Chapter Six: Discernment of Spirits—Part Two

Now begins the second set of rules for the “discernment of spirits.” Saint Ignatius says that these rules are more applicable to those entering Week Two of The Spiritual Exercises. In other words, these rules are for those who have essentially overcome all serious sin in their lives and are seeking to live a deeper relationship of communion with our Lord. We are given eight rules in this section. Please note that what follows is simply a very general overview and introduction to the second set of Ignatius’ rules for discernment of spirits. The ideal application of these rules for your spiritual journey will be done with the assistance of a well-trained spiritual director. For those who do not have access to such a person, some of the basic principles that follow will certainly be useful. However, since these rules rely upon a deep understanding of the spiritual life, it’s important to note that while they can be a great benefit, they can also be misunderstood at times. So read and ponder them with prayerful care.

These second set of rules are defined in the following way: 

Rules for the same effect with greater discernment of spirits. And they are more proper for the Second Week.

These rules offer deeper insight into the actions of God in your soul as well as the actions of the evil one as you progress in the holiness of life. Both the good spirits and bad spirits use different tactics to lead you (or discourage you) as you become more spiritually mature.

In the First Rule, Saint Ignatius identifies three actions of the good spirits on your soul as you progress in holiness:

  1. They give true happiness.
  2. They give spiritual joy.
  3. They banish all the sadness and disturbances which are caused by the enemy.

The bad spirits do the opposite as they fight against the happiness and consolation given by God:

  1. They propose fallacious reasonings.
  2. They propose subtleties.
  3. They propose continual deceptions.

In other words, seek out and follow the joys and happiness God gives. If a train of thought leads to confusion and interior disturbance, then it is probably fallacious reasoning. The challenge is that, as one progresses in the spiritual life, the deceptions of the evil one become increasingly more subtle. Therefore, you must work to discern these increasingly subtle and false reasonings by seeing the effects they have on you interiorly. But at the same time, the closer you get to God, the more subtle His beautiful and inspiring communications will be.

 

“Uncaused” vs. “Caused” Spiritual Consolation

In Rule Two and Eight, Saint Ignatius points out that you may at times experience a spiritual consolation with no known cause. For example, you may suddenly have a clear sense of God’s love for you for no apparent reason. You just suddenly sense God’s closeness and love in a very clear way. It may only last for a short moment, or perhaps for much of the day. When this happens, Saint Ignatius explains that this type of consolation is always from God, and you can always trust it. You should be very attentive to such a consolation. 

The reason for this is that most of your spiritual consolations do have a clear and immediate “cause.” For example, you may be meditating on a Scripture passage and gain some consoling spiritual insight. Or you may witness some heroic act of charity and are inspired. Or you may listen to a sermon and hear God speaking directly to your heart. In each of these cases, there is an immediate cause: the Scripture, the act of charity or the sermon. God used these “causes” to speak to you and to console you with His grace.

When a spiritual consolation is caused, it needs to be discerned carefully before it is accepted. However, when a spiritual consolation is uncaused, it should be immediately accepted. Why? Because in regard to caused consolation (such as from a meditation, sermon, heroic act, etc.), the evil one will try to offer you very subtle and misleading “consolations” that, on the surface, appear to be from God but in some way mislead you. But this only applies to consolations that have a clear cause. For example, a preacher may preach an “inspiring” sermon that causes you to become excited and energized. But in this case, it’s entirely possible that this initial inspiration leads you to some very subtle and erroneous thinking as a result of some subtle deception of the evil one. When that happens, the excitement is not a true “spiritual consolation”; it’s a fake consolation from the evil one. Therefore, it must be rejected.

However, Saint Ignatius explains that the evil one cannot give “uncaused” consolations. In fact, not even the good angels can do so. The only one who can give uncaused spiritual consolation is God. God and God alone can communicate to your spirit in a way that is beyond words or concepts and this will produce a spiritual consolation in your soul that is clearly from God and has no perceived cause. When this happens, it is always from God and should always be trusted.

As for the “consolations” given by the evil one to those who are advancing in the holiness of life and virtue, he will often present himself as an “angel of light.” Ignatius says, “He begins by suggesting thoughts that are suited to a devout soul, and ends by suggesting his own (The Spiritual Exercises #332). For example, perhaps you encounter the vile harshness of another and instead of confidently and charitably correcting the person, the evil one suggests “be humble, smile and turn the other cheek, don’t correct the person, just be humble.” And though this may sound good, if this suggestive thought is from the evil one, then the person will slowly misinterpret what “be humble” means, and it may lead them to feeling depressed and cowardly. But of course the opposite could be true also. The evil one could suggest that you stand up and rebuke that person in justice.

The bottom line is that this level of subtle discernment of spirits is just that—subtle. For that reason, you need to become increasingly aware of the clear and gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit and also aware of the subtle tactics of the evil one. To do so, consider Rules Five and Six that deal with your thinking.

 

“Thinking” and the Discernment of Spirits

Saint Ignatius is very aware of the fact that, especially for those who are growing in holiness, the goal of the evil one is to lead you down a path of confused and erroneous thinking. He starts by suggesting something that appears to be good and virtuous, but little by little he confuses your thoughts. The end is that you are trapped in his web of subtle lies. Therefore, Ignatius reminds us all of the spiritual “side-effects,” so to speak, of thinking in accord with the mind of God, as opposed to being deceived by the subtle lies of the evil one. If your thought process is the result of some deception of the evil one, then your thought process may end in one or more of the following results:

  • evil
  • distraction
  • less good than the soul had formerly proposed to do
  • a weakening of the soul
  • a disquiet in the soul
  • a destruction of the peace, tranquillity, and quiet which it had before
  • a permeating disturbance within the soul

Saint Ignatius says that “These things are a clear sign that the thoughts are proceeding from the evil spirit…” (#333). If you truly examine this teaching, you will find it not only exceptionally simple but also profound and practical. Look at your thinking. Where does it lead you? What are the effects within your soul? What is the “end” of this train of thought? Is it the glory of God and your holiness? Or is it something listed above? The fruit of your thinking process will help you to discern which spirit is “inspiring” you to think this way.

By way of example, imagine that you are discerning the possibility of a new job. Your current job is going well but suddenly there is a new opportunity. As you think about this, what do you see? Try to be objective by thinking about your thinking. If, for example, your thinking “ends” in distraction from God, an excessive focus on money, a lack of peace, agitation, etc., then you may want to stop and return your thoughts to the idea of staying at your current job. Then as you ponder yourself thinking about staying at your current job, if you see within your soul deep peace, contentment, joy and the like, you may conclude that this offer of a new job may not be what God is calling you to do.

Once you have made a good discernment and have identified an erroneous train of thought you started down, Saint Ignatius recommends that you think about the entire train of thought from beginning to end so that you can discern where you started to go astray from the gentle voice of God. Again, think about yourself thinking. Consider your entire thinking process and focus upon the interior fruits of your thinking. Saint Ignatius says that “The purpose of this review is that once such an experience has been understood and carefully observed, we may guard ourselves for the future against the customary deceits of the enemy” (#334). 

Though discernment on this level is not usually regarding any serious sin, it is very much about growing in perfection and more fully living the will of God for your life. Deep, clear, thoughtful and wholehearted attentiveness to God’s gentle voice is what you must seek so that it is His voice that leads you and so that you can regularly reject the “angel of light” as he tries to mislead you. The beginning of erroneous thinking will not usually be immediately apparent as erroneous, but the further you let yourself be led down that path, the clearer the deception will be.

 

Contrasting Experiences

In Rule Seven, Saint Ignatius explains the different and contrasting interior experiences of “those who go on from good to better” compared to “those who go on from bad to worse.” He states:

Seventh Rule. The seventh: In those who go on from good to better, the good Angel touches such soul sweetly, lightly and gently, like a drop of water which enters into a sponge; and the evil touches it sharply and with noise and disquiet, as when the drop of water falls on the stone.

And the above-said spirits touch in a contrary way those who go on from bad to worse.

The reason of this is that the disposition of the soul is contrary or like to the said Angels. Because, when it is contrary, they enter perceptibly with clatter and noise; and when it is like, they enter with silence as into their own home, through the open door.

The first step in applying this rule to your own life is to discern whether you are progressing in the spiritual life, or, conversely, if you are actually going from “bad to worse.” An honest inventory of your moral life will be of great importance here. Hopefully, as you deepen your daily prayer and remain firm in your moral life, you will then be able to look for interior movements that are sweet, light and gentle. Be attentive to these movements and try to see the hand of God at work in them. If, on the other hand, you sense interior movements that are violent, noisy and disturbing, then rebuke them and do not allow them to influence your thinking.

 

Summary

The process of the discernment of spirits as laid out by Saint Ignatius can be challenging to master. This is, in part, because he has primarily written his rules for well-trained spiritual directors who have much experience guiding souls in the spiritual life. Therefore, do not over-analyze them, and be aware of the fact that you may find yourself confused at times. If this happens, step back and try not to make any rash decisions. Be at peace, remain calm, reflect upon the beautiful and simple truths of our faith, and do your best to seek out and follow the will of God. And if this very brief introduction to these second set of rules for the discernment of spirits is difficult for you to apply, then simply continue on with your prayerful meditations and try to avoid excessive introspection.

Table of Contents

Chapter Seven: The Daily General Examen

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