The underlying principle of the spiritual life is simple: God is in control. He created me, he redeemed me from sin, and he will be my reward if I reach heaven. He is my beginning, my final goal, and the best way to get there!
This principle translates in daily life as: God is so interested in me, that he communicates himself to me all the time. He does this through creation, through my conscience, and through that burning longing in my heart that I naturally have for “happiness”. God, more than anyone, wants me to reach heaven!
Yet, how am I to distinguish God’s voice from the voices of my own ego and the promptings of the devil? This is the life-long task of discernment.
Instead of jumping into explanations, let’s rather imagine before ourselves an underwater man. Born and raised under the water, he has never heard anything more distinct than the dampened sounds of squeaking dolphins and of passing motor boats. His vision has never gone beyond the distance of yards at most. His movements are slow and hindered by surrounding water.
Imagine now his surprise when, coming of age, he is released for the first time from this wet cage and introduced to the world of air. Crisp sounds, horizons stretching miles and miles, free movement and the feel of the wind through his tossing hair: these are all new and wonderful.
And yet, imagine once again, what would happen when he, after a violent rocket ride, ventured into the realms of outer space: no more gravity, no more impeding winds, speeds beyond any before experienced, and sights stretching billions of light-years away.
This overall analogy can help us to explain the spiritual life. To apply the rules of movement of the underwater man to the rocket man in space just doesn’t work. In a similar way, discernment is different on each level of spiritual existence, that is, God speaks differently to us depending on what level of spiritual growth we have reached.
The three levels of Spiritual Discernment, according to St. Ignatius of Loyola are the following:
1. The soul who is drawn by pleasure and repulsed by pain. The sinner who lives in and enjoys sin.
2. The same person, who has determined to break with sin and live a life of virtue, who is, however, still attracted by the mundane pleasures of sin and repulsed by pain.
3. The virtuous man, who has not only broken with a life a sin and thus lives well, but who has come to the point of making it an internal habit to enjoy good things and dislike the attractions of sin. This man is also capable of enduring pain for the sake of love.
For each of these three levels God (and the devil) speaks differently.
The rules of discernment of St. Ignatius have given us an overall structure for understanding the difference of these levels so that we can properly hear and follow God’s will, no matter where we are on our spiritual journey.