Most of us are familiar with the cartoons in which a character has an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other, each of which is battling to influence the poor soul. The angel tries to get the character to choose that which is better and the demon uses all sorts of ruses to get the character to do what ‘feels good’ or which seems to suit his or her own needs. The demon tries ardently using all sorts of delightful-looking temptations, persuasions, and charm in an attempt to make something which is not good seem as if it is a good choice. The demon tries everything in its power to get that character to give in. Meanwhile the angel is appealing with what the viewer knows is actually the better choice, the right and just choice, or the healthier choice. We laughed at these cartoons when we were kids, yet there was a lot to learn from them. Those are the tactics of the enemy who will even use charm to get us to stray from the path which leads to God. He will use every ruse he can, hoping that the soul does not realize that the devil’s power is limited vastly in comparison to that of God; he resorts to deception and fear to ensure that the soul is distracted from that reality. This is why it is so important to understand the discernment of spirits: the evil one is plenty smart, and knows how to use distractions and all manner of tactics since he has no other real power: the power he has is the power we give him. And the enemy wants us to forget that God gives us grace which, if utilized, will overcome him every time, even if we have to put up a valiant fight. Therefore, it is essential that we know how the enemy works, and that we know ourselves and our weak points, so that we might be armed with the limitless grace God provides. The best way to do this is through the spiritual discipline which comes from study and prayer.
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola provides many opportunities for learning spiritual discipline, helping us recognize sin and its effects. In the First Week* of the Exercises, we grapple with sin, our participation in it, and its effects upon us and on the world so that we might learn to recognize it. In the Second Week, we observe the nature of discipleship by spending time with Christ in the gospels so that we learn what Jesus taught. In these first two Weeks we also learn more about ourselves, our patterns, behaviors, and desires. But before we enter into the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, (Weeks 3 and 4), roads upon which we will tread with Him, St. Ignatius provides one of the most important meditations of the entire Exercises, intended to help the retreatant understand the road upon which they are about to embark. To do this, they must learn to discern at a higher level. St. Ignatius understood human nature by reflecting upon his own experience in which he had an initial desire for glory as a follower of Jesus. ** He came to see that whether outwardly or inwardly, (and thus less visible), retreatants might also have some misguided zeal or a glorified view of themselves or of discipleship, a view which could blind them and become an inroad for the enemy to utilize. Ignatius knew how easy it is for a retreatant to be dazzled by the charm of the enemy. Thus, he offered a meditation to help the retreatant learn to recognize the source of their own motivations and therefore to discern what the potential traps might be in their future decision making.
This pivotal meditation provided by St. Ignatius is called The Two Standards. To set the scene Ignatius describes a great battlefield, (almost like a giant football field, metaphorically speaking). On one end is the enemy with his army under his standard (or flag) of allegiance. On the other end of the field is Jesus with His army under His standard. On first glance, it seems to be a ‘no-brainer’ that we would follow Jesus and not Satan. However, it is actually not that simple: Ignatius wants us to see that the enemy is filled with guile and can draw us in before we know it. Therefore, Ignatius guides the retreatant in observing that the temptations of the enemy are quite subtle and exceedingly alluring. He has them imagine Satan, the chief of the enemies, trying to goad and tempt them with riches, honors, pride, etc. That is, all those ways in which they thought they had become indifferent when praying the Principal and Foundation at the beginning of the retreat, are now not so easy to choose. Doing this exercise helps to uncover our true desires and motivations so that we are not led astray even by our best intentions which the evil one wants to twist: it helps us learn how to discern at a deeper level so that we are not swayed by his convincing arguments. But as important as this is, it is not the final goal. The true goal is to conform our heart to that of Jesus so that we might truly become one with Him and with His desires for us and for the world. Only then are we ready to embark on the path to the Cross with Him, so that we might rise with Him as well.
God desires that we have the freedom to choose the good, and to do it for the right reasons. Thus, through this exercise we begin to move toward the true freedom which comes from discovering the purpose for which we were created: to know, serve, and love the Lord, who Ignatius (in understanding the Scriptures) describes as knowing, serving, and loving us first! If we want to grow in holiness, which means we want to become the disciples we were intended to be, we need to stay upon the road which leads us home to God, knowing that while God allows us to choose freely, He definitely has a preference for how we choose; God wants us to spend eternity with Him enjoying His love. In learning to conform our hearts to His, we will also have an effect upon those who we encounter in our daily lives as we move outward in service, motivated by love. It is by our example, by our deeds of love (small or large), that we build the Kingdom and thus, glorify God. And it is in so doing that our response of gratitude is that of true indifference. His will has become ours.
While not everyone can make the Spiritual Exercises, and while some are not called to Ignatian spirituality or are not attracted to it, we can all learn from the lessons taught by St. Ignatius, particularly that of the Two Standards. *** There are many pathways to holiness. No matter which one we are most comfortable with, it is important to know ourselves, our tendencies and desires, and it is important to recognize the pitfalls which the enemy places before us. All followers of Jesus need to grow in intimacy with Him, not only to experience His love, but to learn how to recognize the ways in which He typically acts. Reading the Scriptures and praying with them continually is an effective method for growth in this way. Through Scripture we can see how merciful God has always been, and we can learn through the words and deeds of Jesus how best to be His follower. Jesus is clear that the way of love is not always easy, but that it is His way. And with the help of saints such as Ignatius of Loyola, we can discern the way to proceed, which, while not fool-proof, (as nothing in this life ever is), provides guidelines to avoid moving away from God and helps us respond to Him with love and gratitude. Whatever our present call may be, we must not go ‘into the field’ without spiritual weapons such as the wisdom to discern and the knowledge that God will not abandon us.
We are all called to holiness. Each of us is called to do it in a way unique to our personality, the gifts we are given, and to the circumstances of our lives. Through his life and writings, St. Ignatius offers tools to help us grow in spiritual wisdom and in our intimacy with the Lord. But we also have companions on the journey: we have co-workers in the mission, our brothers and sisters in Christ who accompany us, and we have the Holy Spirit who provides guidance. Finally, we have those who have gone before us, who like St. Ignatius of Loyola, offer the hope that we will not lose our way and who offer valuable insights into how to accomplish the purpose for which we were created.
May we ask the intercession of St. Ignatius of Loyola for assistance in the process of discernment of spirits! May we be inspired by the many Saints and Blesseds who have gone before us and have left legacies of holiness from which to learn! May we pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life, as well as for the response of holy lay women and men to act as leaders in the faith! May we conform our hearts to the Lord! May we spend time in prayer and study of Scripture so that we may grow in intimacy with God in order to recognize Him more readily! And like St. Ignatius of Loyola, may we put ourselves at the disposal of God so our service might lead to greater love, and our love to greater justice and peace! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Notes: Next entry, September 9
* The main body of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, that is, the retreat, is divided into four parts which he called Weeks. Although the retreat is intended to be 30 days in total, the Weeks are not of equal length, but rather each Week is determined by the pace at which the retreatant is able, guided by the Holy Spirit and discerned by the spiritual director. No two experiences are ever the same, even when the same person makes the Exercises more than once in their lifetime. The retreat can be modified to as few as 8 days or as long as 30 weeks in which one would meet weekly while living in everyday life, (in contrast to the 30 day experience done at a retreat center), depending on the availability or lifestyle of the retreatant.
**During the convalescence of St. Ignatius, (as he was in the midst of his conversion experience), he would daydream about doing chivalrous deeds for Jesus or Mary. Sometimes he would imagine he was like St. Francis or St. Dominic doing great things for Christ. But after these daydreams, he noticed he would be restless or agitated; but when he simply imagined putting his life at the disposal of Christ, he found that peace would return. Thus began his experience in understanding discernment of spirits.
*** I want to be clear that there are many Christian spiritual approaches to prayer in addition to Ignatian spirituality. Some people are more comfortable with one spiritual tradition rather than another: ‘one size does not fit all’ and so it is important to discern which one is best for you to adopt and practice. A good spiritual director can help with this if you do not know what to look for.
1. My photo, taken in Rome: I took this photo of a painting during a trip to Rome a number of years ago, and unfortunately I cannot remember which of the major basilicas we were in. Nonetheless, I chose it as an example of the heavenly angels battling the fallen angels, now known as demons; in it, those who refused to obey God are being cast out of Heaven. They now occupy themselves serving the 'enemy of human nature,' as St. Ignatius refers to Satan.
2. Painting of St. Ignatius Loyola: This is a rather famous image of the saint. I chose it because it depicts the radiance of his holiness emanating from his face, but also it shows him at prayer. This is a cropped version of a larger painting in which, if memory serves, is of St. Ignatius at prayer as he presides at Eucharist. (He is wearing a chasuble, so that is the clue.)
3. My photo, just outside of Tomintoul, Scotland: This seemed to be a good representation of an open field, reminiscent of the plain or field described by St. Ignatius in The Two Standards meditation.
4. Inset of a painting called Noli me Tangere, by Blessed Fra Angelico: I love the work of Bl. Fra Angelico, so I chose this close-up of the Risen Jesus because Jesus is the goal of our spiritual journey. We desire to conform our heart to His.
5. Icon, St. Ignatius Amidst Alaska, by Fr. William Hart McNichols: I felt like this icon depicted the devotion of St. Ignatius to Jesus. Having Ignatius in a somewhat remote place, such as Alaska, not only highlights the presence of God everywhere, but it seems to be a reminder that spirituality is not contained to one culture. Our church is catholic, that is, universal. You can find this icon and purchase a copy if you so choose at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-ignatius-amidst-alaska-141-william-hart-mcnichols.html
6. My photo, hiking in the Highlands of Scotland: This photo seemed appropriate as a reminder that we want to follow the signs, so as not to stray from the path.
7. My photo, fiddleheads, taken while hiking near Granton on Spey, Scotland: These fiddleheads seemed to speak of growth and new life. They certainly stood out from the rest of the grass when I spied them. Those who grow in holiness do stand out even with humility, such as that of these humble plants.
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
A few times each month I have a commitment that necessitates driving on the freeway heading east and which sometimes coincides with the sun coming up over the skyline. It is always thrilling. It reminds me of all those summer mornings when I was in graduate school waking up in my 8th floor room with a perfect view of the sun coming up over the nearby Missouri River. I never tired of it; not once in the three years I lived there did seeing this cease to enthrall me. The night sky is exciting, too: recently the International Space Station flew overhead, easily viewed from my backyard. There is something about the wonders of the rising or setting sun, and of the intricacies of the night sky, that is captivating and can be truly savored. It is also an invitation to prayerful reflection. We might reflect upon Genesis 1 when God separated the day from the night and saw that it was good, or we could meditate upon the resurrection of Jesus on the morning of the third day. Or we could simply savor the wonder of it all, the gift of creation given by God, moving our hearts with gratitude and awe. Whatever it is, simply savoring these moments, emblazoning them in our hearts and minds in the context of faith, and consequently being filled with gratitude: these are all movements toward God. And it is St. Ignatius of Loyola who taught that these moments are opportunities to grow in our ability to find God in all things, a key principle of his spirituality, and therefore, to our growth in holiness. It is a way to learn the language of God, which not only aids our relationship with Him, but fosters another essential spiritual practice called the discernment of spirits.
Both the ability to see God in all things and to choose that which leads us closer to Him are predicated upon the essential practice of the discernment of spirits. We must be able to discern in order to recognize God’s presence and therefore to choose rightly, moving closer to God. I cannot emphasize this enough: discernment of spirits as taught by St. Ignatius of Loyola is of the utmost importance. This kind of discernment is not about basic decision making such as whether to wear this shirt or that, or whether or not to cross a street, but it is about recognizing whether something is motivated by goodness or evil; it is about learning to recognize the way the good spirits, (the Holy Spirit and the angels) act as opposed to the actions of the “enemy of human nature” * and his minions, that is, the bad spirits. To be clear, we do not discern between good and evil. This is because good and evil ought to be obvious: we already know to avoid evil and do good. We have the Ten Commandments, all that Jesus taught, and our ‘spiritual common sense’ as ways to know the difference between good and evil, thus we do not have to discern anything here; we clearly choose the good and not the evil.
Spiritual discernment, however, is about recognizing what is going on when we are presented with more subtle choices. In other words, it is a process of seeing what is not obvious on first glance in order to either grow closer to God, or so that we do not fall prey to a deception which might lead us away from God without our even realizing it. Therefore, spiritual discernment is prayerful consideration of two (or more) choices, both of which appear to be good, but one of which, as we will discover through the process, is actually better than the other because it leads us closer to God.** Working at this so it becomes a habit is part of how we grow in holiness and it is how we do our best at following the call of God daily; but it also helps us to beware of the deceptions of the evil one who wants us to choose the path away from God through one tiny step at a time.
St. Ignatius pointed out that the evil one is a master of deception. In the Spiritual Exercises he wrote that "the angel of darkness likes to masquerade as an angel of light." (Paragraph 332) Therefore the choices at hand may look really good, but one of them could actually contain a hidden evil, leading the person further from God rather than closer to Him. The temptation is to see something that is ordinarily a good thing as something to choose, when for you at this moment it will actually derail your progress. And sometimes the enemy is so bold that he makes something which is otherwise bad appear to be a good, viable choice by tempting us through rationalization. This is why a spiritual director is so important. He or she can assist in the process of discernment because the director is impartial and objective, whereas we are always biased by our own ‘baggage’ and inadvertent self-delusions. Thus, it is imperative to our spiritual life that we learn this process and make it a habit. The world we live in is steeped in an attitude of self-centeredness in which many are becoming their own god or are falling prey to the attitude which says "everything is okay because I say so, or everyone else is doing it, or because it feels good." Truth does not change just because we want it to. We can never be too careful in making choices because the evil one revels in getting us to stray off the course of goodness. Therefore, discernment is an essential tool for our spiritual life.
All that being said, the process begins with weighing one of our two (or more) choices. Essential here is not just the feelings, but whether or not our behaviors are consistent with the gospel and the way the Holy Spirit generally works. In other words, if we see the fruits of the Spirit, if there is an increase in goodness, generosity, selflessness, faith, hope, love, mercy, and all that Jesus taught, then perhaps this is the way the Spirit is calling us. (Galatians 5:22) But if the choice leads us to self (ego), ambition, power, lack of kindness, mercy, or love; if it leads to dissension, factions, or to fear, this can only lead us away from God. Therefore, we need to move away from anything which leads to those ends. As St. Ignatius put it, we need to resist it by moving against it, (a concept referred to as agere contra.)
We must recognize that Christianity is counter-cultural and it has been since the beginning. The message of Jesus was not the same as that of the Pharisees who had created their own interpretation of the Law. They interpreted the Old Testament according to their designs, losing sight of its true purpose, (love), and even justified evil as good as well as perceiving some good actions as evil. When the Father sent Jesus to bring His message of Love, to ‘not abolish the Law but to fulfill it,’ those who were not discerning listened to the Pharisees, advertently losing sight of the original intent of the word of God which led to justice, peace, mercy, and love. And even with the teaching of the Gospel by the early Christians, all subsequent generations have wrestled with the same temptations. Therefore, it should not shock us that we continue to struggle with issues needing discernment. But if we learn to discern, we learn to see God in all things. And in learning how to recognize His presence, we can learn how to follow Him rather than to fall prey to the subtle trickery which encourages self over God. And perhaps then we can teach others through our own word and deed.
If we truly want to grow in holiness, and if we listen to the teaching of Jesus with a heart which desires to follow, we can learn to take the path offered by the Spirit. The Good News is that when we do make mistakes, and we will, we have the mercy of God to turn to. Discernment of spirits is not some sort of ‘magical’ method in which we will always make the correct choice. But what it encourages, what St. Ignatius encourages, is that the more prayerful we become in our approach to everything, the more we will see God in all things, and thus, the more we will learn about how He acts. The road to holiness is the road to God: the key is to stay on it so that we might progress, to learn from our deviations from it, and to never cease dialoging with God in prayer. And our hope is to bring as many people as we can along with us. Our good behaviors, works of mercy, attempts at justice which are made simply by living the gospel, are all ways we can combat the work of evil that wants to derail the world. The News is Good, and hope is abundant for those who learn how to see, hear, and discern. If we simply apply the gospel to our choices, we are indeed on the right road.
May we ask the intercession of St. Ignatius of Loyola and all the Jesuit saints who have followed in his footsteps to help us to grow in spiritual discernment! May we increase our prayer time to include more reflection upon how God labors for us so that we might grow closer to Him! May we make it a priority to learn more about God by studying the Scriptures and by prayerfully reflecting upon them! May we slow down our pace enough to learn how to savor all the moments of wonder and awe which present themselves to us! And may we find peace, hope, mercy, and love to be the Source and the End for which we yearn: in our discernment, may we find the Lord! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Notes: Next post, August 26.
* One of the ways that St. Ignatius referred to the devil in the Spiritual Exercises was as "the enemy of human nature." It is an apt description.
** For decisions of greater importance, such as for major life decisions, the prayerful process takes longer than one or two days, and is done over more time, usually a number of weeks. Most of the time however, when we are discerning smaller, everyday matters we do it more quickly.
Links to fuller explanations of concepts highlighted in this entry: please click one or more of the following if you desire more information on Ignatian spiritual discernment.
Bishop Robert Barron on Finding God in All Things https://pivotalplayersfilming.com/commentary1/#top
More on the Spiritual Exercises from Bishop Barron https://pivotalplayersfilming.com/commentary2/
On the concept of agere contra https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/acting-against/
1. Inset of the sun from The Sower by Vincent van Gogh (1888): I chose this for the beginning because this sunrise over a wheat field gives me a similar sensation of wonder and awe as experienced when I viewed the sun rising from my room while in graduate school, as mentioned.
2. My photo, at the continental divide, Loveland, Colorado: This is one of my favorite photos and so I chose it because it was a place which evoked a sense of the presence of God. Indeed these mountains are His handiwork.
3. Pastel drawing, St. Ignatius at Prayer in Rome, Fr. William Hart McNichols: This drawing captures the reflection of Ignatius during his prayer. Perhaps he was discerning something.
4. My photo, the Jordan River, border of Israel and Jordan: I felt this this was an appropriate reference to our baptism from which the graces we need for discernment begin.
5. The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew, by Duccio Di Buoninsegna (1308-11): This seemed to be an excellent reference to the discernment of the two future apostles who encountered Jesus while fishing, not knowing exactly who He was. They ultimately discerned to follow, a movement closer to God indeed.
6. My photo in the Highlands of Scotland, near Tomintoul: This photo taken while hiking in Scotland seemed to be a good representation of the spiritual journey. If we read the markings correctly, and do not stray off the path and get lost, we find our ultimate destination.
7. Icon, St. Ignatius and the Passion of the World in the 21st Century, Fr. William Hart McNichols: This seemed like the best image to finish the entry because we are in a confusing world. Like St. Ignatius, we can make a commitment to following the Lord, but we will need to continuously discern as we go. Our trust must be in the Lord who never leaves us. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-ignatius-and-the-passion-of-the-world-in-the-21st-century-194-william-hart-mcnichols.html
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart