Strange and stressful times we live in, eh? How do you de-stress amid crises, besides prayer, the sacraments, and spiritual reading? What’s your prescription for maintaining your equilibrium? When I need a respite, a total break from the bad news, I’d rather turn to a puzzle than the boob tube: jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, logic puzzles, cryptograms, sudokus, mazes – brain exercises of all kinds. Instead of fanning the flames of anxiety with one more news report on the coronavirus, or the riots, or Pope Francis’ latest crazy statement, I brew a cup of tea and turn to a puzzle. As a teenager, I read books every spare moment and particularly enjoyed murder mysteries. I think I read almost every mystery by Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, and G.K. Chesterton. How I love Chesterton’s beloved little priest, Fr. Brown! His keen understanding of human nature and his kindness to all, even criminals, inspired me. Perhaps I like mysteries because they are so much like puzzles; although I’m never much of a sleuth. I’m more like Sherlock’s Watson, or Poirot’s Hastings, or the blockhead detectives schooled by Jane Marple.
Recently at Mass my distracted mind thought about my puzzle mania. Many events in life are “puzzling.” We experience different situations: some happy... some sad... some exciting... some bewildering. What is God’s will in a given circumstance? The answer doesn’t always leap out in a “Eureka!” moment. More likely for me, I’m puzzled and vacillate. Should I participate in a particular activity? Does the Lord want me to volunteer for this or that? How should I deal with an especially difficult family matter? Sometimes, after making a decision, I second-guess and wonder if it was best. Standing at the fork in the road, I look down both avenues asking, “Was the “road not taken” the right one after all? Then I shrug and say, “What’s done is done,” and offer my uncertainty to the Lord. “O Jesus, I surrender myself to You; Take care of everything.”
Discernment of spirits is never easy, but, as St. Ignatius tells us in his Spiritual Exercises there are clear signs to indicate who’s nudging us, an angel or a demon.The devil doesn’t disturb souls enslaved in habitual mortal sin. He has those souls right where he wants them. “He fills their imagination with sensual delights and gratifications, the more readily to keep them in their vices and increase the number of their sins.” The good spirit on the other hand rouses the “sting of conscience” in an attempt to “fill them with remorse.” The devil uses an opposite strategy with the person striving to do God’s will.
“Then it is characteristic of the evil spirit to harass with anxiety, to afflict with sadness, to raise obstacles backed by fallacious reasonings that disturb the soul.” Perhaps you are struggling against a sinful habit: gossip, lying, bad language, use of pornography. Whatever the sin you are trying to overcome, the devil will persecute you with hopelessness urging you to despair. Nothing will ever change, he says, so why bother trying? A good priest once said that discouragement is always from the devil. Satan’s ultimate goal is to goad us to despair of God’s unfailing help. “What’s the use?” he whispers. “You’ll never succeed in overcoming this sin.” He urges the soul to act like a discouraged dieter. Indulge in that quart of spiritual ice cream: skip your prayers and watch TV or play video games instead. St. Ignatius, however, warns us to persevere and return fire to the enemy by doing more. If we usually say a daily rosary, add a decade. If we spend ten minutes in mental prayer, make it fifteen. When we resist the devil, he flees. “Persevere in patience,” St. Ignatius advises.
In this same situation, the good spirit “gives courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations, and peace. This He does by making all easy, by removing all obstacles so that the soul goes forward in doing good.” Many of us have experienced coincidences at vulnerable times with God’s fingerprints all over them. Perhaps someone calls or drops by for a visit when we are particularly downhearted giving us an opportunity to share our frustration and pray together, or a letter comes with exactly the right words to help us.
In all our discernment, we need to remember that demons can appear as angels of light. St. Ignatius warns that the evil spirit may begin “by suggesting thoughts that are suited to a devout soul, and ends by suggesting his own....He will endeavor little by little to end by drawing the soul into his hidden snares and evil designs.” We need to be on guard.
St. Ignatius uses the metaphor of water to describe how the spirits work. “In souls that are progressing to greater perfection, the action of the good angel is delicate, gentle, delightful. It may be compared to a drop of water penetrating a sponge. The action of the evil spirit upon such souls is violent, noisy, and disturbing. It may be compared to a drop of water falling upon a stone.” His admonition reminds me of Screwtape writing to his nephew Wormwood exulting that “We will make the whole universe a noise in the end....The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down.”
I began this reflection talking about puzzles. They are mostly quiet, solitary activities that challenge the mind as one looks for solutions. Discernment calls us to look for solutions as well, so I like to think of my puzzles as discernment training. They develop logical, rational thought processes. Grace builds on nature. If we can think logically, we are on the path to truth. So join me in puzzle mania!