The other day, I received an email message asking for advice on discernment. The gist of the question can be stated pretty easily:
How does one discern the nature of a spiritual experience? That is, does one merely take the experience 'on faith' or should one reflect on whether it is some sort of psychological coping mechanism?I suspect many of us have had the experience of a profound spiritual awakening and a sense of calling, a new-found resolve, a new vigor. In the wake of this experience, after time has passed and our ardor has cooled a bit, we're left wondering: did I feel this at all or did I manufacture it? Is this a movement of the Spirit or is it an early sign of psychosis?
Without a doubt, I'm far from a spiritual guru. Yet I do know something of discernment and I tried my best to share with my correspondent something that might help him. The slightly edited message is as follows:
You're raising the question each spiritual seeker must confront: is what I am feeling authentic or auto-generated? Is this an address from the Other who summons me or is it some sort of coping mechanism I am subconsciously producing from the heart of my psyche, some unseen depth working to delude, rather than illuminate, me?
My advice is going to be deceptively simple. And it's this: are you feeling more whole, more alive, more fully you? Within the Ignatian spiritual tradition, the fundamental impulse is to discern whether something brings you to greater life. Let me elaborate briefly.
When we look at our lives, we can point to times when we've felt free and joyful and, sadly, times when we've felt shut-in or closed down. Things that we sometimes think as momentarily pleasurable - pick your poison here! - never satisfy us fully, leaving us darker and desolate. Yet, at other times, we hit a groove, a "flow," when we know we're firing on all cylinders and are, at that moment, most fully who we are capable of being. Those are moments of grace, moments of being "Fully alive."
So, what you'll want to sit with is simply: are you experiencing yourself fully alive? Even if it scares you - and fullness of life can be overwhelming - do you feel enlivened? Christians believe in a life-giving God, a God of the Resurrection who conquers death. This is a God whose friendship in Jesus Christ is effervescent. If you are feeling more alive, more grounded, more as though your center is located not in your own self-interest but in the interest of the Kingdom of God...I'd trust that. Don't make any snap decisions, but be aware of what you're feeling.
There's no incantation, no rune, able to read the shape of the human heart. There is only patient trust and faith that God will work with whatever we offer up for divine guidance. That you are asking the ultimate questions, that you are even willing to open your heart is an act of vulnerability and grace. Jesus Christ, the crucified yet Risen One, does not tell us that discipleship is easy. He tells us, through the resurrection, that discipleship is the way to follow the one who is truly human. Trust in this, keep your heart open, and prepare yourself for a great adventure. As a wise man once said, "You can't be a friend of Jesus and an enemy of the Cross." Hold true to this and you will hold to the peace of friendship with the Lord who gives love and life.
This is not, please let me say, meant in any way to supplant or replace the need for a good spiritual director or your own prayer. What I've shared is no formula; it is, rather, a style of praying through one's experiences. The Christian believer must always return to the central confession of faith, that God is as Jesus reveals God to be. Jesus as he taught. Jesus as he accepted death. Jesus as the forgiving victim who brought peace, not vengeance, from the grave. Jesus who sends us us the Spirit that we might grow more alive within him.