We all know the parable of the seeds scattered on the different kinds of soil. I’m struck particularly by the thorns in that parable. Jesus describes if this way: “The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit.” (Matt. 13:22)
Worldly anxiety. Lure of riches. It takes no imagination to name what this might be for us. St Ignatius says that the evil spirit uses riches, honour, and pride to hook us. Those, we might say, are the things we get anxious about. But doesn’t Ignatius make a point about how extensive the evil spirit’s tactics are in his Rules for the Discernment of Spirits? Are we not also lured by things like guilt, shame, resentment, perfection, and envy? Oh the things we get worried about. Our worldly anxiety chokes us and traps us, closing us off from life.
The other day my wife Sarah texted me about her feelings of guilt in her imperfect parenting. I responded to her “Don’t be trapped by guilt 🪤. The emoji of the trap became for me a symbol of the evil spirit. We walk into these traps all the time but until we name them as traps, they can remain invisible to us.
The spiritual journey is about being aware of these traps and being freed from them. We can only be freed if we are aware. The path of the Spiritual Exercises—indeed the whole Ignatian programme—is for the purpose of ridding ourselves from those things that block our freedom in God.
In Ignatius’ Rules for the Discernment of Spirits we draw three images of the evil spirit:
The Belittling Bully: The evil spirit takes on the traits of a bully who seeks to undermine and belittle individuals, gradually eroding their self-worth and confidence. Through relentless taunting and harassment, the spirit traps individuals in a cycle of doubt and fear, making it challenging for them to stand firm in their convictions.
The Seductive False Lover: This image highlights the evil spirit’s ability to lure individuals into secrecy and isolation, much like a seductive but false lover who whispers sweet nothings to entrap the unsuspecting. “One who loves falsely uses another for selfish ends, and so people become like objects at one’s disposal or like playthings for entertainments or good times.” (David Fleming, SJ)
The Deceptive Commander: Ignatius paints the evil spirit as a cunning strategist akin to a deceptive commander laying siege to a castle. This figure exploits weaknesses, launching a series of calculated assaults aimed to manipulate and lead individuals astray.
There’s not a lot of commentary on these images that Ignatius gives other than they illustrate the tactics of the evil spirit. Here we see personifications of evil in ways that paints the evil spirit as more of an outsider who attacks, rather than an “inner evil spirit” that tempts us from within the ego.
So what’s the solution? How do we find freedom from these traps? Self-awareness.
Ignatius offers those three images to help us begin to identify what traps us: things like doubt, fear, or secrecy. But these are not the only kinds of “worldly anxieties” we face.
As an exercise to help us identify our own traps, let’s consider five main kinds of traps we face, under which we experience feelings and behaviours that are not from God.
1. Self-Doubt & Insecurity
Under this category, we can find traps such as:
- Over-criticism and perfectionism
- Feeling unworthy or inadequate
- Fear of failure
Do you find yourself constantly critiquing your own actions or abilities?
Are there moments where you hold back due to a fear of not being “good enough”?
2. Relational Dependencies
This category includes traps like:
- Over-accommodating others at the expense of one’s wellbeing
- Engaging in unhealthy or one-sided relationships
- Fear of setting boundaries due to potential conflicts
Do you find it difficult to assert your boundaries in relationships?
Have you experienced relationships where you feel your needs are often overlooked or ignored?
3. Avoidance & Escapism
This category includes traps such as:
- Procrastination and avoidance of responsibilities
- Seeking continuous new experiences to avoid facing underlying issues
- Escaping into virtual worlds, substances, or other distractions
Are there responsibilities or issues you find yourself consistently avoiding?
Do you sometimes seek new experiences or distractions as a way to escape facing personal challenges?
4. Control & Domination
Under this category, we see traps like:
- Need to control outcomes or people
- Difficulty in accepting differing opinions or perspectives
- Tendency to dominate conversations or situations
Do you find it challenging to relinquish control in situations, even when it might be beneficial?
Are there moments where your need to dominate prevents the growth or contribution of others?
5. Comparison & Envy
This category encompasses traps such as:
- Constant comparison with peers or others
- Harboring envy or resentment towards others’ successes
- Seeking validation through achievements or material possessions
Do you often find yourself comparing your life or achievements with others?
Are there instances where you feel a sense of envy or dissatisfaction based on others’ successes?
Here’s a table of additional traps for your own prayer and reflection:
|Self-Doubt & Insecurity||Relational Dependencies||Avoidance & Escapism||Control & Domination||Comparison & Envy|
|Shame||Fear of rejection||Procrastination||Pride||Materialism|
|Guilt||People-pleasing||Escapism||Control issues||Comparison with others|
|Insecurity||Co-dependency||Avoidance of discomfort||Domination in discussions||Jealousy|
|Fear of failure||Over-accommodating||Reliance on substances||Unwillingness to delegate||Trying to be someone we’re not|
|Perfectionism||Fear of confrontation||Ignoring personal problems||Manipulative behavior||Resentment|
|Regret||Attachment issues||Denial of reality||Authoritarian behavior||Competitiveness|
|Low self-esteem||Enmeshment||Refusal to seek help||Impulsiveness||Fear of missing out (FOMO)|
|Impostor syndrome||Clinging to unhealthy relationships||Chronic lateness||Anger||Constant need for validation|
It is important to stay with Ignatius’ objectifying of the evil spirit as one that is outside of us. These traps are not us. Once we name them, we can work toward freeing ourselves from them. When we get trapped by the evil spirit Ignatius says we shouldn’t beat ourselves up but instead examine how we were lured and move forward.
The thorns are not intrinsic parts of us, but external forces that vie to choke the budding life within us.
Just as the seed has the potential to grow and flourish amidst the thorns, so do we have the capacity to rise above the traps that ensnare us. It’s a path of awareness, a conscious choice to distance ourselves from the traps and move toward the life-giving freedom in God.
- Disidentifying with the False Self
- Conforming God to My Unfreedoms
- Jesus’ Paradoxical Life-Giving Tactics
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