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Discernment of Spirits
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Notice that the subject of "Discernment of Spirits" implies a plurality and especially a distinction between one kind of spirit and another. We know from both the teaching of the Church and our own experience that serving God and following Christ is not just a straight, easy, and smooth path. By its very definition it involves conflict and Christ went out of His way to impress us with that fact. This conflict is not only with or within ourselves; or with the world, the human beings outside of us; but also, and mainly for our present purpose, it involves a conflict with the evil spirit.
We further know on faith that the evil spirit, while God will never permit him to coerce our wills, can surely test or tempt the weaknesses we have. He can exploit our passions; he can most certainly use other human beings, as he often does, to lead us into temptation. While saying this, however, we know that God's grace is more than correspondingly active in our souls, impelling and inviting us to the practice of virtue.
Given these two dialectic expressions that on the one hand we are being tempted by the evil spirits, and on the other hand we are being invited by God's graceand realizing that life is lived concretely, it is most important for us to be able to recognize the one impulse from the other. In other words, we must be able to distinguish-inspiration from instigation, or grace from temptation, so that we are able to respond to the one and resist the other. Many of the critical problems in the Church today are due not so much to ill will or malice, but to a failure in discernment. And after being caught in the web of demonic temptation, it becomes very difficult to extricate ourselves.
How can we be more alert to the two ways in which we are being, as it were, worked upon? There are two kinds of spirits, one wishing to draw us closer to God because that spirit comes from God, the other wishing to draw us away from God, because it is the instigation of the sworn enemy of the Creator. We can synthesize how we can be more alert to discern between the two in three words: Attitude, Peace, and Confidence.
"Attitude" is an almost undefinable word, but we know reasonably well what it means. In order to be properly disposed for recognizing temptations and distinguishing them from graces, the first indispensable precondition is the proper attitude of will.
There are certain conditions that God requires for our being able to recognize anything in the spiritual life. Often both the Old and the New Testaments talk about being properly disposed in heart. This is an attitude of will, the atmosphere or situation in which we must either be; or, if we are not, into which we must predispose ourselves, in order that we might have the grace to be able to distinguish. We need grace even to distinguish grace from its opposite, temptation.
Concretely, of what does this proper attitude of will consist? It means an honest and sincere desire to do God's will. Notice the two adjectives, honest and sincere. I might have added three more adjectives to make sure we are not just talking about a vague desire to do God's will, but to make absolutely certain that our attitude is not only honest and sincere, but real, authentic, and genuine.
Stressing honesty, sincerity, and genuineness, we must look attentively at ourselves. We have sinned and perhaps are still sinning. Maybe we have not been all that we should have been. And there is no "maybe" about thiswe are not all that we should be. Possibly there is in our lives a lot to improve, but we hardly know where to start; or there are things that should be uprooted, but where do we begin? If you pull an acre of weeds and there comes a good rain, you have to start all over again: Nevertheless, with God's help, we each must decide, and it is a decision that not all people make: "I (with a stress on that perpendicular pronoun, "I") want to do what He wants." If we look too closely at ourselves, we panic. But if we really want to do God's willand there is no cheating here because it has to be a deep down, interior sinceritythen we are prepared to cope with temptations. The beginning of coping is being able to recognize when we are being tempted by the evil spirit, and when we are being led by God; then we are also correspondingly ready to respond to God's invitation.
This absolute indispensability of complete, naked. honesty with God is continuously repeated in God's revelation and in the centuries of the Church's ascetical and spiritual teaching. If we are that honest, no matter what our past has been or our present is, our future is secure because then we will be given the corresponding light to recognize temptation from inspiration. It is light that we need first. But God alone gives His light. Here is where that Beatitude is the diamond in the center of the spiritual life: "The pure of heart shall see God". "Purity" here means absolute honesty. They shall see God, they will be able to recognize Him when He speaks and distinguish His lights from the seductions of the evil one.
A retreat is mainly the beginning of what is supposed to follow after the retreat is over. It is not a time of inventory, except insofar as that may help to do this. We are to prepare ourselves for such future as God still gives us. We are to do three things. First, we must find out what God wants us to do individually. The predisposition necessary for us to know what He wants is utter openness and readiness like that of the boy Samuel: "Lord, speak. Your servant is listening".
Second, we must resolve on why we want to do what He wants. It is not enough to know what God wants us to do. If we are going to do it, we have to be motivated. We don't do anything, we don't even wash our faces, unless we have a reason. Initial motivation is important psychologically. Pastoral theologians say the most important motivation is when we make the resolution. That can carry us through a lifetime if need be. It is something we can go back to and keep telling ourselves, "Why am I doing it? This is why."
But then we must decide how to carry this decision into effect. Methodology has a lot to do, not just with making resolutions, but also with what is far more important, in keeping them. This is also the heart of genuine sincerity, if we are not only willing to do what God wants us to do, but are indeed willing to take the means. It is the means that will cost. It is the overcoming, perhaps, of something that we have been accustomed to do for years. Habits are not easily broken.
I was taught by the Marianist Brothers. One of the Brothers in religion class printed the word HABIT on a clean blackboard. Then, to impress us about how important it is to cultivate good habits, and how bad it is to get into evil habits, and that a habit is hard to acquire if it is a good one and hard to break if it is a bad one, he said: "Fellows, don't acquire bad habits, because if you have a bad habit, you work at it and you work at it and"he erased the H"you still have A BIT." Then he said, "You work and you work and"he erased the A"you still have a BIT." Then he concluded, "You still work, you struggle and you strive." And then he erased the B, " and you still have IT." Consequently, it is the means that are going to be costly. The index of our honesty is our willingness before God to take the means, knowing full well that they are going to cost.
Peace. The best way of distinguishing between temptations and graces is to find out whether they bring peace or anxiety to our souls. In the nature of things, no matter how equipped you may be with spiritual directors, just by sheer disproportion of numbers, you don't have access to that much immediate, ready-at-hand, human spiritual direction. Let us not forget that the principal director of our soul dwells within our hearts. This is the way He directs us: He speaks, and when we wish to know that it is He leading us and not His enemy misleading us, let us remind ourselves that the sound of grace is peace. The form, the taste, the effect of grace is peace. Summarily, the name of grace is peace.
It is not a casual title of Christ when we call Him the Prince of Peace. It was not a coincidence but was a divinely foreordained plan from all eternity that the moment He rose from the dead, having redeemed the world on the cross, His first words were a command to His disciples (and that means us too): "Peace be with you!"
On the other hand, temptations of the evil spirit are the opposite. The evil spirit causes confusion, doubt, insecurity, despondency, anxiety, worry, and if we allow him, despair. Is it any wonder that Saint John under divine inspiration, should simply distinguish the Word of God by calling Him The Light, and identify the evil spirit as the Prince of Darkness? We know what happens when we are in darkness: we grope and stumble; we don't want to move. All our muscles and all our faculties are intact, but darkness paralyzes us. We dare not move because we don't know where we are going.
Read and meditate on those passages from Saint John, who was the master Evangelist of discernment of spirits, from the beginning of his Gospel through his letters and finally through his Apocalypse. Notice that there must be a previous attitude of a readiness to do God's will; otherwise we cannot be sure, and God will not allow us to be that clear in recognizing Him. How many times Jesus, in speaking to the crowds said, "Why do you not listen to Me?" Talk about refusing grace: This was the Son of God talking, infinite Truth speaking to men. He told them why: "Because your hearts are not right." It is the right disposition of the soul that counts. We are all sinners, we are all the same; it is only a matter of the degree of sinfulness. But that utter sincerity, that willingness to do God's will, makes the difference. What miracles Christ worked in the body in order to reach the spirit. He will work the same in us, provided we are disposed, ready, and willing. "Lord, speak!"
Notice too, lest we forget, that this peace may involve suffering. It will surely involve effort. It will include trial and of course the cross. Who said that peace of soul is incompatible with the cross? That is what the Beatitudes are all about, those eight, humanly speaking, "incompatibilities". Substitute "peace" in the Beatitudes for "happiness' and you have it.
Finally, confidence. The last element is great confidence in God, that He does not deceive His elect. If the precondition for being able to distinguish inspiration from temptation is the ready willingness to do God's will, once we know what God wants us to do (having motivated ourselves as to why He wants us to do it, and having with His grace found out how we should carry it into effect), the sustained post-condition which must continue is confidence. Otherwise, we are going to weaken, our knees are going to give in.
This is the source of our confidence. Christ told us, "Do not let your heart be troubled or be afraid." He said, "You believe in God, believe also in Me." The Greek word translated here "believe" (pisteuo) means "to trust". "Trust in Me." He wants us to trust Him implicitly. This is the guarantee of perseverance in His grace, once we have discovered it is His grace. Once we have decided what God wants, we are to go ahead. And He warns us not to look back, which I sometimes like to paraphrase as "not to look inside". We are not to look at ourselves or reexamine what we have done, but to trust implicitly. The saints are all eloquent in telling us that God treats His friends kindly. He will never inspire us to do more than what we can carry through with His grace.
"Lord Jesus, make me open to Your grace. Let me trust You; I know I cannot trust myselfbut very well. Since You told me to trust because You have overcome the world, why shouldn't I, hand in hand with You, trust that I too with Your grace will overcome not only the world and the devil, but also my own inclinations?" This is the key to spiritual growthcomplete honesty with God, and doing what He wants us to do, and then letting go, trusting that He will never fail us.
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