Forty Weeks ~ Sacred Story
Entering the School of Discernment
1 I will visualize the week ahead and imagine where and when I will find a technology-free zone for my times of prayer. As before, I resolve to spend no more and no less than 15-minutes in each formal prayer session.
2 I realize I am developing a deep, personal relationship with Christ. My life-long process of praying Sacred Story prayer is a commitment to my relationship with Christ. As St. Ignatius found so fruitful, I will enter my prayer at least once daily.
3 This week I enter the school of spiritual discernment. It is essential for my progress in Sacred Story to understand how the spiritual world works. The lessons on discernment will span twelve weeks. My goal is to lay a foundation to understand Ignatius’ guidelines for discerning the difference between the “voice” of God and the “voice” of the enemy of human nature. I will resolve not to become discouraged. The school of discernment requires spiritual exercise. Learning to distinguish the difference between the voice of God and the voice of the enemy of human nature takes practice. Most importantly, it requires listening, time, trial and error, prayer, patience and God’s grace.
I will awaken to the present moment.
I will awaken to my spiritual nature.
I will not make any decisions based on fear.
I will practice Sacramental Reconciliation monthly.
Focus Affirmation for Week Twenty-Eight
I will say this affirmation aloud once daily:
The insights and graces I need to move forward in life’s journey
unfold at the right time.
Read this at the beginning of the week
Cultivate the interior freedom to continue pondering the reflections as they link to your own life. Understand them as an essential component to living your Sacred Story prayer.
Awakening to Sacred Story Discernment Guidelines
As we begin discernment, continue with your daily prayer disciplines and the five meditations of Sacred Story. The materials for this third part of Sacred Story are not new elements to integrate into the five-part prayer discipline you are practicing. The discernment lessons are designed for you to learn more about how the spiritual world works. They are also an invitation for you to comprehend more fully the spiritual influences that are shaping your Sacred Story. Resist the temptation to incorporate these lessons on spiritual discernment into the structure of your prayer. See them more as essential guidelines that will help you enter more fully into the daily disciplines of Sacred Story.
If you are praying the Sacred Story prayer faithfully, you will naturally encounter the dynamics taught in these guidelines on spiritual discernment. There is a reason for this. If you think and pray about Creation, Presence, Memory, Mercy and Eternity in your Sacred Story every day, the spiritual world awakens to you. The God of Grace who seeks to support you with Divine inspirations, and the enemy of your human nature who seeks to disrupt your life with counter-inspirations, will both become apparent. If you seek daily to grow in faith, you will consciously encounter the spiritual world that supports your growth and the spiritual world that wants to disrupt your growth. While both forces have always been present in your life’s story, you may have never before consciously noticed their activity.
These lessons on discernment will help you navigate these two spiritual currents so you can more readily move forward in your Sacred Story. If you do not now understand everything you are reading, you will one day understand everything in these lessons if you remain faithful to your prayer disciplines in the context of practicing your faith.
The first lesson examines God’s intentional creation of human nature as a unity of spirit and body. We also examine why God willed the form of our human nature and created us as embodied spirits. Read the lesson several times this week and reflect on it. These truths need to be rediscovered and consciously reflected upon to help bring clarity to our lives. We are all influenced by the secularism of our age, to a greater or lesser degree, and need to wake up to what is “real.” Because what is “real” may seem like spiritual fairy-tales. But the principles of discernment we present here are the time-tested doctrines of our faith. If you do not believe or accept these fundamental Christian truths, Ignatius’ discernment guidelines will make no sense whatsoever.
Church Tradition affirms that human nature, as a unity of spirit and body, was willed by God. We are human because our physical body is animated by an immortal, rational soul. No other creature is gifted with a rational soul to animate its physical body. Why did God will our human nature as a unity of physical body and rational soul? So God could be intimate with us. God communicates with our human nature by means of our spiritual soul. Complete intimacy with God is our destiny, our glory and the purpose of our creation. Only a being with a spirit can know and love. A spirit’s two chief faculties are the intellect (which knows) and the will or heart (which loves). Human beings are spiritual since humans both know and love.
Church Tradition also affirms that God created human beings as immortal beings. This is known as the condition of original holiness or original justice. The state of original justice means that the physical body and spiritual soul of our first parents was in complete harmony. The state of original justice afforded our first parents complete self-mastery. That a state of sinlessness allowed all our thoughts, words and deeds to be in complete harmony with the Divine.
God is love. Love always offers a choice to accept or reject Divine love. If the woman and man cannot freely reject God’s offer of life and love, God violates the freedom of the beings made in the Divine image. Yet God would not have allowed this freedom if it would undo his plan for humankind. Our promise is that Jesus’ Redemption will open a new heavens and a new earth with more blessing and glory than the first creation.
Our first parents were knowing beings (Homo Sapiens). They knew themselves, God and the purpose of creation’s gift. They were the apex of God’s creation and were given dominion to act as co-creators with God. To be co-creators means they were given power to cultivate and care for the earth and to name all living creatures (Gen 2:15-20). As woman and man, they have the power to give birth to other beings that will have an eternal destiny. Their role as co-creators can be accomplished with total integrity and justice because of their complete self-mastery. The triple corruption (1 Jn 2:16) of human nature “that subjugates us to the pleasures of the senses, covetousness for earthly goods, and self-assertion, contrary to the dictates of reason” had not yet poisoned God’s plan for humanity and creation.
The Tradition affirms that sin entered into creation originally from a spiritual entity, Lucifer, and the other spirits who irrevocably rejected God. Thus, sin first enters into God’s creation in the spiritual realm, through a spiritual act of the will. It was an act of disobedience. Lucifer is the embodiment of sin which is hatred of God and God’s creation. Lucifer’s hate, pride and envy seek to destroy everything God creates. Lucifer operates through a gateway from his spiritual realm to the material realm so as to infect creation and activate its destruction. His gateway is the spiritual nature of our first parents. The perfect expression of hatred toward God is to destroy the beautiful, innocent immortals created to share in God’s life.
Lucifer’s malevolent design starts by sabotaging the unity of human nature as a perfect relationship of body and spirit. His seduction begins by inviting persons to worship themselves instead of God. From this perversion of God’s design, all other relationships will shatter. Lucifer’s hope is that the virus of self-love—of narcissism—and the rejection of God’s love that it manifests, will eventually evolve to destroy humanity and creation itself.
The time of paradise was real, and the plan to destroy paradise was also real. The plan to destroy creation required separating our first parents from their total intimacy with God. Here is the allegorical description in Genesis of the Original Sin that describes this heartrending primordial event:
This account is an allegory, a symbolic description of a real event that Tradition calls the Original Sin. We will never know the exact context for the Original Sin that ruptured God’s plan for humanity and creation itself. What is Sin?
Every sin, in its essence, is a perversion and erosion of the perfect love and relationship that God gave to human persons as gift, life and truth. And every sin in evil’s evolution mimics the Original Sin. Each sin—whether it be a thought, word or deed—spreads the virus of anti-Christ—anti-relationship as narcissism—to destroy human nature made in the Divine image. Creation’s perversion and destruction is the goal of evil’s architect—the one St. Ignatius calls the enemy of human nature.And we cannot know the way the enemy of human nature insinuated itself into the consciousness of our first parents to get them to reject God and to make themselves gods, “masters of the universe.”
Yet the Genesis account provides valuable spiritual and theological material for reflection about the nature of temptation and the horrifying fall from grace that has evolved over time because of God’s displacement from the center of human hearts. We see it in insatiable greed and grinding poverty; personal hatred and fratricidal war; the violation of the innocent in abuse and human trafficking; the legal murdering of children in the womb; the discarding of the weak, the vulnerable and the aged; the lonely and despairing exploited by predators of all sorts; intellectual and scientific arrogance that subverts human nature and the created order; self-serving political and financial collectives whose power is destabilizing and destroying families, nations, and creation itself.
Dissecting the story, we can imaginatively enter into this frightening and grief-filled catastrophe and see it with new eyes, through the relational paradigm: the plan of human nature’s enemy to destroy the perfect ordering in Love of all relationships, and to destroy God’s creation.1
1. Violation of Obedience and the birth of a divided conscience
In the state of original justice, the woman and the man were completely intimate with God. Their spiritual nature was ordered solely to the Divine and this gave them self-mastery over their lower physical nature. They also had the gift of immortality because they listened only to God. The Latin root for obey means “to listen deeply.” Lucifer inserts himself between our first parents and God. He did this by engaging them in seemingly innocent conversation. They violated obedience to God by elevating the voice of Lucifer to a status equal to God. This foreshadowed unspeakable tragedy and loss. Turning from God to listen and speak to Lucifer constitutes the first stage of Original Sin.
2. Violation of Chastity and the birth of illegitimate desires
In a state of original justice and with trusting innocence, the man and woman obeyed God, knowing the truth of their being, God and creation. Engaged in conversation with the prince of lies, they were invited to see with new eyes what before held no interest, or incited any desire. But now, their hearts (consciences) were divided. They could not properly reason nor could they maintain self-mastery over their physical nature. Cut off from God, their spiritual nature experienced the lust of self-assertion. They now contemplate (see with new eyes) an illegitimate desire opposed both to God and to their own human nature. All illegitimate desires are described in Tradition as appetites linked to the seven capital vices (pride, envy, anger, gluttony, greed, sloth, gluttony). This is the second stage of Original Sin.
3. Violation of Poverty and the taking of what does not belong to me
Their total intimacy with God severed, the woman and the man had new desires and contemplated an electrifying, exciting and seemingly glamorous choice: to be like gods, knowing good and evil. God had told them that they would die if they ate this fruit. But Lucifer soothed with lies to trick them into taking what they must have known “in their hearts” was wrong. The third stage in Original Sin is this: to experiment and find out for yourself who is telling the truth. And so our first parents took what they did not need and what did not belong to them. Devastation, heartache, and unspeakable tragedies followed.
By choice and/or habit, the heart—conscience—is distant from God. I think I am following my own plans, but I am easily and subtly influenced to choose against God and my authentic self. I disobey my conscience. This lack of obedience (“deep listening”) begins with my self-assertion. I make myself the final arbiter of truth. I break relationship with God and become independent of God, serving self over God.
In this self-assertion, I open myself to all manner of illegitimate desires and I entertain them. All these illegitimate desires are in their essence, perversion and erosion of authentic relationships. Illegitimate desires are deemed “objectively wrong” by the Commandments, the Gospel and Tradition, but I judge them appropriate options because “I decide” what I will and will not do. In so doing I violate chastity. Violations of chastity are perversions and erosions of perfect relationship.
I move from considering options to experimenting and trying what I like because “it’s my life.” In this I violate poverty by taking what does not rightfully belong to me. Violations of poverty are perversions and erosions of relationship because I take what I do not need or is not mine.
Before the incarnate God-man Jesus begins His public ministry, He confronts this triple sin of our first parents. He confronts the temptation of Lucifer to turn the stones into bread. In this He confronts the violation of poverty by refusing to take what is not offered Him by the Father: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’ (Mt 4:4).
Next He confronts the violation of chastity and illegitimate desires by refusing to gain attention by plunging from the temple parapet: “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’” (Mt 4:7).
Finally, He confronts the violation of obedience and the divided consciences it wrought by refusing to serve Lucifer and rule on this earth: “At this, Jesus said to him, ‘Get away, Satan! It is written: “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.”’ (Mt 4:10)
Sacred Story prayer journey challenges you to awaken to the voice of God in your own unique history, calling you to the poverty, chastity and obedience that can bring peace and repair sin’s damage. To do this effectively, it is essential to learn the language of discernment. The Discernment Guidelines presented in the coming weeks are modeled on St. Ignatius’ classic Rules for spiritual discernment. For thirty years Ignatius made decisions based on self-assertion, with little thought of God. Both the desire and the choice to advance spiritually were totally new for him.
Ignatius’ awakening forced him into uncharted terrain where he did not know how to navigate. He was not spiritually literate. He did not know himself—his authentic self—because he lived controlled by sensual lusts and the desires of riches, honors of the world and pride. All are values readily celebrated by our culture today. God instructed Ignatius in discernment during his conversion journey. In his awakening process he writes: “what is the new life we are living?” In this phrase he was discovering what Nicodemus was told by Jesus: Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (Jn 3:3)
Ignatius, in being born from above, was reconnected by grace to his spiritual nature and to God. He was awakening to realities he could not have known previously. He was learning that there were “two voices” and learning how to distinguish between them. By understanding the discernment guidelines that God revealed to Ignatius, we can awaken more easily to our authentic human nature. To prepare ourselves, we will learn a new language of discernment and discover in our own life history the two voices “inspiring” us—one voice working to help us unite our spiritual and physical nature, and one voice working to keep us separated from God and divided within ourselves. You will learn how to distinguish the voice of God from the voice of the enemy of human nature in your thoughts, words and deeds.
But they soon forgot all he had done;
they had no patience for his plan.
In the desert they gave in to their cravings,
tempted God in the wasteland.
They exchanged their glory
for the image of a grass-eating bull.
They forgot the God who had saved them,
who had done great deeds in Egypt,
They sacrificed to demons their own sons and daughters,
Shedding innocent blood,
the blood of their own sons and daughters,
Whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan,
desecrating the land with bloodshed.
They defiled themselves by their actions,
became adulterers by their conduct.
Save us, Lord, our God;
gather us from among the nations
That we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in praising you.
(Ps 13-14, 20-21,38-39,47)
For Augustine, the problem was the will, not the body. He came to define Original Sin as narcissism, the turning of the will “to live according to oneself” (secundum se vivere). Here is his classic account from On the City of God, Book 14:
“(13) Moreover, our first parents fell openly into the sin of disobedience only because, secretly, they had begun to be guilty. Actually, their bad deed of their bad will was nothing else than pride. For ‘pride is the beginning of all sin’ (Sir 10:13). And what is pride but an appetite for inordinate exaltation? Now exaltation is inordinate when the souls cuts itself off from the very Source to which it should keep close and somehow makes itself—and thus becomes—an end in itself. This takes place when the soul becomes inordinately pleased with itself, and such self-pleasing occurs when the soul falls away from the unchangeable Good which ought to please itself. Now this falling away is the soul’s own doing, for if the will had merely remained firm in the love of that higher immutable Good which lighted its mind into knowledge and warmed its will into love, it would not have turned away in search of satisfaction in itself and, by so doing, have lost that light and warmth. And thus Eve would not have believed that the serpent’s lie was true, nor would Adam have preferred the will of his wife to the will of God or have supposed this transgression of God’s command was venial when he refused to abandon the partner of his life even if it meant a partnership of sin.
Our first parents, then, must have already fallen before they could do the evil deed, before they could commit the sin of eating the forbidden fruit. For such bad fruit could come only from a bad tree. That the tree became bad was contrary to its nature, because such a condition could come about only because of a defect of the will—and a defect is whatever goes against nature. Notice, however, that such worsening by reason of a defect is possible only in a nature that had been created out of nothing. In a word, a nature is a nature because it is something made by God, but a nature falls away from That Which Is because the nature was made out of nothing.”
William Harmless, SJ, Augustine In His Own Words (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 351-2.