Years ago, during a foreign study program in Europe, I had occasion to meet people from numerous English-speaking countries, in what amounted to an education in the amazing diversity of English accents. In the program I met Englishmen, Scots, Irishmen, Welsh, and English-speakers from non-European countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. I admit with some embarrassment that, prior to meeting this diverse array of English-speakers, I thought they all sounded the same – oh, how wrong I was! Yet, how beautiful their accents were to my ears when I began to discern their differences. For the first time in my life I was living in close proximity to members of these different cultures and hearing their accents played off against each another in the course of conversation. That place was almost the perfect “discerning environment” for me to learn the many subtle differences of culture and language among native English-speakers.
The program was a unique lesson in refined hearing/listening. Without deliberately trying to compare one accent to another, I unconsciously absorbed each accent’s unique character by simple exposure to them on a daily basis. By attentive listening, I became “attuned” to the sounds and cadences of those different accents: the lyrical melody of the Irish brogue, the dignified air of British English, the rough and humorous character of the Australians, the thick burr of the Scots, etc.
Soon, what had previously been a mass of indistinct non-American English speakers who all sounded basically the same to me became a fascinating variety of people whose accents enriched my life immensely. The effect of that experience was profound. To this day, I can determine an English-speaker’s country of origin almost instantly when I meet him simply by paying attention to his accent. This ability is not a talent that I have by nature. It is a simple function of the mind gained through the bodily sense of hearing through immersion in that foreign study program. What changed was inside of me, not in the accents themselves.
But that was not the only capacity I developed during those few weeks. I also learned how to identify a true English accent from a false one. I use the word “false” here not in a pejorative way but in the sense of an accent that was “non-native”. Through close-contact with the many native English accents, I also developed a capacity to easily tell whether a person who speaks English learned it as a second language. In such a case, even if I cannot fully identify the speaker’s country of origin, I can be fairly certain that he is not a native English speaker. This ability to identify “true” from “false” accents is the critical dimension of discerning the difference between the voices of angels and the voices of demons.
In the spiritual life where there are only good angels and bad angels, nothing in between, so the ability to identify the authenticity of the voice brings an awareness of a spirit’s origin. In determining that there is no godly quality to a voice, one can be assured that the voice has nothing good to say. In the work of spiritual hearing, we don’t need to recognize the myriad distinctions between varieties of spiritual beings – if that were even possible. Rather, we have the relatively simple task of identifying what is from what is not: truth from falsehood, light from darkness, good from evil. Many years of prayerfully refining our spiritual sensitivities will help us to become more familiar with the immense beauty of the spiritual world, but the key sensitivity we are trying to develop is the ability to distinguish the good voices from the bad voices, the native-born spirits of God from the counterfeits. This is the goal of perceptive spiritual hearing.
When we experience an interior movement, such as an inner voice or sensation, we immediately ask what that movement feels like. This may seem like a strange test or criterion for the truth, but it is the test of the saints. St. Ignatius of Loyola, for example, suggests that feelings are the main criterion for judging the truth of spiritual movements. For Ignatius, if a movement fills us with love of God and an increase in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, the spiritual movement must be from God; if an inner movement has the opposite effect on us, it can never be from God. Ignatius calls the positive movement of the spirit “consolation” and its opposite, the dark movement of the spirit, “desolation”.
In his Spiritual Exercises, the saint writes about the feelings associated with the movements of good, holy spirits:
I call it consolation when an interior movement is aroused in the soul, by which it is inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord…. I call consolation every increase in faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul. (#318)
Conversely, Ignatius adds that “darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love” cannot be from the good God or His holy angels. The difference in the two spiritual movements is not hard to notice: consolation is a spiritual joy and enthusiasm for the things of God and the faith; desolation is disturbance and a deprivation of the same. Therefore spiritual movements can be judged according to the truth of their inner sense or orientation – either toward God and virtue or away from God and virtue.