I lay awake in bed a few nights ago, exhausted but unable to fall asleep.
A swirling, heavy cloud of D-words plagued my thoughts and sat heavy on my chest.
Disunity. Disenchantment. Discouragement. Disappointment. Despair. Downheartedness.
I felt that night like I was failing at everything. My husband was sleeping right next to me, but he might as well have been on the other side of the planet. We had ended the day completely “off.” My children were disrespectful and exhausting and not learning anything. I yelled too much. I couldn’t keep up with my home, my ministry, my parenting or my relationships like I wanted to. I couldn’t think of one thing I was happy with that day.
And then a moment of grace. A clearing of my thoughts. A laugh from Heaven.
Get out of my head and go to Hell, Satan. I need to get some sleep.
In that moment of grace, I realized the absurdity of what was happening. All of those D-words swirling in my head, putting their shadow on everything in my life, were not from God. Discouragement is never from God. Disenchantment is never from God. Dwelling on despair and despondence is never from God.
And if it’s not from God, these days I know who it’s from. And I get to tell him to leave.
And so do you.
I’m no expert on the discernment of spirits, but the little I’ve been able to read on it as a busy mom has been a gamechanger for my spiritual life. It was so freeing to begin learning to take my thoughts captive, and to discern which of those thoughts were from God and which ones were not.
2 Corinthians 10:5-6 says that we are to “destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” We have to take our thoughts captive. We have to train ourselves to zoom out of a moment when we are really struggling–St. Ignatius calls those moments of desolation–and reference God. Alright, Lord, is there a real problem here, or did I/we just have a bad day (or week)? Is my marriage as bad as I think it is? Am I as much of a failure as I feel like right now? Show me what I need to know.
St. Ignatius’s writings on the discernment of spirits were not a difficult read for me, at least with the help of Fr. Timothy Gallagher’s excellent book, The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide to Everyday Living). Ignatius is very clear, and chooses his words exactly to explain the ways the devil works, as well as many of the ways that God can work, through our thoughts and feelings. It was thrilling, actually, as I read the book. I was in the middle of a long, confusing, difficult time in my life, and I felt like I was reading the devil’s playbook. There were so many moments that I said, “Aha! That happened/happens to me, too!” And I cried, too. I had suffered so much from those D-words in my head, and all the while, it had been You-Know-Who clouding my thoughts with lies.
When we have moments like I did the other night, when D-words rule our thoughts and shorten our breaths, discerning the “spirits” of our thoughts, emotions and feelings can help us pick through what’s actually happening. Sometimes, the devil is trying to bend the truth (or outright lie) to keep us from continuing to do a good thing. Sometimes, our God-given emotions are alerting us to a genuine problem in our life that we need to address more intentionally. The rules in St. Ignatius’ discernment of spirits really are like a spiritual playbook of sorts. He explains how to sort out our thoughts, and even how to be proactive in sending negative thoughts away once we recognize them.
After I kicked Satan out of my head that night, I spent a few minutes bringing God through each of the major worries that had been swirling through my head. I let Him console me with little remembrances of progress in my marriage and children that had been lost to me just five minutes before. I let Him remind me that I was not trying to do anything that He had not specifically called me to do (except keep my house as clean as I wanted it, and my ministry writing as frequent as I felt it should be). The things in my life left undone at the end of the day would be done eventually. I needed to trust God about that. And if I was being honest, my first trimester all-day-and-night morning sickness had been easing up just a little bit.
If there is one spiritual book you read this year, consider letting it be Fr. Gallagher’s book, The Discernment of Spirits—or maybe just head over to IgnatianSpirituality.com and browse through their excellent articles. There are many great books out there about mercy, forgiveness, encouragement for vocation, and plenty of other great topics. But if you’re anything like me, if you can’t take captive your raging emotions and thoughts, you won’t be in a place where you can receive the wisdom of those books.
Sometimes in the life of faith, all we need is a wonderful new idea and we are able to grow. Other times, what we really need is to be reminded that we have to play offense and defense in our spiritual life. It’s interesting to note that St. Ignatius, a former soldier, included his work on the discernment of spirits in his famous Spiritual Exercises.
I’ll finish up with some incredibly helpful advice from my spiritual director, who tells me that, “You should never go into your head alone. Always take Jesus with you.” If we learn how to take Jesus with us into our heads with us, He will help us tell those awful D-words where they can go (back to).