Blog Post

Discerning the Spirits

We all grapple with spiritual discernment - how to tell if an inspiration is coming from God, ourselves, or the devil. But the spiritual masters claim it's not as difficult as it sounds. In fact, it all comes down to learning how to decipher a few telltale footprints.

The greatest principle of all for discerning the spirits was given to us by Jesus Himself: “Beware of false prophets who come to you in the clothing of sheep . . . by their fruits you shall know them . . . Every good tree brings forth good fruit and the evil tree brings forth evil fruit . . .” (Matt 7:15-18).

As the great Dominican theologian, Father Garrigou Lagrange explains, following the right spirit produces good fruit, such as love, faith, humility, self-denial, etc. Following the wrong spirit produces a bunch of sour grapes such as anger, doubt, pride, confusion, discord, excess.

“Generally, one of three spirits is dominant in every soul,” Lagrange writes. “In the perverse, the devil; in the tepid, the natural spirit; in those who are beginning to give themselves seriously to the interior life, the Spirit of God habitually dominates, but there are many interferences of the natural spirit and the spirit of evil.”

So how do we know the difference between these spirits?

Each has its own telltale print, he teaches, and our job is to follow the one that looks the most like Jesus’. Is the footprint that of a humble sandal like Our Lord’s, a comfortable shoe like our human nature, or a cloven hoof like the evil one?

The Natural Spirit

Comfort is the main game of the natural spirit. It leads by the senses, which always tend toward the path of least resistance. Following this spirit can cause us to make foolish choices. For instance, we might opt for a life of trivial pursuits and passing pleasures rather than one of deeper meaning and purpose simply because the latter requires more sacrifice. The natural spirit always seeks itself first and God and neighbor second.

“Nature is the enemy of mortification and humility,” Lagrange writes.

He sums up the spirit of nature in one word – egoism. “The egoist judges everything from his individual point of view and not from God’s.”

As a result, this spirit leads to selfishness even in the spiritual life. It makes us want to quit at the first sign of aridity in prayer. Contradiction, trial, suffering, even a splinter from the cross makes us recoil and flee. If we can’t find sufficient pleasure in the interior life, we jump into every new spiritual movement or fad that comes along – anything from transcendental meditation and vipassana retreats to chasing alleged apparitions – anything that promises great spiritual experiences with little personal cost (i.e., the cross).

Or, we convince ourselves that too much religion isn’t good and, thinking ourselves prudent, decide to stick to a more superficial faith comprised of regular Mass attendance and a few extra devotions. We opt to keep our religion “safe” by keeping it free from any reason for our friends to think we’ve become fanatics or “extremists.” God forbid it should cost us our reputation!

Unfortunately, this is precisely the kind of mediocrity that Jesus promised to “spit out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16).

The Spirit of the Devil

The cloven hoof has a few telltale marks of its own. Unlike the spirit of nature, the spirit of the devil does not flee from mortification of the senses. In fact, he loves to urge souls to exaggerated forms of penance, especially in circles where it is held in high honor such as among our pious friends. “Such a course of action keeps pride alive and ruins health,” Lagrange writes.

On the other hand, the spirit of the devil will never incline a soul to more interior forms of mortification, such as of the imagination, heart, self-will and personal judgment. These would include tempering our tendency to prefer ourselves to others, to boasting, or to having too great an opinion of ourselves and our abilities especially in spiritual matters.

Another sign that this spirit is at work is when, “Instead of nourishing faith by the consideration of the teaching of the Gospel, it draws the attention to what is most extraordinary and marvelous . . . or what is foreign to our vocation.” For example, following after various seers and mystics, or spending an inordinate amount of time (and money) on conferences and retreats while leaving our family or employer to fend for themselves.

Masquerading as a spirit of light, it may convince a parish priest to think he’ll do more for Christ in the cloister. Or someone called to the religious life may be convinced that they can serve God just as well in the world. Lay people might be convinced they must “modernize the Church” by adapting the teachings of Christ to the world, never realizing that they are marching straight into heresy.

Great care must be exercised here, Lagrange writes, because any kind of behavior, thought, or inclination that shows a “lack of humility and obedience is a certain indication that it’s not God who guides us” no matter how good or harmless it may appear on the surface.

The Spirit of God

The spirit of God leads us to follow Jesus. It is a much more subtle and gentle spirit that never clamors for attention and inspires a quiet self-forgetfulness.

“It leads us to think first of God and to leave the care of our interests to Him,” Lagrange writes. This spirit “stirs up the love of our neighbor in us” which makes it impossible to act without taking into consideration the good of others and the world around us. It’s never just about us, but is always about anyone who might be impacted by our actions.

Those who follow this spirit have a holy indifference to human success and are inclined to mortification only when it is regulated by discretion and obedience. It never ceases to remind us that exterior penance is worthless without being accompanied by that of the heart and will.

Another telltale footprint of this spirit is that it “gives patience in trial, love of the cross, and love of enemies. It gives peace with ourselves and with others, and even quite often interior joy. Then, if we should happen to fall, it speaks to us of mercy.”

A person can be more or less attuned to the impulses of this spirit depending upon the degree to which they have become docile to the Holy Spirit. This docility comes about gradually, through the consistent practice of prayer, interior silence, and detachment from worldly concerns.

We must learn how to follow the humble sandal print of the Master and let it lead us into those greener pastures where we will find the true meaning of our lives.

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