Dualism, Dichotomy and Discernment

The first time I became aware that I didn’t know what “dichotomous” meant was when I was beginning my PhD in Atmospheric Chemistry and part of the project was described as collecting “dichotomous rain and aerosol samples”. Of course, I looked it up in the dictionary:

Dividing or branching into two pieces.

In the context of my research project, these dichotomous samples were to be collected simultaneously to get a deeper understanding of what processes were going on with trace metals in the atmosphere. My online dictionary elaborates on such a division as involving apparently incompatible or opposite principles, a duality. But other definitions of dichotomy include:

The division of a class into two disjoint sub-classes that are together comprehensive (logic)

The division of a genus into two species: a division into two subordinate parts. (biology, taxonomy)

There is a subtle difference between duality and dichotomy and if I were to sum up what I mean by the title of this post I would say it is about discernment when we have two opposite things going on at the same time, when we are split in two. In Ignatian terms, discernment in such conditions is most likely to be second time choice – involving turmoil of spirits – or third time choice, where there is indifference. Ignatius gives a very useful tool for making decisions by third time choice.

This will be to weigh the matter by reckoning the number of advantages that would accrue to me…solely for the praise of God our Lord…I would do the same with the second alternative, that is, weigh the advantages and benefits as well as the disadvantages and danger of not having it.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola trans. Louis J. Puhl SJ

Third time choice can be worked out using a table:

I should apply for the job at School. I should NOT apply for the job at School.
Advantages Disadvantages Advantages Disadvantages

Church school – ethos  
Has a prayer room!  
Energy to pursue spiritual direction
Hassle of moving when I’m settled  
Would feel disloyal to people who have supported me  
Familiarity – established here   Good colleagues I know I work well with Have not enjoyed being here since last years stress
An partial example of making a third time choice.

While I have a few notable experiences of what Ignatius describes as first and third time choice, by far my most common experience of discernment involves wrestling with the turmoil of spirits as Ignatius describes when he is talking about spiritual desolation:

I describe desolation…as darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to the want of faith, want of hope, want of love….

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola trans. Louis J. Puhl SJ.

Although we might view spiritual consolation and desolation as a duality, maybe that is an over simplification and our experienced reality is more of a dichotomy in the sense that I’m thinking about two opposite things going on at the same time. Ignatius gives some good advice for when we find ourselves in desolation:

6. Although in desolation we ought not to change our first resolutions, it is very helpful intensely to change ourselves against the same desolation, as by insisting more on prayer, meditation, on much examination, and by giving ourselves more scope in some suitable way of doing penance.

7. Let him who is in desolation consider how the Lord has left him in trial in his natural powers, in order to resist the different agitations and temptations of the enemy; since he can with the Divine help, which always remains to him, though he does not clearly perceive it: because the Lord has taken from him his great fervor, great love and intense grace, leaving him, however, grace enough for eternal salvation.

8. Let him who is in desolation labor to be in patience, which is contrary to the vexations which come to him: and let him think that he will soon be consoled, employing against the desolation the devices, as is said in the sixth Rule

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola translated by Elder Mullan

In the context of this post and the current turmoils in my life, I have been thinking about the fourth of the twelve steps:

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Alcoholics Anonymous: The Twelve Steps

When I did the work on this step as a young woman I used the workbook “Blueprint for Progress” that was suggested and designed for this purpose. One of the aspects in the presentation was different characteristics and their opposites, and we are invited to propose where we sit in the scale in between them. We are asked to describe examples that support our self assessment. It is not so easy as it sounds.

I know that I brought a wealth of judgement to each pair of characteristics. Take for example, selfish and unselfish. Straight away, there is the judgement that unselfish is good, selfish is bad, and I want to be unselfish. And actually I did and still do think that I am closer to unselfish than selfish on such a linear scale. But, and here is the kicker, what if being too unselfish is not a “good” thing, what if it is something that actually leads to spiritual desolation? It is a common misconception that spiritual consolation is what feels good and that spiritual desolation feels bad. Ignatius says:

We must carefully observe the whole course of our thoughts…But the course of thought suggested to us may terminate in something evil, or distracting, or less good than the soul had formerly proposed to do. Again it may end in what weakens the soul, or disquiets it; or by destroying the peace, tranquility, and quiet which it had before, it may cause disturbance to the soul. These things are a clear sign that the thoughts are proceeding from the evil spirit, the enemy of our progress an eternal salvation.

Notice, that Ignatius is talking about our thoughts and not necessarily our actions, even though these thoughts may lead to a particular course of action. How does it relate to the duality I was describing above? It comes down to those two very useful discernment questions:

Where does my impulse to be unselfish come from?

Where does it lead?

For me, sometimes, it is a critical voice in my head telling me not to be so selfish, and it is sometimes loud and sometimes quiet. It brings with it a feeling of shame, of not being good enough, and it emotionally blackmails me to over generosity, which ultimately leads to resentment and enslavement to fear. Being unselfish may be good, but if the reality of it is as I just described, I am describing spiritual desolation, not spiritual consolation. John Ortberg offers a similar dualism in “The Me I Want to Be” when he talks about signature sin in relation to our strengths and weaknesses. He describes our signature sin as being our greatest strength overreaching.

We come to know ourselves as loved sinners in the Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises and my own inner journey and listening to others has shown me that we are creatures of mixed motives: our pure motives to do the good and right thing which is more for the glory of God gets hijacked by other movements which can pull us off course from the greater good and we find ourselves in spiritual desolation as Ignatius describes it. In effect what I am suggesting is that the duality of spiritual consolation and desolation may be happening simultaneously, and may be the experience of turmoil of spirits.

I read an article on Linked In this week on The Art of Enough. (The Art of Enough; 7 ways to build a balanced life and a flourishing world). I was drawn by the diagram to begin with because it resonated with what I have been pondering and writing about.

On the one hand, there is the duality of the two extremes and on the other there is the position of balance in between the two extremes. Ignatius talks about equilibrium in the annotations:

Therefore, the directors of the Exercises, as a balance at equilibrium, without leaning to one side or the other, should permit the Creator to deal directly with the creature and the creature to deal with his Creator and Lord.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, trans. Louis J. Puhl SJ.

The things is, my subject is chemistry, and in chemistry “equilibrium” means something subtly different. It is firstly dynamic: the forward and backward reactions are ongoing, reactants turning into products and products turning into reactants at the same rate. Secondly, the equilibrium position is not necessarily in the middle of the two extremes as represented in the diagram or in popular understanding, but can be anywhere between the dualities. In terms of Ignatius’s instructions to the spiritual director, they should position themselves in the centre so as not to influence the directee to make a particular discernment, but the position of equilibrium the directee reaches may not be in the centre. In chemistry, when a reversible reaction is set up, it takes some time to reach equilibrium and if it is disturbed in some way by changing conditions, it settles back into its equilibrium position, wherever that was. What if turmoil of spirits is a bit like this? What if turmoil of spirits is a multi faceted process where we oscillate between spiritual consolation and desolation in our discernment process until we finally come to our equilibrium point which may be indifference in the centre, but closer to one duality than the other in terms of the decision or action we take? To be selfish rather than unselfish, angry rather than meek, soft rather than hard? My work on Positive Penance has deeply impacted my thinking here.

I used to do a review of my year at the end of the year by picking a mood or process word to summarise each month and I would make some sort of summary picture from it. One year, the word I chose was oscillation and when I googled it for an image it gave me a paisley pattern.

Blue paisley background, traditional Indian pattern illustration vector

I imagine discernment of spirits as being like this pattern, with the oscillation beginning in the wide section and moving gradually ever closer to the the point where a decision is made and there is peace. It is the final point of consolation where we are indifferent and have decided, with God, on our course. It may not be in the centre of our duality, but we are at our equilibrium position.

We are not two dimensional creatures however and the Al Anon book I referred to earlier set up many such dualities covering a lot of different personality traits and leading to many different equilibrium positions. Moreover, like a chemical equilibrium, our position may change depending on our circumstances at any given time so we are always in movement. Discernment ultimately is about being sensitive to those movements, to connect with God to notice whether the movement is leading us closer or further away from Him: spiritual consolation or spiritual desolation. It’s not that we can control those movements per say, it may be more like when we shine and x-ray on electrons: they absorb the energy and move away. We know where they were, but not where they are. Being aware of how we moved into spiritual desolation, with the grace of God, can be enough to turn us around and to guard against something similar in the future.

Leave a Reply