St. Ignatius and the Discernment of Spirits
Various sources

One of the most powerful tools in the Catholic tradition for cooperative decision making with God is Saint Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, and his Rules for Discernment. St. Ignatius writes fourteen rules which are listed below within the context of the Spiritual Exercises. He also identifies three different types of discernment that can be made. Below, I will outline those rules, and outline three different modes of discernment, as well as include a short video by Bishop Barron on the subject.

The fundamental presupposition of Saint Ignatius, and of the Spiritual Exercises is that your soul is being fought over. The good spirit (the Holy Spirit) and the evil spirit (the devil or demons) each have a way of guiding us towards their respective goals. Saint Ignatius discovered this when he was laying in a hospital bed from a leg injury and reading. When he read and stirred his imagination out of boredom about the glories of being a knight, romance, and pursuing various women, he was filled with excitement, but was left feeling empty and wanting more. Whereas when he read about the lives of the saints, he also felt excited, but the peace that he experienced continued after the imagining. This summary is a bit of an oversimplification, but it led to St. Ignatius to believe that the good spirit leads us by giving us an attraction towards something during consolation, while the evil spirit attracts us towards but often leaves us desolate. 

This fundamental presupposition led St. Ignatius to eventually write the Spiritual Exercises, his most famous work. Among other things, the Spiritual Exercises includes 14 rules for discernment listed here.

The Spiritual Exercises also includes a section guiding retreat masters, and individuals in making decisions between good things. For example, one might have to choose between the good of marriage, or the good of the priesthood. In this section St. Ignatius, outlines three different ways that a soul might be led to make a choice over time.

First one might make a choice by already having an extremely strong conviction which cannot be doubted. For example, Susie "just knows," without a doubt, that she is called to marry Mike. But it is important that time pass to confirm this discernment.

Second, Saint Ignatius says, that the soul is often lead to make a choice through consolations and desolation mentioned above. If one is continually and reliably attracted towards one of two options, and simultaneously is experiencing consolation end, that is awareness and reflection of God's love, hope, higher things, and the awareness of one's purpose in life, then this is likely coming from the good spirit. But equally useful is knowing, if, overtime, one is continually and reliably, attracted towards something while experiencing desolation – that is a lack of hope, the sense that God has abandoned me, earthly things, rumination, and other feelings of being forced, then one can know also what to avoid, since this is likely coming from the evil spirit.

Third and last, Saint Ignatius says that one may make a decision between two goods by weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each for the greater glory of God. Saint Ignatius, for example, while trying to decide whether to include a more radical form of poverty in the constitution of the deserts, or a more moderate form, listed all of the advantages and disadvantages of each for God. This form of discernment should only be done, if one is truly emotionally, detached from the outcome, and disposed to the world of God. 

For more resources on this topic, you might view the following video below from Bishop Barron, as well as two books by Father Timothy Gallager: Discernment of Spirits, and Discernment of the Will of God.


On Live-Streaming the Mass by Fr. Seith