QUESTIONS ABOUT discernment of spirits come up from time to time on my daily radio show (M-F from 6-9 a.m. Pacific).
This has prompted me to study more deeply the Church’s spiritual theology and what God has revealed to us through Scripture and Tradition. The more I’ve learned, the more I see how much I need to learn. As a service to my listeners and blog readers (that’s you!), I bring you some teaching on this subject by the late Dominican theologian, Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P., an expert in spiritual theology.
N.B.: This post is part 1 in a longer series I will be posting here devoted to the discernment of spirits, etc. And now, let’s hear from Father Aumann:
Signs of the Diabolical Spirit. We have already enumerated the signs of the divine spirit, but since the devil may disguise himself as a good spirit and even cause what appears to be authentic mystical phenomena, it is helpful to mention briefly the various signs of the diabolical spirit.
1. Spirit of falsity. The devil is the father of lies, but he cleverly conceals his deceit by half-truths and pseudo-mystical phenomena.
2. Morbid curiosity. This is characteristic of those who eagerly seek out the esoteric aspects of mystical phenomena or have a fascination for the occult or preternatural.
3. Confusion, anxiety, and deep depression.
4. Obstinacy. One of the surest signs of a diabolical spirit.
5. Constant indiscretion and a restless spirit. Those who constantly go to extremes, as in penitential exercises or apostolic activity; or neglect their primary obligations to do some personally chosen work.
6. Spirit of pride and vanity. Very anxious to publicize their gifts of grace and mystical experiences.
7. False humility. This is the disguise for their pride and self-love.
8. Despair, lack of confidence, and discouragement. A chronic characteristic that alternates with presumption, vain security, and un-‘ founded optimism.
9. Disobedience and hardness of heart.
10. Impatience in suffering and stubborn resentment.
11. Uncontrolled passions and strong inclination to sensuality, usually under the guise of mystical union.
12. Hypocrisy, simulation, and duplicity.
13. Excessive attachment to sensible consolations, particularly in their practice of prayer.
14. Lack of deep devotion to Jesus and Mary.
15. Scrupulous adherence to the letter of the law and fanatical zeal in promoting a cause. This characteristic readily opens the door to diabolical influence in reformers and demagogues.
Once the spiritual director is certain that a person is acting under the influence of a diabolical spirit, he should: (1) make the individual realize that he or she is a toy of the devil and must resist his influence; (2) encourage the individual to pray to God for the grace to overcome the devil; (3) advise the person to act quickly and with disdain for the devil as soon as the influence is perceived, performing the opposite from what is suggested or felt.
The Human Spirit
The signs of a purely human spirit have been described by Thomas à Kempis in Book 3, Chapter 54 of The Imitation of Christ. His words should be pondered carefully, for he explains the struggle between grace and the human spirit, wounded by sin and strongly inclined to self-love.
The human spirit is always inclined to its own satisfactions; it is a friend of pleasure and an enemy of suffering of any kind. It readily inclines to anything that is compatible with its own temperament, its personal tastes and caprices, or the satisfaction of self-love. It will not hear of humiliations, penance, renunciation, or mortification.
If any director or confessor goes against its inclinations, he is immediately branded as inept and incompetent. it seeks success, honors, applause, and pastimes. It is always a great promoter of anything that will arouse admiration or notoriety. In a word, the human spirit neither understands nor cares for anything except its own egoism.
It is sometimes difficult in practice to judge whether given manifestations proceed from the devil or from a purely human and egoistic spirit, but it is always relatively easy to distinguish between these two and the spirit of God. It will be possible in most cases, therefore, to determine that a given spirit could not possibly be from God and that it must be combatted, even if one is not sure whether it is in fact from the devil or the human, ego.
The following contrasts may serve as general rules for distinguishing between the diabolical and the human spirit. Natural impulses and inclinations are spontaneous; they can usually be traced to some natural cause or disposition; the stimulation of the senses acts upon, the interior powers, and they often persist in spite of prayer.
Diabolical impulse or suggestion, on the other hand, is usually violent and difficult to prevent; it arises unexpectedly or with the slightest provocation; a mental suggestion excites the senses and disappears as a rule with prayer. Self-denial and rectitude of intention are excellent remedies against the spirit of egoism.
In this respect the spiritual director and confessor will do well to keep in mind the general rule for discernment of spirits: if there is a possible natural or diabolical explanation for a given phenomenon, it cannot be presumed that it is supernatural in origin. The following are the principal doubtful reasons or situations:
1. To aspire to some other state in life after having made a prudent and deliberate selection for the existing state.
2. To be attracted to rare phenomena or to singular exercises not proper to one’s state in life. When God desires such things he will give unmistakable proof of his will; the test is obedience and humility.
3. An inclination to practice extreme corporal penances. God has demanded them of some souls, but this practice is not in the workings of ordinary providence.
4. A desire for sensible consolations in the practice of prayer or the exercise of the virtues.
5. The “gift of tears” or the strong inclination to concentrate on the sorrowful and penitential aspects of religion.
6. Exclusive devotion to some particular mystery or pious exercise, which easily leads to a distortion of orthodox theology.
7. Extraordinary favors, such as revelations, visions, stigmata, when they occur in a person of little sanctity. The extraordinary graces do not necessarily presuppose sanctity or even the state of grace, but God does not ordinarily grant these gifts except to his servants and friends.
By way of conclusion, we again warn directors and confessors to proceed with great caution in making judgments in matters involving the discernment of spirits. It is easy to make a mistake. In cases of extraordinary phenomena, it should be noted that, as a rule, when these things proceed from God, the soul first experiences great fear and humility and then peace and consolation. If these things come from the devil they often begin with
feelings of sensible consolation and satisfaction, but later they cause confusion, anxiety, and restlessness.
Lastly, apropos of the inclination some persons experience to change their state of life (and usually to go to a higher and stricter form of life), the director will bear in mind that it is quite possible that a grace is given by God but without God’s wanting the person actually to change one’s state in life.
For example, a priest who is actively engaged in the apostolate may experience a strong desire to spend more time in prayer and solitude. In trying to understand the reason for this strong inclination, he may erroneously judge that it is God’s will that he enter the Carthusians or the Trappists. Such is not necessarily the case, however, for it may be that the only thing that God is asking of the priest is that he be less involved in the whirlpool of activity and that he dedicate more time each day to prayer and recollection.
We would state the following as a general rule for the solution of such cases: if an individual has prayerfully and seriously selected the state of life in which he or she is, then he or she must present a serious positive cause for changing this state of life. Otherwise, the will of God is the present state of life. Another practical test is to see whether the individual is performing the duties of the present state in life with all fidelity; if not, the person should not even think of changing to another state. (To be continued . . .)