In St. Ignatius’s second set of rules for discernment—the rules pertaining to more subtle discernment, what we might call advanced discernment—he addresses, in rules 5 and 6, how we can respond to our own processes of thought.
Ignatius had some experience with this. During his many months at Manresa, he was afflicted by guilt over past sins, to the point that he felt unable to escape his constant bad memories. The story is more complex than what we need to go into here, but we know from his autobiography that he had wrestled with a mind that tormented him, for a rather extended period of time.
He considered himself delivered of this by an act of grace; he was helped somewhat by his confessor and supported by other friends, but his deliverance seemed a direct act of God. We don’t doubt this, but rules 5 and 6 suggest to me that Ignatius had other experiences that invited him to explore what went on in his head when he went through a patch of spiritual darkness.
Rule 5 instructs the person to “note well the course of the thoughts, and if the beginning, middle, and end is all good,” then these thoughts have been inspired by the good spirit. If it does not end well, if it “disquiets or disturbs the soul,” then even the genesis of this process is suspect.
Rule 6 tells the person who has been tempted or led astray to look back over the progression of thoughts and see where things turned.
Remember that Ignatius was dealing with people who wanted to do God’s will, whose aim was to do good in the world. This is why these rules are part of advanced discernment. We’re no longer dealing with choosing between obvious good and evil. We are beginning with good intentions. We are wanting all the right things. But still, it goes wrong. Ignatius himself had various intentions that never worked out, and so he was highly interested in assessing his own processes. And, given his history of scrupulosity—an obsession with his own sins—he wanted to understand how his own mind worked so that he could sense when he was most likely to be tempted or misled.
Patterns in Our Lives
Most of us experience thought patterns that are not good for us. The obvious example is addiction, a pattern of thoughts and impulses that gets locked in and prevents our freedom. We now understand physiological causes as well, and we see addiction as more than just mental and emotional. We can’t deny, though, the significant role that thoughts play. However, all of us, with or without addiction, experience unhealthy thought processes.
For me, judging others is a frequent pattern. When I first notice that I have a negative reaction to someone, I can usually trace the origins of it: certain physical characteristics I’ve been conditioned to dislike; a quality of outgoingness that makes me uncomfortable; or a similarity to someone from my past who hurt me. The key is for me to stop and ask myself, When did I begin to feel negative? If I don’t do this, I will begin to assume in this person motives or agendas that are figments of my imagination. I will be reacting to a person who doesn’t even exist.
Some interactions deteriorate because we don’t recognize where our mind is taking us. Perhaps I set out to help a friend with some housework, because she’s been immobilized with a broken foot. It starts off well until I discover that the state of the house is longer-term than my friend’s current situation explains; she’s never kept it very clean, and she’s totally disorganized. I ask if she’d like me to clean out a couple of shelves; she says, Sure, go ahead. The more I work, the more indignant I become, because this person does not share my enthusiasm for order and cleanliness. Three hours later, I am deep into a task that has grown, and I’m resenting this friend and feeling quite put upon. Where did this begin to go wrong? When I passed judgment on this friend’s standards that were different from mine. I went to a place of comparing my ways to her ways and insisting (internally) that mine were better. That’s where the shift happened.
The Holy Spirit does not threaten us or rush us.
The most devious thought patterns are not about others at all. Back when I was in music school, I would go to the practice room and begin working on my piano skills. When I got to the point in a piece that was too difficult to play well, my thoughts would jump to: I do not have nearly as much skill as other music majors; I’m already behind and will never catch up. The practicing would become more frustrating, and my mind and heart would become more frantic and depressed, until I stopped practicing altogether and decided that it was time for a coffee break. Granted, I was behind other music majors, and I would never become a performer on stage. But I had never felt called to that life anyway, and if my own thoughts had not sabotaged my piano practice—and this happened almost every day—I would have at least enjoyed the growth I did experience, and the practicing would have been much more productive. I can look back and see that thought process, but I did not recognize it then. It was a level of discernment I had not yet learned.
Impatience and Fear
My discernment now has more to do with the thought patterns that lead me to become impatient with or resentful of my husband, or the subtle ideas that disrupt my prayer. How many of us give up on prayer because of thought patterns such as: I don’t even know how this works, or, Given my angry outburst this morning, I really have no business asking God for anything.
Often our thought patterns lead us to a bad place because of fear. I nearly always take it as a bad sign when I start thinking that I must do something right now, or else. Another bad sign is feeling that I’ve been backed into a corner. Choices made while in such a frame of mind are bound to go wrong. The Holy Spirit does not threaten us or rush us. There is nothing coercive about God’s dealing with us. When we feel coerced, desperate, or out of time, these states of mind should raise red flags for us.
I encourage you to reflect on a time when you began with the best intentions, but the end result was not so good. Try to recall your thought process. Recall, too, your emotions. What was going on inside you that caused things to turn in an unhealthy direction?
Sometimes, this kind of discernment is best done with a spiritual companion. Ignatius relied on his confessor; we have spiritual directors, pastoral counselors, and close friends. We also have, of course, our own daily conversations with God, who loves us through everything.