By Carolyn Shields
A few months ago we published the article, This One Is For Your Soul, about recognizing how the devil works. The subtle suggestions, the careful studying of what makes you tick, and so on. One of the big revelations was realizing how if you give him an inch, he can stretch it into miles. "One tipsy kiss could lead you down a dark road fast. Caving once on your Lenten promise could be the end of it."
But how do we recognize the Holy Spirit's inspirations and promptings? To begin, we have to listen carefully. Literally. Because whereas the devil's temptations might roar like thunder, the Holy Spirit is more like a whisper. Which is annoying, but the latter's work, when recognized, far, far exceeds the damage the devil can wreak.
For example, it's easy for us to recognize and give into temptations. They're everywhere. They come at us fast. They change course on a dime. But the promptings of the Holy Spirit are more subtle, gentle, and constant, settling in like a dove that's found its home. And it takes practice to tune our ear to hearing our sweet Holy, just like it takes time to learn to decipher chords or tweak a violin that's slightly off.
Spiritual direction and prayer before the Holy Sacrament helps of course, but it's rarely easy to hear Him over all the noise without practice. 1 Kings 19:11-13 tells us, "'Go forth and stand on the mountain before the Lord.' And behold, the Lord was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a still, small voice."
So the devil has his thunder and a momentary gruesome Death, but the Holy Spirit has its lasting, gentle echo and an eternal Resurrection. And once we can recognize the Holy Spirit, we can understand how He can stretch an inch not into just a mile, but all the way to Heaven.
St. Joan of Arc once said that God helps those who help themselves. For years as a teen, this phrase tripped me up, but referring to the image of the devil running miles with an inch, so too does the Holy Spirit take the small offering we give and expounds it into a huge blessing! We praise the Lord and it turns back to a blessing in this perpetual communion of prayer. A parallel example for the Greater Inch is, say you woke up one morning and you were a ball of anxiety. You wanted to cancel all plans, do the minimum, and just get by. But when you get to work, you're asked to give a tour to a newcomer. Your heart races. Your blood might even boil a bit, but you say yes because that little fiat is clearly what's being asked of you in that moment. And then BOOM, one year later that guy you gave the tour to is now your husband and you are pregnant with triplets.
That's such a bloated example, but you get the idea. Once we recognize and hear the Holy Spirit's promptings and give in to them, even just an inch, He will multiple just like the loaves and the fishes.
And when I thought of these parallels between how the dark and the Light act, I was disturbed at the similarity, but I think it comes down to this: the devil is imitating the Good. He's a fraud. He's seen how to allure hearts up close, He knows it works ("Eve, just one bite."), and so he's copying it but with cheap, shoddy tricks and in flashy ways.
So learn to tune him out. Learn to reorient yourself toward listening for the still, small voice. It's not easy, and it takes a ton of practice, but as Jacques Philippe wrote in In The School Of The Holy Spirit, "We need to know that in the spiritual life, even if we are full of good will, and can be sure that God helps us with great faithfulness, we are never dispensed from a learning process, which involves trial and error, success and failures. God wants things to be this way."
So often we want to hear a thunderclap, but it's going to sound a lot more like a mist descending. Understanding this is the first step towards walking in light of God's holy will, and when we do trip up, His grace will always speak louder.