Discernment of Spirits Week 2: The First Step

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

Message: If you and I do not pray, we literally don't have a prayer against Satan. Prayer is the first step to discern the spirits.

This is homily number 2 in our series - Discernment of Spirits. Last week we learned it is not enough to say, "I am spiritual." After all, there are spirits and there are spirits. How does one know what spirit drives him? Only by discernment of spirits.

This Sunday I give you the first step. To discern the spirits we have to talk to God - listen to Him. Like the man in today's Gospel we are deaf - or at least hard of hearing. Communicating with God is bit like learning sign language.

When I was doing research for this homily, I discovered that sign language began as a way of teaching deaf people about God. ` Back in the eighteenth century a Catholic priest named Fr. Charles-Michel de l'Épée founded the Instructional Method of Signs. What motivated Fr. Charles-Michel was his desire to teach Christian faith to the deaf. In the process he developed a way of communicating that has spread throughout the world.

You and I may not be physically deaf, but God uses a kind of sign language to communicate with us. In baptism he uses water and oil and physical gestures such as touching the ears and lips. In turn we can use physical gestures - kneeling and standing, lifting the hands and making the sign of the cross.

We see this back and forth communicating in our Gospel. It begins with people bringing a deaf man to Jesus. (Maybe your parent or spouse brought you here this morning.) But then Jesus takes over - and takes the man apart. Since he can't speak or hear, they rely on signs, including Jesus touching the man's ears, lips and tongue. All of a sudden the man hears a sound - a sound so precious that the Gospel records the original Aramaic word, Ephphatha, Be opened.

You and I go through a similar process when we pray. We more sense Jesus' presence than physically hear him. But he does open something inside us. This halting, sometimes frustrating, sometimes dazzling experience is called prayer - and it is the first step to spiritual discernment: discovering God's will.

We are blessed to have an extraordinary model of prayer and spiritual discernment - our current Holy Father Pope Francis. You may have heard he gets up at 4 am and spends a couple of hours in prayer before daily Mass. Pope Francis describes the Christian life as continual battle: good spirits on one side and on the other, evil spirits.

Some people have expressed surprise that Pope Francis talks so often about the devil.* He does this for two reasons: First, the pope is Catholic. (smile) We Catholics believe not only in the existence of good angels, but also twisted angels - the demons continually at work to deceive us.

That's the first reason the pope talks about the devil, but there's something else. Besides being Catholic, the pope is a Jesuit. Their founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, elaborated the rules for discerning the spirits. He based this on 1 John, chapter 4: "do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God."

Pope Francis did this all his adult life - he tested the spirits. Austin Iveregh has written an excellent biography of Pope Francis - The Great Reformer. He shows how at crucial stages, Pope Francis applied Ignatius' rules for discernment. For example, during the 2005 Conclave that elected Pope Benedict. You may have heard that Cardinal Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis) was runner-up, but you have probably not heard the whole story. According to Ivereigh, Cardinal Ratzinger was the front runner, but there was a group ("team Bergoglio") who gained enough votes to block Cardinal Ratzinger's election. Cardinal Bergoglio sensed a party spirit - factionalism. At lunch he asked his supporters to vote for Cardinal Ratzinger. Even though he did want to be pope - and it's obvious today that he enjoys being pope - he sensed a bad spirit at work. "The evil spirit always divides," he said, "and he divides Jesus." As Ivereigh observed, Cardinal Bergoglio "had glimpsed the serpent's tail in the Sistine Chapel."

Pope Francis prays daily to discern what spirit is operating behind the appearances: The Holy Spirit or the evil spirit? He says, "We forget that the Christian life is a continual battle against the seductive power of idols, against Satan and his effort to lead man to unbelief, to despair, to moral and physical suicide."

In his very first homily as pope, he gave this startling quote: "Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil." You might remember the Bob Dylan song: You gotta serve somebody. "Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord but you’re gonna have to serve somebody."

If you and I do not pray to God, we literally don't have a prayer against Satan, Prayer is the starting point to discern the spirits. Next week I will give you the most important rule in this spiritual battle. We will learn what it means to say, "Get behind me, Satan." That's for next Sunday.

For today we see the first step: prayer, time alone with Jesus. It's like learning sign language - a way of communicating for us who are deaf. Jesus wants to heal the hard of hearing. Remember the beautiful word, "Ephphatha." That is, "be opened." Amen.


*In his first homily as pope, he said: " When one does not profess Jesus Christ - I recall the phrase of Leon Bloy – “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil."

Spanish Version

Plan for this series:

August 30: Discernment of Spirits: What is it?
September 6: Discernment of Spirits: The First Step
September 13: Discernment of Spirits: Most Important Rule
September 20: Discernment of Spirits:
September 27: Discernment of Spirits:

From Archives (23rd 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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