Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Discernment of Spirits

A while back Oswald Sobrino started a series of posts commenting on the books of Timothy Gallagher about Ignatian spirituality. The first of these books is called The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living (New York: Crossroad, 2005). I have been reading this book over the past few weeks. It is truly a spiritual gem, and very useful for practical, everyday living. There are many insights I have gained from this book, such as: a clear way to determine the difference between spiritual and nonspiritual desolation. This distinction is absolutely important (even though they are sometimes mixed together) because the treatment for each is different. If you treat a nonspiritual desolation as though it had a spiritual cause and character, you can suffer from psychological distress and damage. I think many people overspiritualize their psychological problems. Many people think they are in spiritual desolation when all they really need is to get more sleep, drink less coffee and eat a balanced diet!

A second insight is the idea that spiritual desolation is never in itself a good thing and does not in itself bring about spiritual growth. It can only lead to growth if it is resisted because it is not caused by good spirits or by the Holy Spirit. If you do not resist spiritual desolation you will probably experience spiritual damage or a spiritual disaster of some sort.

A third insight is the idea that a person who does not patiently resist spiritual desolation using the spiritual means given to us by God, but rather gives in to the thoughts and temptations that come with spiritual desolation is like a mercenary soldier who stops fighting the moment a paycheck is late. A true servant and soldier of the Lord continues to fight because he believes in the Cause (in this case a Person) no matter whether he is being rewarded for it or not. Such a person is like a spiritual child. He will never achieve spiritual maturity or holiness. He is like a husband who only loves his wife when she is warm, cuddly and attractive. There is no real love in that. Nor is there real love of God in someone who caves in and turns away from God the moment things get difficult.

Finally, God does not normally intend to leave the Christian in a state of desolation for life or for a long time. There are some rare exceptions among the saints (who have advanced so much that a more or less extended trial of spiritual desolation is a condition for spiritual fruitfulness--think of Mother Teresa; few of us are Mother Teresa yet!). Otherwise, if we take the steps that St. Ignatius outlines in the rules for discernment, we can expect the desolation to subside in fairly short order (days or weeks at the most?).

Here are Sobrino's posts on the book (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). He has also posted on some of Fr. Gallagher's other writings, such as his book on consolation and on the Ignatian examen.