Rule 1 & 2 Example: St. Augustine’s Conversion

“The first rule: in persons who are going from mortal sin to mortal sin, the enemy is ordinarily accustomed to propose apparent pleasures to them, leading them to 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 a contrary method, stinging and biting their consciences through their rational power of moral judgment” (St. Ignatius). 

St. Augustine’s famous conversion story, as told in his Confessions, is a great example of St. Ignatius’ 1st Rule.

During his youth, Augustine’s life was dominated by a powerful movement (of the enemy – a movement away from God and toward serious sin) toward unrestrained self-indulgence:

  • “In my youth, I burned to fill myself with evil things…. I dared to run wild in different and dark ways of passion” (II.1).

As he grows up, Augustine begins to notice the “stinging and biting” (of the good spirit – although he wouldn’t have known at the time that it was “the good spirit”).

  • Augustine’s life of “fruitless seedings of grief” and “restless weariness” (II.2) begins to awaken with Augustine a desire for a spiritual change.

After conversing with Ponticianus and Alypis and the dramatic conversion story of two minor officials in imperial Rome who left their posts to become desert monks like St. Anthony, Augustine feels profound anguish as he compares their immediate and vigorous response to God with his own protracted helplessness and wavering. He recounts this anguish:

  • “This was the nature of my sickness. I was in torment, reproaching myself more bitterly than ever as I twisted and turned in my chain. I hoped that my chain might be broken once and for all, because it was only a small thing that held me now” (VIII.11).

What follows is one of the best descriptions of the good spirit “stinging and biting the conscience”

  • “And you, O Lord, never ceased to watch over my secret heart. In your stern mercy you lashed me with the twin scourge of fear and shame in case I should give way once more and the worn and slender remnant of my chain should not be broken but gain new strength and bind me all the faster” (VIII.11).

Augustine is now in a real spiritual battle between the influences of the enemy and the good spirit.

  • In my heart I kept saying “Let it be now, let it be now!,” and merely by saying this I was on the point of making the resolution. I was on the point of making it, but I did not succeed… “I stood on the brink of resolution…. I tried again and came a little nearer to my goal, and then a little nearer still, so that I could almost reach out and grasp it. But I did not reach it…” (VIII.11).

He recounts the influence of the enemy in powerful language.

  • “I was held back by mere trifles, the most paltry inanities, all my old attachments. They plucked at my garment of flesh and whispered, “Are you going to dismiss us? From this moment we shall never be with you again, forever and ever. From this moment you will never be allowed to do this thing or that, for evermore….”

As Augustine begins to turn toward the Lord, he provides very insightful “directional language” to explain the influence of the enemy:

  • “These voices … no longer barred my way, blatantly contradictory, but their mutterings seemed to reach me from behind, as though they were stealthily plucking at my back, trying to make me turn my head when I wanted to go forward. Yet in my state of indecision, they kept me from tearing myself away, from shaking myself free of them and leaping across the barrier to the other side, where you were calling me” (VIII.11).

We are now entering into St. Ignatius’ 2nd Rule, in which a person begins to move toward God:

“The second: in persons who are going on intensely purifying their sins and rising from good to better in the service of God our Lord, the method is contrary to that in the first rule. For then it is proper to the evil spirit to bite, sadden, and place obstacles, disquieting with false reasons, so that the person may not go forward. And it is proper to the good spirit to give courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations and quiet, easing and taking away all obstacles, so that the person may go forward in doing good” (St. Ignatius). 

As Augustine continues to move in the direction of our Lord, he notices a fresh movement of the good spirit, filled with hope and peace, that inspires him to toward a new path:

  • “I had turned my eyes elsewhere, and while I stood trembling at the barrier, on the other side I could see the chaste beauty of Continence in all her serene, unsullied joy, as she modestly beckoned me to cross over and to hesitate no more. She stretched out loving hands to welcome and embrace me, holding up a host of good examples to my sight. With her were countless boys and girls, great numbers of the young and people of all ages…. She smiled at me to give me courage, as though she were saying, “Can you not do what these men and women do? Do you think they find the strength to do it in themselves and not in the Lord their God? … Why do you try to stand in your own strength and fail? Cast yourself upon God and have no fear. He will not shrink away and let you fall. Cast yourself upon him without fear, for he will welcome you and cure you of your ills” (VIII.11).

Augustine has “turned his eyes” in a new direction. He notices the invitation to “cross over” and be “embraced”. He can see new and inspiring examples to give him courage to make that leap of faith. The twisting and turning, the sternness of God, the scourge of fear and shame, has faded. Now, he’s inspired, courageous, hopeful, joyful, loved, a gentle yet powerful movement “forward” toward God.

Augustine now flings himself under a fig tree, sheds graced-filled tears of repentance, and hears the voice of a child calling him to “take and read”. He opens the Scriptures. Reads St.

  • “He opens the Scriptures, and finds the words of St. Paul: “The night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us, then, cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light …” (Rom 13:12ff.). In that instant Augustine’s life is remade, and he commences a spiritual journey that will lead to great holiness” (VIII.12).

In conclusion, Rules 1 and 2 indicate that we must always begin discernment of spirits by asking:

  • What is the fundamental direction of this person’s life? Are they going away from God (habitual mortal sin) or toward God (good to better)?

Only when we have answered this question can we accurately discern the spiritual movements the person is experiencing.





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