The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange - Part 3, Section 2, Chapter 6
THE DISCERNMENT OF SPIRITS
What is the meaning of this word "spirit" in the present context? It signifies a special way of judging, loving, willing, or acting, a mental attitude or inclination—for instance, to prayer, to penance, or to contradiction. We speak of a person having a spirit of contradiction or even of insubordination.
In the spiritual life we have to distinguish between three kinds of spirits: the spirit of God, the spirit of the devil, and the spirit of human nature.
The spirit of God is an internal prompting or tendency of the soul to judge, love, will and act in a supernatural way. It incites the soul to avoid sin by mortifying the flesh and by practising humility, and to tend towards God by obedience, piety, faith, confidence, and charity both affective and effective. This divine spirit is, therefore, particularly evident in the promptings of the Holy Ghost which correspond to the seven gifts.
This spirit of God is at first latent in beginners and becomes more manifest in proficients and in the perfect, who are more docile to the Holy Ghost. Under the inspiration of God there results a wonderful harmony between the various virtues and gifts, and between the different vocations—contemplative, active, apostolic.
It is this variety of vocations which distinguishes the spirit of one religious order from that of another, and the order flourishes or declines in proportion to the fidelity or lack of fidelity to its fundamental spirit.
Opposed to the spirit of God is the spirit of human nature, which is characterized as an inclination to judge, will and act in an excessively human manner, following the lead of fallen nature which tends towards its own ease and advantage. It is a spirit of egoism, a spirit of individualism. Prudence, for example, is no longer treated as the virtue directing man's acts to moral perfection and rightly ordering all the other moral virtues, but as the virtue needed for finding means of avoiding every inconvenience. Similarly, mediocrity takes the place of the happy medium of virtue.
This spirit of mediocrity steers a middle course between good and evil but it does so not through any love of virtue but for purely utilitarian reasons—in order to avoid the disadvantages resulting from the practice of vice. On the other hand, the happy medium of virtue represents the highest central point between two extreme vices; thus the virtue of courage is the golden mean between cowardice and rash daring. Furthermore, the degree of perfection implied by this mean will vary according to the growth of the virtues; so, for instance, it is higher for the infused virtue of temperance than for the corresponding acquired virtue.
This spirit of mediocrity also invades the sphere of the theological virtues by continually denying further possible development to full perfection, as if they were bound by their nature to be nothing more than average virtues, as though it were possible for man to err by excess in his belief or hope in God or in his love for God, just as a man might love his country to excess by placing it before God.
The spirit of human nature will always be found to result in tepidity and eventually in sloth, and the person who yields to its promptings commits numerous venial sins, which gradually become more and more deliberate until at last he falls into mortal sin. Sometimes it has a peculiar affectionate character revealing itself in sentimental attachments to creatures, in an emotional love for them which takes the place of that genuine love existing primarily in the will. And it is but a step from romantic sentiment to carnal prudence and stupidity, which give a man an earthbound vision of everything—even of divine things—so that he only regards their capacity to satisfy his senses or his pride. Cf. Summa, Ila Ilae, q. 55, q. 46.1
Finally, there is the spirit of the devil which is the tendency to judge, will, and act under the perverse inspiration of Satan. It is especially evident in those who lead a life of vice, in their pride, impurity, and violent passions, but it also makes itself felt in others at the moment of temptation.
In every soul one or other of these three spirits is predominant: the spirit of the devil in the wicked, the spirit of human nature in the lukewarm, the spirit of God in those who are beginning to dedicate themselves generously to the way of perfection, even though they may yet experience the influence of the spirit of nature from time to time and also of the devil.
Having explained the meaning of the word "spirit" we now turn to the word "discernment." The discernment of spirits signifies the power of judging correctly the spirit which is ordinarily predominant in some individual. This power may be either acquired or infused. If acquired, it consists in the correct application of the principles of moral theology under the guidance of acquired and infused prudence, and it is perfected to a greater or less degree by the inspiration of the gift of counsel.
If the power is infused, then it is the apostolic grace conferred primarily for the sanctification of others, which is mentioned by St. Paul: "another can test the spirit of the prophets" (1 Cor. xii, 10). This is a rare gift. But at the same time the good director who is devout, virtuous, and prudent is continually receiving special graces proper to his state which, since they are intended for helping those under the priest's care, are to some extent on a par with the apostolic grace; they perfect both his prudence and the inspirations of the gift of counsel.
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What is the fundamental principle to be observed in the discerning of spirits? It is the one laid down by Christ himself: "it is by their fruit that you will know them", because "any sound tree will bear good fruit, while any tree that is withered will bear fruit that is worthless; that worthless fruit should come from a sound tree, or good fruit from a withered tree, is impossible" (Matt, vii, 17, 18, 20).
The good fruit which should result from the spiritual life are the virtues, the gifts of the Holy Ghost, and actions corresponding to the virtues and gifts. Therefore the discernment of spirits must be based on the principal virtues—which are, in ascending order of perfection: chastity and mortification; humble obedience; faith, hope, and charity. We will now apply this principle to the three kinds of spirits.
Signs of the spirit of human nature
It would be comparatively easy to describe the signs of this spirit by opposing it to the spirit of God, noting at the same time certain differences from the spirit of the devil. As we have said already, this spirit of human nature is the inclination to judge, will, and act in a merely natural way. But notice the meaning of the word "natural." It is not intended to refer to human nature in its essential condition as capable of elevation to the supernatural order, but either to fallen nature not yet revivified by grace or to regenerate human nature, which still bears the four wounds left by original sin and now further aggravated by personal sin. These wounds, although scarring, will never be completely healed in this life.2
They are wounds inherited by the entire human race from the sin of its first parents and only imperfectly healed by the water of Baptism, since this sacrament does not destroy concupiscence. This is very beneficial to our spiritual training, for we can thus acquire merit in overcoming our inordinate desires with the aid of God's grace. There is also another advantage to be gained from this imperfect healing; men might otherwise receive Baptism merely to avoid the penalties of this life and not because of the glory of eternal life. We are Christ's heirs, "only we must share his sufferings, if we are to share his glory" (Rom. viii, 17). Cf. St. Thomas, Ilia, q. 69, a. 3. But these four wounds are further aggravated by our own personal sins which diminish our natural inclination to virtue by putting a strong obstacle in its way—a tendency to evil. "By sin (even by venial sin in those baptized) man's reason becomes obscured —especially in directing what is to be done—and the will is hardened against good; the difficulty of acting well is increased, and more fuel is added to the fire of concupiscence" (la Ilae, q. 85, a. 3).
Therefore the spirit of fallen or wounded nature is a bias towards the concupiscence still present within us, inclining us to sin and thus to sloth and cowardice in our irascible appetite, malice in our will, negligence, imprudence or deceit in the intellect. In a word, it is a spirit of self-satisfaction, inordinate love of self, egoism. And this spirit of self-love, as St. Thomas has shown, dedicates a man to the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life.3
This triple concupiscence is in its turn a dangerous slope towards the seven capital sins—vain glory, envy, anger, avarice, sloth, gluttony, lust—which are able to call even more grievous sins into being (la Ilae, q. 84, a. 4). According to St. John of the Cross (Dark Night of the Soul, bk. I, cc. 2-7) these capital sins may also appear in the spiritual order; for instance, spiritual gluttony which is an excessive desire for spiritual consolation loved for its own sake and not for the sake of God, and also spiritual pride. But these sins are not the most evil fruit of the spirit of nature; they prepare the way for even more serious sins, such as unbelief, despair, hatred of God.
When considered in this way the wounded nature described by St. Thomas does not differ from the nature portrayed in the Imitation of Christ (bk. Ill, c. 54).
But now let us study the spirit of human nature in its relation to the principal virtues of mortification, humility, faith, hope, and charity. As soon as we apply the first rule for the discernment of spirits—"it is by their fruit that you will know them"—we find that this natural spirit is never inclined to exterior or interior mortification, neither is it prepared to accept humiliations. As the masters of the spiritual life have always pointed out, nature is not anxious to be put to death and even in the life of prayer she is a spiritual glutton for consolation, which is totally opposed to the spirit of faith and true love of God.
A soul which is influenced by this spirit will cease to make further progress and abandon the spiritual life, once it has encountered its first difficulties or period of aridity. It hides its inattention to the interior life under the cloak of an energetic apostolate, devoting all its energy to external activity which has ceased to be supernatural and become entirely superficial. Such a person is confusing charity with philanthropy, humanism, and liberalism. Gradually this natural activity loses its initial drive; it begins as a burst of energy, changes into a general hurry, and finally, slows down to a leisurely pace.
Human nature begins to groan as soon as it has to face contradiction or trial, since it is far from willing to shoulder the cross. And thus by degrees it sinks into despair. Its initial fervour was no stronger than the flame which leaps from a bundle of straw only to die away again as quickly as it appeared.
This spirit of nature reveals itself as completely egoistic with no regard for the glory of God or the saving of souls. No longer the love of God and one's neighbour but a disordered love of self occupies pride of place in the soul.
But this spirit is quick in trying to justify itself by appealing to a theory which takes as its fundamental principle: moderation in all things. We must avoid excess in our self-denial and spiritual exercises. We are not obliged to strive for mystical perfection, that would be the error of Mysticism. In fact, if a person makes it his daily practice to read a chapter from the Imitation of Christ for his spiritual profit, he is already a mystic. We must do nothing more than follow the ordinary way: virtus stat in medio.
See how such people misinterpret that principle for their own ends. Its true meaning is that a moral virtue is the happy medium between two vices, the one erring by excess, the other by defect, just as fortitude is the mean between cowardice and rash daring. Now this mean is obviously the highest possible point between and above the two opposing vices. On the other hand, the mean advocated by the spirit of nature is that of mediocrity, not the mean which lies between and soars above two vices but the unsettled mean between vice and virtue, between good and evil, having more in common with evil than with good, and which lies below the half-way mark—as in the following scale of examination marks: excellent, good, satisfactory, moderate, bad, very bad. The theory used by the spirit of nature in an attempt to justify its outlook is the theory of mediocrity under a veneer of virtue, since it avoids opposing vices not through any great love for moral good but because of the inconveniences which would ensue to its comfort and advantage. That was the underlying principle of the utilitarian outlook adopted by Epicurus and Horace. Hence we speak of a mediocre wine which is neither good nor bad, mediocre work, a spirit of mediocrity.
Furthermore, this theory invoked by human nature does not admit—at least in practice—that the theological virtues are of their very nature without measure, that there is no excess or defect in faith, hope, and charity. It rejects the teaching of St. Thomas: "we cannot love God as much as he deserves to be loved, neither can we believe or hope in him as much as we should" (la Ilae, q. 64, a. 4).
It goes without saying that this theory will also deny in practice the need of docility to the inspirations of the Holy Ghost for which a man is disposed by the seven gifts.
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In the letter of Fr. de Paredes, General of the Order of Preachers in the year 1926, which is to be found at the beginning of the new edition of the Constitutions, the following description is given of the spirit of human nature (p. 20): "Although a man's holiness is the result of God's grace working in his soul, it presupposes on our part a long and difficult process of purification and transformation of everything within us, until we have destroyed completely the old self which is corrupted by the desires of the flesh and put on the new self 'which is created in God's image, justified and sanctified through the truth.' Hence the need for the spirit of obedience, self-denial, and sacrifice with which we must all observe these rules perseveringly and to the letter . . ."
In contrast: "Any human relaxation, any spirit of faintheartedness, any concession made on these matters to human considerations, any unlawful dispensation which is not based on the Constitutions, may all be considered as a deviation from duty on the part of superiors . . . and, on the part of his subjects, as a disowning of their obligation to sanctify themselves and make themselves fit instruments for carrying out their sacred ministry. Such surrender to slothfulness would make it clear that our motive in entering the religious state was not to pursue the ideal set before us by God and the Church but simply to solve the problem of life here on earth with the minimum of trouble, so that in the religious state we might be more certain of receiving all the necessities of life and the more easily provide for ourselves comforts which we might not have enjoyed in the world.
"In order that all our regular duties should be the means of making us holy, as the Constitutions intend, it is not sufficient to observe merely the visible part of those duties as though one were only anxious to avoid the punishment contained in the law itself or imposed by the Superior, or as though one's sole object was to appear before Superiors as being beyond reproach. If our rules are to prove suitable means of sanctification . . . (and of preparation for the sacred ministry) they must proceed from a supernatural origin; in other words, they must have their source in the grace of God which will give them a supernatural character.
"Without this interior spirit, which is the centre and source of that supernatural life . . ., everything in us becomes completely material and mechanical and lacks the driving force of life, 'no better than echoing bronze or the clash of cymbals'; our private devotion is weakened and deprived of all merit, and our community life is robbed of its true purpose and efficacy. We work, we may even take a great deal of trouble over our various tasks, but this activity is not a sign of the genuine interior life of faith, hope, and charity. ... It is little more than an effort called forth by some external need of activity or in obedience to merely human motives which, since they accord with our natural inclinations, attract us consciously or unconsciously. As a result of this lack of an interior spirit which would give us victory over ourselves and— in our ministry—victory over the enemies opposed to our salvation of souls, how much time is frittered away to no purpose! Look at the futility of so much effort and sacrifice! How much activity is simply wasted!"
On the other hand, when this interior spirit is allowed to grow and develop it produces fruits of real sanctity. We become all the more clearly aware of the value and excellence of our religious vocation.
"This interior spirit is formed in us by the practice of the means of perfection suggested by ascetical theology, but it is firmly established and perfected by spiritual growth in the different stages of the mystical life, as is well explained by St. Thomas. The mystical life is the completion of the ascetical life, the peak of the soul's ascent through the various stages of Christian perfection. There have been periods when this teaching was regarded with suspicion, when practical errors in this respect stunted the growth of the spirit of genuine piety; but now we can be grateful for the return to traditional teaching, which has re-opened the way for souls a thirst for the supernatural life to come to a knowledge of mystical realities And in this life of perfection the spirit of God is most certainly present revivifying the soul."
Obvious examples of the influence of the spirit of nature are tepidity in the celebration of Holy Mass, haste in the saying of one's Office—almost like a machine—. curiosity and eventually sloth in the pursuit of one's studies, carelessness in observing the rule of silence and other practical rules, restrictions attached to the extent of one's obedience, cringing obedience out of love for the human superior and not for God or with a view to the obtaining of new honours and dignities.
We have already noted in common with other authors the different ways in which a priest may celebrate Mass. Sometimes it is celebrated worthily in a spirit of faith and with true devotion, obvious signs of the influence of the spirit of God. On other occasions it is read rather than celebrated with the greatest care after the manner of an official carrying out his regular duties, just as civil authorities perform their duties according to strict rule. Or else it is hurried over in twenty minutes or even less, with no devotion and sometimes to the scandal of the faithful. These latter ways of offering the sacrifice of the Mass bear evident witness to the presence of the spirit of nature. It is important that this be pointed out to priests during their retreat.
In order to guard against this natural spirit in the Mass all priests are urged to celebrate Mass daily: in the first place, because of the sacrifice itself which is offered to God as an act of worship, supplication, reparation, and thanksgiving for the many graces received each day; secondly, because of the sacramental Communion in which we receive our daily nourishment ; thirdly, because of the rich benefits which accrue to the whole Church, to all the faithful both living and dead.4
Moreover, if the priest offers Mass only infrequently, he is failing in his duty and is burying his talent in the ground. Nevertheless, the priest who celebrates daily must be careful to make a suitable preparation.
When there is any doubt whether an individual is under the general influence of a good or evil spirit the spiritual director should examine carefully the soul's humility, its spirit of mortification, and its obedience to the director; and he himself must pray to God for guidance.
Signs of the evil spirit
In contrast to the spirit of God the spirit of the devil at first lifts the soul to the heights of pride and then plunges it down into turmoil and despair, just as the devil himself sinned through pride and is now condemned to an eternity of despair and hatred of God.
In order to recognize this evil spirit we must first observe its effect on mortification, humility, and obedience, and then its effect on the theological virtues.
The spirit of the devil does not always deter a soul from mortification; in this respect it differs from the spirit of nature. On the contrary, it often urges the soul to go to extremes in the practice of exterior mortification which everyone can see, which results in spiritual pride and injury to the individual's health. Such a spirit has no time for the interior mortification of the imagination, heart, and one's own will and judgment, although it pretends to be concerned about it by making the soul scrupulous over details but careless in matters of greater importance; for example, in the principal duties of one's state of life. It prompts the soul to hypocrisy: "I fast twice in the week" (Luke xviii, 12).
Humility is never encouraged by this spirit, for it gradually distorts the soul's vision to see itself as greater than it really is, greater than anyone else. Almost unconsciously it makes the prayer of the Pharisee its own: "I thank thee, God, that I am not like the rest of men ... or like this publican here" (Luke xviii, 11). This spiritual pride goes hand in hand with a false humility, which accuses itself of some evil so as to avoid being accused by others of even greater faults and in order to make them think that we are truly humble. Sometimes the evil spirit leads us to confuse humility with faint-heartedness, which is the daughter of pride and fears to ran the risk of contempt. The evil spirit is also an enemy of obedience, prompting us either to open disobedience or to servility according to circumstances.
As regards the virtue of faith the spirit of the devil distracts our attention from the truths of the Gospel which are simpler and yet more profound—such as those contained in the Our Father which we ought always to say with special care and devotion, or those portrayed in the mysteries of the Rosary— and encourages us to focus our mind on what is extraordinary. Remember his tempting of Christ: "If thou art the Son of God, cast thyself down to earth; for it is written, He has given charge to his angels concerning thee, and they will hold thee up with their hands, lest thou shouldst chance to trip on a stone. Jesus said to him, But it is further written, Thou shalt not put the Lord Thy God to the proof" (Matt, iv, 6-7).
With a similar intent the devil frequently suggests desires contrary to our vocation: so, for instance, he urges the Carthusian to set out to convert the pagan world, and the missionary to adopt the solitary life of the Carthusian. In our prayer he prompts us to ignore the spirit of the Liturgy, to pray on Good Friday as though it were Christmas Day, or vice versa. He is also a past master in the art of giving men an attraction for doctrinal novelties—one has only to think of the period of modernism—or for reading books written by Liberal Protestants on the pretext of aligning our faith to the needs of the times. But should our natural bent be in the opposite direction he will then encourage us to be so tenacious of archaic traditions that we become a centre of fierce disagreement, even in our own Catholic circles. It is easy to detect his influence behind the desire of the Jews recently converted to Christianity to return to the observance of the Mosaic law, and St. Paul wrote his Epistle to the Hebrews in an endeavour to warn them against such a temptation: "Strengthen your own resolution, to make sure that none of you grows hardened; sin has such power to cheat us" (iii, 13). Corruption of dogma is also the work of the devil—for instance, the Calvinist interpretation of the doctrine of predestination. The devil is only too well acquainted with the principle—corruptio optimi pessima—and so he strives unceasingly to pervert a man's faith. He realizes that there is nothing worse, nothing more dangerous, nothing more worthy of condemnation than a false brand of Christianity which nevertheless retains a faint resemblance to the truth. That is why he sometimes disguises himself as Christ before revealing himself in his true character as the arch-enemy of Christ. And there we have the reason for the greater danger inherent in the Protestantism of Luther and Calvin—but not of those Protestants who are in good faith—than in any spirit of naturalism, since it is far more deceptive, and while admitting the truth of Scripture makes use of it for its own evil purpose.
Naturalism, whether in its original practical form or in its later theoretical form, may often be attributed to the spirit of fallen nature. The same cannot be said of the malicious travesty of supernatural truth such as we find in Calvinism. No one but the devil is responsible for this. Such falsification of divine faith must be likened to the act of picking up the sword to slay oneself and one's own brothers—an act of suicide and fratricide. This would seem to be the explanation of the spirit underlying the history of the so-called Reformation, although we must not forget that many Protestants are in perfectly good faith since they are unaware of the true spirit of Protestantism.
As regards the virtue of hope the evil spirit strives with all the forces at his command to turn our hope into presumption. It is easy to find an example of this in the desire of some people to find a quicker route to holiness than that provided by the normal development of the spiritual life through the various stages, and who wish to avoid the way of humility and self-conquest in their effort for perfection. He is also quick to make us annoyed with ourselves when we realize clearly our many imperfections, and then sorrow gives way to anger —the off-spring of pride and an effective barrier to sorrow. Presumption in its turn leads to despair, when a man recognizes the inadequacy of his own efforts for attaining the end he desires. He looks upon difficult good as something quite beyond his reach and thus he despairs.
As regards the virtue of charity the evil spirit tries to foster other qualities which bear a misleading resemblance to that virtue. Adapting his tactics to our varied and conflicting natural inclinations he encourages in some a false charity of sentimentality, humanitarianism, liberalism, which cloaks its excessive leniency under a guise of mercy and generosity; in others he nourishes a zeal for souls which is forever discovering faults in other people but never in themselves, always seeing the speck of dust in their brother's eye but never the beam in their own (cf. Matt, vii, 3).
And what results from all this? Discord and the destruction of peace. The man who is influenced by this spirit chafes at every contradiction. So absorbed has he become with his own self that he practically denies the existence of anybody else and unconsciously exalts himself above all his neighbours, like a statue on a pedestal.
If such a man commits a serious sin which he finds it impossible to hide from others, he is upset, angry, desperate. Eventually his mind is darkened and his heart hardened. But notice the cunning of Satan. Before the sin he carefully hides its dangerous consequences and urges his "victim" to be broad-minded; after the sin he troubles the man's conscience with thoughts of God's relentless justice, so as to drag him down into the depths of despair. And thus he forms souls after his own likeness—despair following on pride.
Consequently, if anyone is granted sense consolations in prayer but comes away with increased self-love, higher in his own estimation than those around him, with less obedience towards his superiors and less simplicity in accepting the advice of his spiritual guide, that is a certain indication of the presence of the evil spirit in his sense devotion. The absence of humility, obedience, and brotherly love is always a sign of the absence of the spirit of God.
Signs of the spirit of God
These signs are in direct contrast to those of the spirits of nature and of the devil. The spirit of God certainly prompts us to exterior mortification—and in this respect it differs from the spirit of nature—but this mortification is always controlled by Christian prudence and obedience; never does it draw attention to oneself nor is it allowed to endanger health. Furthermore, the spirit of God teaches us that this form of mortification is of little value unless accompanied by a corresponding mortification of the imagination, memory—-forgetting injuries we have suffered—, heart, will, and judgment. We can see at
once the vast difference between the spirit of God and that of the devil. In addition, the spirit of God fosters in us true humility which paves the way for perfect obedience, prevents us from preferring ourselves to others, does not shrink from being despised, does not parade our talents while not denying their existence but using them as means of giving glory to God.
The spirit of God nourishes our faith on the simpler and more profound truths of the Gospel, such as those contained in the Our Father. It keeps us faithful to tradition and strangers to novelty. This genuine supernatural faith helps us to see God in our superiors, and thus our spirit of faith is perfected since we come to judge everything in the light of this virtue.
The spirit of God strengthens our hope by preserving it from presumption; for instance, it prompts us to yearn for the life-giving well of prayer but to draw near to it along the road of humility, self-denial and the cross. Hence this spirit gives us a holy indifference towards earthly success.
The spirit of God increases the fervour of our charity. It confers on us a zeal for the glory of God and the saving of souls, and a complete forgetfulness of self, so that we always think of God in the first place and only secondarily of our own convenience. It teaches us an effective love for our neighbour, making us realize that this is the principal sign of our love of God. It prevents rash judgment and the taking of scandal without just cause. While prompting us to zeal it ensures that it is a zeal moderated by patience, meekness, and prudence, which edifies by prayer and good example and does not cause annoyance by inopportune correction. The spirit of God provides the soul with unlimited patience in the midst of adversity, a love of the cross, and a love of one's enemies. But its crowning glory is peace—peace with God, with others, with ourselves—and this is often accompanied by a deep interior joy.
On occasions when there is an accidental lapse in our service of God, the divine spirit reminds us of his mercy.
"The spirit yields a harvest of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, forbearance, gentleness, faith, courtesy, temperateness, purity" (Gal. v, 23), together with humility and obedience.
Those are the general signs of God's spirit, but it is not always easy to recognize its presence or its absence in any
individual act. However, if a person oppressed by sorrow prays and is deeply consoled, this is a sign that God is visiting that soul—provided that the consolation results in humble obedience and brotherly love.
But it is most important to distinguish carefully between the first moment of the soul's comforting and the period which follows, when the soul may rely on its own judgment about the nature of this consolation and thus be blinded by self-love.
It would be presumptuous on our part to crave for extraordinary graces, such as revelations or interior conversations. But a soul which lives and perseveres in humility, self-denial, and almost continual recollection often receives in accordance with the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost special inspirations which result in a wonderful blending of simplicity and prudence, humility and zeal, firmness and gentleness. This harmony and blending of the virtues is a sure sign of the presence of God's spirit.
Those who do receive extraordinary graces from God must be prepared to carry the cross, to maintain complete silence and secrecy, and to speak about their favours to no one other than their spiritual director. Otherwise they stand in grave peril of spiritual pride.
There is a special danger in revelations which seem to . refer to future events or to questions of doctrine, since they so easily give rise to deception. Even if the original inspiration were from God, the individual could later on superimpose his own interpretation which may be to a greater or less extent erroneous and is usually too material. In conclusion, it cannot be stressed too often that ecstasies and revelations which do not result in a more perfect way of life and do not make the subject less sure of himself cannot be attributed to the spirit of God—especially if they promote discord, and interfere with the fulfilment of the duties attached to one's state of life.
Therefore the signs of God's spirit are humble obedience, brotherly love, peace, spiritual joy which radiates itself to all around.
Secondary principles for the discernment of spirits
Generally speaking, acts which a man is suddenly called upon to perform are a good guide to the nature of the spirit in that individual, whereas we must be careful in drawing conclusions from acts that are the result of mature deliberation. But we should exclude from this rule all indeliberate movements of the will and all sins of frailty; it is intended to refer only to acts which are sufficiently deliberate and grave, which even a hypocrite would find it impossible to disguise. Remember how the spirit of the Pharisees was revealed after the unexpected healing of the man blind from birth.
Suffering is also a trustworthy guide to the secrets of a man's heart. That is why false friends never stand the test of adversity (cf. Eccles. vi, 8). Suffering is the furnace, so to speak, in which God puts his chosen ones to the test: "Pottery is tested in the furnace, man in the crucible of suffering" (Eccles. xxvii, 6). "God, all the while, did but test them, and testing them found them worthy of him. His gold, tried in the crucible, his burnt-sacrifice, graciously accepted, they do but wait for the time of deliverance; then they will shine out, these just souls, unconquerable as the sparks that break out, now here, now there, among the stubble. Theirs to sit in judgment on nations, to subdue whole peoples, under a Lord whose reign shall last for ever" (Wisdom iii, 5-8). But for this suffering was necessary— "a hundred trials beset the innocent" (Psalm xxxiii, 21)—in order to prove their forbearance, humility, gentleness, and perseverance to the end.
Finally, authority reveals a man for what he is, because in receiving any honour or authority he is called upon to direct and govern other people—a task which is far more difficult, extensive, and public than anything which he did before in his private life. Now he has to show wisdom and prudence without the mediocrity of the opportunist or utilitarian, charity for all, justice, fearless courage in correcting evil-doers, kindness in helping his faithful subjects. Cf. the Dialogue of St. Catherine of Sienna where she speaks of the difference between good and bad rulers.
Rules for various occasions
During periods when the soul finds no consolation in the things of God our rule of life should not be altered in any way; we must remain firm and constant in observing the resolutions already made in the presence of God. This is more than ever necessary when the trial proves so oppressive that the devil is able to tempt us to become depressed.
At the same time even more attention must be given to prayer, penance, and our examination of conscience. Why? Because spiritual desolation is apt to make us slothful in those three spiritual duties, and this can only be avoided by using a suitable antidote. Aridity—no matter what its cause may be— should be treated as an opportunity of a virtuous reaction, a renewal of our readiness to serve God. Cf. The Imitation of Christ, bk. I, c. 12: of the advantage of adversity; "It is good for us now and then to have some troubles and adversities; for oftentimes they make a man enter into himself, that he may know that he is an exile, and place not his hopes in anything of the world." And thus our sadness will gradually lose its evil character and become—through prayer—a joyful sorrow.
The evil spirit is adept in deceiving us by hiding his evil intent under the guise of good; once he has won us over he leads us into sin. This is seduction in its worst form. Sometimes the devil goes so far as to disguise himself as an angel of light; he lets us think that we are acting for the good of someone committed to our care when, in fact, he is leading us away from the path to God by making us more desirous of our own convenience than of holiness. Thus he promotes strife and disunity, and disrupts peace.
Then again, if anyone finds himself upset when despised by others, this is a sign of at least an imperfect spirit—if not of an evil spirit—especially in those who are reputed to have been singularly favoured by God, because such people rejoice not only in their gifts and favours but also in their trials and humiliations: "I will not boast about myself, except to tell you of my humiliations ... so that the strength of Christ may enshrine itself in me. I am well content with those humiliations of mine, with the insults, the hardships, the persecutions, the times of difficulty I undergo for Christ" (2 Cor. xii, 4, 9-10). St. Augustine says that whereas the philosopher looks on contempt as a disgrace the Apostle regards it as his greatest treasure (Sermo 160).
Therefore the spirit which chafes under humiliation is not a perfect spirit: neither is the spirit which neglects to deny itself a spirit of solid virtue, since all the virtues ought to develop in unison as they are so closely related to each other.
It follows, therefore, that a spirit which prompts a man to numerous acts of mortification but not to ready obedience is imperfect, and must be regarded—at least to some extent— as having an evil intention, since it is so insistent on following its own will. True it is that such a spirit is often the cause of many good works but these are not inspired by any love of God, as is evident from the lack of growth in humble obedience—the sure sign of loving conformity to the will of God.
Neither is that spirit to be trusted which is always urging man to paradoxical action, which is continually forming judgments that conflict with the common opinion of prudent men. Such a spirit is, so to speak, exotic and artificial; it is impulsive rather than virtuous.
Similarly, there cannot be any doubt about the evil nature of a spirit which fosters in man a desire for what is extraordinary and willingly speaks of this to all and sundry. God would never lead a soul to the higher planes of the spiritual life without making it at the same time extremely humble, since all the virtues arc inter-related and so are perfected together. That is why it is so easy to distinguish the truly high-minded person from one who is presumptuous. It is part of the devil's plan to incite in man a desire for what is new, curious, abnormal, amazing, unusual, and so to excite the wonder and admiration of others that they will think of him as a saint.
The same holds true of a person not yet firmly grounded in the virtues of humility and obedience, who while professing a desire to imitate the saints, concentrates on details of their lives which were never intended to be imitated but simply admired, and dedicates himself to a life of extraordinary forms of prayer and penance.
How foolish to commence erecting a spiritual mansion from the top, like a bird trying to fly without wings! We should never be misled by the apparent success of a soul which makes such an attempt; its flight into the realms of mysticism is deceptive, dangerous, and to no purpose.
Conclusion. It follows, therefore, from the principles outlined in this chapter that the two principal signs of the divine spirit are humble obedience and brotherly love, which redirects our affection away from self to our neighbour and through him to God. Humble obedience is never a characteristic either of the spirit of nature, which has no inclination for such a virtue, or of the evil spirit—the spirit of pride and disobedience. On the other hand, humble obedience even in small matters bears witness to an increasing conformity to the will of God.
Brotherly love, however, is an even greater proof of progress in the love of God: "The mark by which all men will know you for my disciples will be the love which you bear one another" (John xiii, 35). We might call it the "thermometer" of our union with God, since even our senses are bound to recognize the love that inspires the help we give our neighbour, especially when he is difficult and exacting. But if in spite of that difficulty we persevere in our love for him, this surely is a sign that the motive of our help is none other than God himself and that our love for God is increasing, since charity is an undivided infused virtue with God as its primary object and our neighbour as its secondary object. Consequently, this visible love of our neighbour is proof of our invisible love of God—provided it is not mere sentimentality.
And thus, if humble obedience and brotherly love are being preserved and developed in any individual or community, that is proof overwhelming of growth in genuine love of God. He himself will remedy in such souls any deficiency in natural intelligence or physical strength by inspirations, for which they
are prepared by the gifts of counsel and of fortitude.
* * *
The truths we have discussed in considering the discernment of spirits serve only to stress still further the central theme of this book: every priest has an obligation in virtue of his ordination and the purpose of that ordination—namely, an increasingly holy celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass and the sanctification of souls—to strive daily for an intimate union with Christ the priest and victim, in imitation of those priests who have been canonized.
Furthermore, every priest must labour as another Christ, in union with Christ, in his ministry of preaching the word of God, hearing confessions and directing souls at every stage of their spiritual life. Only in this way will he reveal in his own person the sublime dignity of the priesthood and its power for unlimited good. And thus the priest will be sincere and effective in his effort to save souls, and in a world which is returning to the natural outlook of paganism and utilitarianism he will reap a rich harvest in preaching the Gospel, so that souls who have to be saved "may have life, and have it more abundantly."
1See also the Imitation of Christ, bk. Ill, c. 54: "The Different Motions of Nature and of Grace."
2Cf. Ia Ilae, q. 85, a. 3.
The wounds of nature:
in the intellect, deprived of its ordering to truth, the wound of ignorance in the place of prudence.
in the will deprived of its ordering to good, the wound of malice in the place of justice.
in the irascible appetite deprived of its correct attitude towards difficulty, the wound of weakness in the place of fortitude.
in the concupiscible appetite deprived of its ordering to pleasure moderated by reason, the wound of concupiscence in the place of temperance.
3la Ilae, q. 77, a. 4 and 5; cf. Bossuet, Traité de la Concupiscence.
4Cf. The Imitation of Christ, bk. IV, c. 5: "Of the Dignity of the Sacrament and of the Priestly State."