in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Friday, 21 February 2014

The Discernment of Spirits

Tomorrow I shall lead a day of reflection at the House of Prayer, Molesey for the delightful Sisters of the Retreat. Below is an extract from part of my talk on the discernment of spirits based on the Rules of Ignatius Loyola.

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Ignatius bases his rules for discernment on the ‘disposition of the soul’. Is the disposition of the soul directed towards that which is life-giving, up-building and creative or is it directed towards that which is life-denying, destructive and ultimately futile. The ‘rules’ which follow help the individual to assess if a particular course of action or way of life leads to a building up of the self or to greater disintegration and fragmentation.

Someone may be pursuing a way of life that they find exciting and fun but ultimately it is becoming destructive. Ignatius cautions us to look at the effects of any action or decision and this is the basis of such discernment. Similarly, Teresa of Avila (1980, see also Tyler 1997:90) in the ‘sixth mansion’ of her Interior Castle stresses that we should not so much pay attention to the spiritual experiences that we have as the after-effects that they have upon us. Are they bringing us a greater sense of peace and fulfilment or are they leading to more unhappiness and dissatisfaction?

In these periods of dissatisfaction there is often a desire to go back on decisions made when all was going well, the sun was shining and the birds were singing. Now, as the rain pours down and the skies are gloomy (metaphorically speaking) we go back on the decision made ‘in consolation’. Ignatius cautions against this and gives one of his ‘rules’ as follows:


When we find ourselves weighed down by a certain desolation, we should not try to change a previous decision or come to a new decision… At a time of desolation, we hold fast to the decision which guided us during the time before the desolation came on us. (Exx 318)




Although we should not try to make new decisions at a time of desolation, we should not just sit back and do nothing. We are meant to fight off whatever is making us less than we should be... The important attitude to nourish at a time of desolation is patience.


Likewise, when all is going well, when we experience a certain spiritual peace and ‘can see the bottom of the well’  we should use this time wisely to make plans as a bulwark against possible future times of ‘desolation’:


When we are enjoying a consolation period, we should use foresight and savour the strength of such a period against the time when we may no longer find ourselves in consolation. (Exx 323)


Such ‘periods of consolation’ should be distinguished from the technical working out of plans that follow them:


When the consolation experience in our life comes directly from God, there can be no deception in it… A spiritual person should be careful to distinguish between the actual moment of this consolation-in-God-himself from the afterglow which may be exhilarating and joyful for some period of time… it is often in this second period of time that we begin to reason out plans of action or to make resolutions which cannot be attributed so directly to God as the initial experience which is nonconceptual in nature. (Exx 336)


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