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Monday, July 20, 2009

The discernment of spirits

As it gets closer to the memorial of Ignatius of Loyola, here's another post about Ignatian stuff ....

Perhaps the most important gift of Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises is the practice of the discernment of spirits. Ignatius believed that our thoughts, feelings, and moods arise not just from our own interior processes, but can also be the result of the influence of good/bad spirits leading us toward or away from God. Discernment allows us to figure out which voices we are listening to. I find the concept of the discernment of spirits very challenging because it takes for granted the idea that not only good but also evil exists in the world and that we can be influenced by both ......

St. Ignatius of Loyola began to learn about the discernment of spirits while convalescing from serious battle injuries. He noticed different interior movements as he imagined his future .... Ignatius believed that these interior movements were caused by “good spirits” and “evil spirits.” We want to follow the action of a good spirit and reject the action of an evil spirit. Discernment of spirits is a way to understand God’s will or desire for us in our life.

Talk of good and evil spirits may seem foreign to us. Psychology gives us other names for what Ignatius called good and evil spirits. Yet Ignatius’s language is useful because it recognizes the reality of evil. Evil is both greater than we are and part of who we are. Our hearts are divided between good and evil impulses. To call these “spirits” simply recognizes the spiritual dimension of this inner struggle.
- Introduction to Discernment of Spirits

The one book I own that's specifically about the discernment of spirits, Spirit of Light or Darkness? by Jules Toner SJ, has this to say on the subject ....

"What is meant by 'spirits' in this context? By that term we refer to the Holy Spirit and to created spiritual beings (angels, Satan, and demons). There are some who question the reality of created spiritual beings .... Ignatius without doubt was sure of their reality, and we will speak from his point of view. But is there any reason for us to concern ourselves with any spirit other than the Holy Spirit? With the good angels, no: for whatever way they would influence us would be what the Holy Spirit wants them to do. About evil spirits, however, we need to concern ourselves very much. Most of the rules [Ignatius' rules for the discernment of spirits] are taken up with discerning when the evil spirit is acting upon us and how to defeat him. In the context of our study, the term "evil spirit" will be extended to include not only evil spirits in the proper sense of the term, that is, created personal immaterial beings, but also the dispositions of evil within ourselves, the evil structures of society, all that can be a source of inner movements (of thoughts, affective feelings, and affective acts) contrary to what the Holy Spirit wishes to work in our lives through faith, hope, and love. The term will not include in its meaning those antispiritual movements themselves. Some commentators seem to understand evil spirit to mean such movements; They seriously misrepresent Ignatius's thought by doing so."

Most spiritual directors, I think, would tend to emphasize the good and bad spirits Ignatius writes of as metaphor for psychological states, but here's an interesting bit from JP Meier's A Marginal Jew, as published in Jesuit spiritual director William Barry's book With an Everlasting Love .....

... it is important to realize that, in the view of Jesus ... human beings were not basically neutral territories that might be influenced by divine or demonic forces now and then. . . . human existence was seen as a battlefield dominated by one or the other supernatural force, God or Satan (alias Belial or the devil). A human being might have a part in choosing which "field of force" would dominate his or her life, i.e., which force he or she would choose to side with. But no human being was free to choose simply to be free of these supernatural forces. One was dominated by either one or the other, and to pass from one was necessarily to pass into the control of the other. At least over the long term, one could not maintain a neutral stance vis-à-vis God and Satan.

For more on how William Barry SJ sees the discernment of spirits, take a look at How Do I Know I’m Experiencing God?, an excerpt from his book A Friendship Like No Other, posted at the Loyola Press Ignatian Spirituality site.

What made me think of posting on this subject was an article I read yesterday at The Way, a Jesuit spirituality journal, by Fr. Robert Marsh SJ - Discernment of Spirits: A Cosmological View.


Anonymous Richard said...

There is something so fascinating about all this. Wish I had more time to think about it. On the one hand it can become trivial and superstitious on the other mechanical and a purely neurochemical phenomena. Neither seems to capture the idea of spirit or spirits for me.

9:34 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Richard,

Yeah, it's seems really interesting to me too. I go back and forth in how I feel about it, but I think it says something really important about us and God if I could only figure it out.

11:42 AM  

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