Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Spiritual Discernment

One of the difficulties and fear as we move into the experiential and mystical aspect of Christian spirituality is whether the experience we have is from God, our own spirit/soul or from Satan. It needs spiritual discernment to distinguish between them.

Books & Culture, November/December 2007

Ambiguous Ecstasies
Visited by the Friend of Souls—or the Enemy?

David Martin reviews this book

Believe Not Every Spirit, Possession, Mysticism, and Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism by Moshe SluhovskyUniv. of Chicago Press, 2007

This study of mysticism and possession in early modern Europe is a model of scrupulous scholarship, not only on account of its detailed scrutiny of a very complex historical literature in half a dozen languages, but on account of its refusal to apply reductionist frameworks at the expense of the integrity of the data. There are many questions and problems which inhere in specific human projects, in this case the pursuit of immersion in the pure love of God...

Moshe Sluhovsky introduces his theme as the relation between bodies and souls, as well as a built-in uncertainty about whether body and/or soul were possessed by the Friend of souls or the Enemy of souls. Three quests for truth are involved: of the encounter with the divine; of the interior movements within the soul; and the truth of somatic signs in the body. For Sluhovsky, possession by spirits came to pose a major hermeneutic challenge between 1400 and 1700 in the course of which new explanatory frameworks were developed for the relations between the demonic and the divine, the body and the soul, interiority and exteriority, and the natural and the supernatural. New webs of interconnection emerged between the psychological and the physiological, experience and explanation, and the boundaries between the normative and the extraordinary. Whereas for some observers these were primarily theoretical questions, for others, especially women, they touched closely on the authenticity of markings on their bodies and their souls, as well as the reliability of their own witness...

Two modest queries occur to me. With demons so much in evidence I am surprised that angels do not figure more largely, with maybe greater reference to the neo-platonic mysticism prevalent over the same period. My own reading in 17th-century poetry suggests that neo-platonic mysticism had recourse to angels and ministers of grace with relatively little fear of demonic intrusion. I am also intrigued by the reappearance of possession and exorcism in contemporary Pentecostalism. Were Sluhovsky interested in pursing contemporary forms of the mundane healing of troubled souls, caught between the Friend of souls and the Enemy of souls, his next project might involve a visit to Brazil or Nigeria. But in such places possession is a taken-for-granted experience, whether divine or demonic, and exorcism likewise not a critical issue of disciplinary control. Freedom of the Spirit and equality of access are the very basis of the faith, though in an old African tradition Big Men can easily deploy the charisma of the spirit to create a charisma of office, and combine quasi-papal powers with those of a CEO in a major conglomerate. The only way to exorcise that kind of corruption of the spirit is to set up in business on your own...

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