Spotting the serpent's tail: tools for discernment 1


Jigsaw Credit Hans-Peter Gauster via Unsplash

I was fascinated to come across the work of the psychologist Paul Bloom recently. In his book Against Empathy –  The Case for Rational Compassion, he challenges the received wisdom about the importance of empathy.  The ability to empathise, “to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” is rightly valued. We also know that all sorts of pathologies come from a lack of empathy - psychopaths, sociopaths etc. When Donald Trump tweets negatively about a particular group or country, we are shocked by his ignorance,  he seems to lack any empathy.  However, the main and interesting point that Bloom makes is that empathy ‘works like a spotlight’ i.e.  focusing attention on individuals at the expense of the bigger picture.   This can lead to the perverse situation in which the suffering of one can matter more than the suffering of a thousand.  You can see how this works with some of the heart-wrenching cases that call for the legalisation of euthanasia….  As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said – hard cases make for bad laws.

From an Ignatian perspective, our inner lives are marked by movements closer to God (consolation) and away from God (desolation).  These movements are instigated by both good and evil, and the ability to read and understand the direction of these movements is often referred to as ‘discernment of spirits’. 

In Ignatius’  Rules for Discernment, the basic rules are called ‘First Week Rules’ and the more advanced ones ‘Second Week Rules’. (The Weeks refer to the programme of  St Ignatius’ famous Spiritual Exercises.) One of the more advanced rules is when the ‘bad spirit’ appears sub angelo lucis, that is in the guise of good or as an angel of light, tempting with feelings that initially seems as though they are from God but end up leading us to situations of desolation. For example, we might be caught up in prayer with the idea of starting a charity; the good desire then sets off a trail of events that leads to losing our job and the break-up of our family. 

Ignatius says that we can only spot this type of deception by seeing the ‘serpents tail’, by tracing back the discernment process, with the help of a good spiritual director, to see where we have been deceived.  We are often open to deception in our thoughts and ideas;  and the brightness of an idea is not necessarily an indication that it is from God.

In the cases where our empathy can lead us to deception,  our ability to empathise with someone who is broken can result in us losing the wider perspective and getting caught up in their destructive behaviour.  The pride of victimhood, their sense of entitlement and our desire to rescue creates a toxic cocktail that can ultimately lead to collusion and enabling behaviour.

The insight that we can often be deceived and led astray by what appears good, is important to carry in our Ignatian toolkit and a good spiritual director will be adept at spotting this.  It is one of the ‘Rules for Discernment from the second week,’ and is more relevant to someone who is in the more advanced stages of a spiritual life.  If your basic disposition is towards an easy, peaceful and comfortable life, and you will be discouraged by any thoughts that may challenge this, then this is still “first-week” stuff, the first week rules are helpful.  But if you have made a commitment to follow Christ with all that entails - joys and sorrows, engaging in a messy world and the humiliations that come along with this, then the second-week rules are endlessly fascinating.  And discernment is about having ‘a nose for God and the things of God’ but also about detecting evil and being realistic about it.

Second Week Rules for Discernment from the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius

Fourth Rule. It is proper to the evil Angel, who forms himself under the appearance of an angel of light, to enter with the devout soul and go out with himself: that is to say, to bring good and holy thoughts, conformable to such just soul, and then little by little he aims at coming out drawing the soul to his covert deceits and perverse intentions.

Sixth Rule. When the enemy of human nature has been perceived and known by his serpent’s tail and the bad end to which he leads on, it helps the person who was tempted by him, to look immediately at the course of the good thoughts which he brought him at their beginning, and how little by little he aimed at making him descend from the spiritual sweetness and joy in which he was, so far as to bring him to his depraved intention; in order that with this experience, known and noted, the person may be able to guard for the future against his usual deceits.