Discernment of Spirits Week 1: What is it?

(Homily for Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time Year B)

Message: It's not enough to simply be spiritual. There are spirits and there are spirits. What spirit impels you?

Last week we concluded a five-part series on Dimensions of the Eucharist. The final dimension is freedom - the ability to intentionally choose. Jesus asks us to make a choice. His words are poignant, "Will you also leave me?" We can decide to stay with Jesus or leave him.

That choice can happen dramatically - in a single moment: by repenting or, God forbid, by committing mortal sin. But we don't make that choice in a vacuum. Every day we make hundreds of decisions, small and large - and each choice brings us closer to Jesus or separates us from him. Many of you ask, How can I know if my choice is the right one? That is a darn good questions and that's what I want to address in this new series: Discernment of Spirits.*

In this first homily I want to explain what discernment of spirit means. To lead into the subject, I begin with a verse from St. James: "Religion that is pure and undefiled...is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world."

For St. James religion means something positive. So it has been for centuries. When I was young a popular song had this verse: "If religion were a thing that money could buy, the rich would live and poor would die." Religion referred to something valuable - a way of relating to God and other people.

That positive view of religion has changed - especially since the 9-11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Instead of seeing that horror as a result of misguided and perverted religion, pundits blame religion itself. Many people say, "I am not religious, but I am spiritual."**

Okay, but that leads to a further question: If you are spiritual, good, but which spirit are you following? In addition to your spirit, there are other spirits: Good spirits (the Holy Spirit and the angels) and there are evil spirits (the devil and all the demons). Which spirit impels you - the good spirit or the evil spirit?

Jesus emphasizes that a person can look fine on the outside, but within - decay, corruption, defilement. Defilement, he says, means: "evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly."

As you can see from that list, usually it's obvious if someone is following the evil spirit. As they say, it's not rocket science. You know what you are up to. Let me offer a simple test: Those things you criticize in others, how do you know them so well? I won't mention what upsets me most about other people, but you know, when I point a finger at someone, three point back at me.

Usually we can sense how evil spirits attack and mislead us - although sometimes it gets murky. Jesus mentions "human traditions" - things that people do without really knowing why. If someone asks, we say, "Well, we always do it that way." Sometimes the traditions are innocent, yet they can form barriers between us and God - and other people.

Traditions at times become obstacles, but they also bring blessings. Jesus himself observes traditions - for example, the annual Passover Feast. He gathers his disciples for a sacred meal - with precise traditional formula - and in that context he institutes a new tradition - the Eucharist. He says, "Do this in memory of me." At the Last Supper Jesus established a tradition that he wants to last until the end of time.

The way we carry out Jesus' command ("Do this memory of me.") illustrates discernment of spirits. In normal circumstance we celebrate the Eucharist with full ceremony - beautiful vestments, vessels made of noble metals, precise rubrics. But in some circumstances not every tradition applies - for example, when priests celebrated clandestine Masses in concentration camps. The best they had for a chalice was a tin cup. They were obviously following a good spirit - the Holy Spirit. But if I were to use a tin cup, I would be following an evil spirit - desire to shock, lack of courtesy, maybe laziness. Do you see the difference? I am using an exaggerated example to make a point. Before we act, we need to discern the spirits. What spirit drives me? Positive or negative?

We have a great model for discernment of spirits: our present Holy Father, Pope Francis.*** I will be using his insights during this five-week series. The hard reality, as we will see next week, a spiritual deafness affects us all. Pope Francis' example can help us who are deaf - or at least hard of hearing. Now that we have recognized the need for discernment, next week I will give the first step in discerning good and evil spirits.

For today I ask you to remember this: It's not enough to simply be spiritual. There are spirits and there are spirits. What spirit impels you? Moses tells us today to hear, to observe, to be wise and intelligent. And St. James says, "Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls." Amen.


*Pastor Rick Warren describes the issue this way:

A lot of people I talk to say they struggle to figure out Godís will. They really want to understand what God wants, but they canít seem to figure it out.

Maybe youíve experienced this too. But Godís will doesnít have to be a mystery!

The truth is, God wants you to understand his will, his purpose, and his plan for your life. 
But we often end up looking for answers in ways God never intended.

For instance, you canít trust your feelings to help you understand, because your feelings are unreliable. 
Your feelings can come from fatigue, some experience youíve just been through, or an overdose of chocolate chip cookies. 
Even your heart plays tricks on you. Jeremiah 17:9 says, ďThe heart is deceitfulĒ (NIV).

And you canít find out Godís will through a simple formula, which is good. Because if his will were like a recipe, what happens if you leave out one ingredient?

The Bible says the way to discover Godís will is through a relationship:
 ďGodÖ invited you into this wonderful friendship with his Son, even Christ our LordĒ (1 Corinthians 1:9, TLB).


**Of course, when you think about it, it's no great distinction to be "spiritual. " Everyone is spiritual since we are composed of both spirit and body!

Spanish Version

Plan for this series:

August 30: Discernment of Spirits: What is it?
September 6: Discernment of Spirits: Why We Need It
September 13: Discernment of Spirits:
September 20: Discernment of Spirits:
September 27: Discernment of Spirits:

From Archives (21st Ordinary Sunday - Year B):

2012: Dealing with Distractions
2009: Not Add Nor Subtract
2006: Virtue
2003: The Walking Dead
2000: Facing Ones Own Sins

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Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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