I was listening to a lecture recently on St. Ignatius’ Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, which offer ways to interpret the alternating states of consolation (e.g. faith, hope, charity, joy, peace, gratitude) and desolation (e.g. anxiety, fear, sloth, despondency, temptation) that people striving for holiness typically experience in the spiritual life. The speaker was focusing on Rule 13, in which Ignatius asserts the importance of not keeping struggles, sins and temptations secret. In Ignatius’ own words:
…when the enemy of human nature [i.e. the Devil] brings his wiles and persuasions to the just soul, he wants and desires that they be received and kept in secret; but when one reveals them to his good Confessor or to another spiritual person that knows his deceits and evil ends, it is very grievous to [the enemy], because he gathers, from his manifest deceits being discovered, that he will not be able to succeed with his wickedness begun.
The speaker argued for the crucial importance of having someone to whom you can reveal your inner struggles and trials, who is either a trained spiritual director, or an experienced priestly Confessor who knows how to recognize the signs associated with Ignatius’ discernment rules.
To find such an informed person can be a tall order to fill, and, while we should pray that God leads us to such a person when we need it, the more important point is to have some trustworthy soul to whom we can confide our lives. Orthodox theologian Fr. Tom Hopko, who counsels a similar practice of “baring one’s thoughts” to another person of faith, is not as concerned that the trusted person be an expert in the spiritual life, but that the one to whom you choose to speak at least be striving to be a faithful disciple and be entirely trustworthy. In his own words,
The person should open their life fully to at least one other trustworthy person, telling absolutely everything, without editing or hiding anything: their thoughts, dreams, temptations, actions, sins, fears, anxieties, etc…without this, one is dangerously subject to prelest [spiritual delusion] and all the deceits of the Evil One who thrives on isolation, secrecy and self-direction…and as St. Symeon says, it’s better to “be called a disciple of a disciple rather than to live by your own devices and gather the worthless fruits of your own will.”
Only days after this lecture, I myself experienced this precise pattern in a personal temptation that I found myself, for a time, mired in. I could not clearly see it, or see out of it, and was sorely tempted to keep it to myself, mostly for reasons of pride and thinking I could tough it out and go it alone. The core of this particular temptation was preventing me from carrying out my teaching work well. Several days into this, I had the fortunate opportunity to sit with a spiritual director here in Omaha to pick his brain on all-things-spiritual (this is largely what I now find myself doing in life: stealing wisdom from sages and then sharing it freely). I initially had no intention of making it a personal conversation with him, but at some point I decided to casually raise the topic of my general struggle to see what he might say. Long story made short, as I revealed this “trial” bit by bit, moving from “what if someone..” to “I’m…”, things at once grew very clear to me, and I immediately and unexpectedly experienced a bright clarity of insight into the subtle and destabilizing temptation that underlay the struggle.
What a good and patient listener he was! He kindly offered me “with reverence” some very keen diagnostic and prescriptive insights into what was at work in me, and as I listened to them and implemented them, the destructive temptation at once lost its force. It was wonderfully humbling! After leaving that meeting, I felt newly strengthened to face the same underlying weakness that will, most likely, always remain (2 Cor. 12:9!). But I was able to face it now in a manner that led me toward hope and not despair. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says so eloquently, weaknesses “persist in man [to] summon him to spiritual battle,” but whereas God empowers us to engage in such paschal combat in a manner that grows inner virtue, the “enemy of human nature” tempts us to abandon the pursuit of virtue, and to engage in our struggles alone, in isolation, without the help of God and apart from the “communion of saints” whom God has made the necessary means to holiness (CCC 401).
Had I not openly revealed this well-disguised inner trial to a nearby “saint,” I likely would have been further weakened by it in regard to my vocation and work as I remained in my self-reliant isolation. And though as I said the underlying weakness/struggle remains, the capacity to fruitfully engage it under the sway of grace now also (please God) remains. But since it ain’t over till it’s over we must, as the desert Fathers loved to say, “Keep vigil, watch and pray lest we fall.”
So humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you. Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in faith, knowing that your fellow believers throughout the world undergo the same sufferings. The God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory through Christ Jesus will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you after you have suffered. — 1 Peter 5:6-10