Although by now the terminology has become commonplace in Catholic spirituality, its historical popularization on a broad level began with Saint Ignatius: he has long and elaborate rules for what he calls discernment of spirits. In his own life it was through his discernment of spirits that he discovered his vocation and the work that God wanted him to do. Wounded in the battle of Pamplona, bedridden for months, he had nothing to do but read lives of the saints. That made him reflect on his past, of which he was ashamed. Although he had, at times, one kind of feelings; when he thought other kind of thoughts, he had other kinds of feelings.
So he had a third kind of thought, namely, there is a difference between the kind of spirit which prompts one kind of thinking and the spirit that prompts another kind of thinking. This was the beginning, at least in most modern "spiritual theology" of the discernment of spirits.
It is not my purpose to elaborate on the Ignatian theology of discernment. It is rather to look at the vast subject in biblical perspective; to first ask three questions and then close with some practical observations. What are the biblical presuppositions on which discernment of spirits is based? What is the theology of the discernment of spirits? What is the psychology of this discernment?
Without saying more about these biblical presuppositions, let me recommend that you read them and use them as meditation. They are the foundation of our biblical faith for all, that over the centuries, the Church and the Church's writers have said about discernment.
Taking each in sequence, I shall point out the different focus of Paul, Peter and John. Each is a whole panorama of deep insight as to how to discern the good from the evil spirit; but each is also different. Based, then, on each of three passages, which we technically call exegeses of what Peter, Paul and John are saying; this will give us a better understanding of what discernment of spirits means on the grounds of our faith - because, remember, between the faith we profess and the life that we live there must be reflection, understanding, analysis, and application. The bare faith alone is not sufficient; we must appropriate the faith, make it our own, study it, ask God to enlighten us as to what He means.
After you go through the fruits of the Holy Spirit and the fruits of the evil spirit - both are there - and you compare them and you boil them down to their ultimate essence, the fruits of the Holy Spirit can be reduced to love of God and love of neighbor, and the fruits of all evil spirits can be reduced to love of self and indulgence. How does the good Spirit show Himself? In the person loving God and his neighbor. He may not know he has the fruits of the Spirit, or know how many fruits there are; no less, he is the object of the good Spirit working in him. And wherever you find self-love and self-indulgence this is the infallible revealed sign of the evil spirit. We can tell where the one or the other spirit has been active depending on the kind of conduct that we see.
This, however, is more subtle than we have so far implied. Why? Because you might think that a person can be good and their conduct morally praiseworthy without necessarily saying that the good Spirit is active. Not so. It is impossible - and this is the key - it is impossible to practice moral good, as Christ expects His followers to do, without something more than mere human moral power. It requires grace; it requires assistance in the form of light and strength from a power beyond the human - namely, the Divine. Whenever we see genuine goodness on Christian principles, whether we realize it or not, whether we admit it or not, that goodness is not the mere product of that human being. It cannot be. Christ's teachings, the Christian ethic, cannot be lived out without the Holy Spirit enlightening the mind and continuously inspiring the will.
Consequently, if a person gives himself to the Holy Spirit, then his conduct will be revealed, and while we may generously praise the person, we should first praise God; because, while it is true that except for the person's free cooperation he would not be practicing the virtue which he does - it is before, during and all through whatever good we do, mainly the Holy Spirit Who is the responsible agent.
What we're after in using Paul's principles is to find out where is the good Spirit in this world. Paul tells us He is in all good people; and not in some vague poetic sense, but in the most fundamental sense possible: that it is the good Spirit who makes this goodness really possible.
When a person is doing good by Christian standards, we say he could not do this except with the light and assistance of the Spirit of God, when a person is doing evil he is not precisely giving in to a power beyond himself; he is really giving in to himself. This means that except for the instigation of the evil spirit, we don't need superhuman power to do evil. All we have to do is allow the evil spirit to tempt us to do our own wills.
We then can recognize whenever we see evil (and the greater the evil the more sure we are) that the evil spirit has tempted, not precisely inspired. Giving the devil his due, however, we shouldn't give him more than his due. People don't need the devil to give in to themselves. They don't really need the devil to sin, because what is the essence of sin? The essence of sin is self-will contrary to the will of God.
The masters of the spiritual life building on Saint Paul, therefore, said that we can discern the good from the evil spirit if we study the direction which the thought or the inspiration takes. If it is towards pride - which means self-satisfaction, self-complacency, self-adulation, in a word, self-will - suspect the spirit of evil. You see, that's all he had to do at the beginning of the history of the human race. We have within us, provided we allow ourselves to give in to the demonic temptation, the capacity for all evil. That's the power we have. But as to do good, that's different. We don't have in our power either the light or the strength, - I don't say to do any good, because we do have that - we can listen to classical music, for example, - but in order to carry out what Christ expects His followers to do, we need more than ourselves to do it. So much for Paul.
Now how do people who are properly trained in the school of the evil spirit hide their designs? How do they falsify the truth? In two ways: in what they teach, namely, content; and in how they teach, methodology. Generally speaking it is far easier to recognize false content. It is much more difficult to recognize a methodology which will be consciously deceptive, because then the false content will be camouflaged. It is critically important, therefore, to know that error always conceals its designs: error is always deceitful. Error is falsehood, deceit is hiding the falsehood. People look for evil as evil, or error as error. They have been beguiled into embracing evil as good and error as the truth; so they have truths, partial truths, aspects that are true; but by the time you've swallowed the sweet pill you realize it is cyanide. Falsehood, then, is always cunning. The evil spirit is always the erroneous spirit. He tries, if he can, to deceive good people under specious designs. Note, therefore, that falsehood cannot succeed except through cunning. From the first fall of the human race to the last fall of the human race, from the first sin to the last sin that will ever be committed, it is committed because people have allowed themselves to embrace falsehood through being deceived by cunning. Falsehood would never take people away from God unless they were deceived into thinking that what is false is really true.
The spirit of error always seeks to hide. What I'm sharing with you is things to look for in people, people who are the agents of the evil spirit. They always seek to hide; they are never fully open. The spirit of error fears to be identified. So they will have commissions or committees or organizations or this group or that group. Who's behind it? Nobody knows. It tries to conceal, it avoids openness and frankness. It always makes evil look like good, or, as I prefer, it masks evil under the guise of good, always. That adverb is part of our faith. To be on one's guard is to have won half the victory.
All the successful misleaders of history - listen to this, this is a capsulized personality sketch of all the great misleaders in the church, of the Church - they have all been attractive people; they have all been appealing personalities; they have all been pleasant in their manners; they have been disarmingly sincere. They have often appeared to be extraordinarily pious. What I consider the most devastating heretic of all times was a contemplative monk by the name of Pelagius - ascetic, a bag of bones, his contemporaries tell us. So he came along and said it's not God's grace but human will that can give us mastery over our passions and finally win Heaven. He looked like a titan of will power. They are, with the rarest exception, ascetical people and remarkably charismatic in their temperament and personality - magnetic people, no exceptions. So much for Peter.
Now in the passage to which I referred in his first letter John isolates the target of the conflict between these two forces by identifying how the Spirit of God can be distinguished from the spirit that is not of God. He is very practical. According to John it all depends on if a person accepts Jesus Christ. Those who do, are His followers; those who don't, are followers of the Antichrist. (It's John who coined the term "Antichrist".)
But he means something more definite than just that in one case Christ is accepted and in the other He is rejected. He means more than just the semantic acceptance or rejection. He means first of all that the acceptance of Christ is the acceptance of Christ as the natural Son of God. A lot of people say they accept Christ. What do you mean? - this is John's question. Who is Christ? Is He the Word of God that was with God because He is God from the beginning? That's what acceptance of Christ means, that that man, Jesus, is God.
Whereas, the rejection of Christ is the denial of Christ's divinity. Words couldn't be clearer. Who is the Antichrist?: the spirit at large in the world, that has by now convinced many people that Jesus is not God. Thus, for John, you can distinguish the evil spirit from the good spirit by their respective attitudes towards Christ. The spirit of evil denies that God took on human flesh, dwelt among us, and taught the human race the way to salvation, and is now teaching mankind through the Church He founded.
The Holy Spirit, operating in Christ's followers, professes Christ's divinity; and His followers thereby submit themselves to the hard requirements of His teaching, communicated by His Church - not, of course, because the teachings are hard. Monogamy, celibacy, self-sacrifice, charity towards the uncharitable, mercy towards the unmerciful, patience with the impatient, and the endurance of the cross is hard. That's not why the followers of Christ embrace these, but because, though hard and unpalatable to our natural desires, these mysteries of the faith should be lived out because the One Who told us - and through His Church tells us - they should be lived out is our God.
Never perhaps in the Church's history was it more necessary to make the right discernment of spirits, that is, distinguish truth from error and virtue from malice. Why is it so important? Because so much error has insinuated itself into nominally Christian and Catholic circles, and is being propagated by so many who still consider themselves Christians and Catholics and, maybe, even leaders in the Church of God.
|Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica|
Conference transcription from a retreat that Father Hardon gave to the
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