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I came across something recently that has been fascinating me ever since – ‘Cardiognosis’ – which means knowledge of the heart.  It seems to have its roots in the Desert Fathers and describes the ability that certain holy people have of taking in the whole person who is in front of them, of understanding in a compassionate non-judgemental way what someone is trying to communicate.  It is more than an intuitive, sapiential way of knowing, it also appears to have a mystical element.  The ability to hear what is not being said, an unnerving ability to see right into you, a disconcerting knowledge of the secrets that can weigh heavily on one’s heart.

William James describes one of the marks of an authentic mystical experience as being ‘noetic’, giving access to some sort of state of knowledge.  In 1901 and 1902 he was invited to give the famous Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University.  This lead to the publication of his classic book, ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’.  In lecture 17 he talked about the insights that authentical mystical experiences gave,   “This is an insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule, they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time”.   He would later go on to talk about the transient nature of mystical experience whilst also being ‘timeless’.

Cardiognosis – seems less like a mystical experience and more like a mystical state. Its deeper than just the ability to read ‘between the lines’.    This level of sensitivity perhaps comes from years of formation and learning about your own heart.  Robin Daniels has written a little-known book called ‘Listening-Hearing the Heart’    which gives a taste of this.  If you haven’t got time to read his book, his widow Katherine hosted a fascinating webinar recently, and there is a beautiful section where she talks about what made him such an incredible listener – link– it lasts about 10mins  .  However ‘cardiognosis’ seems to be something beyond even the highest level of listening, At the end of his brilliant autobiography on St Ignatius – the Basque historian, Jose Ignacio Tellechea Idigoras,  creates a picture of Ignatius just before his death which includes this section….  

His complexion had become darker, weather-beaten, perhaps even yellowish because of his liver ailment? His countenance, serious and peaceful, was the image of circumspection and a life lived interiorly. Some found it particularly luminous and expressive. His eyes which at one time had been sparkling and bright were now blurred by work, old age and copious tears. They had lost their gaiety but not their penetrating force. He seldom looked at people straight on.  When he did, however, people said he took in the person from head to toe. His gaze seemed to have the power of seeing straight through a person right into his heart.

If we were to fast-forward 350 years Padre Pio had an awe-inspiring reputation in the confessional. It is claimed that he heard over 5 million confessions in his lifetime,  often displaying an uncanny knowledge of the penitents.  The famous sculptor Francesco Messina in 1949 went to visit Padre Pio. Padre Pio asked if he wanted to confess. He said maybe but I’m not prepared.  Padre Pio: “Don’t say anything to me. Just answer.” ‘Than he began to list my sins with incredible precision. This type of ‘knowledge’ that Pio had was repeated in many different accounts, and became public knowledge when  his life was investigated during the process of declaring him a Saint.  Then coming right up to the present day, a friend recounted a story that inspired this blog post. He spoke about having a conversation with a very famous Jesuit, who afterwards looked at him in silence for about a minute, and then gave him some pastoral advice – when recounting this story he said to me, ‘He even said things to me that I hadn’t told him about’.


Clayton M Christensen, in 1995, coined the phrase disruptive technology.  These are innovations often produced by an outsider which changes the market, or the way we do things. So for instance in academia, whose currency is the transmission of knowledge – Wikipedia is a disruptive technology, open source, peer-edited,  free access to knowledge, which led to the demise of many traditional encyclopedias that were being produced.  You can think of many other examples digital photography and the demise of Kodak, Uber challenging the taxi industry, Amazon and bookshops, Netflix and the film industry etc.  Christensen as a Mormon comes from a tradition that encourages the innovation of outsiders.

The Gospels of Jesus Christ are meant to be disruptive – this is an outsider the religious power system built around the Temple in Jerusalem.  Whoever is benefitting from the status-quo and the so-called reforming Pharisees.  There are many stories in the Gospels, that haven’t lost their ability to disrupt our complacency…. ideologies can rise and fall, Corbynism will come and go…. but the Gospels seem to have an incredible longevity, perpetually fresh. The poor man at the rich man’s gate (Luke 16) feels very contemporary especially if you have had to pick your way through one of the tented shanty towns that are growing up in some of our towns and cities to get to mass to hear it.    But if we are honest in modern urban life we are developing more sophisticated coping mechanisms to insulate us against feeling uncomfortable.

Pope Francis is a disruptive leader – he is not uncomfortable with the poor, and aware of the isolating danger of wealth he is constantly challenging us to have a deep attentiveness to the poor.  When he was Archbishop in Buenos Aires he would spend his ‘time off’ famously drinking matte with the people in the many slums in the capital city, whereas the wealthy denizens of  Buenos Aires northern suburbs felt snubbed when he showed no interest in attending the receptions, dinner parties, book launches that a bishop would be expected to frequent.  His disruptive leadership would explain why the fiercest critics and resistance is found within the church. As Austen Ivereigh pointed out in some of the ‘disruption’ a fine line has been crossed between disagreement and dissent .  It should be no surprise those who he rattles the most are comfortable with the status quo, on the other hand, Francis is always searching for the lost sheep.  In contrast to Pope Francis, Forbes argues persuasively that Donald Trump leadership is not as a dedicated disruptor but more likely a creator of chaos.


I was fascinated to come across the work of the psychologist Paul Bloom recently. In his book Against Empathy – The Case for Rational Compassion, he challenges the received wisdom about the importance of empathy.  The ability to empathise, “to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” is rightly valued. We also know that all sorts of pathologies come from a lack of empathy, psychopaths – sociopaths etc. When Donald Trump tweets negatively about a particular group or country, we are shocked by his ignorance – he seems to lack any empathy.  However, the main and interesting point that Bloom makes is that empathy ‘works like a spotlight’ i.e.  focusing attention on individuals at the expense of the bigger picture.   This can lead to the perverse situation in which the suffering of one can matter more than the suffering of a thousand.  You can see how this works with some of the heart-wrenching cases that call for the legalisation of euthanasia….  As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said – hard cases make for bad laws.

From an Ignatian perspective,  our inner lives are marked by movements closer to God (consolation) and away from God (desolation).  These movements are instigated by both good and evil and the ability to read and understand the direction of these movements is often referred to as ‘discernment of spirits’.  In Ignatius’ famous Rules For Discernment, the basic ones are called ‘First Week Rules’ and the more advanced ones ‘Second Week Rules’. One of the more advanced rules is when the ‘bad spirit’ appears sub angelo lucis, that is in the guise of good or as an angel of light, tempting with feelings that initially seems as though they are from God but end up leading us to situations of desolation. For example, we are caught up in prayer with the idea of starting a charity – the good desire then sets off a trail of events that leads to losing our job and the break-up of our family.  Ignatius says that we can only spot this type of deception by seeing the ‘serpents tail’, by tracing pack the discernment process, with the help of a good director, to see where we have been deceived.  We are often open to deception in our thoughts and ideas, and the brightness of an idea is not necessarily an indication that it is from God.  In the cases where our empathy can lead us to deception,   our ability to empathise with someone who is broken can end up helping us lose the wider perspective and be caught up in their destructive havoc-wreaking behaviour.  The pride of victimhood, their sense of entitlement and our desire to rescue people creates a toxic cocktail that ultimately leads to collusion and enabling behaviour.

The insight that we can often be deceived and led astray by what appears good, is important to carry in our Ignatian toolkit and a good spiritual director will be adept at spotting this.  It is one of the ‘Rules for Discernment from the second week,’ and is more relevant to someone who is in the more advanced stages of a spiritual life.  If your basic disposition is towards an easy, peaceful and comfortable life then you will be discouraged by any thoughts that may challenge this, this is still first-week stuff.  And the first week rules are helpful there, but if you have made a commitment to follow Christ with all that entails, joys and sorrows, engaging in a messy world and the humiliations that come along with this then the second-week rules are endlessly fascinating.  And discernment is about having ‘ A nose for God and the things of God’ but also about detecting evil and being realistic about it.

Second Week  Rules for Discernement 

Fourth Rule. The fourth: It is proper to the evil Angel, who forms himself under the appearance of an angel of light, to enter with the devout soul and go out with himself: that is to say, to bring good and holy thoughts, conformable to such just soul, and then little by little he aims at coming out drawing the soul to his covert deceits and perverse intentions.

Sixth Rule. The sixth: When the enemy of human nature has been perceived and known by his serpent’s tail and the bad end to which he leads on, it helps the person who was tempted by him, to look immediately at the course of the good thoughts which he brought him at their beginning, and how little by little he aimed at making him descend from the spiritual sweetness and joy in which he was, so far as to bring him to his depraved intention; in order that with this experience, known and noted, the person may be able to guard for the future against his usual deceits.