During the icy cold “polar vortex” in early January, my landlord asked me to leave the taps dripping at night to prevent the pipes from freezing. The problem was that the sound of the dripping water from the kitchen faucet hitting the metal sink was keeping me up. It was irritating. So I placed a sponge in the sink and let the water drip into that—no more loud clang when the drops hit the metal.
This reminded me of St. Ignatius’s image of the sponge and the rock when talking about the good and evil spirits:
In those who are making progress in the spiritual life, from good to better, the good angel touches the soul gently, tenderly, and sweetly, as a drop of water entering a sponge, but the evil spirit touches it sharply, with noise and agitation, like a drop of water hitting upon a rock. (Spiritual Exercises)
Like the repeating sound of the water hitting metal, the evil spirit agitates our spiritual lives. This agitation is most apparent to me when I’m not praying or I let myself become too distracted by mindless activity. But when I do carve out time for prayer or healthy activity like walking, I feel more at peace, more whole; the sharp noise of the water hitting the sink is instead absorbed softly and quietly by the sponge.
The rules for the discernment of spirits found in the Spiritual Exercises are many, but they boil down to the sponge and rock analogies. When I move closer to God’s desire for my life, I become the sponge that welcomes grace. When I turn away from God’s desire for me, I harden, resist grace, and feel out of whack. Ignatius knew that God had built within us the mechanism of emotion and feeling to assist in discerning our proper direction. The sponge and the rock are metaphors of God’s hand ever guiding us toward greater wholeness.