01. Dancing With God
A metaphor that helps me understand the discernment of spirits is that of dance. From the time I could walk until I was in my early twenties, I studied classical ballet for many hours each day. At a certain point in our training, when our own dancing was quite established, we began to work with a partner in what were called pas de deux classes. In those classes the focus was no longer on our own movement. It was about learning to sense and tune in to the movement of the other. When one partner pulled in the opposite direction or anticipated the movement of the other, it jarred, and the beauty of the unity in movement was spoiled. The longer one danced with a particular partner and the more experienced one became through long hours of practicing many different sequences, the more easily the movement between the two flowed. One’s whole attention needed to be attuned to the subtlest change in the other. One could sense in the other’s eyes or in a change of breathing the need to adjust one’s placement. Discernment of spirits is in many ways like the dance of God and the person, in which he or she learns to sense God’s movement with increasing subtlety and become more and more attuned to it.
Discernment of spirits is connected with, but not the same as, more general discernment. Discernment is about key choices and moments of decision. Discernment of spirits is the development of a deepening moment-by-moment awareness of where our thoughts, feelings, desires, and moods are coming from and leading to. It can be compared with the shifts of movement within the same dance.
02. Learning Discernment at Loyola
Discernment of spirits is not something new. It was always part of our Christian tradition. The desert fathers and mothers in the earliest centuries of Christianity were well aware that we are constantly pulled between those things that draw us closer to God and those that pull us away. St. Ignatius lived in the sixteenth century, a time when much was happening spiritually. It was the time of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the time of the great Spanish mystics John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. The great gift of Ignatius was not that he discovered something new but that he was able to draw together much Christian wisdom about discernment of spirits in the form of guidelines that pilgrims and their guides can use.
While convalescing after a cannonball shattered his leg during a battle against the French at Pamplona, Ignatius first began to notice that God communicates God’s self through our deepest feelings, imagination, and thoughts. Prior to that, Inigo, as he was first called, had been pursuing a life centered on desires for fame and success. After coming close to death, he had to recuperate in the family castle at Loyola for six months. Driven by boredom, he sought books to amuse himself, but to his frustration the only books in the castle were a Life of Christ by Ludolph of Saxony, and a Life of the Saints. He began to read them, and his reading became intermixed with his daydreaming. At times he dreamt of the beautiful woman he wanted to impress and of the daring exploits he would do to win her favor. At other times he dreamt of the great things he would do for God and the sacrifices he would make. But slowly he became aware of something that intrigued him. He noticed that during both kinds of daydreams he felt excited and happy. However after the first kind of daydreams, he was left feeling dry and ill at ease, but after the daydreams about the things he would do for God, he was left with a feeling of contentment and peace. He came to think about these different inner feelings as being important ways in which he could begin to distinguish where God might be drawing him. This was the beginning of a powerful realization that God communicates with us through our moods, desires, and impulses.
The Spiritual Exercises is where St. Ignatius shares most clearly his guidelines for the discernment of spirits. This book was written not for the average person seeking to understand discernment but for retreat directors. What he describes as the “rules” for discernment of spirits are not so much regulations to be followed as descriptions of what tends to happen when people are earnestly striving after God. Some of these are more helpful for beginners in the spiritual journey, and some are intended for those who have already been journeying for some time, when the pulls and temptations become subtler. Together they help determine when an inner movement is from the Holy Spirit and when it is not. They help us discern what draws us towards God and what (whether from outside or from within our own psyche) hinders that movement.