A Guide to Ignatian Discernment: Donuts for Dinner (And Other Ways the False Spirit Works)

July 25, 2022

The clock hands keep moving later and later. I step on a monster truck and trip into the couch. Six times before dinner, two times after dinner, and another three times before bedtime. That is how many times I asked for help cleaning up the toys. I want to throw up my hands and exclaim “Fine! I will do it myself!” I want to scoop up the toys, reorganize the bins, and get the job done correctly. In the battle of wills, I have been defeated by a monster truck and a 6-year-old.

The false spirit (or enemy, Satan, evil) often appears like a Lego hidden in the carpet, or a monster truck peeking out from under the edge of the couch. This false spirit lurks in the shadows, waiting for opportunities to exploit our weaknesses. It gnaws at our willpower and forces us to a breaking point. St. Ignatius gave us three images to help us spot this trickster as well as strategies to bolster our spiritual defenses. They are also referred to as Rules 12-14 in the principles of discernment.

My own self-talk manifests itself in unique ways depending on how the false spirit is most active, however the first is the most vividly depicted in my life right now.

#1. “I’m just so tired” The persistent child.

Tonight, my toddler ate a donut for dinner while we walked through the grocery store. I did not wake up this morning intent on winning the Lackluster Mom of the Year award. I had been in three meetings at work, then picked up the toddler at preschool, met my sister and my two older kids for some activities with an out-of-town guest. As the adults conversed, my 8-year-old son and my 10-year-old nephew each managed to lose a shoe in the creek that runs through the park. After an exhausting search in the sun, we still came up one shoe short. They shared a shoe as we traversed the wooden bridge and made our way back to our cars.

On the drive home, my “low fuel” light popped on and I also realized I desperately needed groceries. I left the older two kids with my husband, but the 2-year-old was insistent that he needed to go to the store with me. Because he is still transitioning to his new preschool, I begrudgingly took him, just to get out of the house and get the shopping done… BIG MISTAKE. I dragged him crying through every aisle as I frantically threw taco fixings and fruit in the cart. And then, right next to the sliced bread and tortillas was a box of heavily processed, highly sugared donuts.

So that’s how I became that mom who let their kid eat his way through the store so I could finish my shopping in peace. Most days I have my life more together than this. When I read Ignatius’s description of the false spirit as a petulant child, I feel the utter exhaustion of an end of the day grocery run. The donut came when I had no more fight left in me.

Likewise, the false spirit erodes our willpower to fight racism, injustice, and the oppression of the most vulnerable. These problems are bigger than me, and my small acts seem meaningless and insignificant. I am too tired to fight the big fight. Speaking with integrity at our workplaces, in our civic government, and in our communities, it all becomes too much. I want to give in, to buy the donuts, to silence the conflict at any cost.

#2. “I’m so embarrassed.” The secret.

One of the most telling ways that the enemy works on me is to constantly remind me that my weaknesses and failings must be hidden. I want to maintain my reputation as being strong and capable. If I ask for help, will that change how other people see me? What if I let people down? I’m sharing my donut and wayward toy stories because these are the ways that God is working on me. I’m still learning the delicate balance of setting clear boundaries, while being more patient with my kids. I want them to explore, to come up with new creative ideas. But I also need them to come when I call them, put away the toys at bedtime, and not throw their shoes into running water. Whatever our struggle is, God never asks us to hide it from those most close to us (our spouse, spiritual advisor, and most trusted friends). If you feel that sense of shame that makes you hide the action, thought, or temptation from these key groups, then it’s probably an indication that the false spirit is at work and these people might have a difficult truth to reflect back.

#3. “I never learn.” The weak spot.

Do you ever beat yourself over having the same tensions within your family, the same sins to confess, the same bad habits that you can’t seem to kick? Our commitment to following Christ is tested over and over, oftentimes in similar ways. Through this purification, God continues to heal us. I get discouraged and berate myself for “never learning” and falling into the same traps. This self-talk around failure is one way the false spirit exploits me: telling me I’m not capable of change, that I’m stupid and weak and will never be enough.

St. Ignatius lived into these three workings of the false spirit. He struggled to name them so that all of those who would use his Spiritual Exercises in the future would also grow in the ability to call out the enemy in our midst.

The donut, the shame, the guilt. None of these are the real enemy. The real enemy wins when we allow these tensions and fears to overshadow God. We have convinced ourselves that we must be the makers of our own destiny (at all costs), and we choose our own fleeting happiness over all else.

 

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Jen has a bachelor's degree from Loyola Marymount University is in History with minors in Secondary Education and Philosophy. She then went on to receive a Masters in Pastoral Theology with a specialization in Spiritual Direction. She has created formation materials, discernment tools, and small group processes that are being used around the country in Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish, and English. Along with Fr. Tri Dinh, S.J., she co-founded Christus Ministries. Jen continues to write and research for Christus Ministries, particularly around best practices in young family faith development. Jen works for the Sisters of Notre Dame in California as the Associate Director of Mission Advancement. Jen, Jason, and their three children live in Southern California.

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