This Sunday we enter into Jesus’ baptism, his encounter with the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and the voice from heaven affirming: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” What a clear and loving confirmation of who Jesus is.
Have you ever had an affirmation from God like that, a recognizable indication that God loves you and is pleased with you?
When I encounter the Holy Spirit, it usually feels like joy, a sense of warmth and excitement and rightness. Sometimes the Spirit emerges in my prayer, but more often it enters in when I connect with another person – in spiritual direction or a conversation with a friend or when someone in our small group shares something that resonates with me. These moments of the Spirit delight me, and they surprise me, too. I do what I can to open myself to God, but when it comes down to it, the Spirit does what it will.
Unfortunately, though, it’s not just the Holy Spirit that descends upon me. I also entertain the spirits of doubt, confusion, anger, and frustration. Occasionally I even meet the spirit of despair. That spirit doesn’t visit all the time, but when it does, it rocks me to the core.
How do we negotiate these different spirits? Well, the First Reading from Monday of last week tells us to test them. “Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God” (1 JN 3:22–4:6). That seems like good advice to me, but how do we know if it’s the Spirit of God or not? In the baptism story we see what the Spirit of God is like, but for us it won’t look like a dove winging down upon us.
The first letter of John and the baptism story do give us a sort of litmus test, though. 1 John says that the Holy Spirit acknowledges Christ, and we see the Spirit do just that at Jesus’ baptism as it calls him beloved and Son of God. Likewise, the Spirit does this for us. It reveals Christ in each of us, and it calls us beloved as it brings forth joy, peace, love, and hope.
The spirits that bring forth confusion, sadness, anxiety, and despair are not of God. God calls each one of us beloved, and spirits of anxiety and despair do not.
Once we recognize the Spirit of God versus the spirit of something else, what do we do? That, my friends, is a trickier question. I can tell you the obvious – that once we recognize the Holy Spirit, we should move in the direction of it and away from any spirit that is not of God. But “should” is not a helpful spiritual invitation. It takes me a long time to recognize a bad spirit and even longer to figure out how to move against it.
However, there are some practical things to do, as advised by St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises. We can pray more. We can talk with a friend or spiritual director, because bringing what is secret into the light takes the power out of it. We can be patient with ourselves and see challenges as opportunities for growth. We can try to remember that bad spirits are not the end and that the Holy Spirit will always come for us.
There’s no quick fix, though. I try to weather the storm of despair when in comes and remind myself that it doesn’t come from God. God is deeply and profoundly with me in all things, calling me beloved, even when I can’t hear it. Eventually, the storm subsides, God’s Spirit descends again, and once more I know hope and love and joy.
How do you know a bad spirit when you find one? And what do you do about it? How do you move against it and toward God?
By Sister Leslie Keener, CDP
For further reading, I recommend Hauser’s book on Discernment of Spirits. Here’s a proper citation for it:
Hauser, Richard J. Moving in the Spirit: Becoming a Contemplative in Action. North Palm Beach: Beacon Publishing, 2016.