One of the charisms that St. Paul lists is “the discernment of spirits” (1Cor 12:10) (diakrisis pneumatikōn, discretio spirituum), whereas St. John warns us, “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits” (1Jn 4:1). Indeed, Scripture continually describes how we are under the influence of both good and bad spirits. On the one hand, God influences us through his grace and angels. On the other hand, our own wounded nature and the fallen angels incline us towards sin, often subtly and under the semblance of the good. Discerning where certain motions within our soul come from and whether they point us towards God’s will is not only a difficult but a critical aspect of Christian life. Thankfully, the saints, by praying over Scripture and their own experiences, offer sure guidance on spiritual discernment. In his Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius of Loyola provides one of the clearest summaries of these principles.
In this interview, Fr. Timothy Gallagher OMV will discuss some of the best books on spiritual discernment.
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You distinguish between the discernment of God's will and the discernment of spirits. What is the difference between the two? They are different, but they overlap in one significant way.
They are different in that the discernment of spirits is about discerning what Ignatius calls the different movements (mociones) that we experience in our thoughts and hearts all day long. All kinds of things are going through our thoughts and hearts: various emotions of attraction; resistance, joy, anxiety, and so forth. This richness of fluctuating interior, affective, and cognitive experience is what Ignatius means by movements. We need to discern what, within this flux, is of God and what is not of God, so that we can embrace the former and reject the latter. That is the discernment of spirits.
Discernment of God's arises when we are faced with a choice: the choice of one’s vocation, career, or any decision of significance. We love the Lord, and we want to know and do his will. So, we engage in a process that leads us toward clarity about which of these options the Lord wills. That is the discernment of God's will.
They overlap at one very significant point. As St. Ignatius notes in his teaching on discerning God's will, one way God might choose to give us an answer is through the discernment of spirits: by understanding from our interior experience what is of God and where God is leading us; what is not of God and is to be rejected.
Where does the Bible talk of the discernment of spirits? That is as big as the Bible.
We can go through the historical books. Think of Solomon, for example. His prayer, where he asks for a discerning heart to know what is good and what is not, is so pleasing to God.
Discernment runs through all the wisdom books.
It is everywhere in the Psalms. Think of Psalm 119, a long psalm about God's word and discernment: “give me understanding, that I may know thy testimonies!” (119:125).
The prophets are about discernment: knowing what is of God and what is not. Think of Jeremiah, or the distinction between true and false prophets.
In the gospel, the Lord speaks about it very often: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3).
It is everywhere in Paul. Take Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” With some more nuance, he mentions the gift or charism of discernment in his list of the gifts that the Spirit gives to the Church: “For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another, the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the same Spirit to another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits” (1Corinthians 12:8-10).
Discernment is a central theme throughout Scripture.
More commonly, discernment is a virtue. Like all virtues, it is acquired through repeated exercise and by learning from those who are more experienced.
Does Our Lord give us an example of discernment of spirits when he is tempted in the wilderness? That is an interesting question. You have the two different spirits. This is as clear, definitive, and sharp a discernment you will ever find. The tempter comes. Immediately, the Lord understands who it is. He responds quickly and firmly. The various temptations are over immediately. Then, the angels come to minister to him.
How does the discernment of spirits differ from the moral virtue of prudence? Another great question. As a particular to the universal.
All true discernment is an exercise of the supernatural virtue of prudence. That is where St Thomas Aquinas would situate discernment.
Now, there are two different ways in which a person can exercise discernment.
One is as a gift. It is a charism (gratia gratis data) that God freely gives to an individual for the sake of the Church. Examples of this are St John Vianney, St. Pio of Pietrelcina, and many other saints. God gives them a great deal of light, as a freely given charism or gift, that they then exercise on behalf of the people that seek light and direction from them.
More commonly, discernment is a virtue.
Like all virtues, it is acquired through repeated exercise and by learning from those who are more experienced.
Discernment as a virtue falls under the supernatural virtue of prudence.
There are three acts of prudence: counsel, judgment, execution. You take wise counsel, you look at everything involved, and you come to a good judgement about what is the right option in this situation or the best means to the end. Then you put it into practice.
In the discernment of spirits, as Ignatius understands it, you have the same three acts.
This is exactly how he describes them in the title of his first fourteen rules for the discernment of spirits. “Rules for becoming aware and understanding the different movements that are caused in the soul.” It mentions counsel and judgment. Then, we take action. “If they are good, we receive (recibir) them; if they are bad, we reject (lanzar) them.” The two verbs he uses, recibir and lanzar have real energy. You thrust the bad movements away so that they can never harm you.
The discernment of spirits, done properly, on the basis of faith, in pursuit of our supernatural end—which is to love and serve God in this life, according to one’s vocation, and thereby enter into eternal joy with the Lord—is one form of exercising the supernatural virtue of prudence.
It regards a practical situation and a concrete choice to be made between means. The virtue of discernment, as we grow in it, makes it increasingly easy for us to see which means will best lead us to our supernatural end.
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You mentioned St Thomas. He also teaches how the various theological and cardinal virtues are perfected by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, counsel in the case of prudence. How does the discernment of spirits differ from the gift of counsel? Yes. Even with all our best efforts, our understanding is always imperfect. So, the Lord does not leave us to our own devices. alone. In the case of prudence and the discernment of spirits, he strengthens us with the gift of counsel.
St. Ignatius mentions an example of this when describing three different ways in which God may answer someone who is discerning his will. That person wants to know whether option A or option B is God's will. Though this does not occur frequently, sometimes God may simply make his will so clear to the person that he or she is left in no doubt whatsoever. Several people receive clarity from God in this way when discerning their vocation. This is a pure exercise of the gift of counsel. Normally, the path towards the counsel and right judgement is laborious. In this case, however, God steps in and, through the gift of counsel, supplies the necessary clarity, and makes it very clear to the individual which option he wills. He also gives us a certain delight in embracing that choice.
As with so many different things that we call ‘Ignatian’, he takes the tradition, upon which he depends and from which he has learned, and, by a gift of the Spirit, systematises it.
The desert fathers work out many of the principles of the discernment of spirits. They hand on to their disciples the lessons learnt during their own spiritual combat. So, for centuries the art of spiritual discernment was built up and handed down through monastic life. Nowadays, however, most turn to the first two sets of rules that St. Ignatius of Loyola appends to his Spiritual Exercises. Does he simply provide the best available systematization of the principles of spiritual discernment, or does he make a new contribution to the preceding tradition? As with so many different things that we call ‘Ignatian’, he takes the tradition, upon which he depends and from which he has learned, and, by a gift of the Spirit, systematises it. He expresses it with such clarity, practicality, and usability that his systematization tends to dominate the tradition from that point on.
There is at least one way in which Ignatius does add something new to the Church’s understanding of discernment. I referred to it earlier. He understands that the discernment of spirits is one of the ways in which God may reveal his will when we are discerning it, and a choice is precisely. The rules that you mentioned equip us for that discernment of spirits.
For Ignatius, it is very clear that any legitimate discernment must be within “Our holy Mother, the hierarchical Church”.
In recent years, discernment has become a buzzword in the Catholic world. This is partly because more Catholics have learnt about spiritual discernment and its importance. In some cases, however, the term has been appropriated to denote, not the examination of my spiritual state and God’s concrete will for me within the Church, but a critique of the Church’s definitive magisterium regarding the deposit of faith. This expansive conception of spiritual discernment does not appear to attend to the last set of rules in St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises: those on how to be in one mind with the Church (sentire cum Ecclesia). Has it become necessary to set the record straight about what counts as spiritual discernment and cut down any misunderstandings or misappropriations of the term? Yes, that is foundational for any authentic discernment.
You are right. I have been sharing this teaching for about forty years now. It has never been as widespread as it is now. That is wonderful, but we do need to be Ignatian about it: solidly in the Church.
For Ignatius, it is very clear that any legitimate discernment must be within “Our holy Mother, the hierarchical Church”. He says that as a preface to his teaching on how we discern God's will and choices.
You also have the rules for feeling or thinking with the Church that he gives at the close of the Spiritual Exercises. Any discernment that involves something contrary to the teaching of the Church is no longer Ignatian: it is no longer authentic discernment.
We all go through periods of spiritual desolation. In the forty years that I have been sharing this teaching, not one person has ever said to me, “I do not know what you are talking about.”
What led you to your ministry as a spiritual director and retreat leader? Well, this is the work of my community.
Our founder, the Venerable Bruno Lautieri, first as a seminarian and then as a young priest, had a saintly Jesuit as his spiritual director for twenty years. Venerable Bruno came to the conviction that there is nothing as powerful and effective in the Church for awakening the desire for holiness and serving the Lord as the Ignatian spiritual exercises. They can be adapted to any setting. They can be done as a formal retreat, in a retreat house. They can be done as parish missions. People can go through them with regular guidance in their daily life, without ever having to leave home. They can be adapted to any number of days people have available.
That was Venerable Bruno’s first conviction.
Second, he realised that the Jesuits had this incredibly powerful tool but were not founded specifically to give the spiritual exercises. Their charism is to be available for any need of the Church that the Holy Father sees fit. In practice, that has been education largely.
So, you have this uniquely powerful tool, but you have far too few priests who make it available. The Church needed a community of men who would be formed in giving the spiritual exercises, take that as their ministry, and make them available to the Church. Of course, no matter how many they are, it will never be enough.
That is how I got into my ministry as a spiritual director and retreat leader.
At one point, I realised that how rich the first set of fourteen rules for discernment are and decided to focus on them. Essentially, they are about understanding and overcoming discouragement in the spiritual life or what Ignatius calls spiritual desolation.
We all go through periods of spiritual desolation. In the forty years that I have been sharing this teaching, not one person has ever said to me, “I do not know what you are talking about.”
Currently, further factors cause a lot of discouragement. The pandemic, the direction in which the culture is going, the political situation, and many other things weigh upon people today.
At first, and somewhat hesitantly, I gave half-hour talks on spiritual desolation in retreats. It caught fire. People just wanted more of this. I was asked to do seminars on it, first for spiritual directors, and then in parishes, religious communities, dioceses, or any setting you can imagine.
It is not that I sat down at a certain point and planned to do this full time. I love doing it, but it happened because people realised that this teaching could help them understand their struggles in the spiritual life. Through Ignatius, most of them really understand for the first time what is going on. He supplies them with a wealth of suitably adapted tools, taken from our spiritual tradition, to overcome that discouragement in their spiritual life. Then they just cannot get enough of it.
I shall give one example.
In the first rule, Ignatius describes the person who is far from God and living a life of confirmed, serious sin. Think of Ignatius himself up until his conversion at the age of thirty or Augustine, before his conversion. Ignatius describes how the enemy tries to foster that way of life, filling the imagination with images of sensual pleasure, and so forth. Then he describes how the good spirit works: by stinging and biting the conscience. It leaves that sense of trouble that a person in that situation can never shake. It is described beautifully in Augustine, with his restlessness. The hope is that such a person will say, “I cannot go on like this. Something must change.” That becomes the beginning of one’s return to God.
Then, there is the second rule. This is most likely the rule that corresponds to the spiritual situation of those who want to learn about this teaching: the person who has many imperfections, the just one who falls seven times a day, but sincerely wants to sin no more, love God, and serve him. The enemy tries to hinder that by discouraging that person. The good spirit tries to encourage the person. Ignatius describes four tactics by which the enemy tries to discourage us; five by which the good spirit encourages us. We have all experienced them. This is the ordinary, undramatic stuff our ordinary spiritual life. That is precisely why it is so important. Almost all our spiritual life takes place on this level.
Once a woman heard me give this teaching and a few years later, at some other meeting, told me that, before she was acquainted with Ignatius’s roles, she would hear a voice. This woman was absolutely dedicated to the Lord and very faithful. Clearly, she was the kind of person described in the second rule. She would hear this voice within her telling her that she was not what she should be. “You do not pray well. You are self-indulgent. You miss opportunities to help others.” She thought that this was God's voice. You can imagine how encouraging it was to realise that it was not God's voice, but the voice of the enemy, who was trying to discourage her in her efforts to love and serve the Lord. She realised that she was called to firmly reject that voice and go forward. It changed her entire spiritual life.
Sometimes I speak to an audience of several one hundred people. It is beyond beautiful to see what happens in people's lives and hearts when, instructed by Ignatius’s clear, usable teaching, they understand what is going on in their spiritual life for the first time. They gain new hope. You cannot do much about something that you do not understand. Once you do understand it you are set free to take action.
Ignatius supplies the richest set of tools in our whole tradition for overcoming discouragement in the spiritual life.
People tell me, “Now I understand what was going on. Everybody should know this ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years ago. My life would have been very different.” This is also beautiful. It means that this teaching is hitting home.
So, Ignatius does not speak abstractly, but illuminates what we have experienced. I would love to see every Catholic know this teaching. It changes our lives dramatically.
I wrote the first book on discernment twenty years ago. I could not have foreseen how important this teaching would become, amid increasing desolation and discouragement. If we have been living in discouragement or desolation, then we should know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that God never asks of us to live in captivity to these discouraging lies and tactics of the enemy. We are always called to be free from them and there is a clear, usable path to that freedom.
So, I wish everybody would learn these fourteen rules. That will make a blessed difference.
Did you begin to write your books on discernment because you recognised that there were no suitable ones available in English? The first of the book then led to the others, but I had never thought of writing books on discernment.
I was giving a set of talks on the rules, and it was growing all the time. At one point, my provincial said, “You should turn this into a book.”
I did not listen but sometime later, he said it a second time. Later still, he said it a third time and it got through to me. “Lord, maybe you are saying something to me through this?”
So, I asked to meet with the provincial and asked him if he was serious about it. He said that he was. We set aside some time for this project and that is how I wrote the first book.
Some aspects needed a separate book-length treatment. That is how the whole series came about.
I never looked at the existing literature and thought that it had a gap. However, there was a gap. Providentially, I developed a way of presenting Ignatius’s rules that did not exist, at least not in the form I came up with.
My approach is based on two principles.
First, the best way to understand Ignatius’s teaching on discernment is to look at what he actually says: to parse it phrase by phrase, even word by word.
His fourteen rules are very dense and rich. They are 1231 words in the original Spanish, about 3½ double-spaced pages. That is not a very long text. However, St Ignatius is condensing an enormous amount in a few words. Most of us do not have the background that he presupposes. We need to unpack the rules.
That is the first thing, and it seems obvious. However, the only author I found that did that was in Spanish, a Uruguayan Jesuit’s marvellous commentary on the spiritual exercises and specifically on these rules for discernment. I learned that from reading him.
Second, the best way to make the rules understandable and help people apply them is to put them back in their original setting of lived spiritual experience. These rules were not written in a library. Ignatius knows the tradition. It was mediated to him through various sources. However, his formulation of it is a digest of spiritual experience: his own and that of the many people who, soon after his conversion, started to come to him for help.
The spiritual exercises are about living the spiritual life When you do not present the rules abstractly but situate them in lived experience, they burst into meaning for people.
For example, whenever I teach the first and second rules, I do not start with Ignatius’s text but St Augustine’s Confessions: the experience that leads to his dramatic conversion in the garden. Augustine is a master at describing spiritual experience. You see the action of both the enemy and the good spirit in one who is far from God. This is what Augustine experiences before his conversion. As soon as he strives to free himself from that and to live in communion with God, the enemy tries to discourage him, and the good spirit encourage him. Then we go to Ignatius’s text and Augustine’s experience illuminates it. Using both the text and experience really works.
What does this add to the existing literature? There were two forms of writing on Ignatius’s rules for discernment.
One was in-depth, academic, and technical. Some of it is excellent but, due to its nature, few people read it.
At the other end of the spectrum, quite a few authors would write five to ten pages on Ignatius’s rules for the discernment of spirits in a book on Ignatian spirituality or some other topic. That was very useful. Without writings of this kind, almost no one would have known that these rules even existed. However, such a short treatment cannot do justice to the full richness of Ignatius’s rules.
Simply by teaching them and putting that teaching onto paper, I have developed a complete, accessible treatment. That has led more to know and use these rules.
Perhaps the first book of yours someone could read is Discerning the Will of God: An Ignatian Guide to Christian Decision-Making. Do you agree? Is that the book you would recommend as the place to start? It would depend on why one is looking to Ignatius’s teaching on discernment. If someone faces a choice and needs to discern God's will, yes, that would be the right book to read.
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