Spirit’s Sculpture

StTeresa (2)A picture is worth a thousand words. The great 17th Century artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, did it one dimension better. He did it in stone. Bernini captured the essence of the spiritual life with his sculpture, The Ecstasy of St. Theresa. Here he dramatically depicts the spiritual life as our relationship with the Spirit who aggressively pursues us.

This sculpture is displayed in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. Bernini has an angel stand in for the Spirit. An angel with a smile. The angel has penetrated the heart of St. Theresa with an arrow. The arrow is the Spirit’s invitation to growth.  She is in ecstasy. Surrender to the Spirit’s invitations is joyful. Absolute surrender is absolutely joyful!

Steeped in Jesuit spirituality, Bernini would have been aware that the Spirit dialogues with us, not through words but through our feelings. The Spirit uses the gift of consolations (emotional highs) to invite us to greater love, hope and faith. Not only for St. Theresa, but for all of us. We can project ourselves into the dynamic action of this sculpture.

Bernini is unconventional. He avoids the traditional image of the dove for the Spirit. Who can relate to a dove?  So he focuses on the Spirit’s action. Bernini has given us a way to visualize our relationship with the Spirit and fire up our spirituality.

Spirit at Work. Let us visualize the Spirit directing his arrows of invitations to our hearts for greater love, hope and faith. The Spirit’s arrow of faith is the Spirit inviting us to discover his presence where our bodily eyes cannot see him, and through his Word in our hearts to reach an intelligence that no human reasoning can provide, according to Ladislas M. Orsy, SJ.

The Spirit’s arrow of hope invites us to a certainty beyond what we can calculate. In earthly matters, Fr. Orsy states, “When I say ‘I hope’, I express an expectation that some future event will take a favorable turn for me. I may have a burning wish that it should be so, but I have no certainty.” By contrast, with divine hope the Spirit invites us to an awareness that we already possess the Kingdom of God in our hearts. “The final outcome is certain; its time and manifestation have not been revealed.”

The Spirit’s arrow of love invites us to learn the ways of love. Growth in love make us generous givers beyond any human measure. These three virtues are not just individual, unconnected virtues but the components of a dynamic spiritualization process. Faith generates knowledge. Hope provides the energy that love needs for its operation. For the most part, love is the driving force in this process.

Consolation at Work. If your reaction to this sculpture is: “That’s not my spiritual life, a life of ecstasy,” you have missed the point. You have to go beyond the sculpture’s setting to your own spiritual life. Bernini highlights the relationship between the Spirit and the individual soul of every man, every woman. We may never experience ecstasy, but we should be open to and eager for the Spirit’s gift of consolations.

The Spirit is smiling. He has gifts of consolation to give us. Spiritual consolation is experienced on two levels of our consciousness, according to Jules Toner, SJ. One, we experience our love, hope or faith increased in depth or firmness or purity or intensity or effectiveness. Two, we recognize feelings of peace, joy, confidence, exultation and the like—flowing from our spiritual experiences.

Most likely, you have experienced such moments in your spiritual life. You may not have attributed these joyous experiences and feelings to the Spirit, unless you are living a deep relationship with the Spirit. But the Spirit is making it happen.

Note: when we are the source of our consolations, they are not the work of the Spirit. Fr. Toner writes: “…feelings can be to a large extent or even wholly non-spiritual when the subjective ground is not living faith but only sensitivity to poetry, great thoughts, music, the charm of human persons.” Discernment is needed. Our awareness of what is taking place within us can help us convert our experience into a truly spiritual encounter.

Pursuing the Pursuer. Bernini’s sculpture is telling us that the Spirit is an erotic God. The Spirit aggressively pursues us. Each day let us pursue the Pursuer. Not for his consolations. That is the Spirit’s gift to give or not to give. But for deeper relationship with the Spirit.

Daily I recall Bernini’s sculpture in my imagination. I envision the smile of the angel, the face of St. Theresa. And I pray: “Spirit of Love, Divine Eros, direct your arrows toward my heart to awaken it to greater love, hope and faith.”

Trust and Act

The article, From Fear to Trust, described various ways of growing in the virtue of trust in God. The emphasis was on living the spiritual life passionately. However, we should not overlook the fact that we become ourselves through our actions. That is where our call to evangelization comes in—our call to bring the Christian Vision to those inside and outside the Church. For evangelization is an exercise in trust. A commitment to the work of evangelization is a commitment to growth in trust of God.

Holy Dialectic. What does evangelization have to do with trust in God? There is a dialectic at work here—reasoning that entertains opposing ideas and seeks to resolve their conflict. You’ll catch the dialectic in St. Ignatius’ two-sided principle that should underlie our work of evangelization of others. Fr. Jules Toner, SJ describes it this way: “Trust in God and pray as if everything depended on Him alone (with your actions counting for nothing); and act as if everything depended only on your own efforts.”

On the one hand, to be effective evangelizers we must attribute primacy of importance to God’s action and therefore give primacy of importance to reliance on prayer. On the other hand, we must value our natural gifts and human effort to complete Christ’s mission. You might be thinking that you can’t have it both ways.

Honest Humility. St. Ignatius resolves the opposition of these two ideas with an important distinction. He reminds us that our natural gifts are gifts of our Creator. We owe our every thought, our every feeling, our every act of will to God as our Creator. Now how does this distinction resolve the dialectic? St. Ignatius is telling us that we must practice great humility in our work of evangelization.

Humility is the virtue of understanding and accepting our human condition as well as our total dependence on God’s all-pervading presence and power. The whole spiritualization process of the Spirit growing us in love, hope and faith is grounded on our virtue of humility. And an ever growing trust in God is the fruit of that process.

Divine Empowerment. Further, we must be keenly aware that God acts intimately in our lives and that only God’s action can do anything to bring about His greater glory in ourselves or give our efforts any power to help bring about His Kingdom among people.

In Scripture, we read: (John 15:5) “I am the Vine; you are the branches. Whoever lives in Me and I in him shall produce a large crop of fruit. Apart from me, you can’t do a thing.” Again in 2 Corinthians 3:5 “…not because we think we can do anything of lasting value by ourselves. Our only power and success come from God.” The great apostle St. Paul understood very well the source of his strength.

Christian Ministry. Therefore, our Christian ministry to others must begin and be carried on with prayer for God’s help. We must constantly seek to know God’s will in the concrete situation. We must ask ourselves: Are we getting ahead of ourselves? Have we prayed enough for the Spirit’s guidance? Have we prayed enough for those whom we want to evangelize? We must have complete trust in His wisdom to know what are the better goals and better ways to these goals. We must have complete trust in His power to accomplish them. And we must have complete trust that He will work in us and that his gifts to us will flow through us to those whom we want to evangelize. Evangelization is an exercise in trust in God!

“On the other side,” says Father Toner, “we must do all that lies in our power and make every human effort to cooperate with God. For ordinarily God acts through us to achieve His purposes. He acts effectively through our human intelligence, imagination, affections, freedom, initiative, bodily activity.” Therefore, we must summon up all our courage and energy to do Christ’s work.

Creative Tension. Trusting and acting must be kept in creative tension, neither watering down one or the other, but at the same time fully acknowledging our powerlessness and exercising trust in God, and fully employing our efforts and talents. We must grasp both extremes and hold them together in the spiritually healthy and truthful tension of this two-sided principle, neither willing to let go or weaken either side.

Rather than working at odds, our trusting and our acting impact one another. Our growth in trust in God energizes us for action, for we are trusting in a God Who acts through our freedom, intelligence and energy. Our action becomes an expression of our trust in God and thus deepens our trust. And the more we trust, the more we will yield to the Spirit’s invitations to evangelize.

The fruit of living in creative tension creates a newness in us. First, it changes our vision of ourselves and God’s role in our evangelization. We see our actions as coming from God and our achievements as dependent on God’s power. Second, it converts us to become would-be apostles, because we know intuitively that by ourselves we are powerless to live in creative tension. Our situation is very much like the alcoholic who realizes his or her powerlessness to give up drink, and must surrender to a Higher Power. Likewise, we are forced to tap into our Higher Power to trust and act.

Spirit Wilding

On April 19, 1989 the newspapers reported that a gang of young thugs had assaulted and raped a young woman jogger in New York‘s Central Park. According to a police investigation, the culprits were gangs of teenagers who would assault strangers as part of an activity that became known as “wilding.” You can imagine my surprise when a friend accused me of wilding—Spirit Wilding. Now that is an oxymoron, a combination of contradictory terms if there ever was one!

The Spirit had inspired me to see our Eucharistic Celebrations as Jesus’ End Plan to create the Beloved Community through a Love Meal. So I  shared with my friend my practice at the Kiss of Peace at Mass to leave my pew and walk up the aisle to greet people with a handshake or a hug for those who had suffered the loss of a loved one or who needed support.

My friend pointed out that my fellow celebrants expected no movement from behind the pews, the priest wanted to get through the liturgy and that I had disturbed the prevailing sense of order. “That was Spirit Wilding!” he exclaimed. What a revealing insight!

Jesus, the Model. Once the shock of the term, Spirit Wilding, had worn off, I realized that Jesus was the best example of Spirit Wilding. The Spirit was a constant presence in Jesus’ life. Jesus’ whole life gave full expression to the Spirit within him and he disturbed the institutions and authorities of his time. Jesus radically questioned every sphere of life—political, economic, social and religious, according to Fr. Albert Nolan, OP, in his book, Jesus Before Christianity.

Jesus’ life was a life of Spirit Wilding. Jesus fought the group conformity of his times that was the only measure of truth and virtue. He did not follow John the Baptist’s example of preaching a baptism of repentance. He discerned through the Spirit that something else was necessary—to preach and practice a life of compassion for the poor, sinners and the sick, the nobodies of society. He treated people as people, and that included all the women in his life.

Through the Spirit, Jesus discerned that one of the basic causes of oppression, discrimination and suffering in that society was the loveless religion of the religious authorities. In the end, it was Jesus’ Spirit Wilding that led to his death.

Not Irrational Exuberance. So what is Spirit Wilding? It definitely is not irrational exuberance. Usually a life-transforming experience or a God-experience ushers us into a life of Spirit Wilding. For Jesus, it was his baptism in the River Jordan. In that moment the Spirit brought forth the virtues of radical faith, radical hope and radical love that were innate in Jesus at his incarnation. This transformation drove Jesus to commit to his messianic mission, publicly sharing the Good News with others.

Let us look at the experience of Spirit Wilding more closely and discern some guidelines for our own Spirit Wilding, if not in our entire lives as Jesus did but in some area of our lives:

  • For starters, there is a stepping out of line to achieve a greater good. Unintentionally we disrupt order. Order imposed by rituals that have become church services rather than spiritual experiences. Or movements that have become locked into their methodology. Or institutions that have become ends in themselves rather than servants. Or societies that impose conformity in life styles and life visions.
  • Our action has to start with the Spirit. The Spirit gifts us with the vision and the energy to step out of line.
  • Our action has to be genuinely loving. The danger is that our False Self may be looking for some self-satisfaction. So we must discern whether our heart movement is a holy one or an unholy one calculated to achieve self-assertion.
  • The nature of the joy we experience reveals our intentions. If the joy is one of reaching out to others in a caring and attentive way, our heart movement is a holy one. If our joy is one of self-satisfaction, we had better rethink our action.
  • We sense that we are operating outside our comfort zone—reaching out beyond our ordinary capacity, and that we need the Spirit to energize us.
  • Since the Spirit inspired our life vision, we must invoke the Spirit to awaken our desire to live that vision.

The Challenge. Perhaps what Jesus has taught us is that institutional pathology is more dangerous and destructive than personal pathology. By their very nature, society’s institutions such as church, business, government and education exercise authority and their decisions impact many people. People living a life of Spirit Wilding are unacceptable to them. The result? Change or transformation does not come to institutions very easily, as we can see from the results of the Vatican ll Council.

We must look to the Spirit to help us critique our institutions. For me, the Church has lost the concept of Jesus’ Love Meal in our Eucharistic Celebrations. My mission is to raise awareness that the Eucharist is at the heart of our faith and at the heart of our spirituality. You too may be called upon to let the Spirit break out in one area of your life and engage in Spirit Wilding. That will be your apostolic action or evangelization!



Scripture tells us that we have been created in God’s image and  likeness. What an uplifting statement! But what does it mean? For one, it means that we think, love and will as God does. However, that understanding describes only the similar functional capabilities we share with our Creator. Our divine likeness goes much deeper.

Christ revealed to us that God is a Trinity of Persons, the Father loving the Son, the Son imaging the Father, and the Spirit proceeding from this love relationship. Do we share this essential likeness to God? We do. The Spirit is integrated at the core of our beings. St. Paul describes this human-divine condition as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We truly are created in God’s image and likeness─at the level of our essence.

Further, we can say that God programmed us for the fullness of human life through our union with His Spirit. Before the Fall, our happiness would have been to be fully aware of God’s Spirit inspiring our lives, and we willfully and joyfully living our lives in accordance with the Spirit’s promptings. That was to be our glory as human persons

What the story of Original Sin tells us is that our first parents rejected God’s plan for the human race. They rejected dependency on God’s Spirit. They wanted self-depend-ency, self-determination. In place of a life of God-centeredness, they chose a life of self-centeredness. The result? This rejection of God’s plan alienated the human race from God’s relationship, and alienated us from ourselves, others, life and creation.

However, despite the fact that God’s plan for the human race had been rejected, the plan still stands. But given our woundedness, it is more difficult to live. We are not our own. The Spirit still possesses us. We are still created with an inner movement toward God, and yet we cannot make a move toward God without the Spirit’s empowerment.

If through Original Sin we rejected the Spirit’s possession of us, growth in the spiritual life entails progressive surrender to the Spirit’s possession of us. Thus, the spiritual life is essentially not about adding something outside ourselves like religious practices or rituals but about unleashing the Spirit usually locked up within ourselves.

One of the consequences of this human-divine condition is that prayer is not primarily something that we do as it is something that God does in us: “We who have the first fruits of the Spirit…do not know how to pray as we ought, but the very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Romans 8:23-26. Even our desire for growth in relationship with God is not primarily the human act of yearning, but a Spirit-inspired assent to the very way in which we were created. We are in the Spirit’s possession!

The same is true of spiritual formation. We are so complex as human beings that we do not know what spiritual insights we need to grow in the spiritual life. We must acknowledge that some of our old beliefs about God and the spiritual life are no longer working, and ask the Spirit to open us to new understandings that could change everything, and the courage to embrace His promptings.

What about our efforts at evangelization? The Fundamental Ideas states: “The Spirit acts through all evangelizers who allow themselves to be possessed and led by Him; who puts on their lips the words which of themselves they would never be able to find; who explains to the faithful the deep meaning of the teachings of Jesus and of His mystery; and who predisposes the minds of hearers to be open and receptive to the Good News.” These hearers of our words are likewise possessed by the Spirit. Our task is to encourage them to free the Spirit within them

The prayer, “Come Holy Spirit” should be on our lips throughout our day as we live and grow in lives of Spirit-possession.

Awareness, Awareness

Living the spiritual life is anything but being a robot or a sleep walker. For a spiritually centered life, we need self-awareness. It anchors our life in reality. Not for creating scruples, but for living a creative, deeply spiritual life.

Self-awareness is a heightened consciousness of the presence, depth and source of the movements (thoughts, feelings, impulses, desires, moods) in our interior life in response to forces within us and to reality outside us. These movements take place spontaneously. Usually we don’t cause them, but they are very forceful—for good or for evil.

Further, true self-awareness requires that we be deeply aware of what has happened in our past, what is happening now, and what we want to happen in the future, and how these three time frames are impacting our interior movements in the present.

Awareness of Past. However we define Original Sin, the fact is that there is a basic flaw in our human nature that alienates us from ourselves, God and others. We are faced with this on-going struggle which produces movements in our interior life. Deep awareness of our human condition can lead us to an understanding of our woundedness and our need for healing, and of our powerlessness and need for dependency on God.

Are we deeply aware of the psychological movements within us? They may be due to our historical background, such as who were our parents, in what city we grew up, what happened as we progressed through school, through life. Our life history has impacted us.

Are we deeply aware of our personality type and how it influences our interior life?  Early in life, we became a head person, a heart person or a gut person. But as mature adults, we must be all three to become a fully integrated person and grow in spirituality.

Awareness of Present. The source of our interior movements might be biological. A sleepless night. A cold. Awareness of our biology can prevent unChristlike behavior.

Is the source spiritual or evil? Are we truly aware of being in consolation or desolation? If in consolation, where is the Spirit leading us? Why are we not thanking God for His consolation? If in desolation, we must be on guard against the enemy’s deceits.

We can pray, “God, I am grateful.” But we may be just saying words. Everything that we are or have is God’s gifts to us. Are we really aware of our debt of gratitude to God? How deep is our gratitude? Have we made gratefulness a part of our lives? If we are deeply aware, we can experience gratitude seeping through our being.

Take petitioning for the light to understand our interior life. Again, we may be just using words. How aware are we of our need for the Spirit’s enlightenment? We must pray earnestly for the grace of awareness to discern the movements within our interior life.

Are we acting out of compassion for others—being fully present in a caring, attentive way, or are we acting out of a judgmental mode? Awareness can save us.

We are barraged by advertising and entertainment messages that reach down into our interior life, appealing to our woundedness. Awareness is our protection.

Awareness of Future. By future, we mean what we want to become—our personal vision. A vision turns the chaos of life into order. Cursillo’s Holiness Model with its seven virtues offers us just such a vision. This vision can empower us to live life fully and creatively. However, we must be deeply aware of Cursillo’s Holiness Model in order for that vision to impact the movements of our interior life—our thoughts, our feelings, our desires, our inspirations.

One practical suggestion. No. 16 in this series introduced the Awareness Examen as an effective spiritual exercise to awaken our awareness of the Spirit’s involvement in our lives. Use that same exercise to grow in self-awareness. Both are intimately connected.

Missing God’s Invitations

We have noted that consolation can come from the Holy Spirit and also from the enemy who attempts to deceive us. There is a third source —ourselves. Examples are our natural joy of aesthetics, wonder, good company, or the exhilaration of doing our own thing. These non-spiritual consolations are not bad in themselves. They are naturally good. What is bad is when we deceive ourselves into thinking that we are experiencing spiritual consolation when we are not.

Note: for the joy and peace of consolation to be the work of the Holy Spirit, they must be integral parts of a faith experience. If faith isn’t the source of our consolation, we can deduce that our consolation is non-spiritual.

The really unfortunate fact about non-spiritual consolations is that they are missed invitations: they are spiritual consolations waiting to be discovered. And when we convert our non-spiritual consolations into spiritual ones, we don’t lessen our joy, we only magnify them. Why? Because they become gifts from a magnanimous Gift-giver.

Jules J.Toner, SJ, gives us a number of examples. Consider the opportunities we have to raise our minds and heart to God in faith as we look out into His creation. We can look upon God’s creation with just the natural joy of wonder. BUT only when we center our joy in God as Creator revealing Himself in creation or faith in God’s love for us as shown in His gifts, do we experience spiritual consolation—the work of the Spirit.

Take works with thoughts and feelings with a religious theme such as Handel’s Messiah. They can give us a purely aesthetic consolation. Yet, they could be invitations to awaken spiritual consolation. For example, the Messiah could be an invitation to celebrate our faith in Christ’s Resurrection and our own future resurrection.

Likewise, we can read Scripture in a scholarly way or even as great literature or as simply as a part of a ritual, but totally devoid of spiritual experience. Are we missing the Spirit’s invitation to greater faith, hope and charity? If we think of Scripture as being always a challenge, as always a call to metanoia, we can activate our faith in the Spirit’s presence and open ourselves to spiritual consolation.

Religious experiences should prepare us for spiritual consolation. However, Father Toner writes: “The joy or peace or contentment that comes in liturgy from moving words and music, from personal encounter with other persons who are participating—these feelings can be to a large extent or even wholly non-spiritual when the subjective ground is not living faith but only sensitivity to poetry, great thoughts, music, the charm of human persons.” We need to be aware of what is taking place within us. Then we need discernment. Is our joy coming from our faith? Or is it coming from natural exhilaration? We must ask ourselves: What can we do to activate our faith, our hope, our charity and thus convert our non-spiritual consolation into the work of the Spirit?

Our ultreyas are another example of a religious setting that should prepare us for spiritual consolation. We can even deceive ourselves into thinking that we are doing something spiritual. The fact is that we can allow ourselves to get lost in the amenities of the experience—music, food, good company. It is only by activating our faith in Christ as being present in community and thus the source of Spirit-empowerment that we can convert our experience into a truly spiritual experience.

We may take joy in doing a work for God that we like doing, even if it wasn’t for God. Again, we can deceive ourselves that we are experiencing spiritual consolation. In reality, we may be finding joy in doing our own thing. We must see our talent as God’s gift in order to convert our joy into spiritual consolation.

Discerning True Consolation

Consolation is an experience of greater love of God, or an increase in faith, hope and charity, or peace. However, we must discern true from false consolation. Why? Because all consolation does not come from the Holy Spirit.

Spirit-generated Consolation. There is an uncommon form of consolation that is unquestionably from the Spirit. It is when our minds, imaginations and senses are not involved. It is an experience of pure gift. Example: a devout person, who in the middle of experiencing the desolation of rejection, experiences the Spirit’s consolation. The consolation did not come from the person’s mind, imagination or senses. Just the opposite of what we would have expected. Undoubtedly, the consolation of the Spirit.

Even in the case of Spirit-generated consolation, St. Ignatius warns us to distinguish cautiously the actual time of the consolation from the “afterglow”, a peace and joy which remains while our minds, imaginations and senses start to enter our experience. Our faculties make the afterglow a dangerous time. We may form resolutions or plans that have not been confirmed by the Spirit. Spiritual direction is needed.

Self-initiated Consolation. We are encouraged to use our minds, imaginations and senses to encounter God, and frequently we experience consolation. It may be a beautiful sunset, a favorite scripture passage or prayer, or a meditation on Christ’s life when we try to envision a Gospel scene. We may experience an increase in faith, hope or charity. However, St. Ignatius counsels us to discern the source of this consolation. Is it from the Spirit or is it from the enemy? Whenever our faculties are involved, there is a question.

Enemy’s Strategies. It is obvious that the Spirit uses consolation to further our growth, but why should the enemy give us peace and joy? When the enemy cannot block our spiritual growth by desolation, he uses the weapon of consolation. If we love to pray, the enemy will encourage this love to foster pride or to neglect our apostolic responsibilities. If we are committed to works of justice and charity, the enemy will foster that commitment to the point where we despise less motivated persons and where we look upon prayer as a mere luxury.

Discernment. How can we discern the Spirit’s action from that of the enemy? St. Ignatius says that we must examine the beginning, middle and end of our consolation. If all three are good, it is a sign that it is from the Spirit. If the enemy appears in any of the three, it is suspect. “Beginning” refers to the context: Am I in the right place at the right time for the right reasons? If the inspiration to pray takes us away from our obligations or results in others shouldering our share of the work, it is suspect.

“Middle” refers to what happens during the consolation experience: Are we led to vain or judgmental thoughts? To resenting or despising those less pious? To anxiously clinging to God and to reaching for immediate perfection?

“End” refers to what we are moved to do or to think as a result: Does it end in what weakens us or terminate in what is destructive or less good? The enemy may inspire fervor to generate unrealistic expectations that lead us to give up entirely.

Thomas H. Green, SJ says the enemy is deceitful, but he can prove to be one of our best teachers, a real instrument of our sanctification, if we make a point to review immediately the whole course of our consolation experiences and the enemy’s deceits. The surest sign of spiritual maturity is a healthy mistrust of our motivations.

Understanding desolation and consolation, and the discernment of spirits enable us to practice the Awareness Examen more effectively, and to live our spiritual life more deeply, more richly and more wisely.

Handling Desolation

The story of St. Ignatius is the story of a soldier who became a master of spirituality. Wounded in battle, he returned home to recover. Through spiritual reading he experienced a conversion. However, though now committed to God, he experienced alternating periods of highs (consolation) and lows (desolation). Gradually, Ignatius realized the difference between the spirits who moved him, the Spirit of God with consolation, and the spirit of the “enemy” with desolation.

We can interpret the term “enemy” as personifications of evil forces in ourselves and in the world, capable somehow to instigate interior motions, thoughts and affections, calculated to hinder the Spirit’s work in us. Ignatius had discovered that our feelings are essential to the discovery of God’s will, and our progress in the spiritual life.

St. Ignatius explained that there are three possible reasons why God permits the enemy to strike us with desolation. They are: (1) God withdraws his consolation because we have shown negligence in our practice of the spiritual life; (2) God wants to test (strengthen) us to see how much we will advance without his consolation; and (3) God wants to teach us that genuine consolation is pure gift, that we cannot manipulate or control it.

Further, St. Ignatius described the character and the tactics of the enemy: (1) The enemy is ruthless when we are timid, and cowardly when we are strong. He cannot overcome us by force; so he uses psychological warfare to tyrannize us or to outwit us; (2) The enemy will urge us to confide in no one, for fear that his obvious deceits will be easily recognized by a third party such as a spiritual director; and (3) The enemy studies our character and attacks us at our weakest point; self-knowledge is our best defense.

To fight the strategies of the enemy, St. Ignatius gave us some counter strategies

Strategy 1. The enemy will surely test and tempt beginners with desolation. Beginnings may not be only at the early stages of our life of prayer and commitment, but also when a person faces a major life change such as marriage or death of a loved one or a transforming weekend such as Cursillo. When the Spirit calls us to greater spiritual growth, we can expect a more intense conflict with the enemy who will attempt to deter us. Spiritual warfare is the name of the game. Counter Strategy: Be prepared!


Strategy 2. The enemy will tempt us by causing us to experience desolation—discouragement, anxiety, restlessness, fear or loss of peace. Counter Strategy: In time of desolation we should never make any change but remain firm in the resolution which guided us the day before the desolation. Father Thomas H. Green, SJ in his book “Weeds Among the Wheat”, says: “Most good people immediately infer that God is sending them a message when frustration and discouragement strike….Desolation is the work of the enemy, it is never a sign of God’s voice.”

Strategy 3. The enemy will fill us with self-pity and restlessness to cause us to experience desolation. Counter Strategy A: Do the opposite of what he suggests. We should intensify our activity against the desolation. For example, if the enemy makes us feel our prayer time is too long, we should extend it. Counter Strategy B: In desolation, we should consider how the Lord has left us to our natural powers, so that we may prove ourselves while resisting the enemy. We should recall that divine aid always remains with us, though we may not perceive it. Counter Strategy C: We should simply be patient and wait it out. Also, we should remind ourselves that consolation will soon return.

Lastly, when we are in consolation, we are advised to plan how we will behave when we experience desolation, and to humbly thank God for experiences of consolation. 

Deciding with the Spirit

God’s Spirit journeys with us through our lived experiences, calling us into the process of growth. However, much of our lived experiences involve making decisions to get us through difficulties and to make the most of opportunities. In fact, even our smallest decisions sometimes determine the course of our lives. In his book “Weeds Among the Wheat”, Father Thomas H. Green, SJ points out certain qualities we need to possess at times of decisions:

  1. A desire to do God’s will. For someone committed to a life with the Spirit, decision time is Spirit time. If we firmly believe that the Spirit is deeply involved in our life, it is only natural that we seek God’s will in all our decisions.
  2. Openness to God. Ironically enough, God may play a significant role in our life, and yet we may not give His Spirit a role in our decision-making. We may be merely wedded to our own idea of God or God’s will. Or we may not have a genuine desire to seek out his will, given that God is always mysterious, and often surprising and disturbing. However, to do God’s will, we must be open to God.
  3. A knowledge of God. We might desire to do God’s will, but we may have no idea how to discover it. Good desire is no substitute for knowledge of God and his ways. We may have to depend on someone else who has an experiential knowledge of God. That is where a spiritual director comes in. The goal of spiritual direction is to bring us to a maturity where we can make our own personal judgments about God’s will.

St. Ignatius, the creator of the Examen, also developed guidelines for the decision-making and discernment process which should help us integrate God’s Spirit into our decisions. He determined three ways for making a decision.

One, let God decide for us. Here the Spirit attracts our will so strongly to a course of action that leaves no doubt what God wants of us. Perhaps a conversion experience or a moment of enlightenment. However, this is not the usual way we discover God’s will.

Two, let us decide for ourselves. When there is great uncertainty concerning God’s will, St. Ignatius suggested two methods. First method, after prayer for light and courage, we use our understanding to weigh the matter with care, enumerating the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative, basing our decision on what is most pleasing to God.

Second method is to use our imagination: one, consider what you would suggest to another person facing the same decision which you now face; two, imagine yourself on your deathbed or at your final judgement and ask yourself what you would have then decided. In each case, we are trying to shed some light on our confused situation by imaginatively distancing ourselves from it.

Three, let God confirm our decisions. To use our natural powers to make our decisions for ourselves when there is great uncertainty concerning God’s will is not wrong, but it is incomplete, according St. Ignatius. He synthesized the way of God deciding for us and the way of our deciding for ourselves, and created the third way of making a decision. It is the way of discernment—when we seek the Spirit’s confirmation of decisions which we have made based on reason alone.

Here is what we do. We treat as tentative our decision made by means of the rational or imaginative methods. Next, we present the decision to God for his confirmation and patiently wait. And how will God confirm it? St. Ignatius describes it this way: “…much light and understanding are derived through the experience of desolation and consolation and the discernment of diverse spirits,” discussed in article, Handling Desolation.

Divine Dialogue

In spiritual circles, the word “discernment” has two meanings:      the perception or discovery of a movement of Spirit-given grace; and the procedure that best disposes a person for such discovery. However, behind these concepts is the important faith vision that is fundamental to our relationship with God: namely, that God is constantly communicating to us his will and direction for our lives.

We have said that the practice of the Awareness Examen helps us to grow our sensitivity to God’s revelatory presence.  But behind that practice must be our faith vision of God and of ourselves in God’s plan for us. Our faith vision must drive our practice or we will become discouraged with our practice.

First, we must believe that God speaks his word to us through the situations and events of our individual and community life. Second, we must believe that we can prophetically discern the oracle of God mediated to us through our life events by the experience of feeling within ourselves a transcendent personal reality judging our choices. That transcendent personal reality is the presence of the Holy Spirit within us that enables us to prophesy, to discern the actual word of God to us in our life events.

Spiritual Discernment. John Carroll Futrell, SJ states in the Jesuit publication, Studies: “The goal of spiritual discernment then is to become conscious of the Holy Spirit bearing witness within us that  we have recognized the actual word of God spoken to us here and now in the event. It is to have the testimony of God himself that our choice is an authentic response to his existential call to us.” Its goal is to find God and his will for us. When we do, we receive the confirmation of an interior experience of unique peace and joy which tells us: “It is the Lord.”

In the Old Testament, the Lord assures his people that his word is not hidden in the heavens nor beyond the sea: “No, the Word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for your observance.” Deut. 30:11-14. The New Testament is even more explicit about the Holy Spirit living within us so that we can recognize the word of God to us: “But you have had the Holy Spirit poured out on you by Christ, and so all of you know the truth.”1 John 2:20. “For his Spirit teaches you about everything.” 1 John 2:27.

Spiritual Life. Spiritual discernment is not just one more spiritual exercise among many. It is at the heart of the spiritual life, at the heart of our relationship with God. Nothing nourishes a personal relationship more than positive communications. Our relationship with God is nourished by God speaking to us and by us attempting to discern his messages with the help of the Holy Spirit, so we can respond to the will of God.

Our faith vision of God and our two-way communications made possible through spiritual discernment help put God at the center of our lives. God pervades all our life and his will for us is a paramount question for us as we engage in all life situations. Our goal is to make God the center around which our thoughts, feelings and desires gravitate.

Contemplative Insight. Also, we now see that the Awareness Examen as well as our other spiritual practices such as bible study, spiritual reading and spiritual direction are not ends in themselves. They are exercises seeking contemplative insight. Father Ladislas Orsy, SJ defines contemplative insight as “knowledge obtained not so much by human effort and creativity as through God’s gracious gift.” Again, such knowledge is authenticated through God-given feelings of peace and joy. It is certainly more than the mere logical outcome of a reasoning process. If our reasoning is the sole source of our insight, the divine dialogue has not taken place. Discernment power grows out of an habitually prayerful life.  It can’t be turned on for special occasions.