Monday, November 9, 2009
Life in the Spirit, Part II: Discerning Words
Continuing from yesterday's Part I: Emotionalism?...
I can only speak from my own experience, but I think my experience is is broadly similar to that of most other Catholic charismatics. Listening to the promptings of the Spirit is a bit like listening to one's conscience. It is, in many ways, simply a gut feeling. However, just as a child must learn to distinguish tears of sorrow from tears of joy, so a mature Christian learns to distinguish mere passing emotions from the tuggings of conscience. I cannot fully explain how this happens, though a large part of it consists in what the Church calls having a well-formed conscience. By studying in an intellectual way the the law of God, we begin to internalize it. By thinking about its application we form our consciences, training our gut emotions, if you will. Listening to the promptings of the Spirit can be similar. If I know the Scriptures, the teachings of the Church, the lives of the saints, my emotions are far more likely to be synchronized with the work of the Spirit. I did not mention it in the tripartite division of the person, but another aspect of who we are is the imagination. By filling our minds with thoughts of God, we conform our imagination to Him. As a result, if only on a strictly natural level, we make it far more likely that our imaginative wanderings will reflect His will. Moreover, in so doing we also increase the docility of our imagination to God, making it easier for Him to use it as a source of supernatural inspiration.
Let us assume that we have received some sort of word or prompting from the Spirit. An idea has crossed our mind, a certain gut feeling has welled up, a phrase has caught our fancy. How do we know if it is from the Lord? Discerning such words is a key part of the charismatic life (and an important check on the dangers of unfettered emotionalism). So how do we do it? One of the most potent tools is the intellect, which - remember - is made by God and is good. The first and most important function of the intellect in this regard is to consider whether or not the received word coheres with the faith. If I received a prompting to encourage someone to persevere in prayer, or an admonition for myself to let go of my pride, these are things which the Holy Spirit might plausibly be telling me. If, on the other hand, I think I am receiving a word that there is a Forth Person of the Godhead or that the Spirit wants me to murder my neighbor, clearly these things are wrong.
But even after rejecting a possible interpretation of a word, the intellect has an important role to play. Why did that idea cross my mind? Is this spiritual warfare, a temptation from demonic forces? If that is the case, calling upon the intercession of St. Michael may be in order. Also note, by the way, that if this transpires, the initial inspiration - wrong in itself - may nevertheless have been a working of the Spirit, drawing your attention to this problem. Thus, discerning a word, rather than simply accepting it at first glace, may be the difference between listening to the Lord's voice and exposing oneself to grave danger. Even if demonic forces are not directly at play, incorrect ideas - which I can know by reason are incompatible with the Christian faith - may be coming from within me. Again, acknowledgment of this fact may be the work of the Spirit. Why am I thinking this way? What is it that has led me to this place? We may rejoice that the Spirit has provided such self-awareness. Finally, a third possibility exists for why we felt or heard a word whose contents we intellectually know to be at odds with the truth: we may have misread it. A fuzzy feeling or a vague notion may easily be misconstrued. If I am feeling a deep revulsion towards another person, I know the Spirit is not calling on me to do violence to them. And if I have discerned that this dislike is not simply something of my own doing or of demonic forces, perhaps there is another interpretation which makes more sense. Perhaps the person in question is a very unholy and harmful person, whose influence should be avoided like a spiritual plague.
More often, however, one will not be confronted with highly problematic words. Instead, one will be faced with a word which is clearly plausible, even permissible. But is it for me or for someone else? What exactly is the Holy Spirit saying? And is this the Holy Spirit or just me? Sometimes we are asked to do something in total faith: share a word of exhortation that means nothing to us, and which we cannot imagine applying to anyone present. But, lo and behold, if we are faithful, we might discover that someone present has a very deep wound that the Lord wanted to address. However, more often than not, we can know by natural reason a thing or two about why a certain prompting has come. We have been struggling with a certain issue which we are prompted to address in a particular way. A friend is anxious and we receive a word of consolation. Considering circumstances can help us make sense of sometimes vague impressions, making sure we get it right.
If this search for a plausible interpretation sounds a bit like doing literary criticism, that is not entirely off the mark. Just as literary criticism is the application of the intellect to understand literature, so too the discernment of words is the application of the intellect to understanding the promptings of the Spirit. On the other hand, we must remember that this is a work of the Spirit. We do not simply wait for the tiniest minutia and then hyper-analyze it to detect the Holy Spirit's movement. Instead, the Holy Spirit should guide the entire activity, through our emotions, our imagination and our intellect, all working in concert.
But how do I know a prompting is from the Spirit and not just from me? This is a question that does not particularly bother me. On most occasions, I suspect that the big prophetic words I receive from the Lord, the sort of thing that comes only once every year or two, are 90% me and 10% the Holy Spirit. This sounds like a fairly poor ratio, so why my optimism? Put simply, I trust the Spirit's ability to transform and fill anything He touches. Moreover, as we have been discussing, if my imagination and intellect and emotions are good things, created by God, and if I have been working to mold and form them according to His ways and purposes, they are already a kind of revelation. Adding just a dash of uncut Holy Spirit can make that potent. I do not need to hear voices from the clouds to believe God is at work.
Tomorrow: Part III: First Things Last