Discernment is one of the hallmarks of an Ignatian approach to spirituality. As Pope Francis asks in the concluding section of Gaudete et Exsultate, “How can we know if something comes from the Holy Spirit or if it stems from the spirit of the world or the spirit of the devil?”
The ability to discern between the good and the bad in “the motions of the soul” (to use the phrase of St. Ignatius) is a grace or gift from the Holy Spirit that we all need to develop “through prayer, reflection, reading and good counsel.” Without this ability to discern we can easily blow with the prevailing winds of the zeitgeist or be led down the very gentle and almost imperceptible slope that leads away from God.
As is often apparent in the words of Francis, he is concerned with how young people can be given the spiritual weapons they need in order to battle against the spirit of the world and the spirit of the devil. In this context he even uses a term from popular culture – “zapping” – in order to shed light on the sad reality that “without the wisdom of discernment, we can easily become prey to every passing trend.”
Zapping is a term used for a generation or so to describe avoiding television commercials either by changing channels on the remote or through DVR technology. This ability to see what we want to see and avoid what we want to avoid might be why the pope is so focused on discernment as he concludes Gaudete et Exsultate. If, as Francis states, “happiness is a paradox” that involves accepting “the mysterious logic that is not of this world,” a logic, as noted by St. Bonaventure, that emanates from the Cross, then how hard must it be for those “immersed in a culture of zapping” to be truly happy.
How can those who “zap” their way through life achieve anything more than a superficial existence of momentarily pleasures? All of us, and not just those who have lost their lives through opioid addiction, are potential victims of the zapping culture of instant gratification through self-medication.
Back in the 1950s the work of Olds and Milner brought neuroscience into the mainstream and taught the world just how addictive momentary pleasures can be. Their lab rats were willing to cross an electrified floor and abandon newborns in order to press a lever that would stimulate the pleasure center of their brains. Often the rats had to be unhooked from the apparatus because they would forego food and water while pressing the lever up to 2,000 times per hour.
When entrapped in such a rat-like cycle of superficial pleasures it is almost impossible for people to make use of their faculties of discernment. St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out in the Summa Theologica that our passions cloud our judgment and delude us into thinking that a deficient object of satisfaction is really good for us. His remedy was the cultivation of the virtue of prudence: what Ignatius and Francis might call discernment.
What to some might seem as a throwaway line that tries to make an obscure point by using a phrase from the modern cultural jargon is really the key that unlocks the entire text of Gaudete et Exsultate. Humankind has always been prone to seeking pleasure in those things that give momentary rather than lasting satisfaction, but until recently no generation has been brought up like lab rats with the ability to achieve that instant pleasure continuously through their electronic devices, let alone through the traditional addictions of things like drink and gambling. Think of preschoolers with smart phones and computer tablets.
The Holy Father warns his readers that “when, in God’s presence, we examine our life’s journey, no area can be off limits.” Holiness, meaning true happiness, involves “an authentic process of leaving ourselves behind in order to approach the mystery of God, who helps us to carry out the mission to which He has called us, for the good of our brothers and sisters.” Happiness is all about unhooking ourselves from the lab-rat apparatuses that bind us to the self-centered pleasures of this world so that we can truly discern what is good and what is not.
Francis concludes his exhortation by reminding us that our ultimate model in this quest for sanctity and happiness the “saint among the saints,” Mary the Mother of God. It is certainly important that we look to her as our guide as we journey through life, but it is maybe even more important that we see her as our companion on that journey.
“She teaches us the way of holiness and she walks ever at our side. She does not let us remain fallen and at times she takes us into her arms without judging us…She does not need us to tell her what is happening in our lives. All we need do is whisper, time and again: ‘Hail Mary…’”
All we need do is whisper, time and again: “Hail Mary…” And in doing so it is the hope of Francis that we come to realize the profound truth of the words with which Léon Bloy concludes his powerful novel The Woman Who Was Poor: “There is only one misery and that is – NOT TO BE SAINTS.”