On this Sunday of Jesus’ Temptation, I always like to prayerfully reflect on St. Ignatius’ first two Rules for discernment, and look to see where they are at play in my life. The “enemy” he speaks of refers to demonic evil, while the “good spirit” refers either to angels or to the Holy Spirit.
The first Rule: In the persons who go from mortal sin to mortal sin, the enemy is commonly used to propose to them apparent pleasures, making them imagine sensual delights and pleasures in order to hold them more and make them grow in their vices and sins. In these persons the good spirit uses the opposite method, pricking them and biting their consciences through the process of reason.
The second: In the persons who are going on intensely cleansing their sins and rising from good to better in the service of God our Lord, it is the method contrary to that in the first Rule, for then it is the way of the evil spirit to bite, sadden and put obstacles, disquieting with false reasons, that one may not go on; and it is proper to the good to give courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations and quiet, easing, and putting away all obstacles, that one may go on in well doing.
In the first rule, the evil spirit encourages the rationalization of one’s choice to remain in habitual sin, e.g. “it’s not so bad,” “they don’t understand,” “there’s plenty of time to change,” “they’re all hypocrites anyway,” “you deserve it,” “being good is no fun.”
In the second rule, the evil spirit encourages despair over one’s frailty in the pursuit of virtue, e.g. ”you’ll never change,” “you’re a fraud,” “God has rejected you,” “holiness is a pipe dream,” “it’s too demanding.”
The proper response to being thus tempted? In very simple terms: Reveal your temptations to a trusted confessor, spiritual mentor or spiritual friend and keep nothing of your temptation secret. Repent often, making St. Isaac of Syria’s dictum real in your life: “The purpose of life in our fallen world is repentance.” Trust wholly in God’s mercy, not in your own power. Pray ceaselessly for God’s consoling compassion to lift you from those dark places, and press on after falling by boldly applying your will to the virtue that opposes your tempting vice (e.g. respond to greed with generosity).
All of these strategies come down to humility, the ground of all virtue that plants our roots in the dirt of reality; the soil of truth. St. Antony of Egypt got this: “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said, groaning, “What can get one through such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”
A last thought — I always highly commend reading Fr Gallagher’s excellent intro to Ignatius’ rules for discernment to get the meat and potatoes. You will not regret reading this book and I guarantee it will open your eyes and offer you tools to see God’s leading through the thickets of temptation that befall everyone who sets their hands to the plow.