Panning for gold “is slow, backbreaking work.”[i] The panner stands knee-deep in cold, running water, scooping up the deposit at the bottom of the stream and slowly swirling it in his pan. The heavier rocky material, such as gold, remains in the pan while the lighter sand and gravel flows out with the water. The miner scoops up pan after pan in the hope that the stream holds gold dust or nuggets. Slow, backbreaking work indeed!

How can this be compared to spiritual panning? The miner is searching for gold, the valuable metal that will make him rich. We are searching for the golden thoughts inspired in our minds by the Holy Spirit. Just as the miner trusts that the creek he has claimed carries gold, so we trust that God sends His graces into our minds to enlighten and guide us. We want to discover those thoughts which have their source in Him.

Unlike the miners, our panning for gold begins, not with a vague hope, but with an act of faith. We believe that God sends His graces into our minds that we may know His will. But, as we have seen, these graces may “often be quite ordinary things, like a bit of common sense.”[ii] So we need to test our thoughts, to assay them as the miners assay their ore, to find which ones bear God’s golden graces.

How do we go about this? We have said that spiritual panning, which is the first step in discernment, is an act of faith. It is also an act of communion. At least at the beginning, until I have learned how to recognize my thoughts and how they act, I need to work with an experienced discerner. This is someone whom I trust who understands discernment and has practiced it him or herself. When I meet with him or her, we begin with a prayer; a prayer to the Holy Spirit is certainly suitable. Then, recalling Jesus’s words, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,”[iii] and trusting in His guidance, I look back over the past day or so, and tell my guide the thoughts that I have had. I will find that, like the soil in a panning tray, thoughts have different weights. Some have little weight and flow through and out of my mind like sand with the miner’s water. Other thoughts are heavier and remain in my mind. These are the thoughts that I may need to consider, for they carry with them a weight of memories, and God works in a marvelous way to touch my heart through my memories.

This process is known as the manifestation of thoughts or the manifestation of the heart. One question that has been asked: How does all this differ from psychoanalysis? There are several notable differences. First, of course, this manifestation of thoughts is done in prayer. It is done in the presence of God, with a fellow pilgrim supporting me along the way of the Spirit. Another difference is that I do not try to force my thoughts out into the light. I do not dig for them, as a miner digs for gold. I simply let them appear and pass them on to my guide for assaying their value. Finally, unlike psychoanalysis, I am not concerned about where my thoughts come from. That may come up later, but it is not important at this stage. What will be important, as we will see in another article, is the direction to which my thoughts lead me. What effect do they have on my relationship with myself, God and with others? But that is a further step in discernment. At the moment we are still at the first step, the manifestation of thoughts, discovering what thoughts go through my mind and my heart.

A description of this process will be helpful, and we have an excellent one in our Carmelite history. When St. Thérèse of Lisieux was about 10 years old, she experienced an agonizing attack of scruples. Recently, in Where Peter Is, the subject of scruples has been mentioned in a couple of articles. What are scruples? C.S. Lewis gives us a detailed description of the scruples he struggled with when he was about the same age as Thérèse: “By sheer mistake – and I still believe it to have been an honest mistake – in spiritual technique I had rendered my private practice of that religion a quite intolerable burden. It came about in this way. Like everyone else I had been told as a child that one must not only say one’s prayers but think about what one was saying. Accordingly, when…I came to a serious belief, I tried to put this into practice. At first it seemed plain sailing. But soon the false conscience (St. Paul’s ‘Law’. Herbert’s ‘prattler’) came into play. One had no sooner reached ‘Amen’ than it whispered, ‘Yes. But are you sure you were really thinking about what you said?’; then, more subtly, ‘Were you thinking about it as well as you did last night?’ The answer, for reasons I did not then understand, was nearly always No. ‘Very well,’ said the voice, ‘hadn’t you, then, better try it over again?’ And one obeyed; but of course with no assurance that the second attempt would be any better.”

Lewis describes the result of trying to measure up to the impossible demands of this inner voice: he tried to be sure that he had “realized” the words he was saying, that is, that he had produced at each word “a certain vividness of the imagination and the affections.” Of course, he never did, so he had to go back and try to pray the same words with deeper fervor. “And night after night, dizzy with a desire for sleep and often in a kind of despair, I endeavored to pump up my ‘realizations.’” These nocturnal attempts at prayer “had already brought me to such a pass that the nightly torment projected its gloom over the whole evening and I dreaded bedtime as if I were a chronic suffered from insomnia. Had I pursued the same road much further I think I should have gone mad.”[iv] Instead, he gave up the practice of religion in any form and would only return to it, quite reluctantly, many years later.

Scruples are an inflammation of one’s conscience, an excessive activity of moral self-judgment. Thérèse was more fortunate than Lewis, or perhaps it is more correct to say that she experienced an agony similar to his only at the end of her life, during her trial of faith. By God’s providence, in her childhood, Thérèse was not left to struggle with her scruples on her own. Every morning, her older sister, Marie, would dress her hair, curling it in the way their father liked, and during these hair-dressing sessions, Thérèse told Marie all her thoughts and imaginings. Marie carefully sorted them out, instructing Thérèse on which ones she should mention in confession and which she should simply ignore. Thérèse sums it up by saying, “Marie knew everything that went on in my soul”[v]. This intensive manifestation of the heart lasted 17 months, until Marie entered Carmel. Exactly 10 weeks later Thérèse received her radiant Christmas grace.

This manifestation of the heart is a very ancient practice. Already in the 4th century with the Desert Fathers, it is part of the normal formation, both initial and ongoing, of hermits and monks. With Thérèse, we see that there is nothing specifically monastic about it. In this instance, it takes place, not in a monastery, but at home; not in the context of confession, but during a hair-dressing session, with the director heating the curling iron while the directee opens her heart and mind! Yet we see that this homey instance of spiritual intimacy had an explosive effect on the night of Christmas Eve some months later, when Thérèse, age 12, was not only freed from her scruples but began to run like a giant along the path of spiritual union.

What makes this manifestation of the heart so powerful? My heart is the center of my being, my deepest identity. It is there that God speaks with His silent voice and it is there that I must hear Him. But there are many other voices resounding within me, voices from past experiences stored up in my memory. “The Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this Word he speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul,” says St. John of the Cross.[vi] In order to come to this interior silence, I need to let out all the other voices resounding within me, and hand them over to God. I do this by making my thoughts known to an experienced director.

But not a all of us have a Marie in whom to confide. The large majority of Catholics are laypeople, and good spiritual directors have never been in abundant supply. What are those people to do, then, who cannot find someone to whom they feel that they can open their soul?

One suggestion can be given which is as old as monasticism. In his “Life of St. Antony” of the desert, St. Athanasius quotes Antony who gives this advice to those who wish to open their hearts to God yet have no one in whom to confide. He says simply, “Let us note and write down our deeds and the movements of our soul as if we were to tell them to each other. If we are utterly ashamed to have them known, be assured that we shall cease sinning and even cease thinking of anything evil … So if we write out thoughts as if to tell them to one another we shall guard ourselves the better from foul thoughts.”[vii] The word “journaling” may be modern, but the practice goes back to antiquity!

Marie told Thérèse which thoughts she should confess and which to ignore. It is also important to know which thoughts to keep. We shall look into this question in our next article.


[i] https://www.britannica.com/technology/panning

[ii] “The Life Within: the Prayer of Union”, by Fr. Dominic Hoffman, O.P. Sheed & Ward, New York, 1966, p. 53

[iii] Matt. 18, 20

[iv] C.S. Lewis, “Surprised By Joy”, Harcourt Brace and Co., 1955, pp. 61-62

[v] St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “Autobiographical Writings”, Man. A, fol. 41v, (chap. 4)

[vi] St. John of the Cross, “Sayings of Light and Love,” #100

[vii] “Life of St. Antony”, translated by Sr. Mary Emily Keenan, S.C.N., “Early Christian Biographies”, the Catholic University of America Press, Inc. Washington D.C., 1964chap. 55, p. 185

Image: Adobe Stock. By Björn Wylezich.

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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.

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