Pope's teachings

Affections and spiritual discernment

How important are the affections in the spiritual life, and how are they to be considered in the examination of conscience and in prayer? The Pope has dedicated his Wednesday audiences in recent months to this topic, not from the perspective of the spiritual director or companion (except for the last catechesis), but from the perspective of self-knowledge.

Ramiro Pellitero-January 7, 2023-Reading time: 8 minutes

According to the Spanish dictionary, to discern means to distinguish something from something else, especially in the field of the human spirit. That is, in the spiritual realm. In Christianity, the discernment is usually linked to the process that precedes human actions, in an attempt to act in conformity with the will of God. It is often associated with the virtue of prudence ("right reason in acting"), even if, in the most popular meaning, this term simply sounds like precaution or caution; in reality, prudence can also lead us to act promptly and boldly, and always with justice and generosity. 

Discern to decide

In his first catechesis (cf. General Audience, 31-VIII-2022), Francis explained that discernment concerns us all, because it has to do with life choices or decisions, most of them quite ordinary (food, clothing, something in relation to work or others). 

Both in common life and in the teachings of the Gospel we are taught the importance of making the right decisions. This involves knowledge, experience, affection and will, as well as effort (because life does not give us everything for granted) and freedom. We can choose because we are not animals, but that is also why we can make mistakes in our choices. 

The Pope places himself in the perspective of anthropology and ethics, which requires knowledge of oneself and of what is good to do here and now. From the Christian point of view, discernment requires above all a filial relationship with God, but also friendship with Jesus Christ and the light of the Holy Spirit.

The paths of the heart

On the second Wednesday (cf. General Audience, 7-IX-2022), Francis gave the example of Ignatius of Loyola, who knew how to recognize the passage of God with him. 

Discernment is a help to recognize the signs with which God makes himself found in unforeseen situations, even unpleasant ones; or, on the contrary, to perceive something that makes the path worse.  

Within this framework, the Pope's teachings can be divided into three parts: the elements of discernment; a special consideration of desolation and consolation; and a third part on verification, vigilance and aids in discernment.

The elements of discernment

Francis referred first of all to familiarity with the Lord (cfr. General Audience, 28-IX-2022), above all to the trust that we must manifest to him through prayer (cfr. General Audience, 28-IX-2022). In prayer we must treat him - he proposes - with simplicity and familiarity, as a friend.. 

"This familiarity overcomes the fear or doubt that his will is not for our good, a temptation that sometimes crosses our thoughts and makes the heart restless and insecure, or even bitter.". This is the secret of the saints. Often the obstacles to following the Lord are above all affective, of the heart. In this sense, sadness or fear before God are signs of distance from God, as we see in the case of the rich young man in the Gospel (cf. Mt 9:17ff.). But Jesus does not force him to follow him.

"Discerning what is going on inside us". -The successor of Peter points out. "it is not easy, because appearances are deceiving, but familiarity with God can gently dissolve doubts and fears, making our life more and more receptive to his 'kindly light', according to the beautiful expression of St. John Henry Newman".

He adds that, just as two spouses who live together for a long time end up resembling each other, prayer makes us similar to Jesus. For this we need closeness to him, an "affective closeness," treating him as the faithful friend who never abandons us, and not only with words, but also with gestures and good works. 

Knowing yourself and your desires

Secondly, the Pope spoke about knowing oneself (cf. General Audience, Oct. 5, 2022). He points out how at the root of spiritual doubts and vocational crises there is often a lack of knowledge of ourselves, of our personality and of our deepest desires; for "almost all of us hide behind a mask, not only in front of others, but also when we look in the mirror." (Thomas H. Green). 

Discernment is necessary - the Pope points out in terms of our digital culture - in order to "to know the passwords of our heart, to which we are most sensitive, to protect ourselves from those who present themselves with persuasive words to manipulate us, and also to recognize what is really important to us, distinguishing it from the fashions of the moment or flashy and superficial slogans".". The truth is that we often let ourselves be carried away by feelings provoked in this way. 

For all this, the examination of conscience helps. And it does not refer to the examination prior to sacramental confession (to discover the sins of which we are to be accused), but to the general examination of conscience at the end of the day. "General examination of conscience of the day: what has happened in my heart this day? A lot has happened.... Which ones? Why? What traces did they leave in the heart??".

The third "ingredient" of discernment is the desire (cf. General Audience, October 12, 2022). Francis takes this term not in the sense of the desires of the moment, but of its etymology: de-sidusIt is important to know what our desires are and how they are, and to make sure that they are great and operative desires, because sometimes we remain in complaints (cf. Jn 5:6 ff), which rather dwarf or atrophy the desire.

Reading one's own life

In the fourth place, Francis dwelt on the importance, for discernment, of knowing "the book of one's own life"(cf. General Audience, October 19, 2022). If we do this, we will be able to detect so many "toxic" or pessimistic elements that hold us back (I am worthless, everything is going badly for me, etc.), perhaps with the help of someone who can also help us to recognize our qualities, the good things that God sows in us. 

It is good to have a "narrative approach", not to stop at a specific action, but to include it in a context: "Where does this thought come from? What I am feeling now, where does it come from? Where does what I am thinking now take me? Have I had it before? Is it something new that comes to me now, or have I encountered it before? Why is it more insistent than others? What does life want to tell me by this?"  

Desolation and consolation

In a second part of the catechesis, Francis went on to deal with "the matter" of discernment, focusing on the binomial desolation-consolation. First, the desolation (cf. General Audience, October 26, 2022) or spiritual sadness.

Knowing how to manage spiritual sadness

Desolation has been defined as a "darkness of the soul" (St. Ignatius of Loyola), as a "sadness" that does not have to be bad. Sometimes it has to do with remorse for something bad we have done, and it is an invitation to take the road. In these cases, as St. Thomas points out, it is a "pain of the soul", a warning, like a red light, to stop. 

At other times," Francis explains, "it can be a temptation with which the devil wants to discourage us on the path of good, he wants to shut us up within ourselves and make us do nothing for others: to paralyze us in our work or study, in prayer, in persevering in our vocation. Jesus gives us the example of how to reject these temptations with firm resolve (cf. Mt 3:14-15; 4:11-11; 16:21-23). 

In any case, we should ask ourselves about the root of this sadness (cf. General Audience, November 16, 2012), knowing that God never abandons us and that with him we can overcome every temptation (cf. 1 Cor 10:13). But do not make hasty decisions in such situations. 

We must learn and take advantage of this desolation. "Indeed." -If there is not a little dissatisfaction, a little healthy sadness, a healthy capacity to live in solitude and to be with ourselves without running away, we run the risk of always remaining on the surface of things and never getting in touch with the center of our existence," the Pope warns. 

Therefore, the Pope advises, it is not good to remain in a "state of indifference" that would make us inhuman to ourselves and to others. A "healthy restlessness" as experienced by the saints is good. 

On the other hand, desolation gives us the possibility to grow, to mature in our capacity to give ourselves to others freely, without seeking our own interest or our own well-being. In prayer we must learn to be with the Lord, while we continue to seek him, perhaps in the midst of that temptation, or that emptiness that we experience. But without leaving prayer, because his answer always comes. 

True and false consolations 

Consolation is also present in the spiritual life (cf. General Audience, November 23, 2010), in the form of lasting joy, peace and harmony, which strengthen hope and fill us with the audacity to serve others, as Edith Stein writes.

But we must distinguish spiritual consolation from false consolations, perhaps noisy and showy, but which are passing enthusiasms that are sought for their own sake (out of self-interest), instead of seeking the Lord. Discernment will help us to distinguish true consolations (which bring deep and lasting peace) from false ones. In the latter, evil can appear from the beginning, for example, in the form of evasion of one's duties; at other times it appears in the middle, perhaps by seeking ourselves; or at the end, because it leads us to treat others badly.

For this reason, Francis points out, we must learn to distinguish the "goods" that may be apparent, in order to seek the true goods that make us grow. For all this, it is necessary to examine one's conscience every day. what happened today. With attention to the consequences of our affections.

Verification, monitoring, discernment aids

In a third part of these catecheses, Francis invites us to look at the phase after decisions have been made, in order to confirm whether or not they have been adequate (cf. General Audience, 7 December 2022). We have already seen the importance of the passage of time in this, and also the observation of whether these decisions bring us lasting peace.

For example, "if I make the decision to dedicate half an hour more to prayer, and then I realize that I live better the other moments of the day, I am more serene, less anxious, I perform my work with more care and pleasure, even the relationships with some difficult people become easier...: all these are important signs that support the goodness of the decision taken".. The spiritual life is circular: the goodness of a choice is beneficial for all areas of our life. Because it is participation in God's creativity. 

There are other signs that can confirm whether it was a good decision: to consider the decision as a response of love to the Lord (not born of fear or obligation); to "feel in one's own place" (he gives the example of the two points in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican, from where the columns are aligned), that is, to grow in order, integration and energy; to remain inwardly free in that situation (and not having an obsessive or possessive attitude), respecting and venerating God with confidence.   

Watching so as not to fall asleep

After the decision, the attitude of vigilance is also important (cf. General audience, 14-XII-2022), so as not to become drowsy, not to get used to it, not to let ourselves be carried away by routine (cf. Lk 12:35-37). The successor of Peter stresses that this is necessary to ensure perseverance, consistency and the good fruit of our decisions. 

Those who become too sure of themselves lose humility and, through lack of vigilance of heart, can let the devil back in (cf. Mt 12:44ff). This can be linked, Francis points out, to bad pride, to the presumption of being just, of being good, of being at ease; to excessive confidence in oneself and not in the grace of God. We have lost the fear of falling and with it humility... and we end up losing everything.

In short, this is the advice: "Watch over your heart, because vigilance is a sign of wisdom, it is a sign above all of humility, because we are afraid of falling and humility is the master path of the Christian life".

The Gospel in your pocket

At the General Audience of December 21, 2012, the Bishop of Rome proposed some aids for discernment, which seems difficult or complicated, but which is necessary. 

The principal aids are the Word of God and the doctrine of the Church. The Word of God is found in Sacred Scripture (especially in the assiduous reading of the Gospels) with the help of the Holy Spirit. 

This is why Francis insists, as he has done on other occasions: "Let's take the Gospel, let's take the Bible in our hands: five minutes a day, no more. Carry a Gospel in your pocket, in your bag, and when you travel, take it and read a little during the day, letting the Word of God come close to your heart.". 

He also points out, in accordance with the experience of the saints, the importance of contemplating the Lord's passion and seeing it in the Crucifix; recourse to the Virgin Mary; asking the Holy Spirit for light (which is "discernment in action") and treating him with trust, together with the Father and the Son.

In the last catechesis the Pope pointed out the importance of spiritual guidance and of making oneself known in order to know oneself and to walk in the spiritual life.

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