life is remade.
Augustine's account of the interior stirrings preceding his spiritual renewal is filled with drama; various movements of the heart, some assisting and some opposing movement away from God, others assisting or opposing movement toward God, succeed one another and conflict with each other. Clearly we are dealing here with spiritual movements impacting Augustine's journey away from or toward God; we are in the arena of discernment of spirits. Can we make spiritual sense out of these differing movements? Is there a way to discern the various threads in such spiritual experience so that a person may perceive how to respond effectively to them?
This is the type of experience Ignatius explains in his first two rules. As we explore them, we will find that these two rules clarify a foundational issue in all discernment of spirits: that the spirits we discern act in our hearts in contrasting ways depending upon the fundamental direction of our spiritual lives, away from or toward God.
Two Fundamental Directions of Life
We have already noted the directional language in Augustine's account of his experience. Two basic directions emerge. The first is a movement away from God and toward a self-indulgent life in which moral boundaries are ignored. This is the direction taken by the young Augustine. The second is born of the growing weariness of heart which this lifestyle engenders in his heart, and reverses the first. Augustine increasingly longs to repudiate this meaningless life of separation from God and to move instead toward God. Prior to his decisive conversion experience, though as yet inconclusively, he has begun to move in this second direction: "I tried again and came a little nearer to my goal, and then a little nearer still...."
These two fundamental directions of the spiritual life, as evidenced in Augustine's experience, may be stated as follows: the first consists in movement away from God and toward serious sin; the second, the reverse of the first, consists in movement toward God and away from serious sin, indeed, away from every form of sin, serious or otherwise. In his first rule Ignatius describes the action of the two spirits, good and bad, in the person moving away from God and toward serious sin, as in the case of the young Augustine. In his second rule he describes the action of the two spirits in the person moving toward God and away from serious sin, as in the case of the later Augustine seeking spiritual renewal.
Ignatius thus highlights this all-important fact: to discern correctly which spirit is working in a person's heart (and so to know what we should accept or reject), we must first identify the fundamental direction of that person's spiritual life. This is the indispensable condition for correctly discerning which spirit is operative in the movement the person is experiencing. These two rules help us to identify and so equip us to respond rightly to a vast amount of potentially confusing spiritual experience. Our task now, in this chapter, is to examine the first of these two rules.
The Person Moving Away from God
Ignatius's first rule reads as follows:
First Rule. The first rule: in persons who are going from mortal sin to mortal sin, the enemy is ordinarily accustomed to propose apparent pleasures to them, leading them to imagine sensual delights and pleasures in order to hold them more and make them grow in their vices and sins. In these persons the good spirit uses a contrary method, stinging and biting their consciences through their rational power of moral judgment.
In this rule Ignatius is describing the action of the spirits in a precisely identified person: one who is going "from mortal sin to mortal sin." The vocabulary focuses on a continuing direction of life, on "persons who are going," and on a direction of life moving away from God and toward serious sin. In rule 1 Ignatius clarifies how the spirits work in persons who find themselves in this harmful spiritual state.
Such, evidently, is not the case of the person engaged in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. It is equally unlikely to be true of any person seriously pursuing discernment of spirits. If Ignatius begins his rules speaking both of the person who, in the Pauline sense, lives utterly "according to the flesh" (rule 1) and of the person genuinely seeking God (rule 2), describing how the spirits work in both, it is because in this way a solid basis is established for the application of all the subsequent rules. Rules 1 and 2 indicate that the first question always to be asked in discernment of spirits is this: is this person moving away from God and toward serious sin as a fundamental direction in life? Or is this person sincerely striving to overcome sin and grow closer to God as a fundamental direction in life? Only when we have answered this question can we accurately discern the spiritual movements the person is experiencing.
The "Enemy" of Our Spiritual Progress
In Augustine's account of his spiritual experience it is evident that some movements in his heart tend to pull him away from God. He shares the experience of every Christian that certain interior movements, if we are not aware of them, do not understand them, and do not reject them, will effectively distance us from God and his plan for our lives. Ignatius describes the source of such movements as the enemy: "in persons who are going from mortal sin to mortal sin, the enemy is ordinarily accustomed...."
In these rules Ignatius most commonly speaks either of "the enemy" without further qualification or, more fully, of "the enemy of our human nature." Once he employs the plural: "all our enemies" (rule 11). Less frequently he speaks of "the evil spirit," the counterpart of "the good spirit." Ignatius, then, recognizes that when we seek to embrace God's love and follow God's will according to the full truth of our human nature, we will encounter something inimical to this seeking; we will be faced with an enemy. What exactly are we to understand by this "enemy" or "enemies" opposed to the human person who would move toward God?
Excerpted from The Discernment of Spirits by Timothy M. Gallagher. Copyright © 2005 Timothy M. Gallagher, O.M.V.. Excerpted by permission of The Crossroad Publishing Company.
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