St. Ignatius and the Discernment of Spirits

April 3, 2022


About St. Ignatius's Rules for Discernment

This is my second post on Fr. Timothy Gallagher's book The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living.  The book is an exploration of the first set of rules of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

The second set of rules is covered in Fr. Gallagher's book, Spiritual Consolation: An Ignatian Guide for Greater Discernment of Spirits.

St. Ignatius refers to the two sets as being "proper" for the first and second week respectively.  I think he is talking about the first and second weeks of a retreat so I wanted to be sure I began with the first set - which focus on the discernment of spirits.

St. Ignatius's rules are intended to help an individual differentiate between the influence of good and bad spirits. According to Fr. Gallagher, and others, Ignatius understood the good spirit to be the Holy Spirit or created spirits such as angels, while he understood  the bad spirit (which he also called the enemy or evil spirit) to be Satan or demons.

Fr. Gallagher goes on to suggest that the bad spirit can also be understood in a broader or more "global" sense.  This expanded understanding of bad spirit would include human (or fleshly) nature and appetites or worldly pressures.  These influences, per Fr. Gallagher, are exerted in addition to (but not instead of) demonic influences.

While I tend to be, probably unusually, aware of the spirit in spiritual warfare, I like that this updated or more inclusive approach makes the rules accessible to people who may not be comfortable thinking about the influence of personified evil.

I think Fr. Gallagher's book is especially important because it opens up the rules to general (as opposed to scholarly or specialized) readers. It would be easy for most of us (general readers) to skim over the rules of St. Ignatius without realizing their deeper meaning.  Thanks to Fr. Gallagher's insightful word by word analysis, however, the rules really do come alive.

The Process for Working with the Rules

Rules for becoming aware and understanding to some extent the different movements which are caused in the soul, the good, to receive them, and the bad to reject them. And these rules are more proper for the first week. - Title to the Rules of St. Ignatius (Fr. Gallagher's own translation)

According to the title of the rules (and Fr. Gallagher) there is a process that we need to apply as we practice our discernment and work with the rules.  This process asks us to:

  1. Be fully aware of our inner state.
  2. Understand or identify where the influences we observe are coming from.
  3. Take action (by accepting the good spirit or rejecting the bad).

This, of course, is easier said than done which is why the fourteen rules are so important.

The First Rule

The first rule: in persons who are going from mortal sin to moral sinthe enemy is ordinarily accustomed to propose apparent pleasures to them, leading them to imagine sensual delights and pleasures in order to hold them more and make them grow in their vices and sings.  In these persons the good spirit uses a contrary method, stinging and biting their consciences through the rational power of moral judgment.  - First Rule of St. Ignatius (Fr. Gallagher's own translation)

The first rule describes someone who is going from mortal sin to mortal sin.  This is a person, Fr. Gallagher points out, who is moving away from God.  According the the rules the enemy will entice such a person to go further and further in this direction by leading them to imagine pleasure and sensual delights.  

What is key to the first rule, per St. Ignatius's own personal experience, is that there is no lasting satisfaction for a person in this state.  This can be seen in people who are caught in any sort of addiction or insatiable appetite - including the New Age hunger I once felt for the next supernatural experience!

In such a person, the good spirit (such as God or our guardian angel) will work through our conscience in order to wake us up to the reality of what is happening.  As Fr. Gallagher points out, the good spirit may also work through other people who support or encourage us.

While Ignatius is specifically talking about a person who is in mortal sin, to me, this description of going from sin to sin applies to even venial, or lesser, sins.  I can see the same serial pattern when I watch two or three TV shows in a row and end up with no time to pray before bed - or eat four (or six) cookies instead of two.

The enemy must, in my experience, continually offer us something new because what he has just fed us cannot, and will never, fulfill.

The Second Rule

The second: in persons who are going on intensely purifying their sins and rising from good to better in the service of God our Lord, the method is contrary to that in the first rule.  For then it is proper to the evil spirit to bite, sadden and place obstacles, disquieting with false reasons, so that the person may not go forward.  And it is proper to the good spirit to give courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations and quiet, easing and taking away all obstacles, so that the person may go forward in doing good. - Second Rule of St. Ignatius (Fr. Gallagher's own translation)

The second rule applies to people who are actively going from "good to better" or are moving, as Fr. Gallagher says, in the direction of God.  Initially I wasn't sure if this was me (even though Fr. Gallagher says that anyone who is working at spiritual discernment is very likely to be in this category).  

As I read Discernment of Spirits, however, I began to appreciate the fine but fundamental difference between the actions of the good and the bad spirit - both in the book and in my own life.  They are, as Ignatius says, contrary.  

The good spirit has the weight of truth on his side.  Because the bad spirit does not, he must confuse and demoralize us.  The good spirit on the other hand meets us with compassion and peace (quiet and easing), granting us the courage of faith.

In the following examples, I want to share how the first and second rules helped me when I was waffling over the new project of changing my blog to a blog that would focus exclusively on the teachings of the saints.

How the Bad Spirit Confused Me

For God is a God not of disorder but of peace.  - 1 Corinthians 14:33 (NRSVCE) 

The day I made the video about renaming the blog and focusing on the teaching of the saints, I felt optimistic and happy.  I felt so good, in fact, that I'd purchased the Chasing the Saints dot com earlier that morning.  When I talked to a trusted and sincere friend about the idea she was very encouraging.  I felt glad to have decided on a topic for the blog that would help keep me focused on my studies and possibly encourage others.

 A day later, however, I started to feel unhappy with the idea.

I began to think about how unqualified I was to write on the topic of the saints when so many more educated people were already doing it.  When I reminded myself that my plan was to talk about what I am learning and how I am applying it to my own life (not a scholarly analysis), I found myself worrying about my readership.

I remembered that my most popular recent posts have been about writing.  I began to worry that no one would read the new posts and that, if they did, they wouldn't like them.  I thought about how the popularity of the blog had just begun to pick up and wondered why I had ever thought it was a good idea to jeopardize that.

I started to feel that I should just do something else entirely.  I began to think about the various book ideas I'd been kicking around and how it was my original idea to use the rules of St. Ignatius to decide which book I should write.  I wondered why I wasting my time by blogging and felt I should be focusing on writing the ebook instead.

At this point I felt unhappy and confused about the whole idea of blogging on the saints.  The next day I canceled the new domain.

The Influence of the Good

But even after I canceled the domain, I kept thinking about the idea.  I decided to pray about it and had what may, or may not, have been a spiritual experience the next day.  Because I don't base decisions on spiritual experiences, perceived or otherwise, I set it aside.  Then I remembered what my trustworthy friend had said about the idea and how right her encouragement and enthusiasm had felt at the time.

I thought about how much my recent study of the saints had meant to me and how attracted I had been to the rules of St. Ignatius when I first hear about them on EWTN.

I remembered how (after I wrote my Creativity and Discernment post) I had realized that using the rules to decide which new ebook I should write was not starting from neutral as Fr. Gallagher had recommended in his EWTN talk.  I remembered having the specific insight that I should not rule out blogging favor of the ebook idea.

I thought about the negative thoughts I had been having about the new blog idea.  And then I thought about the nature of God.  I remembered that God is always true to his divine nature and the he doesn't move us by making us feel insecure or unworthy or by offering us popularity or other worldly gains.

I decided to reject the negative thoughts and accept the influence of the good spirit as he worked through my friend and Fr. Gallagher's book and St. Ignatius.

I felt at peace with the idea.  I had to wait a day for my new domain to become available again and when it did, I bought it a second time.


In my next post in this series I'll talk about the third rule of St. Ignatius as presented by Fr. Gallagher.  I'm also working on a couple of new posts on Lectio Divina as taught by St. John of the Cross and another on the examen prayer.  It's entirealy possible one of those might come next!

Read my previous post on St. Ignatius here: Spiritual Discernment and Writing with St. Ignatius

Post a Comment