The following essays by Fr. Randy Roche, SJ contain practical applications to daily life of St. Ignatius of Loyola's "Guidelines for Discernment of Spirits" contained in his book, The Spiritual Exercises.
Don't Tell Me- Recognizing the value of our own experiences.
It Was God!- Valuing our daily life experiences of God.
What We Can Expect- Making use of both positive and negative feelings and thoughts.
The Weakest Point- Building strength where it is most needed.
The One Thing That Must Be Said- When "talking about it" is most valuable.
Pushing Back- Dealing with opposition to our values from within.
Thinking Ahead With Balance- Reflection on the past as guide for the future.
The "Blahs" - A Fall From Grace?- Learning how to properly interpret some experiences.
Patience- Experiences that lead to acceptance of reality as it is.
Thinking and Feeling- Attending to the two complementary components of discernment.
Which Way?- Recognizing the basic directions indicated by thoughts and feelings.
When it comes to spirituality, it is very important that we each discover for ourselves what happens when we encounter transcendence in any form. People may help us by suggesting a particular practice, but it does us no real good to tell us what it will be like. All of us have had friends say something like: “You’ve got to see this (movie or TV program)!” They had such a good experience that they want us to have it too. If they describe how they felt or what they thought, perhaps we will become interested in viewing it for ourselves. If someone not only suggests a particular event, but then proceeds to describe their personal reactions in great detail, we may be much less inclined to go. If we are reading an interesting story, we don’t want anyone to tell us how we will feel when we get to a certain part. We prefer not to be told what our thoughts and feelings should be, but to experience it for ourselves.
There is no joy quite like that of coming into awareness of how some bit of reality from outside fits perfectly with who we are. If someone suggests reading a particular Psalm and making it personal by exchanging our own name for “Jacob” and “Israel,” we might want to try it for ourselves: imagining God speaking the words to us. By way of contrast, if some well-intentioned people urge us pray in exactly the way they do, meaning that it is something that they want, the moment becomes uncomfortable, and is not likely to interest us.
If something is good for us, then of course we want the same for others. But only when we freely engage in some spiritual activity can we spontaneously receive a sense of joy or gladness, increased love or trust. Even thought something wonderful happened for us, we cannot make it happen for anyone else. We can encourage or suggest that someone try the same activity as we found helpful, and we can inquire as to their interest, but we do not give spiritual experiences to others.
We do not control our own experiences in the sense of making ourselves feel something. We may learn that taking some quiet time each day is quite helpful to our sense of well-being. But we do not create the good feeling. We do things that are appropriate for who we are at this time in our lives, and the consequences are often a sense of peace and harmony within. We might recognize and be glad about someone else’s good experience, but the one that is best for us takes place in accord with our own decisions to seek and to receive.
Experiences of God come often during our daily lives. The more aware we become of today's experiences, the more frequently we will recognize them in the future.
People will, when they trust someone, reveal one of their weaknesses. We are not overly shy in talking about our ordinary experiences, both positive and negative. But many of us are quite reluctant to say anything about our experiences of God. We are usually much more reserved about them.
Very many people have had at least one happening which they knew, with much clarity at the time, had to have been from God. Often, what happened shortly thereafter was a doubt that it really took place, which got the person out of touch with the experience. Then it was perhaps even forgotten, and certainly was not shared with any one else. Too bad! It was a personal contact with God which deserved a place in one's memory of good things that really took place.
When people do recall and talk about such experiences, they will notice the difference between what actually happened to them, and then what happened afterwards that got them to let the special events go out of consciousness. For example: Someone is occupied with his or her own thoughts and concerns, when, with complete spontaneity, they receive great clarity that resolves a major concern, accompanied by an equally clear sense of God’s presence and care. The experience may be so powerful that the recipient is moved to tears of joy and feelings of a warmth throughout is or her body. It comes unexpectedly and is not a consequence of any action or decision. Something really took place. The experience passed; the feelings and clarity diminished. Then came the thoughts that chipped away at the experience: “It couldn’t have happened to me; it was just my imagination.” Or, “I’m just an ordinary person, it couldn’t have been God.” And so what started out as a personal moment to treasure is effectively denied as a reality. But if such an experience is shared with an understanding person, it is affirmed, clarified and appreciated on a deeper level.
Within ourselves, we have the capacity to either reflect or to rationalize. We can try to understand what has happened, or we can explain away something that is unfamiliar. Our integrity requires of us that we honor all our experiences, the good ones as well as the bad, and especially that we recall those experiences that might have been from God. If we recall the difference between the experience at the time of the event and what followed later, our own sense of honesty will guide us in naming rightly what was from God and how we doubted it afterwards. Finally, talking to someone trustworthy about such matters may give us the additional reassurance that comes from another’s acceptance, plus the recovery of some of the original light and joy we had received.
In a world of mixed messages and subtle invitations, what can we expect at the level of our spirituality?
Anyone who is living according to standards that transcend merely meeting their own wants and needs will experience spontaneous joy and happiness which are signs of God’s support and encouragement. With reason, we come to expect positive feelings to accompany good decisions. Likewise, those who are following constructive paths in life will usually have an abiding sense of peace, even in the midst of some pain and suffering. We can also reasonably expect that sometimes thoughts will come to us that will disrupt our joy and diminish our sense of well- being. All kinds of thoughts can appear in our minds about how hard or useless it is to keep to our principles. Good people experience disturbances like this even though they have done nothing wrong. The experience is close to that of having a mean-spirited person making disparaging remarks to us, with the purpose of upsetting us. These latter thoughts and accompanying feelings do not have their origin or cause in God.
People whose basic orientation is to help rather than to control or harm others, those who are responsive to their experiences of God, will notice that they receive gentle inspirations; they frequently have thoughts and ideas come to mind that are so in keeping with their direction in life that they seem natural and rather easy to carry out. As creator and as welcome guest, God enters freely, without knocking or causing the least disturbance. God’s interactions with us are similar to those of the people in our lives whose love for us we have come to trust. These friends and family members can make suggestions and we listen to them. Their values are so close to ours that we expect whatever they bring to our attention will be of value to us. To an infinitely higher degree, God has our best interests at heart, as well as those of everyone whose lives we touch.
We can also expect to receive some negative thoughts and ideas. These will also come without being asked, but they will cause some disturbance as they enter our minds, since they are outsiders and do not belong. The suggestions will be out of synch with our basic orientation. The thoughts come with a sense of being pushed at us, as though by someone trying to have their own way rather than to help us achieve our own fulfillment. The entry of ideas that are out of keeping with the positive flow of our lives can be described as strident, sharp and pushy. When we notice these kinds of qualities accompanying what comes into our consciousness, we are in a privileged position to simply reject them. No need to weigh their relative merits. Who would waste time by listening to an enemy telling us to hurt ourselves? We do not seriously consider the proposals of disgusting ads on the Internet. Nor do we need to waste our energy by trying to argue with unreasonable suggestions.
If we are careful to observe the positive or negative direction of the thoughts that enter our minds, we can “have it both ways.” When the thoughts are flowing in keeping with our direction, they are worth our consideration. They confirm the route we are taking. When they are contrary and disruptive, they can safely and wisely be dismissed as simply irrelevant on our path to God. By pointing in the opposite direction they actually give us an indication of the correct path upon which we want to continue.
Many of us have a particular kind of vulnerability where we often seem to get caught off guard; a particular weak spot where we tend to fail in living up to our expectations. Or we have a "button" that gets pushed and we react rather than respond. The experience is as if an unseen enemy had found the weakest point in our personality and kept working on us at precisely that point. Our strongest characteristics do not seem to be challenged nearly as much as those that are tender and underdeveloped. We need most to build up and strengthen what is weakest.
Whether or not an enemy uses our weakness to get at us, we can help ourselves by noticing just how and in what particulars we experience confrontation with our values. We may wish that every conflict concerning our standards would be in the areas of our competence, but some honesty about our condition will serve us much better. Of course we will be attacked where are defenses are weakest! In even friendly competitions, individuals and teams are trained to look for the weaknesses of others and to exploit them if possible. What we need is to directly face our own weaknesses and do something that is both simple and wise.
Those who build or repair a brick wall do so carefully, one brick at a time. They want it to last. We need to build up the wall of our integrity at the point of our weakness. No need to think about every aspect of our lives. If we can recall where the action took place recently, even if it was a small failure or a slight attack, that is the place where we might want to put in some new bricks. When we know the spot, we can focus our attention there. We can rightly expect someone or something to push us at our weakest point. If we are ready, we can use the occasion to put together a response that is appropriate. Each little victory we achieve strengthens the weak part of our wall; over time, our weakness becomes one of our strengths.
Some people might complain that God should defend us where we are weakest and not let us be attacked where we are at risk of failing. Another option is to call upon God to give us exactly what we need each time our weakness is tested. This has two distinct advantages: We get help when and where we need it, and we learn through each experience how better to deal with a particular kind of difficulty. In a long-range view, it is far better for us to confront the reality of our limitations than to go about with a naïve sense of perfection. Parents are sometime surprised and chagrined when they find how quickly their weaknesses are perceived and manipulated by their children. What we ignore or hide from ourselves is usually visible to others. God, as dearest of friends, may let the attacks on our weakest point draw us to a very healthy sense of our humanity and to a more personal relationship with both the Inventor and the Savior of that humanity.
A handy rule of life: be sure to talk about the one line of thinking that we would prefer to keep hidden. That thought which we might prefer to ignore, yet the one that unsettles us as it nudges our consciousness, is precisely the one thing that must be said to another person whose confidentiality we trust. The way we are made, our own thinking can become circular and ever more convoluted when our values and feelings are conflicted. When we choose to open that one difficult subject with another person, we have implicitly made the decision to deal with it. The commitment is to ourselves, though we need the help of another to hear us as we engage our deepest level of honesty. Though it may be a struggle to discover the words that best match the discord within, the freedom that comes from this openness often comes as quickly as a cork out of a bottle. It is not magic, but it is definitely spiritual.
Sometimes we come to a point of enacting a significant decision in our lives. We are pretty sure of our conclusion; we feel strongly that we have chosen well a particular direction. With all that, there is still the need for confirmation, not approval, through our honest communication with at least one other person. In searching for and finding the words to convey our truth to another, we will gain conviction regarding any choice that is in keeping with our deepest values. Though we might think that we have resolved on a change of job, residence or significant relationship, we become more certain of our decisions when we put them into words and seek to achieve that special resonance between our internal, private world and the larger world of other persons among whom we will live out our decisions.
We are created as unique individuals, but always in context of community. Although we are each responsible for our own decisions, we often do not have all the information we need in order to choose well until we enter into real communication with another person. What seems to affect only us, because we are the ones with the particular set of thoughts and feelings, actually impacts the lives of many people. Life and spirit are bound together in many more ways than we can recognize at any given moment, especially a moment of personal stress.
As we go through life, we often experience internal opposition when we try to follow our inspirations or our basic orientation. We need rules to help us win against the opposition. A good rule is: "When pushed, push back, harder!"
All of us have had those moments when we were intent on carrying out a responsibility that we knew was ours, but after beginning, we had some second thoughts. If we insisted more strongly with ourselves on the course we had set, the fear usually had little chance to get into our consciousness and we succeeded in doing what we started out to do. The experience is that of winning a contest in the very private and intensely personal struggle where we overcome our fears and do what we have to do in order to maintain our integrity.
If we reflect on the experience of what happens when we quickly and forcefully go ahead with our good intentions, our confidence will be confirmed. No matter what ways we experience it, whatever pushes us away from living according to our God-given humanity is a real enemy. Though the thoughts, doubts and fears may be within us, they are more of a threat to our well-being than any opposing player could ever be. If it is painful to lose a game, our feelings are more painful when we give in to discouraging or negative thoughts.
In a game, none of us would ever think of letting the opposition have their way in hopes that they would stop competing against us. Backing off usually invites even stronger opposition. Matters of heart and spirit follow the same rules. When we let fear and negative thoughts occupy our full attention, they swiftly multiply and get worse. We literally lose heart and suffer spiritual loss. Most of us have had the experience of first having some doubts, then a few more gloomy thoughts, then some real disturbance of spirit, especially fear, until finally we just did nothing or quit. The best way to stop a downward-spiraling process is to go directly against the first doubts, rather than to let the full weight of many more contrary thoughts oppress us. Push back firmly and freedom follows. The enemy was in our thoughts, not in the realities surrounding us.
Planning what we will do requires a certain level of thinking ahead to what will be needed to achieve our purposes and sustain a balance in life. Even when we cannot really plan, we do need to think ahead.
Thinking ahead entails reflection on the ups and downs in our lives, the good times and the bad. When we hit a difficulty, it helps to recall a time when we have felt better and to reassure ourselves that those positive feelings will come again. We have all experienced some really good times when things went very well. While we cannot simply hold on to those feelings, it is also true that difficulties will not last forever. We experience challenges that are difficult to deal with and successes that are fulfilling.
Balance in life is not about equal time for pleasure and pain. We are in a state of balance when we keep moving without falling. Uphill is harder than downhill, but both take us somewhere. A crash is more likely to happen if we think that there should be no obstacles or pain in our lives. That kind of thinking puts us at risk of not even noticing a small rock or hole. We can get knocked off our path if we come to believe that everything is supposed to go the way we want. Going downhill may be easier, but the faster we go, the more important it is to stay conscious and aware of our vulnerability. When we are working hard in the face of a headwind or going uphill, the risk of an accident diminishes. At those times, we are usually focused and very conscious of our surroundings and of our effort. When life seems difficult, the danger comes from discouragement that leads to quitting. The harder it gets, the more we need to consider where we are going and to recall that it will be easy again when the wind is not in our faces or when we reach the top and head downhill.
At our deepest levels, integrity, justice and compassion in dealing with others challenge us to maintain a balance. The most intense experiences may well be invisible to everyone but us. Here too, even in our relationship with God, there are enlightened times when we know with immediacy what to do, and get on with it. When we feel the Presence, praying is easy. Deciding and doing are almost the same act when all is clear in the mind and heart. Those are gracious times for which to be thankful. We cannot keep them in a box. When darkness prevails, that is the time to remember what it was like in the light, which we believe will return. That is also when we learn again that we are created. We are loved, but we did not choose ourselves into being. We can wisely acknowledge the cooperative venture of life between ourselves and inspiration. When we become least capable of following our own aspirations by our own strength that is when we lean harder on God who may be unseen and unfelt, but always there.
For most of us, there are times when we wonder what we are doing with our lives, whether the effort at retaining our values is worthwhile and what purpose is being served by trying to do what is right. We might wonder whether we have somehow become persons who do not count for anything even in the eyes of God. Our own good intentions don’t seem to support us. What is happening?
It is possible to slip and slide, to push out of mind a commitment we have made to a positive way of living. If we do that, it makes sense that we would experience the “blahs” no matter what outer signs we may give of being on top of things. If we deviate from what we have known to be right for us in relation to people or to God, there will be a kind of dis-ease inside us. We know how to deal with this: We return to the practice of getting some exercise as we had promised ourselves; we stop talking badly about others as we had decided; we take up a practice of quiet time or work less compulsively or drive without the radio so we can pray or whatever it might be. When we get back on track we feel more whole. We do know when the cause of feeling out-of-sorts with ourselves is a consequence of our own choices.
There are other reasons for feeling disconnected inside us that are less familiar, yet very important to understand. Good as we are, and good as we want to be, we really are not independent agents all on our own. We did not create or invent ourselves. Our life is a gift from God, and we have received much from other people along the way enabling us to live as we do now. When we experience a lessening of our feelings, interests and capacities for thinking and acting for the better, it does not mean that we have inadvertently become less valuing and valuable persons. We have a new opportunity to recognize and acknowledge who we really are: weak human beings, recipients of grace and inspiration directly from God as well as through the many people who care for us. When we pay attention to our roots we do not need to focus on changing our behavior. Rather, in acknowledging that we have ups and downs, we avoid that worst of human illnesses of heart: false pride. The day when we think that we have done it all by ourselves is a time of darkness and ignorance. Our healing comes from admitting the limitations of our humanity.
Another way to understand an interior state of near powerlessness is to consider how parents teach children to walk. They back away, once the children have learned to stand and to take some tentative steps. They don’t let them fall, but they do let them experience both the joy and the effort involved in taking steps on their own as best they can. Let the children walk when they become able. There is a lot more to learn! When we have learned how to walk what we talk we have still not yet completed our life’s education. God backs away at times, and we feel how hard it is when it seems as though we are totally on our own. We never are alone, and we cannot fall from grace by some accident. We experience our limitations and the efforts involved in living according to our beliefs and values. We become conscious of how hard it can be to build our own character and to act and to interact well with others. This is one of the ways that we come to appreciate the reality of how we are part of a community, in a communion, and always beneficiaries of Goodness.
We are not born with a spirit of patience. Most of us do not seek patience as a a personal habit, because we want to accomplish as much as we can in as short a time as possible. We learn patience through experiences that require us to be patient lest we suffer even more by not being patient. Patience does not not come to us simply by knowing what it is. Neither has it come through one heroic decision to finally become a patient person. For most of us, patience is a gift that we do not look for, but which arrives almost unconsciously, one experience at a time. We can cooperate with and accept the gift, or insist on pushing our way forward with futility, ending in frustration and anger.
Dealing with the many disturbances that upset our desires to move quickly and surely is a spiritual process. When we have found it relatively easy to handle some of the unpleasant and unexpected things that happen, we might say that we were at our best, or were somehow inspired and blessed. When things really irritate us and we do not find within us an immediate positive response, this is the opportune occasion for reminding ourselves of our previous good experiences. Relying on how we have managed to get through difficulties in the past is a manifestation of patience. When we are pressed and uninspired, we can still make appropriate decisions based on the same principles we used in those times when we could see our way clearly. This too is an exercise of patience. One further common experience of patience is when we tell ourselves during periods when life seems more than ordinarily burdensome that we will again experience times when it will be easier for us to deal with whatever comes our way in life.
If we do not value patience, we might be under the delusion that everything should be the way we want it. Or, we might not have a word to describe a more mature, less shallow and self-centered perspective we have developed in realizing that we want to take others into consideration even while maintaining our own self-respect. We become more patient every time we hold back a critical word that will not help anyone, or we set aside an impulsive and angry response to a real or imagined hurt. Rather than becoming and remaining angry at a perceived injustice we can "push back," but not against another person, rather, against the impulse to lash out. It is also an act of patience, when things are not going very well, and we turn to God for healing and help rather than to take out our frustrations on anyone who is within range. Patience is strong, not weak, active, not only passive. Those who are patient are able to insist on their freedom and their right to choose a positive response to irritation and disagreement rather than to allow inner and outer turmoil to rule them. Rather than “swallowing one’s anger” patience is shown in a strong and quiet determination to deal with our feelings rather than let them dominate us.
The grace of a patient response comes on a one-at-a-time basis. We learn it, and partially earn it, every time we choose not to merely react to whatever bothers us.
NOT a Time to Decide
There are times to trust one’s directions, to pay attention to the spirit of the law rather than the rule, and to make decisions with minimal reflection and consideration. Then there are times when our best advisor and guide is one simple rule: Do not make a decision when you are not at peace.
When we are off our center, cannot find God in our thoughts or prayers, and are pressured by our feelings and thoughts, conditions to not foster decision-making. Not making a decision except when we are peace with ourselves may seem a difficult rule to follow. But making a decision at a time when we are being influenced by thoughts and feelings in a direction contrary to our basic orientation towards God, can cause great harm to ourselves and to others.
There is an illusion in times of confusion that making a decision, any decision will give us relief. To do so is equivalent to reaching blindly into a bag of good and bad apples and just taking one. Even if we happen to get a good one, we would consider ourselves lucky, not smart or wise.
We cannot always take time to achieve a level of comfort before making important decisions. When a crisis occurs, we have to move quickly. Most often, if we are open and want such inspiration, we will have a moment of clarity about what is the “right thing” for us to do. If we reflect back on the decisions we made when we had to decide with immediacy, we will probably recognize that most were the proper choices. There is no time when God is not present with us, though we are not always consciously aware of the support we receive.
Our spirituality, decision-making and our relationship with God depend in large part upon the connection between what we think and what we feel.At one time we might think that the path we are traveling in life is going to be too difficult for us, and elicit feelings of discouragement. At another moment the thought occurs that all all will be well, and we then have positive feelings about what we intend to do. Some people find that they can only with difficulty turn towards God while their minds are filled with thoughts of their own weakness. At another time the same persons notice how easy it is to pray as their thoughts are focused on the goodness of God. The connection between thinking and feeling is far from accidental.
We do not create the weather, but we can notice the conditions outdoors, and choose the appropriate clothing. We do not make up our own feelings, but when we pay attention to what is going on in our minds in conjunction with the associated feelings, we gain valuable information. For example, when facing a challenging situation, we might have some feelings of anxiety, with accompanying thoughts about failing or quitting. Is it the challenge that causes the anxiety, or is it the thoughts about failing and quitting that disturb us? Thinking about our desire to face and overcome the challenge usually evokes positive energy.
When our thoughts are mainly about superficial events or possibilities, we might experience feelings of confusion and of distance from God. When we are occupied with thoughts about moving ahead we often feel energized, and have a sense that God is right with us. In making decisions, we help ourselves by attending to the “spiritual weather” we are experiencing. When our minds are cloudy and our feelings correspond, it does not mean that we have become less a good person than we were before, or a less responsive and responsible child of God. But the confused set of thoughts and concomitant discomfort do not come to us from God. When God approaches us, we find that our thoughts flow easily on how to act in accord with our values, and feel confidence and a sense of rightness.
God is good, so our experiences of God are accompanied with thoughts and feelings that are appropriately positive. Most of us also have some other kinds of experiences which are not necessarily destructive, but they do not come to us directly from the gracious love of God. To attend to this basic difference is to gain a great freedom. We can make decisions based on recognizing which lines of thinking and feeling are gifts of God and which are not. We get better at saying “yes” to God and “no” to not-God.
Even the most well-intentioned people have days when nothing seems to go well, and some deeply painful thoughts occur. One very troubling question that arises at one time or another is this: "Am I really going the right way in my life?" That question can run very deep, including concern about one's relationship with God. In such a frame of mind, we might wonder whether we are wandering rootless with no ultimate direction to our lives. Such thinking is not pleasant, but it needs a definitive answer if it occurs. Because such a question directly touches upon our personal faith, it cannot be resolved simply by someone else telling us that we are heading in the right or the wrong direction. We need an experience that leaves us clear about which way we are going.
God provides us with some clear feedback about our basic direction and life-orientation. We can look to some signs in our own experience that serve us as well do traffic signals when we are driving. But we are not forced to obey the signals we receive. Just as we might trust a kindly person on the street who warns us not to step into a hidden hole in the ground, we can believe that God who created us will not simply watch us heading for a deep pit, but will do the equivalent of shouting and waving to draw our attention to imminent danger. Children need to be warned when they are putting themselves at risk. They also need affirmation when their behavior is appropriate. God is more motherly and fatherly toward us than any parent or most trusted friend.
What are the signs, then? A smile or a gentle word of encouragement is a common means of giving approval to one another. Our experiences of God might be similar: we might realize we can talk to God with easy familiarity, a sure sign that we are basically on good terms. When we take a look at the choices we have made, even major decisions involving commitments, we might have a sense of peace. We might find helpful meaning in words of Scripture or another inspirational book; we might take gentle delight in the beauties of creation. These are simple and recognizable ways that God affirms us in the direction of our life.
There are other signs: If a child were just about to eat something poisonous, we would not calmly encourage them to better eating habits. We would be very sharp and direct as an emergency requires, even if the forcefulness of our words and behavior might cause some tears. When any of us, as children of God, are about to engage in behavior that is ultimately destructive of ourselves or others, we are likely to experience a strong feeling that something is wrong. Call it "true guilt" or a God-given "Watch out!" We can accept such signs as trustworthy, or we can ignore the feelings, and justify the direction we are taking.
Which way are we going? We can take an honest look at ourselves, and notice whether we are aware of being where we belong at this time or whether we are confused and disturbed in our depths. The former is an affirmation of a good direction in life, though it is not an approval of everything we do. The latter is a warning, inviting us to make some change in a part of our lives, but it is not a criticism of us as a person.
Randy Roche, SJ