True Stories in Prayer
Written by: Paul Lickteig
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I would love to say that by this point in my Jesuit formation, I have become a master discerner. The truth of that matter is that I am still learning how to live with my own consciousness. It is sometimes so easy to tell when someone else is being whipped around by the dark spirit. However, when it comes to myself, there are times when I just cannot see what is happening until I am up to my neck in negativity. The following is a paraphrase of a brief exchange that occurred some time ago.
Seriously? Seriously?? Again with the anger and frustration. Yes. Thanks, Ignatius. I am seriously confused and baffled…by my own idiocy…right now! I am glad I asked for the “grace.” Ugh. Hello? Is there anyone up there listening to this? Yeah. I didn’t think so. What am I doing anyway, sitting here talking to myself like a freakin idiot…stupid voodoo religion piety.
I swear to God…
Alright brother…eeeeasy. Take a breath. That’s it. What just happened? Weren’t you just in consolation a couple of minutes ago? Seriously – you were sitting there in total peace thinking about how many good things are in your life. You even made note of a couple of things that you used to think of as “sucking” that had recently shifted. You had an experience of gratitude that was totally unforced and completely suffused your perception of reality with peace. You also had an inexplicable sense of love for the people in your life. What happened?
Well…I was thinking about my life and how much I appreciate the people in it, and then I started thinking about the place I do ministry; I was having all of these ideas about how I could interact in a new way with some people there, which was great because I have been wondering about them. I saw how our relationship had changed and how glad I was that things were different. Then I started thinking about all of the work I have been putting in. Then I realized how much work still had to be done and I started wondering how I would do it. I felt a little angry that I had so much to do. Then I wondered if that was selfish of me, or if other people were being selfish. Then the ideas that I was having about how to interact with others started to seem kind of stilted, like they might not work. Then I realized that there were a lot of things in my life – a lot of people – who I had difficulty with. Then the whole situation started looking impossible. I mean, how was I going to accomplish anything? Why do I even bother? Why do things never change? Why am I dealing with the same issues and the same people after months of working on this and praying with it? Does prayer even work? Why am I sitting here talking to myself? Seriously…what does it even mean to “talk to God?” It is not like the voice of God ever sounds any different from whatever other voice is in my head. Then I just got annoyed with the whole thing – the prayer, the work, the life. Aiagh!
Ok…so can you figure out which spirit that was and how it started to work? Do you see when the shift occurred? Do you see how your perception of grace was shifted to create unrest? At what point did your conscience and awareness of your own shortcoming begin to convince you of your inability, which led you to believe in the ultimate futility of the venture? Where did you begin listening to that voice that created fear instead of the one that was bringing peace and a sense of love? How do you come to know the difference between those two voices? How do you learn to discern better the shift when it occurs?
It is no secret that when we are in a good space, there is the tendency for internal backlash. Ignatius warns that the evil spirit might enter in and attempt to subvert our awareness of grace. Another interpretation is that anytime the ego is pushed outside of its place of comfort it tends to retract due to the uncertainty caused by new cares and concerns that the new awareness brings to mind. However one conceptualizes the experience, it is necessary to be aware that there is often a force working against us when we are in places of consolation. For myself, the tendency is to start to pick apart, piece by piece, the things that lead me to consolation, telling myself that I am being careful and insightful. If I let it go, this spirit of distortion starts to attack whatever I happen to be thinking of, quickly finding fault in the best of things. The result can range anywhere from being in a “bad mood” to entering into a more prolonged period of agitation and frustration.
Luckily, there are a number of ways to deal with these movements of the spirit. In this case, I was reminded that the consolation I had experienced was real consolation, and that it was likely that I had somehow been sidetracked – the spirit of darkness was obscuring the goodness that had been so evident a short time before. When I came to realize this, my recourse was to sit for a while in prayer, just resting in the awareness that these thoughts would pass. I returned to the place of previous consolation and allowed my awareness to slowly shift back to a place of equilibrium.
So why did I have so much difficulty understanding what was occurring when it was happening? While it might be easy to pick out spirits when we are really looking for them, it strikes me that when I am in my day-to-day routine I am not always in discernment mode. I mean, I have done the reading and sat through the classes on discernment, but in general practice, when I am not being graded, that is when the capacity to discern is really tested. Learning how to recognize the movements of spirits, Holy and otherwise, in the midst of my day is what it is all about. Will I ever become a master discerner? I would like to hope so. The longer I am around, however, the more I am beginning to suspect that it is a skill we never master, only learn to practice better.