Beware the afterglow - tools for discernment 2


Sunset Credit Penny Hollick via Unsplash

Definition of afterglow

1: a glow remaining where a light has disappeared
2: a pleasant effect or feeling that lingers after something is done, experienced, or achieved

We all have experienced ‘the afterglow’ of a sunset when the sun has dipped below the horizon and the sky lights up in vivid colours.  Equally after a great experience, a wedding or a party we might bask in the afterglow of friendship and love.  If you are football fan like me, you might experience the afterglow of your team’s success, winning a trophy or an exciting game. 

St Ignatius had a helpful insight about the afterglow of a religious experience.  Occasionally we might have a direct experience of God which Ignatius calls ‘Consolation without Cause’.  There is a type of ‘spiritual afterglow’ after this type of experience. Often we are so gripped by it that we start making plans for the future, getting married,  changing career direction,  or maybe developing a new project and imagining all the good it’s going to do…. 

Ignatius wisely warns us to be careful and to test these plans with someone wise who knows us, or if we are lucky enough –  a spiritual director.  He specifically mentions this in his rules for discernment of the second week of the Spiritual Exercises.

Here is David Fleming's contemporary translation:

Eighth Rule.  When a consolation experience in our life comes directly from God there can be no deception in it.  Although a delight and a peace will be found in such an experience, a spiritual person should be very careful to distinguish the actual moment of this consolation-in-God from the following, the afterglow which may be exhilarating and joyful for some period of time. It is in this second period of time that we begin to reason out plans or to make resolutions that cannot be attributed as directly to God as the initial experience which is non-conceptual in nature. Because human reasoning and other influences are now coming into the total picture of this consolation period, a very careful process of discerning the good and evil spirits should be undertaken, according to the previous guidelines, before any resolution or plan of action is adopted.

Decisions and projects that are formed in the afterglow can overstep the evidence of the experience of consolation. Over time they can lead to frustration, to losing motivation and momentum (often seen in Founders Syndrome).

It can be spiritually undermining and lead us to doubting the original and genuine experience from God.  It can even lead us to mistrust God in any future experiences.

There are obvious parallels in the behaviour of those who wield political power often described as hubris, for example Tony Blair and Iraq, David Cameron and the Brexit referendum. Both were successful leaders, effecting change until they reached too far.  If only they had had an Ignatian spiritual director accompanying them!