As the author is a Jesuit, he starts from a Roman Catholic perspective: that after Vatican II every Christian is called to live a responsible role in living and proclaiming the faith. This implies a more participative, less authoritarian approach to discovering the will of God. So if Spiritual Direction was ever about a director declaring God's will to their directees, it is now very much about co-discernment. Directors are asked to be “interpreters who guide others to a mature understanding of the call of the Spirit speaking within them.” (p 11)
The real goal of discernment is a “habit of discerning love.” (p 17) Only discerning love can make us truly free. Such discernment should work just as well in a community, if the members are themselves persons of prayer and discernment.
Quoting Fr Edward Malatesta, he writes (p 41) ” The purpose of such examination is to decide, as far as possible, which of the movements we experience lead us to the Lord and to a more perfect service of him and our brothers, and which deflect us from this goal.”
What is discernment of spirits?
It is a form of discernment, it is about perception and judgement, however it is applied particularly to our feelings: so we need to be in touch with them.
There is a necessary underlying belief that God is not a puppeteer, nor absent (a watchmaker who has completed his creation and abandoned it, as deism describes), but present in and with his creation: helping people to grow from childhood into a mature adult relationship with him. Such a God is not an autocrat, but one who can be questioned! We also need to understand that not all the “voices” that we hear may be from God, so discernment is necessary.
Needed also (p 37) is an approach to the relationship between our human understanding and God's. God's understanding will transcend ours, which means that we can grow in understanding – for example to realise that “Calvary was the only way.” Although we may make mistakes in our understanding or decisions, our created minds cannot come to sound conclusions which contradict God's understanding. For example, as St Thomas Aquinas put it, God cannot make a square circle. (To think otherwise is to reposition ourselves again as children always needing the intervention of an autocrat God, he writes. People tend to react to such a demanding “God” either by slavish submission, or complete rejection.) Because at any time our understanding is partial, our philosophy will always fall short of the whole truth.
The author also discusses the extent to which Jesus' discernment was infallible, noting that infallibility is not the same thing as clarity. Having discerned something, it may take us years to fully grasp it (p 46).
The discerner (p 58) must have a desire to do God's will; be open to God; and have underlying these a foundation of knowledge of God (or, more particularly, his ways. He talks of knowing God in the way that somebody has to know someone to buy them a necktie). Such a person must also be humble, charitable (by which he means slow to judge others), and courageous.
Courage is needed, at least in part, because after the passionate conviction that comes from discernment there is often still “objective uncertainty.” We know what the Lord wills, but not why. The author draws here on Kierkegaard, whose classic example was Abraham's discernment of God's call to him to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham felt sure that he had to sacrifice Isaac, but he did not understand why.
How do we set about discernment of spirits?
Directors are co-discerners helping people to become mature discerning pray-ers themselves, not making people dependent on them. If good directors are rare, then we should seek to raise up more!
Guidelines for discernment come from St Ignatius of Loyola. They started from observations that he made in his own life when making decisions. Sometimes he felt good about a decision but that feeling did not last. At other times he felt good at the time and the feeling did last. He felt that this distinction was important, and this led to his study of the discernment of spirits.
He starts with a requirement for “simplicity of intention” (openness) and counsels that “unchangeable” choices (which have been made validly) should not be questioned, such as (for his time) marriage or priesthood. Nor should we re-examine “changeable” decisions if we have already “made a choice properly and with due order.” In respect of past choices, “let him perfect himself as much as possible in the one he has made.” (P 80.)
Choices to be made, to be discerned, must be good (moral, lawful, etc.) or at least “indifferent” (morally neutral). We are seeking God's will, so we are choosing between several good choices, not between good and evil.
An outline of the method
Before making a choice it may be necessary to do some research to gather information from “reputable moralists.” For example (p82), a person may know that stealing is wrong, but be uncertain whether an intended choice is stealing.
The method works through three “times” in order.
1. Revelation Time – we are so moved by God that we are sure what his will is. There is nothing to discern! (Usually this is not so, so to the next step….)
2. Second Time – true discernment, “through the experience of desolations and consolations and the discernment of diverse spirits.” See more detail below. This is the stage people seem most likely to ignore.
3. Reasoning Time, or “a time of tranquillity” as Ignatius puts it. If after the previous two approaches there is a “frustrated nothing,” that is we are indifferent in our feelings, then we need to use our powers of reasoning – after praying for light and courage.
Ignatius gives two ways of handling the Reasoning Time:
(i) Use reasoning to weigh the pros and cons of the matter
(ii) Use the imagination. He suggest imagining all the following:
What I would advise another in the same position?
On my deathbed, what would I wish that I had done?
Picture myself in the presence of my judge on the last day and reflect on what decision I should wish to report.
Afterwards we should ask God to accept and confirm that this is of him.
So to “figure out” what God wants of us, as in this third Reasoning Time is not wrong, but it is incomplete.
In discerning between spirits, we learn that God's spirit brings love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23. See also 1 John 4:2; John 13:35; John 14:27.) The fruits of the evil spirit will either be the opposite (turmoil instead of peace) or counterfeit (for example an apparent love of country or family which is in reality not love at all because it is disordered, or perhaps obsessive.) (p 72.) After all, when people do wrong it is not usually a deliberate decision to wrong, but a decision to do something which at the time seems right.
Spiritual Consolation is an “interior movement aroused in the soul by which it is inflamed with love” of God. This may be through an awareness of him in the created, and it may come through joy or tears because of sorrow for sin. It may involve strong emotion, or be quiet and deep, but is about peace in the Lord. It is about feelings.
Spiritual Desolation, and the feelings that it brings, are the opposite: feelings of darkness and turmoil and restlessness; leading to a lack of faith, hope and love; and a sense of sad, perhaps slothful, separation from God. Again this is about feelings, and a loss of peace.
Our experience of God will lead us to want to return his love; it will lead us to action.
Such discernment is about feelings but it is the intellect which judges their source, and the will which moves us to action.
For a person who is not set on following God, the devil will seek to bring comfort akin to consolation to keep the person separated from God, whereas (unless the conscience has been numbed completely) the unease caused by the pricking of the conscience by God will feel similar to desolation. Yet only God is able to bring consolation “without previous cause” – i.e. a feeling of love of God not flowing from some action or experience.
For the person whose heart is set on following God, God will bring consolation, while the devil will seek to disturb and to raise doubts about faith and calling. God is never the author of desolation, however he will use it and obviously permits it. So desolation is not a bad sign, nor a sign that God is displeased with us, nor that we are negligent in our commitment to him. We do need to see it as a challenge to persevere in setting our hearts on God and his will for our lives.
Although it is good to examine our conscience and our prayer life at such times, we should not assume that desolation comes because we have done something wrong. God takes our relationship with us even more seriously than we do, so if we have been negligent in some way he will not leave us uncertain about that. Unless he does show us such negligence, we should banish vague doubts and anxieties that we have sinned in some way but we are not sure how. (Understanding this is as complex as the book of Job, he writes!)
In dealing with desolation, Ignatius’ first rule is that “we should never make any change but remain firm and constant in the resolution which guided us the day before the desolation, or in the decision to which we adhered in the preceding consolation.” (P 108) Good people make bad decisions because they misinterpret feelings of dryness as signs of God’s will for them. (Instead we should be drawn forwards by feelings of consolation.) During desolation we should seek to renew our faith, and perhaps do the opposite of what the desolation seems to lead us to.
Where consolation flows from a particular cause (experience, or choice that we are imagining) we need to take care that it is not counterfeit by examining the beginning, middle, and end of the course of our thoughts about it.
In particular we need to guard against being confident of decisions in a time of consolation, but then continuing to add further to those decisions, erroneously, in the “afterglow” which follows.
Towards the end of the book, the author explains that his title – Weeds among the Wheat – comes from Jesus’ parable of the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30). He sees one understanding being that weeds and wheat exist in every human soul (p 145). Weaknesses and temptations exist in all of us. We need to recognise this and accept that it must be to good (God’s) purpose. In this he draws also on St Paul’s comments on his weaknesses ( 2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
So we need to look for educative value in the weeds, to seek to learn from our past with its mistakes. He quotes Socrates: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Through this we can grow in the practice of discernment. The devil can be God’s sandpaper! (P158)
In the final chapter the author applies discernment to community life, drawing (p 179ff) on a monograph by JC Futrell SJ (Communal Discernment: Reflections on Experience, from Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits Vol IV #5 November 1972.)
He starts by outlining a process of alternating prayer and the sharing of insights with these steps:
• the gathering of data
• a weighing of pros and cons (similar to the Ignatian Third Time)
• a seeking of consolation and desolation through private prayer (like Ignatian Second Time)
• and, as these are shared, unanimity concerning God’s will.
He adds three prerequisites for communities seeking to live out communal discernment:
• Communion – living as a community with some understanding of common vocation
• A common agreement of the above in words “here and now”
• Common commitment to carrying out the decisions that have been reached through communal discernment. This is about commitment and also the indifference of members as individuals to the decisions made.
He finishes by again exhorting directors not to be directive, but to do themselves out of a job by developing discernment in their directees, and with two quotes:
“Love and do what you wish.” (St Augustine)
“Do whatever most moves you to love.” (St Teresa of Avila)