Spirits and Spirituality: The Grace of Discernment


As a scholar of mysticism and religious literature, I spend a lot of my time reading, thinking, and writing about the encounters with God various writers, mystics, and seers had or claim to have had. If I have taken anything away from this study for my own spirituality, it is that spiritual discernment is extraordinarily important—and nearly impossible to acquire by oneself.

In both the West and the East, seekers have sought out spiritual teachers to help them find ways into God. The cultural history of spirituality warns us that “going rogue” on the way to finding God can certainly work—but it can also lead to insanity, immorality, and tragedy. In the best cases of rogue spirituality—as in those of William Blake, Jane Lead, and Jacob Boehme—it results in increased charity, benevolence, and kindness. In the worst cases—as with John Dee, Aleister Crowley, and, to a certain degree, Alexander Scriabin—it may result in shame, confusion, depravity, and megalomania. Blake, for instance, rose up from his deathbed to sing of the colored glories he saw opening in heaven, whereas Crowley’s last words were “I am confused.” I know which way I’d prefer to go out! Of course, there are those who straddle the line between these two extremes (Margery Kempe and Joséphin Péladan immediately come to mind), but it becomes pretty clear when considering the wide array of possibilities, that spiritual striving is not necessarily all good vibes and group hugs.

One of the dangers of “spiritual adventuring,” I think, is the temptation to feel one is “chosen” or “blessed” in some special way that sets one apart from the community of believers. Those whom Valentin Tomberg called “the hierarchy of the left” would like nothing more than to see some poor soul fall prey to spiritual pride and take a tremendous fall—not from grace, necessarily, but at least from a position of so-called “importance.” The spirits with whom John Dee conversed, for instance, promised him all kinds of knowledge and a role as a prophet—what they gave him was a “bed trick” (he swapped wives with his assistant Edward Kelly for one night at the spirits’ command) and a centuries-long reputation as a conjuror and a laughing stock. This is a pity, as Dee was an important intellectual of his time and generally a very pious man. But the spirits knew his weakness and capitalized on it.

In the context of Eastern spirituality, Chögyam Trungpa has described this kind of spiritual adventuring as “spiritual materialism,” a very apt term when applied to our modern situation, a situation that put the “go” in “ego.” Tomberg, who knew Eastern spirituality almost as well as he did Western, has another term for it: “spiritual drunkenness.” We get the point. We have all been there.

Such dangers are why confessors and spiritual directors have always discouraged their charges from seeking visions, locutions, or any other kind of spiritual fireworks. In the seventeenth century, the English Benedictine spiritual director Augustine Baker expressly warned against this kind of grasping when he wrote “As for extraordinary Supernatural Inspirations, Illuminations, apparitions, voices, conversations with spirits, messages from heaven &c: a spiritual Internal liver is forbidden to pretend to, or so much as desire them; yea rather to pray against them, least he should abuse them to vanity and pride.”

Teresa of Avila, for instance, was told by her confessor to try to repress her tendency to see visions. It was not easy for her, but she knew this was not a realm in which one fools around. She had what I think were valid experiences of Christ—but she also had experiences of Satan trying to trick her into thinking he was Christ. Her spiritual directors were often suspicious, but they guided her through what could have been rough spiritual waters. Knowing the difference: this is discernment.

In my earlier periods of spiritual swashbuckling, I admit, I would have ignored any advice that could have kept me from my spiritual drunkenness. I was a slow learner. But the years have convinced me that the way of spiritual direction, humility, liturgy, and the modest life of prayer and sacrament is where we discover that “sure and steady wins the race.” (Not that I’m any good at it.) In this spirit, I heed the wisdom of the English mystics of the fourteenth century—Julian of Norwich, Walter Hilton, and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing—who all tell us that the surest way to know God is obtained through unknowing and that, until that time arrives, we should be content with patience and prayer.

“Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”  (1 John 5:21)




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