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Discernment of spirits

We must learn how these different aspects of the spiritual plane work in our lives in order to engage with them appropriately

St. Ignatius of Loyola
Our spiritual journey is like driving across Interstate 70 to Denver. When you first glimpse the silhouette of the Rockies, it is impossible not to be taken by their grandeur and majesty. They seem to be a monolithic edifice of glory. And yet, as you drive up the foothills and into those mountains, you begin to realize they are not quite as straightforward as they first appeared. Their beauty is much more intricate and adventurous than you could have guessed. Those mountains are filled with flowery valleys and jagged ridgelines, rocky scrambles and pristine lakes.

When we are first awakened to what a life with God can really be, it appears much like those Rocky Mountains do from a distance — simple and glorious. As we enter more deeply into the spiritual world, however, its complex beauty reveals itself more fully. St. Ignatius experienced this himself and gained wisdom for navigating the spiritual world. He passed on some of this wisdom in the form of the “Rules for Discernment of Spirits,” found in the Spiritual Exercises.

The preface to the rules reveals a fundamental insight: There are good spirits, which are to be trusted and accepted, and there are bad spirits, which are to be rejected. Spirituality itself is neither good nor bad. Rather, within the spiritual plane of existence, just as in the material one, there is some good and some bad. Therefore, we must learn how these different spirits work in our lives in order to engage with them appropriately.

In the first two rules, Ignatius explains that good spirits and bad spirits act in contrasting ways. In a person who is far from God, a bad spirit will move in a person’s soul in a soothing way, making it easy for them to continue down that path. A good spirit will try to put up obstacles to continuing in that lifestyle, perhaps by stinging the conscience. When a person desires to grow closer to God, the action of the good and bad spirits will flip. In this person, it is now the bad spirit that will raise obstacles of anxiety, sadness and disquiet. The good spirit will do everything he can to keep us on the path of goodness. This is why Ignatius says at this stage, “It is characteristic of the good spirit … to give courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations and peace.”

These simple insights can be immediately illuminating for those living with spiritual awareness. Take a moment and reflect on where you are in your walk with God. Whether you are in the plains of Kansas or on the summit of a Colorado fourteener, consider if Ignatius’s insights ring true. Are there any spirits working on you right now that you need to accept or reject?

Father Mitchell Baer is associate pastor at Immaculate Conception in Dardenne Prairie.

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