Fourteen Rules for Discerning Spirits (Part 3)

Fourteen Rules for Discerning Spirits (Part 3)

It is finally time to finish what I began in my previous post, summarizing Ignatius of Loyola’s fourteen rules for spiritual discernment. Rules twelve through fourteen contain what is categorically gnomic wisdom for how to navigate temptation and spiritual weakness. Rules one through eleven, however, take up the issue of spiritual movement. Assuming that at any given moment a Christian is either moving toward or away from God, then a critical awareness of one’s direction, speed, and cause of movement can improve one’s effort to obtain unity with God. Generally, Ignatius makes frequent reference to two categories, or factors, that can potentially effect one’s movement to or from God: spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation. In Ignatius’s own words, these are “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.” [1] Spiritual consolations, as Ignatius calls them, are moments, experiences, comforts, and movements of God’s spirit intended to bring us closer to perfect union with God. These consolations can occur on a physical or spiritual level. A walk through the woods might remind you of some of the nature psalms and move you to prayer, thereby consoling your soul. At other times, you might feel a sense of peace and tranquility after spending time in prayer and attribute that consolation to the Holy Spirit. The trick with spiritual consolations, however, is not identifying them as much as it is properly relating to them, which is the topic Ignatius addresses in the following rules.

Rule one: the enemy (Ignatius’s language for any physical or spiritual forces moving you away from God) will use any number of pleasurable temptations to distract and draw you away from God, and during those times, the Spirit will bite and sting your conscience with guilt to motivate you toward God. [2] Not much about this particular rule sounds consoling in the traditional sense, but it is consoling to know that the Spirit is always with us and active in bringing us closer to God, especially in the midst of temptation. Use the stinging and biting of the Spirit as an opportunity to remember the glory and grace of God and resist the enemy.

Rule three: “when some interior movement is caused in the soul, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, and, consequently when it can love no created thing on the face of the earth in itself, but only in the Creator of them all.” [3] Ever get an overwhelming and unexpected feeling of love, gratitude, joy, peace, etc.? That’s a spiritual consolation. But Ignatius goes one step further: ever get a deep appreciation and love for someone else, a mountain scene, a moving hymn, a Rembrandt? That could have been a consolation as well—so long as those feelings are grounded in a praise of God, not creation. Just being a fan of Taylor Swift isn’t a spiritual consolation, but admiring a Rembrandt and being drawn closer to God could be. The arts are an often-neglected part of spirituality in this way.

Rule six: “although in desolation we should not change our first proposals, it is very advantageous to change ourselves intensely against the desolation itself, as by insisting more upon prayer, meditation, upon much examination, and upon extending ourselves in some suitable way of doing penance.” [4] When you find yourself in a spiritual rut, stop to take inventory of your spiritual disciplines, and if found lacking, increase. This will bring new life, contentment, peace, and joy in your walk of faith. I am reminded here of the words of Amma Syncletica who once said, “there is also a grief that comes from the enemy, full of mockery. … This spirit must be cast out, mainly by prayer and psalmody,” [5] and at another time said, “just as the most bitter medicine drives out poisonous creatures, so prayer joined to fasting drives evil thoughts away.” [6] Do not neglect your spiritual disciplines during a spiritual draught, but increase them.

Rules seven and eight: these rules work similarly to remind someone in desolation that God’s grace is sufficient, so be patient until the next moment of consolation arrives. [7] Similarly, Paul reminds us that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor 12:9), but it is often difficult for us to be patient enough to endure our own weakness. If we can, and if during our trials we can trust in the sufficiency of God’s grace, then we have been consoled to endure in patience.

Rule ten: during a spiritual consolation, when everything is right in your relationship with God, store those encouraging feelings away like supplies in a store room for the day when they are gone. It is important for Christians to be able to look back on past feelings of peace and joy and let those memories carry us through our spiritual droughts. [8]

Rule eleven: on the other side of the coin of rule ten, rule eleven asserts that during a spiritual consolation you shouldn’t over-glorify yourself. [9] It is often tempting during a feeling of rightness and closeness with God to take the credit for the consolation and stroke your own spiritual ego. Perhaps you increased your disciplines or kicked an old habit and now you want to bask in your success and greatness. Ignatius would encourage you to stay humble in these moments, lest pride come before the fall.

These rules of Ignatius for spiritual consolation help put our relationship with God in a healthy perspective. Some of these rules remind us during desolation that consolation and God’s grace is always right around the corner, giving us hope and faith. Others of these rules remind us how to properly process and utilize God’s consolation for our souls so that we can get the most out of them in the most righteous manner. Collectively, these rules help us maintain a unity with God.

Altogether, then, Ignatius’s fourteen rules for the discernment of spirits are a practical and accessible guide for traversing the ups and downs of life at both the material and spiritual levels. For me, these rules have been helpful daily reminders for how to process and do life with God in a more effective manner, and I hope they have been the same for you.


[1] Timothy Gallagher, The Discernment of Spirits (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2005), 7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 8.

[5] Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), 63.

[6] Ibid., 44.

[7] Gallagher, The Discernment of Spirits, 8.

[8] Ibid., 9.

[9] Ibid.

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