Commentary arranged according to the structure of the Exercises



Discernment is the art of appreciating the gifts that God has given us and discovering how we might best respond to that love in daily life. It is a process of finding one’s own way of discipleship in a particular set of circumstances; a means of responding to the call of Christian love and truth in a situation where there are often conflicting interests and values, and choices have to be made. It is the gift by which we are able to observe and assess the different factors in a particular situation, and to choose that course of action which most authentically answers our desire to live by the gospel.

“Discernment of Spirits” An Ignatian Spirituality Reader by David Lonsdale


As we pray through the Exercises and rely on the Examen, we become more sensitive to what Ignatius calls the “motions of the soul.” These interior movements consist of thoughts, imaginings, emotions, inclinations, desires, feelings, repulsions, and attractions. . . .

Ignatius believed that these interior movements were the result of “good spirits” and “evil spirits.” Spiritual discernment involves reflecting on interior movements to determine where they come from and where they lead us. We try to understand whether a good spirit or evil spirit is acting on us so that we can make good decisions, following the action of a good spirit and rejecting the action of an evil spirit. Discernment of spirits is a means through which we come to understand God’s will or desire for us.

Talk of good and evil spirits may seem foreign to modern pray-ers. Psychology gives us other names for what Ignatius called good and evil spirits. We know much more than Ignatius did about human motivations and the influence of culture and groups on an individual psyche. I use Ignatius’s language of good and evil spirits, for it recognizes that evil exists today in many forms. Evil is part of who we are, yet greater than who we are. But remember: just as evil is larger than life, so is God’s goodness. . . .


Discernment requires affective maturity, inner quiet, and an ability to attend to one’s interior life. Discernment takes practice, and we learn to “discern the spirits” by trial and error. The Examen is the daily practice of discernment and should be incorporated regularly in your retreat. Discernment is also an art. Ignatius provides wise and specific rules for discernment, but often we have to improvise and adjust because God works in each of us so uniquely. A wise spiritual guide or companion can help you sift through strong interior movements.

The Ignatian Adventure: Experiencing the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius in Daily Life by Kevin O’Brien, SJ


The discernment of the spirits rests on the belief that the human heart is a battleground where God and the evil one struggle for mastery. Jesus of Nazareth himself believed this. In the desert he had been tempted by the evil one masquerading as an angel of light. If these were real temptations, then he, like us, had to discern the movements inspired by God from those inspired by the evil one. He, too, had to make an act of faith in who God really is, based on his experiences and his knowledge of the Scriptures of his people. Jesus came to recognize who the real enemy of God’s rule is. He cast out demons, and equated his power over the demons as a sign of God’s coming to rule: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” The majority party of the Pharisees and most Jews of the time saw the real enemy of Israel, and therefore of God, as the pagans, and especially the Roman occupiers. Over and over again Jesus warned his hearers that the real enemy was Satan.

“Discernment of Spirits as an Act of Faith” An Ignatian Spirituality Reader by William A. Barry, SJ


Let me explain what Ignatius says about the different ways God’s Spirit and the evil spirit operate with those who have deliberately and seriously turned away from God. The evil spirit tries to get such people to rationalize their behavior and attitudes: “I’m not such a bad guy. I may steal money, but it’s only what I deserve for all that I have done for this company.” “Compared to Helen, I’m a saint.” “I take care of my wife and kids; my affair with Jane doesn’t hurt them because they don’t know.” In other words, the evil spirit tries to douse the conscience pangs of anyone who is acting contrary to what is right. The pangs of conscience, on the other hand, come from God’s Spirit. They do not attack us, but rather raise questions about our behavior: “Are you really happy acting this way?” “Don’t you feel a twinge of regret when you come home to your wife and family after an evening with your mistress?”

A Friendship Like No Other: Experiencing God’s Amazing Embrace by William A. Barry, SJ


Now let’s take up the orientation of most of us, who are trying to live honestly and uprightly to the best of our ability. In this case, Ignatius says, the good and bad spirits act in ways opposite to how they act with those turned away from God’s path. The bad spirit raises doubts and questions that cause inner turmoil and self-­absorption, while the good spirit tries to encourage us and to increase our peace, joy, faith, hope, and love.

If you are trying to live as a good Christian, you might have thoughts like these: “Who do you think you are—some kind of saint?” “Everyone else cuts corners in this office. What’s the matter with you? Are you ­holier-than-thou?” “God doesn’t have time for the likes of you.” “Most people, even if they believe in God, don’t try to live the way you do.” Such questions and thoughts have only one aim, to trouble your spirit and keep you troubled and questioning. Moreover, you will notice that all the questions and doubts focus on you, not on God or God’s people.

The good spirit, on the other hand, might inspire thoughts like these: “I’m genuinely happy with my decision to make amends with my estranged sister.” “I wish that I had stopped drinking a long time ago. I’m much happier and healthier now, and easier to live with.” “God seems so much closer to me since I began to take some time every day for prayer, and I feel less anxious and insecure.” I hope you can see in your own experience how these two spirits have led you.

A Friendship Like No Other: Experiencing God’s Amazing Embrace by William A. Barry, SJ


Ignatius does not give a snappy, simple definition of consolation. Since it is an inner psychic experience, he gives what might be called a phenomenological description: a variety of human inner experiences, each of which in its own way exemplifies the reality of consolation. Though it registers in you as a psychic reality, consolation always involves an interpretation in faith. In this way consolation is not simply a dictionary term for Ignatius; it is a spiritual reality with relationship in faith to God’s love. In his Autobiography he speaks of the great consolation he received during his convalescence in Loyola from looking at the stars. The effect was explicitly spiritual: “When doing so he felt within himself a powerful urge to be serving our Lord,” This stirring is different from the professional awe and wonder of an astronomer. Consolation in discernment of spirits is always a spontaneous inner human experience as interpreted spiritually and with spiritual effects.

Stretched for Greater Glory: What to Expect from the Spiritual Exercises by George A. Aschenbrenner, SJ


[S]piritual consolation does not always mean happiness, and spiritual desolation does not always mean sadness. Sometimes an experience of sadness, loneliness, or restlessness is a moment of conversion and intimacy with God and others. Times of human suffering can be moments of grace. For example, accompanying my father as he died was very sad, but I also experienced a profound sense of peace in the intimacy I found with him and my family at that time. Moreover, my remorse over hurting someone can ultimately lead to the joy that comes with reconciliation. In contrast, peace or happiness can be illusory or a form of self-deceit if these feelings are merely covering over issues we need to address. I can feel perfectly happy when I am caught up in a familiar pattern of sin, the effects of which I am blind to. I think, for example, about how easy it is to numb myself with overwork or mindless entertainments or to settle for being content while avoiding a difficult conversation with someone I love. Again the key question is, Where is the movement coming from, and where is it leading me?

The Ignatian Adventure: Experiencing the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius in Daily Life by Kevin O’Brien, SJ


Continuing his phenomenological approach, Ignatius uses qualities for desolation that are contrary to those of consolation. An obtuseness or gloominess of soul and impulsive movement to low and earthly things contrast with the lightness and attraction of the heavenly things of consolation. A desolate disquiet and restlessness that contrast with consolation’s tranquility and peace, must be distinguished from a consoling apostolic zeal. The desolate restlessness is stirred by temptations and inner agitations that subtly ferment a sense of distrust of God without much hope and love. Desolation is not usually a loss of intellectual belief in God’s providence; rather, as something much more subtle, the temptations tend toward a distrust of God that can take the heart out of hope and love. Apostolic zeal, however, is born in a flaming realization of God’s love.

Stretched for Greater Glory: What to Expect from the Spiritual Exercises by George A. Aschenbrenner, SJ


An assumed counsel in rule 5 is this: Be explicitly aware of what is going on when you are in spiritual desolation. Name it to yourself. Recall its source and tendency. It will help here to be aware of a general principle about human psychology—that reflectively attending to our own affective experiences tends to weaken their hold on us, while attending to the object of affective acts or the ground of affective feelings tends to strengthen them. Thus, attending to the objects of anger or lust tends to intensify them; reflectively attending to the affections themselves tends to weaken them.

Spirit of Light or Darkness? A Casebook for Studying Discernment of Spirits by Jules J. Toner, SJ


The counsel in rule 6 is this: Take initiative; change yourself intensely in ways contrary to desolation. What can be spoken about as the counterattack principle (agere contra) is a general Ignatian principle for meeting negative influences on our spiritual life. This principle underlies the counsel given in rule 6 on responding to spiritual desolation. When applied to spiritual desolation, the principle calls for such responses as increased prayer (petition), meditation, examination, and penance. An added way of counteracting desolation that is not mentioned by Ignatius is generous active service for God and neighbor.

Spirit of Light or Darkness? A Casebook for Studying Discernment of Spirits by Jules J. Toner, SJ


Rule 7: We’re not on our own. God is always with us.

In desolation we feel alone. It feels like God has departed on a long vacation. We feel miserable and unworthy, so we isolate ourselves from others and are not inclined to bother God with our prayers. Worst of all, we think that we’re on our own. If anything is to be done about our situation, it’s up to us to do it, and we don’t have any idea what to do.

Ignatius reminds us that God is always there for us, even when we don’t feel a divine presence. It’s like the gospel story of the storm at sea while Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat. The disciples panic and fear that they are sinking. When Jesus is awakened, he calms the storm and rebukes them for forgetting that he was always there.

When our storms rage, we need to remind ourselves that God is with us. We’re well advised to seek out others who will remind us of that too.

What’s Your Decision? How to Make Choices with Confidence and Clarity by J. Michael Sparough, SJ, Jim Manney, and Tim Hipskind, SJ


Rule 8: Be patient; desolation will pass.

Another key virtue in desolation is patience. This may be the most important attitude of all. Desolation is not forever (even though, in our lethargy, it seems like a permanent state). Ignatius counsels us to “wait upon the Lord.” The storms will eventually blow themselves out. While they are raging, we can patiently wait for a change while we are staying active, praying more, serving other people, and doing all the other things that foster a healthy spiritual life.

What’s Your Decision? How to Make Choices with Confidence and Clarity by J. Michael Sparough, SJ, Jim Manney, and Tim Hipskind, SJ


Rule 9: Identify the cause of desolation.

Sometimes desolation seems to come from nowhere. It comes suddenly, as if someone pulled down the window shades on a sunny afternoon. But sometimes desolation has a cause. We can learn something important by examining the cause of desolation.

Ignatius suggests three reasons. First, we might have done something to bring it on. Perhaps we neglected some important responsibilities—gave into a selfish desire, indulged the fault of someone else, grew weak and tepid in our spiritual life. If so, we can learn to do things differently.

Second, God might be allowing the desolation as a trial so that we can grow in virtue and learn to love him in bad times as well as good. Consider the virtues suggested by Ignatius in the earlier rules: patience, trust, increased prayer, more service to others. If desolation causes us to grow in these ways, it’s an opportunity not to be missed.

Finally, desolation may come on us to remind us of a spiritual truth that is very easy to forget—that God is the source of everything. All is gift. We want consolation, and we will have it in due course. But we need to understand that we are not entitled to consolation and we cannot obtain it through our own efforts. So we open our hands to receive whatever God gives us in the moment.

What’s Your Decision? How to Make Choices with Confidence and Clarity by J. Michael Sparough, SJ, Jim Manney, and Tim Hipskind, SJ


Three points can be drawn out of rule 10: (1) Remember that desolation will follow consolation, (2) consider how to respond when the desolation comes, and (3) prepare for it now, renew strength to meet it. A comment on these three points. As regards the first, just as in desolation we tend to feel we shall never have consolation again and need to be told that it will come soon (rule 8), so also in consolation we tend to forget past desolation and feel that we shall never be desolate again. How, we think, can anyone ever be down and discouraged when we believe that God is so good and loving and has promised us his help, that he is with us always, to bring us on to everlasting life? In both consolation and desolation, we need to hold on to the truth that our affective life is up and down, like a wave motion. If I anticipate desolation, then it is not such a shock when it comes, and I am not taken off guard and harmed before I can get hold of the situation.

Regarding the second and third points, how can we go about preparing for desolation as Ignatius urges us to do? It seems that rules 5 and 6, about what to do when desolation has come, can tell us also what to do when preparing for it. We need to pray for help, putting our trust in God; we need to meditate and contemplate in order to build up our conviction of God’s faithful love; we need to have a plan on how to act when desolation does come.

Spirit of Light or Darkness? A Casebook for Studying Discernment of Spirits by Jules J. Toner, SJ


The comparisons in Rules 12 and 13 are intended to draw on the less pleasing traits of men and women respectively. But each contains an image of women which will not meet with general acceptance today; and as in the case of the Kingdom exercise, obsolete analogies should not be allowed to impede the insights they once served to illustrate. These two rules are not about the behavior of men and women but about two guises under which we experience temptation: aggressive on the one side, devious and ingratiating on the other, and about corresponding ways of dealing with temptation.

Understanding the Spiritual Exercises by Michael Ivens, SJ


This time the image comes from Ignatius’s military background. A trained military commander surveys the battle scene carefully and plans an attack at the weakest point. The enemy’s attack on you is just as intentionally fitted to your central weakness. The heart of a decisive response to the onslaught of the enemy is an honest awareness and active acknowledgment of your cardinal weakness.

Humility, rather than being weak and defenseless, is the power­ful counterattack to the enemy. In the secular ideal of strength and self-sufficiency, to have a weakness, much less to acknowledge it as such, is contrary to maturity. But in the warfare of spiritual matu­rity, humility is the strongest weapon in your arsenal. To acknowl­edge to yourself, to keep before the eyes of your heart, the area that is your central weakness requires great spiritual strength and the insight of humility. Some people discover that one of the seven capital impulses to sin is their capital weakness, the breeding ground of many subtle insidious temptations. It is the area in which they cannot trust themselves. In fact, sometimes the weak­ness cuts so deeply that they will never be able to trust themselves in that one area. The mature ideal in this instance is not trusting yourself but in humble honesty living your weakness in a way that entrusts you to God’s power and love.

Stretched for Greater Glory: What to Expect from the Spiritual Exercises by George A. Aschenbrenner, SJ


On the Second Set of Rules for Discernment of Spirits

We need Ignatius’s first set of rules for discernment because desolation is a common experience. We need his second set because of another unwelcome fact: consolation isn’t always what it seems. Sometimes it’s false consolation that the evil spirit uses to deceive us. False consolation can blind us to things that need to change; it can lead us to make bad decisions. That’s so, writes Ignatius, because “it is a mark of the evil spirit to appear as an angel of light.”

This shouldn’t be surprising. The enemy of our human nature isn’t stupid. If you’ve been sincerely trying to lead a virtuous life for a while, you’re not likely to be fooled by a temptation to do something blatantly wrong. To throw you off track, the evil spirit has to disguise things. You’ll find credible explanations for bad behavior. (I was tired. That’s the way she is. He had to get it out of his system). You’ll find plausible excuses for dangerous complacency. (I need a break. I can handle this. I’ll get to that some other time.) You’ll find reasons to keep silent when you should speak up, and reasons to intervene when you shouldn’t. You might make bad decisions because you’re excited, and you think the excitement comes from God.

Ignatius puts it this way: “It is characteristic of the evil one to fight against [true] happiness and consolation by proposing fallacious reasonings, subtleties, and continual deceptions.” The evil spirit produces false consolations, not the real thing. The devil may be smart, but he’s wicked too; he can’t give us a genuine consolation. Only God can do that. Counterfeit money is never perfect; a close look can always find the forgery. The second set of rules for discernment is the close look at consolation. It’s all about exposing counterfeit consolation for what it is.

God Finds Us: An Experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola by Jim Manney


In the rules for the Second Week the evil tactics of the enemy present themselves under the appearance of good. At first glance they seem wise and trustworthy. Ignatius here takes an even more sensitive look at spiritual consolation than in the first set of rules. These rules are concerned more with a specially sensitive enlightenment of heart needed to distinguish true from false consolation.

For instance, in his Autobiography, Ignatius describes two spontaneous inner experiences that appeared to be holy and good but required a more sensitive discernment. In his daily routine at Manresa, which was filled with prayer and penance, the time he had set aside for sleep was being invaded with “great illuminations and spiritual consolation”; these experiences “made him lose much of the time he had set aside for sleep.” Later in his life, after his return from the Holy Land, when God’s will that he do more study had become clear, he experienced “new light on spiritual things and new delights” that were so strong that he could not do the necessary memorization of Latin grammar. In both these instances, through some prayerful reflection, he realized that these apparently good spontaneous experiences were actually tempta­tions luring him away from following what clearly was God’s will for him.

Stretched for Greater Glory: What to Expect from the Spiritual Exercises by George A. Aschenbrenner, SJ


Two main questions are posed by this rule [consolation without preceding cause]: first, what kind of experience does it describe? and second, does the experience fall within the range of the ordinary, or is it of its nature an extraordinary phenomenon?

In answer to the first question, basically the rule refers to a particular spiritual experience, which in the case of a person moving from good to better, Ignatius holds to be an unambiguous sign of God’s leading.

  • the experience is one of consolation;
  • there is no preceding cause;
  • the person affected is drawn entirely into love of the Divine Majesty

There is nothing about emotional vehemence, and it is not claimed that the experience always communicates a specific conceptual content, a God-given insight, or “message” or “call.” There may be such a content or there may not be.

 . . . It should be noted that neither the absence of cause nor the characteristic love-quality of this consolation are amenable to precise objective verification. Both are recognized by a spiritually self-aware person in the experience itself; moreover a person unversed in matters of the spirit might easily mistake for such consolation a spiritual experience of a far more ordinary and more ambiguous kind. On the director’s side, in order to sense these qualities in an exercitant, a director will draw not only on definitions, but on his or her own experience and discerning sense.

Understanding the Spiritual Exercises by Michael Ivens, SJ


Fifth rule. This rule applies to ordinary consolation the principle that a spirit is recognized by its fruits. But the fruits can take time to appear. At first the real quality of an underlying motivation, masked by thoughts in themselves “good and holy,” may be imperceptible. Where deception exists, then, it is identified not in the thoughts we start with, but in a declining process. The process is described in terms of both thoughts and feelings. Thus the influence of the bad spirit can be identified when over a continuous sequence:

(1) thoughts seemingly tending towards what is wholly right, lead on to other thoughts tending towards the bad, or distracting or less good;

(2) what initially gave rise to feelings of peace, tranquility, and quiet, now gives rise to being weakened, upset or distressed.

Understanding the Spiritual Exercises by Michael Ivens, SJ


Once you perceive and recognize the serpentine poison, then much can be learned by carefully retracing the development of this consolation from the end back to its beginning. In this way you can sort out the good and evil spirits from within the whole developing process. This reminds you that discernment is not like a catechism of questions and answers to be memorized; it is an art that you will always be learning. The art of discernment and holiness will familiarize you over time with patterns of God’s love and of demonic selfish love and how they differently mark and stain your lived experience.

Stretched for Greater Glory: What to Expect from the Spiritual Exercises by George A. Aschenbrenner, SJ


Rule 7: The “feeling” of the consolation is a key to its source.

The good spirit is gentle as God is gentle; the evil spirit is noisy and disturbing. Ignatius uses images to explain. The action of the Holy Spirit is like a drop of water hitting a sponge or walking through an open door into our house. Our hearts are the sponge and the house. They are ready to receive God’s grace, which enters peacefully. By contrast, the work of the evil one is like a drop of water hitting a stone or someone banging on a locked door trying to get into the house. It’s disruptive, harsh, and loud.

Look at the tone and feeling of a spiritual movement. If it’s an appealing idea that leads to turmoil and anxiety, it may not be from God. If it’s an idea that fills one with tranquility, it may be in God’s Holy Spirit.

What’s Your Decision? How to Make Choices with Confidence and Clarity by J. Michael Sparough, SJ, Jim Manney, and Tim Hipskind, SJ


Ignatius thinks that neither consolation without previous cause nor deceptive thoughts and attractions integral with it can be prompted by the evil spirit. Both the consolation and the thoughts or attractions are from God. The main point of rule 8 is the necessity of discerning the precise time of the actual consolation without previous cause as distinct from the following time of afterglow. For during that afterglow plans or reasoning can occur to us that we think are integral with the actual consolation and therefore certainly from God. The truth is that such thoughts need prolonged and careful critical examination. We have a principle that applies to all experiences of consolation accompanied by attractions to or plans for ways of acting: Never act on these without first subjecting the experiences to critical examination.

Spirit of Light or Darkness? A Casebook for Studying Discernment of Spirits by Jules J. Toner, SJ

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