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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Discernment of Spirits as an Act of Faith

Here's just the beginning of a long article by William A Barry SJ. It sort of spoke to me. You can find (most of) the article here at Google books (and you can read more about the discernment of spirits at


Discernment of Spirits as an Act of Faith
- William A Barry SJ

Recently, while directing a retreat, I realized that discerning the spirits requires an act of faith. One of the retreatants had stated early and quite openly that she hated retreats. I asked her why she continued to make them if this was the case. She said, "Because religious have to." She could pray in short periods, she said, but the idea of spending an hour at a time in prayer sent her into a tizzy. At the same time, she desired to experience the presence of God. The desire was strong enough to bring tears to her eyes as she spoke of it. Nevertheless, she did not have much hope that her desire would be fulfilled.

When I asked her what she liked to do, she told me that she enjoyed listening to music, doing puzzles, and going for walks in the woods. I suggested that she spend the day doing those things with the desire that God make his presence felt. She was afraid that she would feel guilty if she spent her retreat time in this way; it did not seem like prayer. Over the next day or so I prevailed on her to give enjoyment a try. She later recounted that on the evening of the third day she said to herself with a laugh, "I'm actually enjoying this retreat." She also had the sense that God might be enjoying it too. But the guilt feelings did not disappear; she still felt that this could not be the way a good retreat should go. During the session after this day we looked at the two different experiences: the enjoyment of the retreat and the feelings of guilt. I then asked her, "Which of these experiences are you going to believe in?" At that moment I had the insight that the discernment of the spirits is not complete until it ends up in an act of faith. I thanked her for helping me to arrive at this clarity. By exploring this insight I hope to help spiritual directors and others.

In Jesus and the Victory of God, the second of a projected three or four volumes on the New Testament and the question of God, N. T. Wright develops a historical hypothesis about the nature of Jesus' vocation and his self-consciousness. It is a Christology from below, as it were, but it arrives at a very high Christology. One of his statements concerns our topic. He notes that to speak of Jesus' vocation is not the same as to speak of Jesus' knowledge of his divinity. "Jesus did not ... 'know that he was God' in the same way that one knows one is male or female, hungry or thirsty, or that one ate an orange an hour ago. His 'knowledge' was of a more risky, but perhaps more significant, sort: like knowing one is loved. One cannot 'prove' it except by living it." In other words, Jesus had to take the risk of faith that any human being takes when he discerns a vocation from God. But Jesus' vocation, as he saw it, included within it actions that Israel's God had reserved to himself. Jesus, by entering Jerusalem on a donkey, symbolically enacted the return of Yahweh to Zion; Jesus took upon himself the role of Messianic shepherd, God's role. Jesus' discernment of his vocation, in other words, required an act of faith in a unique relationship with God. He "proved" it by living it. I am going to argue that every discernment of spirits is like this; it is not complete until we prove its truth by acting on it .......



Blogger Denny said...

Wow. That was good. I saved that last paragraph as "food for thought" for a later homily. Crystal, do I have to give you a "finder's credit" when I give that homily?!!

Thank you. Where do you find all these things?

12:03 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Nope, no credit :) I just have too much time on my hands so I flit around the net a lot. I'm always looking for William Barry's stuff - he's great.

1:06 AM  

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