Q: Archbishop J, why is it so hard to be consistent in prayer?
If a profound and deep prayer life is so advantageous, why do so few people embrace the life of Grace consistently? The answer is not an easy or straightforward one.
In his Spiritual Exercises St Ignatius gives us 14 Rules for discernment of spirits. He begins by dividing humanity in two categories: (1) “Those who are moving from mortal sin to mortal sin” (Rule 1) and (2) “those who are making progress in their journey towards God” (Rule 2–14). It is important that at every stage we do three things—become aware, understand and then act decisively.
The ‘enemy of human nature’ will encourage the person who is moving from mortal sin to mortal sin, who has been trapped by the appetites and living for pleasure, honour, power and wealth, to partake of all of the sensual delights, making these appealing.
In these persons “the good spirit uses the opposite method, pricking them and biting their conscience through a process of reason”. If the glory of God is man and woman fully alive (St Irenaeus) then the opposite is man and woman fully dead. This is why Ignatius calls the evil spirits, the enemy of human nature.
As we saw in the ‘Our Father’, using our free will to choose for God is our most precious gift; the only thing that God will not take from us. Love requires free will; love requires choice. God will not take us against our free will.
The enemy of human nature is not a gentleman and will take us any way he can: enticement, deception, lies, addiction, etc. This is why Jesus counsels His disciples in the Garden: “Stay awake and pray not to be put to the test. The spirit is willing enough, but human nature is weak” (Mt 26:41).
For the Desert Fathers, staying awake is the essence of spirituality—being aware, having understanding, and taking decisive action.
For those moving towards God, the roles reverse. Now it is “the way of the enemy of human nature to bite, sadden and put obstacles, disquieting with false reasons, that one may not go on; and it is proper to the good spirit to give courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations and quiet, easing, and putting away all obstacles, that one may go on in well doing” (Rule 2).
It is God’s intention to give us every grace to hasten towards the mystical union that Jesus promised us so the Father and the Son will make their home in us (Jn 14:23).
Consolation and Desolation
For a proper understanding of the 14 Rules and if we are to become aware of the stirrings of the soul, it is important to understand consolation and desolation, to become aware of which of these is dominant in our prayer at a specific time, and then what to do about it.
Ignatius says: “I call consolation every increase of hope, faith and charity, and all interior joy which calls and attracts to heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul, quieting it and giving it peace in its Creator and Lord” (Rule 3).
Likewise: “I call desolation all the contrary of consolation, such as darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to things low and earthly, the unquiet of different agitations and temptations, moving to want of confidence, without hope, without love, when one finds oneself all lazy, tepid, sad, and as if separated from his Creator and Lord. … As consolation is contrary to desolation, in the same way the thoughts which come from consolation are contrary to the thoughts which come from desolation” (Rule 4).
In our prayer as in our life, it is important to become aware when we are in either state. Do not worry about it; just notice it.
If in consolation, press on and enjoy the prayer and period of the journey. If in desolation, then there are some things that we need to know.
First, do not change the rhythm of your prayer or what you have previously offered to God. Second, it is to your advantage in desolation to extend your time of prayer and increase your devotion. Third, you must know and believe that this stage of desolation has its purpose and will come to an end. Take courage and resist despair, expecting to reconnect to God in your prayer and in your life.
When in desolation it is important to “make much examination of conscience” to see if you have slipped into sin, presumption, or pride. If none of these are true then stay the course, it is a time of purification. God is allowing this to wean you off the consolations of God and draw you to the God of Consolation.
This just means you are growing up. Smile, keep your chin up and keep pressing on. Do not despair; do not lose heart. This is a very fruitful part of the journey, which will show in a deeper commitment to God and your knowledge that it is God’s grace that brings you through every stage.
The enemy of human nature
Ignatius describes the enemy of human nature as “a petulant child”. If you give into its demands, the tirade will overpower you. If you stand firm in faith and confidence in God, it will cower and submit.
If you are going through a time of great inner upheaval, it is important to seek spiritual counsel from a spiritual director. The enemy loves secrecy and revels in keeping you isolated.
Speaking to a trusted spiritual director will change the game significantly. Ignatius also describes the enemy as “a chief bent on conquering and robbing what he desires”.
This is spiritual warfare; you are no match for the enemy of human nature. We need to bend our hearts to God’s grace to overcome the attacks. If you were in his position, how would you attack you—What is your weakest point of defence?
When you answer this question, again become aware, understand and take decisive action to strengthen yourself at this point of attack, which for some will be anger or greed for material things (avarice). For others it may be overeating (gluttony) or lust; envy or unforgiveness, or not keeping your commitments to prayer and the spiritual life (sloth).
Pride is the gateway to all the deadly sins. It is always the hardest to detect. This is why regular Confession is vital for the spiritual journey. The more we can name our areas of weakness in humility and tears before God and the priest, the less vulnerable we become.
Remember the enemy of human nature is a deceiver and a coward who cannot stand up to the grace that God constantly gives. Give in to God then; resist the devil, and he will run away from you. The nearer you go to God, the nearer God will come to you (James 4:7–8).
Key Message: It is not only flesh and blood against which we fight but against the rulers, authorities and powers of the dark world (Eph 6:12).
Action Step: Become aware, understand and act decisively in your movement towards God. Read Ignatius’ 14 Rules for discernment of spirits.
Scripture Reading: James 4:1–17