Rules for the Discernment of Spirits

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I have paraphrased these rules and added some commentary. The original rules are from the Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius of Loyola.

First Week: break with sin

In the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises, the goal is to recognize and reject temptations to break the commandments. In Veritatis Splendor, Blessed John Paul II taught about the intrinsic evil of violation the four universal negative prohibitions:

  • Thou shalt not murder.
  • Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  • Thou shalt not steal.
  • Thou shalt not lie.

When I took the "Life in the Spirit Seminar," Tommy DiLorenzo said, "We should never pray about whether to commit adultery. God has already told us all we need to know about that temptation."

I have paraphrased and interpreted Ignatius' rules for the First Week. The rules for the First Week are given in paragraphs 314 to 327 of the literal translation of the original text.

1. The enemy of our human nature attracts us through apparent pleasures. To those who are committing sin, he makes sin seem good and the virtuous life seem evil. The good spirit stings our conscience with remorse.

2. The enemy of our human nature causes those who are striving to repent from sin to experience anxiety, sadness, and frustration. The good spirit offers courage, strength, consolations, tears, inspirations, and peace.

3. Consolation is that which causes us to be filled with the love of God: tears, increase in faith, hope, and love, attraction toward heavenly things, a desire to be saved, and peace.

4. Desolation is the opposite of consolation.

5. During a time of desolation, one should never make a change in life. The good spirit chiefly leads us in times of consolation; the evil spirit is most active in our times of desolation. By following the promptings of desolation, we will never find the way to make a right decision.

6. We should act against desolation by doing more prayer, meditation, examination, and penance.

7. The Lord leaves us feeling as if we were alone so that we may see how much we need him.

8. When in desolation, we should remain patient.

9. Three main reasons for desolation:

A. Laziness, negligence of the spiritual life.
B. God's desire to test our determination to serve Him.
C. Progress in humility.

10. When in consolation, we should remember that desolation will come.

"In consolation, ever to be sober;
in desolation, never to despair."
John Henry Newman

11. In consolation, we should remember how weak we are in desolation; in desolation, we should remember that God is truly with us even though we are not aware of His presence.

12. The enemy acts boldly when we are weak and acts like a coward when we are strong.

13. The enemy acts like a false lover, who wants to keep all of his temptations secret. When we reveal the enemy's work to a trusted spiritual person, they lose their hold on us.

14. The enemy studies our strengths and weaknesses and attacks us where we are weakest.

Second week: Choose wisely between good and good

The rules for the First Week of the Exercises deal with overcoming the temptation to do evil. The Rules for the Second Week are intended for those who have made up their mind to do good and avoid evil.

When the enemy of our human nature realizes that we cannot be tempted to sin, he then tempts us to become unbalanced in some aspect of the spiritual life. Cf. "Choosing the right good" for some suggestions about how to deal with this kind of temptation.

We need to distinguish between faith and feelings. Because of our fallen human nature, our feelings are often not rational and do not reflect the spiritual realities that we know by faith. In the life of virtue, the right path is balanced between extremes.

  • The temptation of perfectionism: when the enemy of our human nature realizes that he cannot tempt us to break the commandments (temptations of the first week), he "comes to us as an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14) and tempts us to do the wrong good or to do good intemperately.
There have been many forms of Christian perfectionism down through the centuries. Some Pharisees tried to impose the whole of the old Law on Gentile converts; Pharisaism is a continual temptation for us when we pay too much attention to the legalistic dimension of the gospel and neglect God's gracious sovereignty. Variations: Pelagianism, Jansenism, Puritanism.
  • There are two ways to go wrong: too little concern for what God asks of us (being unscrupulous) and too much concern (suffering from scrupulosity). "Perfectionism breeds depression." God does invite and expect us to become perfect — we all have a common vocation to become saints — but the work of being transformed into "other Christs" is done more by God's love poured into our hearts than by self-will. We do have our part in it, of course — "Grace cooperates with nature" — but grace comes first.
  • Catholic minimalism: "What is the very least I have to do not to go to hell?"
  • Catholic maximalism: Turning ideals into laws. "If you don't make the sign of the Cross every time you pray, you are not a good Catholic."

Making a choice in life

In the Second Week of the Exercises, Ignatius discusses three methods of recognizing God's will:

  • Undeniable intervention by God: Paul on the road to Damascus, Matthew at his tax collector's table, Peter, James, and John called while fishing at the Sea of Galilee.
  • Alternation of consolation and desolation: how Ignatius himself was drawn to follow Jesus as Peter, Paul, Dominic, and Francis had.
  • Consideration of rational alternatives: draw up a list of advantages and disadvantages for each alternative; in the business world, some people call this a "cost-benefit" analysis. Speak to yourself as if you were a friend helping a friend. Choose what seems best after you have done the best analysis of the alternatives that you can.

In the second and third method of making a decision in life, we are comparing one way of life with one or more alternatives. In these imaginative exercises of our intellectual powers, we must imagine all of the alternatives as leading to intimate union with Jesus and true sanctity. The issue is not whether I want to be holy in the priesthood or religious life rather than unholy in the secular state, but whether the kind of sanctity open to me in consecrated life is more appealing to me than the kind of sanctity open to me in alternative forms of following Jesus.

This is not an abstract or objective demonstration that one way of life is better than the other. The issue is what is best for the person who is seeking to follow Jesus. It takes all kinds of saints to fulfill the Father's plan for the Body of Christ. Some are called to consecrate themselves in the priesthood, some in religious life, some in marriage, and some in the single lay state. The Spirit gives different gifts as He wills so as to build up the Body of Christ in all its glory.

Discernment of Spirits in the Second Week

These are my paraphrases and interpretations of the text of the Exercises. The rules for the Second Week are given in paragraphs 328 to 336 of the literal translation of the original rules.

1. God and His angels alone can give true consolation, spiritual gladness and joy that annihilates all sadness and anxiety. The enemy acts against this work of the good spirits by poisoning the way we think about the spiritual life.

2. Only God Himself can give us "uncaused consolation," a sense of pure delight in God's essence, presence, and power within us that cannot be traced to any thought or action on our part.

3. There are other kinds of consolation that can be caused either by a good spirit or by the enemy. The good spirits act in this way to help us grow spiritually. The enemy provides intellectual or emotional pleasures that subtly turn us away from God and toward self.

4. The enemy comes disguised as an Angel of Light, quoting parts of Scripture and Tradition to the detriment of the whole so that we are led to violate the spirit of God's word by misinterpreting the letter of the Law. The things we do under the guidance of the Angel of Light have the appearance of true devotion, but not the reality of divine love.

5. "By their fruits you will know them." If a train of thought leads us to know, love, and serve God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, then we may be sure that the ideas were inspired in us by a good spirit. If we are instead led into temptation, anxiety, and disturbance, the inspiration was from the enemy.

6. When we have identified the "serpent's tail" in a train of thought that leads us away from love of God and love of neighbor, we should remember how we were misled and arm ourselves against such temptations in the future.

7. When we are growing spiritually, going on from good to better, the influence of the good and evil spirits is noticeably different. "The good Angel touches such a 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." If, God forbid, we are going from bad to worse, then the inspiration of the evil spirits enters quietly and the intervention of the good spirits seems noisy and intrusive. A homeowner enters a house peacefully, through the front door; an intruder must break in. If we are owned by God, God's actions are peaceful; if we are owned by the enemy, God's actions in our soul cause us to be restless.

8. Even when we have experienced uncaused consolation, in which God acts directly and personally on our souls in a sovereign fashion, we need to guard against false interpretations of that experience after it ends. After a time of consolation, we are very vulnerable then to making decisions based on our own habitual manner of thinking or on suggestions from the enemy. We must not carelessly attribute such consequent decisions to God.