We have seen in a previous article how the experiences of miners during the gold rush can illustrate certain facets of the discernment of spirits. An inexperienced gold miner might mistake pyrite or fool’s gold for real gold and be misled into thinking he made it rich. Likewise, godly but inexperienced believers may confuse natural virtuous behavior with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
But mistaking pyrite for gold wasn’t the only trick the 49ers could fall for. There was another, and more heartbreaking. Experienced miners who were familiar with the difference between real gold and “fool’s gold” could still be tricked into purchasing a “salt” mine. A “salt” mine was a stretch of land that crooks had strewn with gold-bearing rocks. This gave it the illusion of containing a rich vein of gold for those who would exploit it. The “salty” ore was real gold, but that was all the gold there was; careless miners, who would never have fallen under the spell of pyrite, could still invest all their savings in this “salty” mine, only to discover that they had bought a pile of rocks sprinkled with 24-carat flakes. the beautiful gold mine shown at the head of this article is an example of a salt mine.
The same can happen in our covenant with God. It is not only our own ignorance that can mislead us. We can also be misled by others, who – perhaps in all sincerity – can impose on us beliefs and behaviors that have only grains of God’s revelation.
Let’s take a closer look at these two lessons of discernment. The first lesson, that of confusing pyrite with gold and thinking that our natural virtues and consolations show that we are guided by the Holy Spirit, indicates a lack of knowledge and understanding on our part. We don’t know each other very well and we don’t understand the spiritual life. Our mistakes come from our own weaknesses.
The second lesson shows another source of error. There is no “accidentally” salted gold mine. A miner may think that a piece of land contains more gold than it actually has, but this is a misjudgment on his part. By contrast, someone buying from a salt mine has been deliberately misled by another. This happens in the spiritual life when the father of lies deliberately seeks to lead us astray. We see this in the second and third temptations of Jesus when the devil quotes the scriptures to him.
Saint John Cassian writes about this kind of deception:
We must look closely to see that no misinterpretation attached to the pure gold of Scripture deceives us by the precious appearance of its metal. This is how the cunning devil tried to deceive even the Lord, the Saviour…when he said: ‘For he shall command his angels concerning you, that they shall keep you in all your ways, and in their hands they shall will carry you, lest you perhaps stumble your foot against a stone. He thus changed the precious words of Scripture by his learned use and gave them a contrary and harmful meaning, like someone who presents to us the image of the face of a usurper under the appearance of gold misleading.[i]
It is well known that “the devil can quote the scriptures for his own purposes.” Gold remains gold, but money is deformed. These are the pieces that most easily and dangerously deceive us.
Twisted scriptures aren’t the only trick we can fall into. Another saying warns us that “the devil will join the church choir and sing the Gregorian chant if he gets what he wants.” The devil never tempts good people to do evil: he tempts them to do bad good. Cassian continues: “He also tries to mislead us with counterfeits by urging us to pursue a certain pious work which…leads to vice under the guise of virtue”[ii]. The first way he will do this is to confuse us about the duties of our state of life: a father will find himself seeing his wife and children less and less because he works many hours to support them. A mother will see her husband become a stranger because she is so devoted to her children. A priest or religious will make a generous but disastrous sacrifice: he will “sacrifice” prayer for service. “For the love of my neighbor (therefore of God), I renounce the quest for God”[iii]. These are not imaginary dilemmas, nor easy to solve. On the contrary, such temptations and many other similar ones arise as soon as one decides to live seriously the double commandment of love of God and love of neighbour.
William Blake wrote:
A truth that is spoken with evil intent
Beat all the lies you can invent.[iv]
The devil knows this well, and he masterfully handles such distortions. The truth comes from God and it has its own power. When truth is used to deceive, it does not lose its power: that power is used for evil. A distorted or partial truth is more powerful and more dangerous than an outright lie.
One way to twist the truth is to take a statement out of context. This is often how the scriptures are misused. We have just seen it with the temptations of Jesus in the desert. Other authoritative writings are also misused in this way. After all, the devil knows every papal document that has even been enacted down to every comma and period.
We have seen this misuse of Church writings throughout Church history. A recent example – and one that is becoming increasingly common – is the insistence on “following the Magisterium”. Of course, the deception here concerns the very notion of Magisterium.
I wrote my Open Letter to Bishop Viganò in response to his “Declaration in Defence” of the contemplatives. There he used such a notion of a static magisterium: “The ‘flaw’ of these nuns is to want to remain faithful to the immutable magisterium of the Church and its bimillenary tradition. »[v]
Prof. David Wilton, CPM, Superior of the Fathers of Mercy, in a sermon delivered on February 28, 2021, said:
And it is very important to pay attention to the true magisterium of the Church. There are false Magisters of the Church, teaching heresy. How to remain faithful to the true Magisterium of the Church? Here is my suggestion: take the ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’ Read it, Get to know it. Form groups to read it together. Get to know him. This is how you will know what the true magisterium of the Church teaches. Take up the encyclicals of the different Holy Fathers. Read the. This is what the Church teaches… If [someone] comes to me and says something that is contrary to the “Catechism of the Catholic Church”, I have every right to say to that person: “I’m sorry, but the Church does not teach that.[vi]
Prof. Wilton speaks eloquently of the “Magisterium,” but he makes no mention of the Pope as part of the Magisterium. Bishop Viganò opposes the name of the magisterium to the documents promulgated by Pope Francis. This should lead us to ask ourselves: “What is the relationship of the Pope with the Magisterium?
the Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:
Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium aims to ensure that the People of God dwell in the truth that liberates. To accomplish this service, Christ endowed the shepherds of the Church with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms.[vii]
The Catechism also says,
The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility by virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and master of all the faithful – who confirms his brothers in the faith – he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine relating to faith or morals… The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of the bishops when, with the Successor of Peter, they exercise the supreme magisterium.[viii]
According to the Catechism, the pope together with the bishops in union with him constitutes the magisterium. To invoke a “magisterium” that leaves out the pope, or that erects the pope without the bishops, is to distort the truth, and to distort it in a serious way.
Another example of this distortion of the magisterium is found in the Affirmation of personal faith written by Bishop Robert Vasa and published April 23, 2004. The Affirmation of Personal Faith is a series of approximately 11 statements of belief to which the signer adheres. Article 11 states:
I affirm and believe that the Church teaches with God-given authority and that Christ’s promise to always remain with His Church until the end of time is a reality. I further recognize that these teachings pronounced definitively, even if they do not constitute an infallible definition, impose themselves on the conscience of the faithful and must be respected with religious assent.
It is followed by the reference to Article 892 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
In fact, #892 says:
Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at a definition infallible and without pronouncing itself in a “definitive way”, they propose in the exercise of the ordinary magisterium a teaching which leads to a better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals.
Like Archbishop Vigano and Fr. Wilton, Bishop Vasa believes in the authority of the Church but without the pope, whose function he does not even mention.
(The Personal Affirmation of Faith was recently posted on the site of the Coalition For Canceled Priests, an organization that began in 2021 during the disciplinary saga of Fr. James Altman of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Affirming this understanding of the Magisterium is part of the application process for priests seeking help from the Coalition.)
That a priest, a bishop, an archbishop can be misled to the point of giving a distorted version of the Magisterium in the name of the Magisterium shows how necessary the discernment of spirits is.
But necessary for what? Miners are looking for gold to get rich. What is the purpose of discerning of spirits? This will be the subject of our next and last article.
[i] “The Conferences”, “First Conference”, XX, 4, p. 60
[iii] “Contemplative Nuns Speak”, introduced by Bernard Bro, OP, English translation by Isabel and Florence McHugh, Helicon Press, Baltimore and Dublin, 1964, p.20
[iv] William Blake “Auguries of Innocence”, line 53
[vi] https://youtu.be/PBgpUWouMdE In the last 5 minutes of his homily, starting at 6:01 p.m.
[vii] CCC #890
Image: Gold Belle Salted Mine, photo provided by the author.