How many times do we struggle to know God's will for our lives. As St. John notes: There are many roads to holiness - - and to Hell. A path wrong for one will suit another, yet what each is doing is pleasing to God." How are we to live our lives? What are we to do? In a moment of crisis, when a decision has to be made and to made quickly, what does God want us to do? What will please Him? What will bring us heavenly rewards? Am I hearing the voice of God or the voice of self or worse still, the voice of Satan? How do I know? Anyone who is traveling the spiritual road knows in the depths of his being how agonizing these questions truly are. In response to this feeling, St. John offers some practical advice from his own experience.
First, he insists that "those who wish to discover the will of God must begin by mortifying their own will." St. John recognizes that it is easy for us to say that we want to know God's will when, in fact, we really only want our will. It is also easy for us to convince ourselves that what God wants is what we want, and then to imagine that our voice is the voice of God. This deception (known as "prelest" in the spiritual tradition) leads us to hell. Once we have confused our voice for God's, we are easy prey for the Devil. Humility, the recognition that our will is confused and confusing, is the necessary prelude to knowing the will of God. To keep us from playing games with ourselves and to insure that we are totally humble before God so that we can be guided by Him, St. John suggest that we make no decisions without the input and agreement of others. Do nothing without a blessing! This blessing may be obtained from one's confessor, superior, spiritual guide, the writings and examples of the saints and from our brothers and sisters in Christ.
St. John also suggest that we discover the will of God through abandoning every attachment. We human beings are impulsive; our desires are awakened and immediately we want to fulfill them. Usually, if we say "No" to our immediate desires to do something, they fade away and are replaced by desire for other things. If we detach ourselves from that which awakened our desires, they tend to go away. This is especially true if we submit ourselves during this time to a strict regiment of prayer and fasting. Human desires (even those Satanically inspired) cannot sustain themselves if they are detached from the object of their desire and if they are not fed by constant thought and imagination. However, a call from God will grow stronger during a time of prayer and fasting. The will of God is not dependent upon human impulses. The more it is nurtured and fed with prayer and fasting the stronger it grows. The more detached we are from those things which feed the flesh and its desires and the more attached we are to those things which feed our soul the more we are able to discern the will of God for our lives.
Furthermore, St. John teaches that trials and difficulties are often reliable signposts in discerning the will of God. We often start something which we think is of God and as soon as it gets difficult we grow discouraged and think that maybe we made a mistake and that maybe it really wasn't of God. How different is the reasoning of St. John. If we start something and experience tremendous troubles in the doing of it, then we probably are on the right track. Satan will only oppose something that is good; the better and purer it is, the more Satan will try to stop us at every turn.
Yet to know God's will is not easy; we often make mistakes. This should keep us humble but it should not depress us. For our encouragement, St. John writes: "God is not unjust. He will not slam the door against the man who humbly knocks. . . .And every act that is not the product of personal inclination or of impurity will be imputed to us for good, especially if it is done for the sake of God. . . . God judges us by our intentions, but because of His love for us He only demands from us such actions as lie within our power."
1-6 Discernment defined.
Among beginners, discernment is real self-knowledge; among those midway along the road to perfection, it is a spiritual capacity to distinguish unfailingly between what is truly good and what in nature is opposed to the good; among the perfect, it is a knowledge resulting from divine illumination, which with its lamp can light up what is dark in others. To put the matter generally, discernment is - - and is recognized to be - - a solid understanding of the will of God in all times, in all places, in all things; and its found only among those who are pure in heart, in body and in speech.
Discernment is an uncorrupted conscience. It is pure perception.
Let our God-directed conscience be our aim and rule in everything so that, knowing how the wind is blowing, we may set our sails accordingly.
7-35 In these paragraphs St. John teaches us about various impediments to discerning the will of God - from the pitfalls that demons place in the way of our spiritual progress to the trials and distractions of physical illness. He also speaks in particular of the need for discernment in those who are spiritual guides.
Amid all our efforts to please God, three pitfalls lie, prepared for us by demons. First is their attempt to impede any sort of worthwhile achievement; and if this fails, they strive secondly to ensure that what we do should not be in accordance with the will of God. And if the scoundrels fail in this too, then they stand quietly before our soul and praise us for the fact that in every respect we are living as God would wish. We should fight these risks, the first by zeal and fear of death, the second by obedience and self-abasement, the third by unceasing self-condemnation. "This work is ahead of us until the fire of God shall enter our sanctuary" (Ps 72: 16-17), and then indeed the power of our predispositions will no longer constrain us. For our God is a fire consuming all lusts, all stirrings of passion, all predispositions, and all hardness of heart, both within and without, both visible and spiritual.
Demons, on the other hand, bring about the very opposite to all this. Grabbing a soul, they put out the light of the mind until in our wretchedness we find ourselves lacking sobriety or discernment, self-knowledge or shame; and we are burdened instead with indifference, insensitivity, want of discernment, and blindness.
We have to be particularly vigilant whenever the body is sick, for at such a time the demons, observing our weakness and our inability to fight against them as usual, rush in to attack us. In times of illness the demon of anger and even of blasphemy may be discovered around those who live in the world.
And I have noticed how the wolf of fornication increased the sufferings of the sick and, while they were laid low, cause stirring of the flesh . . . . It was amazing to see how the body, for all its agonies, could still rage and lust.
One man's medicine can be another man's poison, and something can be a medicine to the same man at one time and a poison at another. So I have seen an incompetent physician who by inflicting dishonor on a sick but contrite man produced despair in him, and I have seen a skillful physician who cut through an arrogant heart with the knife of dishonor and thereby drained it of all its foul-smelling pus. I have seen a sick man striving to cleanse his impurity by drinking the medicine of obedience, by moving, walking, and staying awake. That same man when the eye of his soul was sick did not move, made no noise, and was silent. Therefore, "he who has ears to hear, let him hear" (Luke 14:35).
36-106 St. John then begins to discuss what discernment allows us to see and how it must be used. (a) Discernment, he states, helps us to understand the capital vices and their offspring. It is the ability to see how certain actions and thoughts give rise to sin and teaches us how to avoid them. (b) Discernment helps us to examine our motives honestly and allows us to see that virtues and vices are sometimes intermingled. It even helps us to understand why certain prayers go unanswered by God. (c) Furthermore, such a gift helps us to know and anticipate the ways of demons and teaches us how to respond to situations involving multiple evils. (d) It leads us to scrutinize ourselves as a matter of course - thoroughly examining every virtue and vice.
(e) He who has received this gift can detect hidden vices in others as well as in himself. He knows the seasons of the spiritual life, when the fruits of spiritual labors come, the movements of one's spirit and the different levels of sorrow and despair. (f) He makes the will of God his rule of life. (g) He knows which of the spiritual gifts are the most important and valuable. (h) He neglects no fault, no matter how small, seeing that it may bring his downfall. (i) A discerning man understands that sometimes we are vulnerable to certain sins simply because of body weaknesses. (j) He understands that relationships must be properly understood if they are to remain undefiled and holy. (k) He knows and desires to give what is best to God - the first fruits of his labors and his day. (l) He chooses the path in life which best suits him - the path that leads to sanctity. (m) Discernment helps him to see all things in their proper light.
(a) . . . jokes at the wrong time can be the product of lust, or of vainglory when a man impiously pretends to be pious, or high living. Excessive sleep can arise from luxury, from fasting when those who fast become proud of it, from despondency, or sometimes from nature. Garrulity sometimes comes from gluttony, and sometimes from vainglory. Despondency can derive now from high living, now from lack of fear of God. Blasphemy is properly the child of pride but can often arise out of the readiness to condemn one's neighbor for the same offense, or it can be due to the untimely envy of demons. Hardheartedness is sometimes the consequence of gluttony, frequently of insensitivity, and also of being grasping. And to be grasping can be due to lust, avarice, gluttony, vainglory, and indeed to many other causes. Malice comes from conceit and from anger, while hypocrisy comes from independence and self-direction.
(b) I have watched farmers sowing the same type of seed, and yet each one had different ideas of what he was doing. One was planning to pay off his debts. Another was hoping to get rich. Another wanted to be able to bring gifts to honor the Lord. Another was hoping to earn praise for his work from the passers-by in life. Someone else wanted to irritate a jealous neighbor, while there was yet another who did not want to be reproached by men for laziness. And as for the seeds thrown into the earth, their names are fasting, keeping vigil, almsgiving, service, and suchlike. So let our brethren in the Lord keep a careful eye on their motives.
When we draw water from a well, it can happen that we inadvertently also bring up a frog. When we acquire virtues we can sometimes find ourselves involved with the vices which are imperceptibly interwoven with them. What I mean is this. Gluttony can be caught up with hospitality; lust with love; cunning with discernment; malice with prudence; duplicity, procrastination, slovenliness, stubbornness, wilfulness, and disobedience with meekness; refusal to learn with silence; conceit with joy; laziness with hope; nasty condemnation with love again; despondency and indolence with tranquillity; sarcasm with chastity; familiarity with lowliness. And behind all the virtues follows vainglory as a salve, or rather a poison, for everything.
We must not become upset if for a while the Lord seems to allow our requests to go unheard. Naturally the Lord would be delighted if in one moment all men became dispassionate. But He knows, in His providence, that this would not be to their advantage.
When requests are made to God and are not immediately answered, the reason may be one of the following; either that the petition is premature, or because it has been made unworthily or vaingloriously, or because, if granted, it would lead to conceit, or because negligence and carelessness would result.
(c) Demons and passions quit the soul entirely or for some length of time. No one can deny that. However, the reasons for such a departure are known to very few.
Demons leave us alone so as to make us careless, then pounce on our miserable souls. And those beasts have another trick, of which I am aware; namely, to depart when the soul has become thoroughly imbued with the habits of evil, when it has turned into its own betrayer and enemy. It is rather like what happens to infants weaned from the mother's breast, who suck their fingers because the habit has taken hold of them.
When confronted by evils, we should choose the least. For instance, we are standing at prayer and some brothers approach us. We have to do one of two things, either to cease praying or to upset a brother by ignoring him. Now love is greater than prayer, since the latter is a particular virtue while the former embraces all virtues.
Long ago, in my young days, I came to a city or to a village, and while sitting at table I was afflicted at the same time by thoughts of gluttony and vainglory. Knowing and fearing the outcome of gluttony, I decided to give into vainglory. I also knew that in the young, the demon of gluttony often overcomes the demon of vainglory. This is not to be wondered at, for among people of the world love of money is the root of all evil, whereas in monks it is gluttony.
God in His providence often leaves some vestiges of passion in people of a very spiritual disposition. He does so in order that, by their endless condemnation of what are very minor defects, they may obtain a wealth of humility that no one can plunder.
(d) Regarding every vice and every virtue, we must unceasingly scrutinize ourselves to see what point we have reached, a beginning, a middle, or the end.
Attacks by demons afflict us for three reasons: because we are sensual, because we are proud, or because the demons envy us. The last is a ground for rejoicing, the middle for pity, and where the first is concerned, the prospect is lifelong failure.
(e) Everyone with a healthy sense of smell can detect hidden perfumes, and a pure soul can quickly recognize in others the sheer fragrance of goodness that he himself has received from God. And indeed he can also recognize - as others cannot - the foul odor from which he himself has been liberated.
Ecclesiastes declares that there is a time for everything under heave, and "everything" may be taken to refer to our spiritual life. If this is so, then we ought to examine the matter; and we should do everything in proper season. . . There is a time for the sowing of labors and a time to reap the astounding fruits of grace; and if it were otherwise we would not receive in due time whatever was proper to the season.
God in his unspeakable providence has arranged that some received the holy reward of their toils even before they set to work, others while actually working, others again when the work was done, and still others at the time of their death. Let the reader ask himself which one of them was made more humble.
There is a despair that results from the great number of one's sins. It comes from a burdened conscience and intolerable grief, when the soul, engulfed by the mass and the burden of its wounds, slips into the deep waters of hopelessness. But there is also another kind of sorrow. It comes from pride and conceit and arises when a man thinks it unfair that he lapsed in some way. Now there is a distinctive aspect to each of these conditions which the observant will discover. The one man gives himself over to indifference, the other continues to practice his ascetic disciplines even though his despair persists in him, which is a contradiction. Temperance and good hope can heal the first man; the other will be cured by humility and by the practice of judging no one.
(f) Whatever you do, however you live, whether you live under obedience or whether you are independent, in which you do openly or in your spiritual life, let it be your rule and practice to ask if what you do is in accordance with the will of God. When we novices, for instance, do something and the humility deriving from that action is not added to the possessions of our souls, then the action, great or small, has not been undertaken in deference to the divine will. For those of us who are untried recruits in the life of the spirit, growth in humility comes out of doing what the Lord wants; for those who have reached midway along that route, the test is an end to inner conflict; and for the perfect there is increase and, indeed, a wealth of divine light.
(g) Some people are full of praise for the gift of miracle working and for those other spiritual gifts that can be seen. What they do not know is that there are many more important gifts and that these are hidden and are therefore secure.
(h) A small fire can wipe out an entire forest and a small fault can ruin all our work.
(i) There is . . . an exhaustion of the body that can actually evoke the flesh's lust. So "we shall put no trust in ourselves" (2 Cor. 1:9). We ought, rather, to depend on God, Who in His own secret way can mortify our living lusts.
(j) If it comes to our attention that there are some who love us in the Lord, we must be very careful to keep our distance from them, since nothing can so damage love and produce hatred as familiarity.
(k) Give the first fruits of your day to the Lord, for it will determine the rest of the day. An excellent servant of the Lord once said to me something well worth hearing. "I can tell from my morning how the rest of the day will go."
(l) There are many roads to holiness - and to hell. A path wrong for one will suit another, yet what each is doing is pleasing to God.
(m) Our eyes are a light to all the body. Discernment of the virtues is a light to all the mind.
107-181 St. John then discusses more advanced forms of discernment and how such a gift may be fostered in a persons' soul. (a) He speaks of the necessity of mortifying one's will, seeking the counsel of others with humility, and abandoning attachment to everything. (b) A person must learn how to judge failures and successes in his spiritual pursuits and interpret their meaning. (c) He must also learn not to follow certain inclinations that would lead him to take upon himself tasks beyond his capabilities. (d) Such a virtue will help him to understand the meaning of the moral lapses in those who seem to be holy and blessed with many spiritual gifts. (e) Gradually he will learn not to be surprised at the unexpected actions of others, but will remain a peace even when afflicted and rebuked. (f) He will understand the need to strike down demons before giving them an opportunity to wound him. (g) His eyes will be open to how demons seek to teach us how to interpret scripture in a distorted fashion and how they seek to confuse our thoughts. (h) He will see how and in what manner he must enter into the struggle and who his enemies are.
(a) Those who wish to discover the will of God must begin by mortifying their own will. Then having prayed in faith and simplicity, all malice spent, they should turn humbly and in confidence to the fathers or even the brothers and they should accept their counsel, as though from God Himself, even when that counsel goes against the grain, even when the advice comes from those who do not seem very spiritual. God, after all, is not unjust. He will not lead astray the souls who, trusting and guileless, yield in lowliness to the advice and decision of their neighbor. Even if those consulted are stupid, God immaterially and invisibly speaks through them and anyone who faithfully submits to this norm will be filled with humility.
Yet this perfect and easy rule is rejected by many for reasons of pride. Instead they have sought to discover the will of God by their own resources and within themselves and have then proceeded to offer us numerous and different opinions on this whole issue.
(b) Some of those trying to discover the will of God abandoned every attachment. They asked God to be the arbiter of any thoughts they might have concerning the stirrings of their souls, whether to do something or to resist it. They prayed hard for a fixed number of days and they laid aside any inclination of their own. In this way they found out what God willed, either through some direct manner of intelligible communication from Him or by the complete evaporation from their souls of whatever it was they had proposed to do.
Others found so much trouble and distraction in whatever they were doing that they were led to think that bother of this sort could only have come from God, in accordance with the saying, "We wanted to come to you once and once again, but Satan prevented us" (1 Thes. 2:18).
But there were others who found that a venture of theirs had proved unexpectedly successful, and so they inferred that it had pleased God, and they went on to declare that God helps everyone who chooses to do the right thing (Rom 8:28).
Wavering judgment and lingering doubt are the signs of an unenlightened and vainglorious soul.
God is not unjust. He will not slam the door against the man who humbly knocks.
In everything we do, in what has to be done now or later, the objective must be sought from God Himself; and every act that is not the product of personal inclination or of impurity will be imputed to us for good, especially if done for the sake of God and not for someone else. This is so, even if the actions themselves are not completely good.
There is always a danger in seeking for what is beyond our immediate reach, and what God has decided for us is hard to penetrate. In His providence, He often conceals His will from us, for He knows that even if we knew about it, we would disobey it, thereby rendering ourselves liable to greater punishment.
(c) There are brave souls who lovingly and humbly undertake tasks that are well beyond them. There are proud hearts that do the same. Now it often happens that our enemies deliberately inspire us to do things beyond our capacities, and their objective is to make us falter so that we abandon even what lies within our power, and make ourselves ridiculous to our enemies.
I have observed men who were sick in soul and body and who, out of a sense of the great number of their sins, tried to do what was beyond their power, and therefore failed. To these I say that God judges our repentance not by our exertions but by our humility.
(d) Someone asked this question of a discerning man: "Why is it that God confers gifts and wonder-working powers on some, even though He knows in advance that they will lapse?" His answer was that God does this so that other spiritual men may grow cautious, and to show that the human will is free, and to demonstrate that on the day of judgment there will be no excuse for those who lapsed.
(e) You should not be surprise if those you love turn against you after you have rebuked them. The frivolous are instruments of the demons, and are used, especially against the demon's enemies.
(f) We should not spar with demons. We should make outright war on them. In the first case a fall is sometimes given or taken, but in the latter case the enemy is always under fierce attack.
(g) When we begin religious life, some unclean demons give us lessons in the interpretation of scripture. This happens particularly in the case of people who are either vainglorious or who have had a secular education, and these are gradually led into heresy and blasphemy. One may detect this diabolical teaching about God, or rather war against God, by the upheaval, confusion, and unholy joy in the soul during lessons.
Do not be surprised if demons often inspire good thoughts in us, together with the reasoned arguments against them. What these enemies of ours are trying to do is to get us to believe that they know even our innermost thoughts.
(h) Christ, although all-powerful, fled bodily from Herod. So let the foolish learn not to fling themselves into temptation. It is said: "Let not your foot be moved and let not your guardian angel slumber" (cf. Ps. 120:3).
Like bindweed round a cypress, vanity twines itself around courage. And we must be ever on guard against yielding to the mere thought that we have achieved any sort of good. We have to be really careful about this, in case it should be a trait within us, for if it is, then we have certainly failed.
If we watch out continually for signs of the passions, we will discover that there are many within us which, in our sickness, we never noticed. We were too weak, or they were too deeply rooted.
God judges us by our intentions, but because of His love for us He only demands from us such actions as lie within our power. Great is the man who does all that lies within his power, but greater still is the man who, in all humility, tries to do more.
Demons often prevent us from doing what would be easy and valuable for us. Instead they like to push us into trying what is harder.
Some who claim that our repeated lapses in some matter are caused by our failure to do adequate penance for earlier falls. But the problem then arises as to whether those who have not fallen into the same type of sin over and over again have actually repented as they should. People commit the same sin again and again either because they have thoroughly forgotten their previous sins, or because in their own pleasure-loving way they keep thinking that God is merciful, or because they have give up all hope of salvation. Now - and I may be severely criticized for this - it seems to me that their real difficulty is that they have not had the strength to grip firmly what in fact is a dominating habit.
At the start of religious life, the young and those of advanced years are not troubled by the same passions, since very often they have quite opposite failings. Hence the fact that humility is so truly blessed, for it makes repentance safe and effective for both young and old.
We must be very shrewd in the matter of knowing when to stand up against sin, when and to what extent to fight against whatever nourishes the passions, and when to withdraw from the struggle. Because of our weakness there are times when we must choose flight if we are to avoid death. We must watch and see which of the demons uplift us, which depress us, which make us hard, which bring us consolation, which darken us, which pretend to enlighten us, which make us lazy, which shifty, which make us sad and which cheerful.
At the start of our religious lives, we may find that our passions are stronger than they were when we were in the world. This should not upset us, and if we remove the causes of our sickness, then health will come to us. Those beasts were formerly concealed in us, but they did not reveal themselves.
It is characteristic of the perfect that they always know whether a thought comes from within themselves, or from God, or from the demons. Remember that demons do not automatically propose evil at the outset. Here we have a problem truly hard to penetrate.
Two corporeal eyes give light to the body, and the eyes of the heart are enlightened by discernment in things seen and unseen.