Why bother with spiritual discernment?

Discovering how our hearts have been broken allows the divine physician to heal us so we can produce fruit that endures to eternity

By Father William Watson

 Banner in Catholic school
Seventh-grade students Sophia Elliott (front), Allison Schemm, Sheila Hendrickson, Mikyhial Clarke, and Eric Acevedo walk by the schools banner at Pope John Paul II School in Wilmington, Del., April 13. (CNS photo/Don Blake, The Dialog)


Some who have followed past columns in this series may wonder about the practical importance of spiritual discernment in our daily lives. Does the spiritual battle between the divine-inspirer and the enemy of human nature make any difference in how I live my life?

A story reported in the news media might help. A teenager won a court case, forcing a public high school to remove a banner in the school’s gym that referred to “Our Heavenly Father.” The student, a baptized Roman Catholic, stopped believing in God at age 10 when the student’s mother fell ill.

A wounded, broken heart
“I had always been told that if you pray, God will always be there when you need him,” the student said. “And it didn’t happen for me, and I doubted it had happened for anybody else. So yeah, I think that was just like the last step, and after that I just really didn’t believe any of it.”

Much of the media framed the story as a legal and constitutional fight to prevent state-sponsored religion. But another plotline can be detected in this story. The student is opposing religious expression because of deep childhood wounds.

At the bottom of this story is a deeply wounded heart. The student’s mother fell ill and “God did not listen” to a prayer for healing. If we look only on the surface, we see a determined and fearless youth standing up against the wrath of classmates and townspeople to defend constitutional rights.

This may be the beginning of a lifelong crusade, and the enemy of human nature will urge this person on in this fight, distracted from the interior wound so it cannot be healed. And so it is with all of us.

Unless we “wake up” to our spiritual nature, we are blind to our emotional and intellectual defense systems. The defenses of pride and their adult intellectual justifications conceal the fear and pain of a 10-year-old child’s broken heart.

Three lines of attack
The enemy of human nature uses three principal attack strategies to obstruct our spiritual progress. All three use elements of our life story as weapons against us: our unconscious fears, our psychological and spiritual vulnerabilities and our long-standing addictions.

Ignatius learned the three attack strategies during his own conversion process. These strategies are designed to confound, discourage and deceive individuals committed to spiritual growth. The primary weapon in all three strategies is fear.

The first strategy is direct fear and “panic attacks.” If you stay committed to the process of uprooting vices, sins, addictions and destructive habits from your life and heart, you may suffer waves of fear and panic. These are meant to turn you away from the healing process.

Those committed to growing in holiness will also confront a second strategy: narcissism and false values masquerading as true love and authentic values. The enemy can portray our narcissism as authentic love and vices as positive values, but these false loves are only mirages for our parched and anxious hearts. Instead of providing lasting peace, these illusions merely intensify our longings, self-deception and self-preoccupation.

The third line of attack is directed at the spiritual and psychological wounds that make you most vulnerable. The enemy’s purpose is to keep your emotional and intellectual defenses firmly in place, hardening your judgments. This keeps your conscience dark and your true human nature hidden. This third strategy is perhaps the most insidious. This is the way the enemy manipulated the young “atheist,” and it is often the way the enemy of human nature manipulates us as well.

Fruit that endures to eternity
Like the teenage crusader, many people fighting apparently noble causes might only be terrified, wounded children running away from their pain. One thinks of St. Paul’s attacks on the church before his conversion. At the opening of the Acts of the Apostles, Saul witnessed the murder of Stephen, and went on to crusade against all followers of the Way. (see Acts 9:1-2)

The enemy of human nature manipulated Saul’s anger, cloaking his homicidal rage in religious justifications. Fear was likely at the root of Saul’s rage. It is possible that fear was also a driving force in St. Ignatius’ life when, against the advice of others, he engaged in a futile battle that nearly ended his life.

Much of the violence perpetrated between persons, groups and countries in our own day is generated by wounded hearts seeking revenge for their suffering (consciously or otherwise).

In your own discernment, observe how the enemy of human nature instigates intellectual arguments, fosters a sense of injustice and promotes defiance against legitimate authority. Ask the Lord, “What motivates my crusade (or crusades)? Where do I hurt?” Ask the Lord to help you heal, receive forgiveness and forgive others so that you may spend the energy of your life producing fruit that endures to eternity.  

Jesuit Father William M. Watson is the founder of Seattle’s Sacred Story Institute (www.sacredstory.net). Read past columns here.

Northwest Catholic - June 2014