Sacred Heart

Catholic Church

Imlay City, Michigan  Tel: (810) 724-1135

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Fr. Paul Ward

Sunday, December 14, 2014
3rd Sunday of Advent (Gaudete), Cycle B
Sacred Heart Catholic Church

Discernment of Spirits


   Let’s begin by thanking God for the many graces these past days: Confirmations for our young people last Sunday, the novena and celebrations in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the visit of the Consecrated Sisters, and so many other things. God’s love is such that, even though we are sinners, he still showers his mercy and blessings upon us.

   Today we shall consider something called the “discernment of spirits.” St. Paul, in today’s reading from 1 Thes 5(:16-24), says, “Test everything; retain what is good.” We also find in St. John, in his first Epistle, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 Jn 4:1). And so we find this injunction in scripture in these and in other places, that we are to use our reason, enlightened by faith, to discern.

   And so we wonder, how is this done? The answer to this question is, as we have said, the capacity of discernment of spirits, which is as much a science, in that one can learn, study and take counsel to acquire it; as it is an art, which arises from experience. Furthermore, there is an infused, out-of-the-ordinary gift of discerning spirits, which is infallible, but extremely rare; which is one of the several valid interpretations of the Lord’s words, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:13).

   Not everything about this important science and art can be said in one homily, and even if it could, it takes a lifetime to hone the skill, always by God’s grace. Nor should we understand the discernment of spirits as algebra, as if we had a series of variables, and, filling in the variables, we come to one, certain, irrefutable answer. It is a science of prudence, not of mathematics. Many authors have written about it, but most importantly, St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuits some five centuries ago, in his small booklet called Spiritual Exercises (nn. 313 ss.).

   The discernment can, furthermore, be very different for one who is subject to the slavery of habitual mortal sin and is just beginning to strive to convert and follow Christ, in comparison to one who has been living faithfully but superficially his or her faith, or one who has been working in the interior life very deeply for years of his or her life.

   The “spirits” we are discerning don’t necessarily refer to demons or angels. Rather, we are talking about a motion of the soul that leads us to one thing or another. We should never follow our gut feeling, but make some attempt to discern why we feel the way we feel, and what is the right thing to do in each circumstance. The origins of such motions of the soul can be three: first, God (including all who love God, such as the saints and angels, especially our Guardian Angel); second, Satan (including all who are enslaved to him, such as demons and the damned); and, third, our own flesh and the passions contained therein.

   One principle St. Ignatius lays forth is that of consolation and desolation. These are not simple feelings, such as a “happy feeling” on one hand, or a “sad feeling” on the other. Consolation is when the soul is enflamed with love for God (cf. SE, 316), which can include “sad feelings” like weeping for one’s sins. Desolation is just the contrary, that is, when a soul is enflamed not by love but by appetite for lower things, disturbed by a desire for sin, without faith, without hope, without supernatural charity; this leads to a superficial, fleeting happiness, for example, in satisfying some passion, with the result of remorse of conscience thereafter (cf. SE n. 317). In moments of consolation only, and never in moments of desolation, should decisions be made (cf. SE 318).

   Consolation comes with the enlightenment of some truth, gravity and depth of a soul dealing with a serious and important matter, light, humble thoughts, confidence in God and a healthy lack of confidence in oneself, obedience, patience in suffering, the embracing of abnegation, liberty of peace of soul, selflessness and the desire to imitate Christ. Desolation comes with darkness, anguish, the restlessness of guilt, stubbornness, pride, disobedience, distrust, impatience, hypocrisy, greedy attention to wealth and self-gain, vexation, discouragement, attachment to passing things and forgetfulness of Christ. (Cf. Royo Marin, T. de la Perf. Crist., nn. 707 ss.) Sometimes the evil spirit might inspire a soul to do very exaggerated mortifications or works of piety for everyone to see, inflating that soul of a high opinion of himself, and leading him or her to things that are very alien to his state of life, such as reading spiritual works by Protestants, or inspiring a cloistered religious to run off to the missions.

   While we discern spirits, we need great interior silence, interior recollection and that detachment which keeps us open to God’s will, no matter what that may be for us. Whether for good or for evil, we may discern a supernatural, and not natural, origin of the interior motion of the soul by the fact that the soul is suddenly filled with consolation or desolation but by no identifiable cause in the temporal order. (Cf. also Garrigou-Lagrange, Three Ages, vol. II, pp. 241 ff.)

   To train ourselves in this important skill, necessary for every day of our lives, we need first of all to ask the Holy Spirit to infuse it in us. But in addition, we too can and should cultivate His gift. There are five ways we can do this. First, by prayer, which cannot be substituted by anything else, and which is essential for salvation and any progress in the spiritual life. Second, by study of good books by saints and good Catholic writers; before you jump into a book, you may wish to seek the counsel of a priest who knows what he’s talking about in such matters. Third, by reflection on experience; past or current matters in your own life or lives of those you have known, that can be compared to the matter now at hand. Fourth, by removing obstacles, especially those of self-sufficiency, arrogance, attachment to things or persons, and rashness. And fifth, by counsel, taking advice from others, and humbly giving weight to what they say.

   Much more could be said, but these thoughts today should be enough to encourage us to discern those interior motions that happen inside us so that, as the Blessed Virgin, we may embrace unconditionally the holy will of God over our lives, and reject every sin and evil. Amen.
















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