We saw in an earlier article how the experiences of miners during the Gold Rush can illustrate some facets of the discernment of spirits. An inexperienced gold miner could mistake pyrite or Fool’s Gold for real gold and be led astray into believing that he had struck it rich. In a similar way, devout but inexperienced believers can mistake natural virtuous behavior for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
But mistaking pyrite for gold was not the only trick the ‘49ers could fall for. There was another, and more heart-breaking, one. Those experienced miners who knew well the difference between true gold and “fool’s gold” could still be hoaxed into buying a “salted” mine. A “salted” mine was a tract 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 mine it. The “salted” ore was true gold, but it was all the gold there was; unwary miners, who would never have fallen for the glitter of pyrite, could still invest all their savings in this “salted” mine, only to discover that they had bought a mass of rocks sprinkled with 24 karat flecks. The Gold Belle Mine shown at the head of this article is an example of a salted mine.
The same thing 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 specks of God’s revelation.
Let us look more closely at these two lessons of discernment. The first lesson, that of mistaking pyrite for 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 do not know ourselves very well and we do not understand the spiritual life. Our errors come from our own weaknesses.
The second lesson shows a different source of error. There is no such thing as an “accidentally” salted gold mine. A miner may think that a tract of land has more gold than it actually does, but that is a mistake of judgment on his part. In contrast, someone who buys into a salted mine has been deliberately mislead by another. This happens in the spiritual life when the father of lies deliberately seeks to lead us astray. We see this in Jesus’ second and third temptations when the devil quotes Scripture to Him.
St. John Cassian writes of this kind of deceit:
We should look closely to see that no wicked interpretation fastened on to the pure gold of Scripture deceives us by the precious appearance of its metal. This is how the crafty devil attempted to deceive even the Lord, the Savior … when he said, ‘For he will command his angels concerning you, that they may guard you in all your ways, and in their hands they will carry you, lest perchance you strike your foot against a stone’. Thus he changed the precious words of Scripture by his clever use of them and gave them a contrary and harmful meaning, like someone who presents us with the image of a usurper’s face under the guise of deceptive gold.[i]
It is well known that “the devil can quote Scripture to his own ends.” The gold remains gold, but the coinage is deformed. It is such coins that most easily and most dangerously deceive us.
Distorted scripture is not the only trick we can fall for. Another saying warns us that “the devil will join the Church choir and sing Gregorian chant if it gets him what he wants.” The devil never tempts good people to do evil: he tempts them to do the wrong good. Cassian continues, “He also tries to lead us astray with counterfeits by exhorting us to pursue a certain pious work which … leads to vice under the appearance of virtue”[ii]. The first way in which he will do this is to confuse us about the duties of our state of life: a father will find himself seeing less and less of his wife and children because he is working many hours to support them. A mother will find her husband becoming a stranger because she is devoting herself so much to her children. A priest or religious will make a generous but disastrous sacrifice: they will “sacrifice” prayer for service. “For love of my neighbor (hence of God), I renounce the quest for God”[iii]. These are not imaginary dilemmas, nor are they easily resolved. On the contrary, such temptations and many other similar ones arise as soon as one decides seriously to live the two-fold commandment of love of God and love of neighbor.
William Blake wrote:
A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.[iv]
The devil knows this well, and he wields such distortions masterfully. Truth comes from God and it has its own power. When the truth is used to mislead, 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 of distorting the truth is to take a statement out of context. This is often how the Scriptures are misused. We just saw this with Jesus’ temptations in the desert. Other authoritative writings are also misused in this way. After all, the devil knows every papal document that has even been promulgated down to each comma and period.
We have seen this misuse of Church writings all through Church history. One recent instance – and one that is becoming more and more common – is the insistence on “following the Magisterium.” Of course, the deception here involves the very notion of the Magisterium.
I wrote my Open Letter to Archbishop Viganò in response to his “Statement in Defense” of contemplatives. There he utilized just such a notion of static Magisterium: “The ‘fault’ of these Religious Sisters is that they want to remain faithful to the immutable Magisterium of the Church and her two-thousand-year Tradition.”[v]
Fr. David Wilton, CPM, Superior of the Fathers of Mercy, in a sermon given on Feb. 28, 2021, said:
And it’s very important to pay attention to the true Magisterium of the Church. There are false Magisteriums of the Church, teaching heresy. How do we remain faithful to the true Magisterium of the Church? This is my suggestion: pick up the ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’ Read it, Get to know it. Form groups that are going to read it together. Get to know it. That is how you’re going to know what the true Magisterium of the Church teaches. Take up the encyclicals of the various Holy Fathers. Read them. That is what the Church teaches…If [someone] comes up 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]
Fr. Wilton speaks eloquently of “the Magisterium” but he makes no mention of the Pope as being part of the Magisterium. Archbishop Viganò objects in the name of the Magisterium to documents promulgated by Pope Francis. This should lead us to ask, “What is the relationship of the Pope to the Magisterium?”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:
Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds 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 in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful—who confirms his brethren in the faith—he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals…The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium.[viii]
According to the Catechism, the pope with the bishops in union with him constitutes the Magisterium. To invoke a “Magisterium” that leaves out the Pope, or one that sets up 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 drawn up by Bishop Robert Vasa and published on April 23, 2004.The Affirmation of Personal Faith is a series of some 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 the promise of Christ to remain with His Church always, until the end of time is a reality. I further acknowledge that those teachings pronounced in a definitive manner, even though not as an infallible definition, are binding on the consciences of the faithful and are to be adhered to with religious assent.
This is followed by the reference to article 892 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Actually, #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 an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a ‘definitive manner,’ they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to 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 office he does not even mention.
(The Affirmation of Personal Faith has recently been posted on the website of the Coalition For Cancelled 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, and 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 search for gold in order to become rich. What is the goal of discernment of spirits? That will be the subject of our next and final article.
[i] “The Conferences”, “First Conference”, XX, 4, p. 60
[iii] “Contemplative Nuns Speak”, presented by Bernard Bro, O.P., English translation by Isabel and Florence McHugh, Helicon Press, Baltimore and Dublin, 1964, p.20
[iv] William Blake “Auguries of Innocence”, line 53
[vii] CCC #890
Image: Gold Belle Salted Mine, photo provided by author.
Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.