By William A. Barry, SJ
Later Ignatius had other occasions to discern “spirits” and to note how the evil spirit cloaks himself as an angel of light for those who have advanced a bit in their journey into a deeper intimacy with God. For example, upon his return from Jerusalem he decided that he needed to study in order to be able to help souls:
So, returning to Barcelona, he began to study with great diligence. But one thing was very much in his way: when he began to memorize, as one must in the beginnings of grammar, there came to him new insights into spiritual matters and fresh relish, to such an extent that he could not memorize, nor could he drive them away no matter how much he resisted.
So, thinking often about this, he said to himself, “Not even when I engage in prayer and am at Mass do such vivid insights come to me.” Thus, little by little, he came to realize that it was a temptation. After praying he went to Our Lady of the Sea, near the master’s house. So when they were all seated, he told them exactly all that went on in his soul and what little progress he had made until then for that reason; but he promised this same master, saying, “I promise you never to fail to listen to you these two years, so long as I can find bread and water in Barcelona with which I might support myself.” As he made this promise with great determination, he never again had those temptations.
In this instance Ignatius had to decide in faith that these “spiritual favors” were not from God. Such experiences lie behind his fourth rule for discernment appropriate for the Second Week of the Exercises.
It is characteristic of the evil angel, who takes on the appearance of an angel of light, to enter by going along the same way as the devout soul and then to exit by his own way with success for himself. That is, he brings good and holy thoughts attractive to such an upright soul and then strives little by little to get his own way, by enticing the soul over to his own hidden deceits and evil intentions.
Ignatius had to act in faith on his discovery that God is not the only source of pious thoughts.
The discernment of the spirits rests on the belief that the human heart is a battleground where God and the evil one struggle for mastery. Jesus of Nazareth himself believed this. In the desert he had been tempted by the evil one masquerading as an angel of light. If these were real temptations, then he, like us, had to discern the movements inspired by God from those inspired by the evil one. He, too, had to make an act of faith in who God really is, based on his experiences and his knowledge of the Scriptures of his people. Jesus came to recognize who the real enemy of God’s rule is. He cast out demons, and equated his power over the demons as a sign of God’s coming to rule: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” The majority party of the Pharisees and most Jews of the time saw the real enemy of Israel, and therefore of God, as the pagans, and especially the Roman occupiers. Over and over again Jesus warned his hearers that the real enemy was Satan. Jesus faced this enemy and refused to use the strategies and means of the evil one to carry out his vocation. God’s rule cannot come about through the means proposed by Satan. Jesus, like any faithful Jew, believed that God was acting in history to bring about his rule (this notion may be called “God’s project” or “God’s intention”). He also believed that whoever is not God’s enemy “is for us.” John Meier puts the matter this way:
It is important to realize that, in the view of Jesus, . . . human beings were not basically neutral territories that might be influenced by divine or demonic forces now and then. . . . Human existence was seen as a battlefield dominated by one or the other supernatural force, God or Satan (alias Belial or the devil). A human being might have a part in choosing which “field of force” would dominate his or her life, i.e., which force he or she would choose to side with. But no human being was free to choose simply to be free of these supernatural forces. One was dominated by either one or the other, and to pass from one was necessarily to pass into the control of the other. At least over the long term, one could not maintain a neutral stance vis-Ã -vis God and Satan.
Jesus’ own discernment of spirits rested on his Jewish belief that God was acting in history and that the evil one was acting to thwart God. Once again, we see that the discernment of spirits is a matter of faith put into practice.
Indeed, faith is not just an intellectual affirmation of truths; faith is a verb. Faith is a graced response to our self-revealing God. This goes for the faith of the church as well as for the faith of the individual who is trying to discern a path through life.
Excerpt from “Discernment of Spirits as an Act of Faith” by William A. Barry, SJ, in An Ignatian Spirituality Reader.