Why Catholics don’t need ‘mindfulness’

Detail from the cover of 'Spiritual Warfare and the Discernment of Spirits', by Dan Burke

In Spiritual Warfare and the Discernment of Spirits (Sophia Institute Press), Dan Burke has provided a lucid and readable explanation of St Ignatius’ 14 “rules” for how to distinguish negative, unhappy and restless thoughts subtly inserted into our minds by evil spirits. That we live in the midst of spiritual warfare is classic Catholic teaching and St Ignatius has been proved an acute psychologist of our mental discontents over the centuries. Burke’s is not a long book and can be read, with profit, in a couple of sessions.

Significantly, he is dismissive of the modern fashion for “mindfulness”, pointing out succinctly that “Jesus didn’t need Buddha to help you find peace.” The author’s enthusiasm for his subject stems in part from his conversion; now a “Hebrew Catholic who was once an unfulfilled Jew”, Burke also experienced an appalling childhood, in which violence, guns, suicide and the occult all played a part. He describes his own battles with anxiety, fear, frustration and despair, devising a list of “lies” he has been tempted by, versus the opposing passages in Scripture. He also threw out “many bags of music cassettes” and his television – “This was one of the best decisions of my life”. I have known people who threw out their TV only to haul it back from the bin later on, so I commend Dan Burke’s resolution. Sometimes good impulses have to be obeyed immediately.

The author is also the founder and president of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation. Thus he leans heavily on the writings of St Teresa of Avila as well as St Ignatius, emphasising St Teresa’s insistence on a God-centred journey of spiritual self-understanding, not the “kind proffered by pop psychology.”

Burke lists what he calls “foundational truths” in the journey of spiritual healing that we all, sooner or later, need to undergo. These include the need for a personal relationship with God; regular Mass and Confession; daily prayer; self-denial; and finally a regular examination of conscience. When one considers the lengths people are prepared to undergo for the sake of their physical health, this list is not very daunting – more like common-sense for the soul.

For readers who have not encountered St Ignatius’ 14 rules for the discernment of spirits, the author devotes a short chapter to each. I especially liked the chapter on Rule 9, “What are the causes of desolation?” where Burke recalls his memories of early Passover ceremonies when the Dayeinu was sung. This word means “It would have been enough” and is a song of praise and thanksgiving written more than 1000 years ago. Reciting the story of the Jewish escape from slavery in Egypt, the verses remind their participants that “If He had rescued us from Egypt, but not punished the Egyptians, it would have been enough” and so on.

Burke suggests that as Christians who now have the fullness of faith we could adapt the Dayeinu to recall the stages of our redemption and salvation, beginning thus: “If He had redeemed me with his suffering and death, but not given me His body and blood in the Eucharist, it would have been enough…”  He concludes this chapter by suggesting that “A heart of gratitude is often the antidote to desolation”. This is psychologically as well as spiritually true. Try it and see.