Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The First Rule of Discernment

As I noted in this post,   I have recently finished a fantastic video series entitled "Living the Discerning Life" by Fr. Timothy Gallagher.  I wanted to post a series of short commentaries on the material that Fr. Gallagher covered.  This is a very broad overview, and I highly recommend that you watch the entire series, which is available (for free, I think) at the EWTN website.

Father Gallagher covers fourteen of St. Ignatius's rules by which we might become more aware and conscious of our spiritual lives. This awareness will help us to understand what is happening to us spiritually, and it will help us to be able to accept the good actions of God in our souls and reject the bad influences that might lure us away from lives of holiness.  I will list the rules in order with my brief summaries and comments in this series of intermittent posts (that is, these posts will be scattered into the blog here and there).  Here are the introduction  and the first rule:

St. Ignatius Loyola

Rules for becoming aware and understanding to some extent the different movements which are caused in the soul, the good, to receive them, and the bad to reject them. And these rules are more proper for the first week [of an Ignatian retreat].

First Rule. The first rule: in persons who are going from mortal sin to mortal sin, the enemy is ordinarily accustomed to propose apparent pleasures to them, leading them to imagine sensual delights and pleasures in order to hold them more and make them grow in their vices and sins. In these persons the good spirit uses a contrary method, stinging and biting their consciences through their rational power of moral judgment.  ~ St. Ignatius, taken from EWTN website

How often we have seen this rule in effect, in both our own lives and in the lives of those around us!  This first rule basically states that when a person is living in a state of mortal sin and actively pursuing and embracing a sinful life, the "enemy" can easily lead them on to more and more decadence by enticing them with the pleasures of sin.  Whether it be Satan, our own fleshly desires, or the pressures of the world around us that constitute the "enemy" at a given moment, the methodology is the same--the pleasure of committing a sin appears to be something to desire and seems to entice us onward (or downward!) to sinful behavior. 

Being aware  that temptation is appealing to those who are not in a state of grace helps us to understand why so many souls are trapped in a sinful pattern of life.  We saw in our discussion of the Fall that the first sin of all time began with Eve questioning God's veracity, and then immediately after she had embraced such sinful thoughts, the enemy presented the idea of eating the forbidden fruit to Eve as desirable action.   And this is the case even today--to act upon sinful pleasures seems desirable to those who are already in sin. 

Christ Pantokrator, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
On the contrary,  the Holy Spirit convicts those who are in a state of sin.  This unpleasant conviction--the "stinging and biting of their consciences"--is intended by God as a goad to convince the straying souls to return to the goodness of God.  We can see this so often in the reaction that souls in mortal sin have toward souls in a state of grace.  They are uncomfortable.  They feel judged and convicted of an immoral lifestyle even if the Christian has never thought or said a word of judgement.  One can almost see them squirming under the conviction of the Holy Spirit.  And haven't we, too, known that "stinging and biting"?  Haven't we known that unpleasant feeling of conviction?  This is necessary guilt--the guilt that is intended to lead to repentance.  God loves us so much that He will never wholly abandon us;  He longs for union with us and so, like a good physician, He does what is necessary, even if painful, to lead us home to His Mercy.  Francis Thompson poetically describes the action of the Holy Spirit in the life of a sinful soul in the first stanza of his great work,  The Hound of Heaven:

The Hound of Heaven,  Huddart
  I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days; 
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways    
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.    
      Up vistaed hopes I sped;      
      And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears, 
From those strong Feet that followed,     followed after.      
But with unhurrying chase,     
     And unperturbèd pace,Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,      
     They beat—and a Voice beat      
     More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’ 

When a soul in a state of mortal sin responds to the "stinging and biting" of his or her conscience by repenting and turning to God, the Mercy of God is poured out on that soul and a life of grace begins.  The next rule discusses the different ways in which both the enemy and God work in the souls of those who are in a state of grace.

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