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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hans Urs von Balthasar and the discernment of spirits

As the Creighton U retreat proceeds, I'm thinking more about Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises and especially about the discernment of spirits. By chance I came across a 1999 lecture given at Boston College by Werner Löser SJ on once-Jesuit theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Spiritual Exercises. The lecture is quite long, but here below is just the part that deals with the discernment of spirits .....

The Ignatian Exercises in the Work of Hans Urs von Balthasar

[...] In the Exercises there are two series of "rules for the discernment of spirits" (nosl 313-327; 328-336). Von Balthasar dealt with these as well, especially in the third volume of Theologik, which came out in 1987 and which unfolds a theology of the Holy Spirit. In the chapter that discusses the working of the Holy Spirit in the Church there is a lengthy section on the discernment of spirits, in the course of which von Balthasar recalls Ignatius' rules.(34) Being moved by the spirits was for Ignatius himself the point of departure of his spiritual path. In order to choose God's will, the spirits had to be discerned. Ignatius was able to make use in this context of the experiences and texts of earlier masters of the spiritual life. What is characteristic of Ignatius' rules for the discernement of spirits, according to von Balthasar, is their orientation toward choice. Thus he writes, after recalling the content of the rules in summary fashion,

Text 13: All these rules are primarily directed toward the central process of the exercises, the choice of the way of life appointed by God for the individual person, in which choice the harmony between human and divine freedom must make itself present in its purity: for 'in every life or state which God our Lord gives us for us to choose, we should be able to reach perfection' (Exercises, 135). For this fragile coordination which is endangered by human impurity, this pure and limpid (pura y limpida) coordination of most free divine offer and most free human consent - this is the main concern of the Exercises - must not be clouded by anything, if it is to succeed in all truth. (35)

Ignatius provided for a person going through the Exercises to entrust himself to the company and guidance of a retreat master. According to von Balthasar, it is the task of this master in the process of the discernment of spirits to bring to bear the Spirit of God inasmuch as that Spirit meets one in the givens of the institutional Church.

Text 14: This discernement of spirits is apparently highly subjective, and the master is accordingly forbidden to mix his own opinions into the dialogue between God and the soul (no .15). Neverthelss, since a life within 'the sphere of the holy mother, the hierarchical Church' (nor 170; 353) is to be chosen, it is indispensable that there be a control of this subjectivity through the objectivity of the official Church, embodied in the retreat master who must examine on his part a person's discernment of spirits in the light of ecclesial knowledge of the discernement of spirits (nos. 8-10; 14). It will not be enough to say that 'human reason' is here simply 'sufficient, supported, and illumined, however, by the light of faith, which on its part stems from God, and one cannot contradict the other, because truth necessarily agrees with truth' (Directorium of 1599, 28:5); one must call this 'light of faith' more precisely as the grace of a discernement specifically bestowed on the retreat master by the Holy Spirit. This gift is connected with the objective spirit of ecclesial office so that, in fact, subjective and objective spirit cannot contradict each other here, if both together listen to the inspiration of God's Spirit. (36)


(34) Theologik III: Der Geist der Wahrheit, Einsiedeln 1987, 360-362

(35) ibid. 361. A fundamental work which also moves into currently urgent and concrete areas appeared under the title "Vorerwägungen zur Unterscheidung der Geister", in: Pneuma und Institution, 325-339

(36) Theologik III, 361, cf. also "Autorität", in: Klarstellungen. Zur Prüfung der Geister, Freiburg, 1971, 85 f.


For those interested, I have a more general past post about the discernment of spirits.


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