Knowing God's Voice
But on the third day, which was Tuesday, while he was praying, he began to recall his sins, and so went on thinking of his past sins, one after the other, as though one grew out of another, till he felt it was his bounden duty to confess them once again. As a sequel to these thoughts, he was seized with a disgust of the life he was leading and a desire to be done with it. It was our Lord’s way of awakening him as it were from sleep. As he now had some experience of the different spirits from the lessons he had received from God, he began to look about for the way in which that spirit had been able to take possession of him. He therefore made up his mind, which had become very clear on the matter, never to confess his past sins again, and from that day he remained free of those scruples, holding it a certainty that the Lord in His mercy had liberated him.
Besides his seven hours of prayer, he busied himself with certain souls who came looking for him to discuss their spiritual interests. All the rest of the day he spent thinking of divine things, those especially which he had read or meditated on that day. But when he went to bed he received great illuminations and spiritual consolations which made him lose much of the time he had set aside for sleep, and that was not much. He looked into this matter a number of times and gave it some thought. Having set aside so much time for dealing with God, and besides that even all the rest of the day, he began to doubt whether these illuminations came from the good spirit. He concluded that he had better not have anything to do with them, and give the time determined on to sleep. And this he did.
The atmosphere in a Jesuit house of studies at the end of the semester can be pretty lonely. Everyone is holed up in their rooms writing papers or preparing for exams. You might not even see certain members of the community, depending upon their study and writing schedule, for days! Such was the case at the end of my first semester of philosophy studies. It was a particularly stressful time and I, of course, was holed up in my room doing my work. As I sat at my desk, a random thought entered my mind: You have no friends here. For a moment I almost believed it, and allowed myself to sink into despair. But then I stopped to reflect. Was this true? Was this something God was telling me? My head cleared. No, it wasn’t true. This was the voice of the evil spirit, taking advantage of me in my stressful, weakened state. Once I identified this temptation for what it was, any power it might have had over me was gone.
The experiences that Saint Ignatius describes in these passages are similar experiences. Saint Ignatius is able to recognize that what might otherwise be considered good spiritual experiences—sorrow for sin, illuminations and spiritual consolations—can in fact be temptations of the evil spirit. He recognizes this because of their fruits. The first prevents him from accepting God’s forgiveness. The second denies him what little sleep he has allowed himself during these days of prayer, spiritual conversation and fasting. Here we see the early insights into what Ignatius will call “the discernment of spirits.” Sometimes it can be as simple as just asking the question: Would God say this to me? Would God wish that these consequences should arise? Other times, it can be a little more complicated and require further reflection, as we will see.