What did we do before we had the benefits of the GPS?
I remember pulling over on dark roads in New Jersey, and by the tiny light in the interior of my car, poring over a map that was so large that I needed the whole front seat to spread it out! And even then, I had to look for an open gas station and walk into a disheveled and grimy store to ask directions. Even then, who could follow the explanations: “When you see the third light make a left. If you see the Hess station, you have gone too far and you have to make a U-Turn!” It is a wonder I ever got to my destinations. (This was true not only in Jersey!)
Finding out how to get to a desired location is not only a physical, travel concern; there is a need to find a way through the massive territory of the human soul in trying to find our way home to God. We are lost. This is a fundamental and foundational insight of the spiritual life. All the advisory words of the prophets and saints are attempts to get us home to be with God. But this ‘soul country’ is vast and dangerous. Even with the benefits of Revelation, it is easy to stay lost or to be going in circles.
Things are not made any clearer by the fact that there is a deceiver afoot who is eager and motivated to give us the wrong directions. He wants us to stay lost or, even better, not to get home, but to enter another kingdom, his, where we encounter only suffering and slavery. The stakes are high.
The great saint Ignatius of Loyola gave some practical help in discerning who is speaking to each of us in the depths of our heart. Is it friend or foe?
The first rule is to be sensitive to what is going on inside you. What are you feeling within? When God speaks, we feel peace and go about our business with joy in our hearts. Even when we have to do something difficult, one encounters a serenity. Not so with the evil one. He brings agitation, turmoil, concern for appearances, and a feeling of excitement that leads invariably to more turmoil. God works gently and slowly. The devil is quick, loud and disturbing. For Ignatius, the devil’s way is like a drop of water hitting a stone. It is a splash and you can hear it. But when God speaks to us, it is like a drop of water falling on a sponge: quiet and imperceptible.
The action of God leaves us filled with joy even days after it happens. The devil can fake a little happiness, but not for long. Soon the disturbing turmoil returns.
While we were on our Parish Pilgrimage this year, we went to Loyola. It was in that ancestral castle that Ignatius discovered an important truth in the discernment of spirits.
He had just been seriously injured in war for he was a soldier by profession. As he recuperated from his wounds, he asked for some books to read. There were a couple of books about knights and their exploits, but also a book on the life of Christ and one on the lives of the great saints. He noticed that when he read the books about the knights, he was excited and moved, but he was also moved and excited by the life of Christ and the saints. However, there was one important difference: when he put
down the books about the knights and their fighting, he was depressed and bored again. But when he put down the books of the life of Christ and of the saints, his excitement continued and even grew! He was able to experience for the first time the discernment of spirits (feelings) that would become one of the foundation stones of his Spiritual Exercises. He had discovered God’s GPS!
God does communicate with us and prompts us as to what is best or worse for us. Unfortunately, so does the evil one. So we have to learn to train our spiritual senses so that we can perceive what God is moving us toward. Dante wrote in the Divine Comedy: “In His will is our peace”. It really pays for us to learn how to listen to God. It is counterproductive to remain deaf to His appeals.