"To one who can read the signs of the times, nothing is more significant than the mystical revival that is now taking place. Happily, we are in the midst of a deep, quiet, vital movement of the race towards a more satisfying sense of the unseen reality." The phenomenon of "new spiritualities" makes me think of these words, which appear on the dust-jacket of an edition of Evelyn Underhill's Practical Mysticism published in 1915. And I wonder: how new is this phenomenon?
Most of these "new spiritualities"--which seem to us as well like signs of the times--are drawn from the traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, which are centuries older than Christianity, and interest in these teachings has been growing in the West for more than two hundred years. They helped shape aspects of Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. Zen and Vedanta have had disciples in North America throughout most of this century. Even Jacob Needleman's popular study The New Religions, which discussed a wide range of eastern spiritualities "attracting hundreds of thousands of Americans," is now twenty-five years old.
Other "new spiritualities" are influenced by shamanism, by the mystical teachings of Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Judaism or Islam, by the indigenous religions of Africa and the Americas, or by western esoteric traditions of magic, alchemy, astrology, Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism or Freemasonry--most of these also several centuries old. Interest in these phenomena, including a fascination with "the occult," has a long history as well. All these influences have been flowing through the diverse cultural trends that since the 1960s, for better or worse, have come to be described as "new age consciousness."
Whatever we should call these currents of spiritual teaching and practice swirling around us today, "new" hardly seems the right word. Certainly there are some new elements in the mix. And of course, these older traditions are always new to somebody. Like Christian mysticism itself, they seem to be almost continually in the process of being "discovered."
But what are we to make of these developments? Are they signs of a spiritual reawakening, a "mystical revival," that may shake us free from our materialism and positivism? Are they omens of cultural exhaustion and a regression to superstition and magical thinking? Do they reveal something to us about the deficiencies of contemporary Christianity? Will they reinforce our drift into narcissistic self-preoccupation and political apathy? Or could they rekindle our capacity for kindness, responsible citizenship and fidelity to our commitments?
These are questions that require clear thinking and disciplined study. They also require discernment. As individuals and communities, we need to figure out the real significance of these movements and what they have to do with the truth about human beings and the mystery we call God. This means that if we are to assess what is happening and what is being asked of us today in such a way that we remain responsive to the Spirit of God, we need to listen carefully, to pray, to consult our hearts, and to speak sincerely with one another.
Among Jesuits, and among their friends and colleagues, "discernment" is a key word, loaded with history and emotion, a word heard often and in many contexts. This talk about discernment inspires mixed reactions. Some take it very seriously as a religious practice crucial for the Christian life and central for Ignatian spirituality. Others view it skeptically, fearing that it disguises lazy-mindedness or self-deception. And others merely shrug and roll their eyes, suspecting that such talk masks hidden agendas and power relationships, covering them up with vague and fashionable language.
Discernment in this context means "discerning spirits," a kind of critical reflection on the wellsprings and dynamics of our own thoughts and wishes, an examination of our dispositions, feelings and deeper motives, with an eye to making solid judgements and good decisions in tune with our better selves and God's desires for us. It is a skill learned with great difficulty, full of promise but also full of hazards, and cannot be securely attained.
Most of these "new spiritualities" are drawn from the traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, which are centuries older than Christianity. Whatever we should call these currents of spiritual teaching and practice swirling around us today, "new" hardly seems the right word.
The practice of discerning spirits has been in the Ignatian tradition from the beginning. It was the decisive factor in the conversion of St. Ignatius, an art he discovered on his sickbed at Loyola while noticing his different affective responses to the patterns of his daydreams. It became an essential part of his spiritual teaching, codified in a famous list of rules appended to his manual for directing retreatants; these rules, as John O'Malley has written in his recent book The First Jesuits, "are at the very core of the Spiritual Exercises." This practice of discernment remained a central part of Ignatius's own spiritual life, his pastoral ministry and the way of proceeding he bequeathed to the Society of Jesus. For Ignatius, it was the soundest way he knew to remain faithful to God's Spirit and to be attentive and receptive to God's will.
Of course this practice of discernment was in no way an Ignatian innovation. It is part of the ancient heritage of the Christian faith: at least as old as the letters of St. Paul, attested in the teachings of Origen, Antony, John Cassian and Gregory the Great, as well as in the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux, Richard of St. Victor, Thomas Aquinas and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, among many others. It is clearly rooted in an earlier Jewish tradition, part of the legacy of the "Two Ways," the Way of Life and the Way of Death placed before human choice, and of the Jewish teaching about the good and evil imaginings of the heart. Beyond this, it seems fair to say that something like a practice of discerning spirits is part of all the great religious and spiritual traditions of the world.
Discernment has to do with the mystery of human consciousness, the difficulty of self-knowledge, the complexity of human motives, and so with the need for habits of careful interpretation, distinguishing what is deep from what is shallow, what is free from what is compulsive. For clearly we can do good things for bad reasons and awful things with good intentions. In fact, everything about the religious life of human beings can be faked, corrupted, turned to the service of egotism and self-interest, used for oppression, contempt and violence, or degraded into legalism or idolatry. Our boasts of virtue can be evasive "mechanisms of defence," our zeal for truth can be the cover story for our lust to dominate. A recognition of these facts requires from us a serious effort to tell the difference.
Recent writing in spiritual theology has emphasized the way in which God's will is usually revealed to us in the profound stirrings of our own desires. What is deepest in human hearts, after all, is a desire for God, an urgent longing for the fullness of life which God is and which God shares with us. It makes sense to believe that God is at work, calling and guiding us, in our own most authentic hopes and aspirations. But this important truth is easily misunderstood.
The desires most intimate to us, in fact, are often stifled, constricted and denied. It is not usually easy to know what we truly and most radically desire. To use the language Ignatius borrowed from older traditions, "angels of darkness" can appear disguised as "angels of light."
This seems to me important in assessing the "new spiritualities." Some of them seem to neglect this central question about the interplay of light and darkness, the complex ambiguity of human subjectivity, and the need for some kind of asceticism. Ascetical practices are geared to awaken us, to break the spell of habit and routine, so that we can more intentionally cultivate certain aspects of our inner lives and resist others. For St. Ignatius, discerning spirits and the ability to find God in all things depended largely on the degree of a person's "abnegation" or "mortification," a putting to death of something in oneself. And yet much of the talk we hear about spirituality these days seems to eliminate this requirement entirely. If we are always fine as we are when we start, then there is no pressing need for redemption, repentance, resistance or rebirth.
Discernment is based on specific theological foundations. It entails the enactment of an adequate theory of Christian existence, focused on particular questions: What does God want from us? What is God doing in our lives? Is God really present in experience in an ascertainable way?
I believe that theology needs to be understood primarily as an interpretation of human action and experience from the vantage point of faith. The most important theological questions are always those we ask about the "theology" we are practising. It sometimes happens when we ask such questions that we find ourselves acting out of a wholly inadequate or obsolete theology or even a secular worldview, substituting rational management procedures for the vision, boldness and visceral compassion of "life in the Spirit." Rather than the inbreaking of God's reign, it is sometimes wealth or power or prestige or security that we are serving. The practice of discernment calls us back to our roots in the Gospel.
Discernment requires attention to the intimate relationship between love and knowledge, values and facts, practice and theory. The Ignatian Rules for Discernment, as John O'Malley has argued, "reveal how seriously feelings like sadness, confusion, happiness, and serenity are to be taken" by us as mediations of God's presence in our lives: "Indeed, as the text of the Exercises is scrutinized with that clue in mind, it manifests that the engaging of powerful emotions like grief, fear, horror, compunction, compassion, contentment, admiration, gratitude, wonder, joy, and especially love is the final and foreseen outcome of its various meditations and contemplations."
Everything about religious life can be faked, corrupted, turned to the service of egotism and self-interest. Recognizing that our zeal for truth can be the cover story for our lust to dominate requires from us a serious effort.
This confidence in reasons of the heart runs contrary to a later and typically "modern" assumption about the necessary separation of thought from feeling and fact from value. So much of modern rationality is, in principle, cut off from our affections and bodily life. Ignatius, in fidelity to an older tradition, assumes that feeling and desire are themselves cognitional and can be revelatory of divine activity in the soul.
So if we hope to be discerning about these "new spiritualities," it is essential that we acknowledge the importance of consulting our hearts, paying attention to our feelings, differentiating them, interpreting them, and trusting, under the right conditions, what they reveal to us about God and our own potentialities. It is by reading our own loves and fears with discerning eyes that we learn how to surrender our hearts to God's Spirit.
Thus, the basic conviction underlying this practice is that God is really present and at work in our experience. This needs to become part of an examination of conscience for us today. Do we believe that God-talk refers to something giving itself to us, dwelling within us, labouring for us in everything, inflaming our souls with love and praise? Do we believe that God truly makes a difference, makes something happen, in our lives? "Spirit" means God in action in our actual experience, God condescending to move in our own hearts. Can we still say "yes" to this or have we succumbed to a kind of deism or practical atheism?
If the mystery of infinite being is at work within us, we must learn how to distinguish this Spirit from other spirits moving in our hearts--the lure of what "the world" loves and embraces. We are always headed somewhere, but which wind is in our sails? If the one we call "Holy Spirit" is truly more intimate to us than we are to ourselves, then it is crucial that we learn how to pay attention to it, attune ourselves to it, open our imaginations to it, and remain steadfastly faithful to it--even at great cost.
So what, if anything, is "new" at the present time in the realm of spirituality? Five aspects of this situation, it seems to me, deserve attention.
The first is the changing (some would say "postmodern") condition of the culture of our times. Part of what is happening to us is that we are recovering from certain assumptions--about rationality, valid knowledge, the grounds of morality, the nature of the self, the meaning of religious practice--built into the high culture of the modern West.
The second is that, in the last thirty years, there has been an unprecedented outpouring of scholarly publication devoted to spiritualities. Important new reference works, as well as an abundance of new translations, commentaries and analyses of mystical writings from all the major traditions--Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Kabbalistic, Hasidic, Sufi, Zen Buddhist, Tibetan Buddhist and others--have been published by major presses. Spirituality is well established now as an object of concern in academic life. This is genuinely new, and never before in history has so much of this testimony been available to so many people.
The third is the attention of recent philosophy, psychology and science to ascetical practices, religious experience and mystical states. Philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition as well as in the phenomenological and hermeneutic traditions share this interest. It includes the work of Jungian, humanistic and transpersonal psychologists, of feminist scholars and of theoretical physicists. All this is also something new.
The fourth is the dramatic encounter and interaction of the various great traditions in our century and the dialogue among them concerning meditation practice, the nature of the self, the ground of ethical reasoning and the meaning of ecstatic states and experiences of transcendence. This encounter is happening at many levels and in almost every major city. Among Catholics and others, it is informed by new theological attitudes that heighten its significance and urgency. This is an extraordinary challenge and opportunity, and each one of the great world religions, faced with the others in these ways, finds itself in a radically new situation.
The fifth is the emergence in the last thirty years of new questions within all these traditions, and perhaps especially within the Catholic tradition, about the meaning and value of the body, sexuality, intimacy, science, art, politics and history, and about the dignity and role of women in society and within religious communities. These questions point to a growing diversity within each tradition that is sometimes as bewildering as the differences between traditions. This seems to me the single most radically new development of all.
This is the larger context within which "new spiritualities" come to our attention. The situation is complex and the tasks required of us are difficult. Much is at stake. But the possibilities are very rich and the opportunities are very inspiring. The dialogue that is needed will make demands on us, will reveal how much of our own tradition we have repressed, forgotten or misunderstood, and will challenge us to listen carefully to new voices raising new questions for which we have no ready answers. Like any authentic dialogue, it will lead us into unfamiliar territory.
Of course there are dangers in this, especially of our becoming rigid and enclosed upon ourselves in the face of the other or of our selling out our heritage for a mess of trendy pottage. But the whole tradition of Christian discernment--more than any particular set of rules--can guide us through these complicated experiences. We need to question our assumptions about "education" and what should really be meant by "spirituality." Within our tradition, we need to pay much closer attention to the testimony of the mystics. And within our contemporary situation, we must listen more carefully to the voices of women, of the poor, of marginalized and excluded people. We must struggle against our inordinate attachment to worldly values and partial truths and zones of comfort. And we must rekindle in ourselves an honest faith in all God's promises.
The purpose of discernment is to make decisions from the bottom of our hearts and to keep ourselves from veering to the right or to the left. Whatever helps us to become more fully human, more fully alive, will bring us closer to Christ's purposes. In the end, it is love that most reveals the divine presence--a joyful, generous, extravagant and self-transcending love. By remaining faithful to the way of love in our encounters with other spiritualities, old and new, we will remain faithful to God's Spirit.
Robert J. Egan SJ, a Jesuit of the Oregon Province, teaches theology and spirituality at Gonzaga University and at St. Michael's Institute in Spokane, Washington.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld