Discernment of Spirits

by Jeffrey Lindholm


“Oh, you’re discerning? So, you want to be a priest?” This tends to be the response when the term “discernment” is used. “I’m discerning” is equated with thinking about the priesthood. Actually, discernment applies to every one of us. Every person is called to discern the will of God for himself or herself. A useful method for us to contemplate, seek, and ultimately do the will of God is called the Discernment of Spirits, developed by Saint Ignatius of Loyola.


In our earthly pilgrimage, we are called to discern God’s vocation for every one of us. To preface this, it is important to keep this in mind: every human being is called to holiness. The universal call to holiness (see Vatican II Lumen Gentium) is shared by humanity. When we are holy, we draw near to God, and God reveals Himself to us through our holiness, and ultimately reveals His will for us. Keeping this call to holiness in mind, God speaks to our souls His will through the Discernment of Spirits.


Saint Ignatius calls the Discernment of Spirits “the motions of the soul” (Spiritual Exercises). These “motions” can consist of thoughts, imaginations, emotions, feelings, attractions, and even repulsions. This non-exhaustive list begins to direct the soul toward understanding and, ultimately, action. So how is this done? First, one must be in a state of holiness. We must avoid sin in order to get in touch with God’s movements within our soul; that is, our feelings, thoughts, desires, repulsions, etc. Ignatius distinguishes between good and evil spirits. Good spirits are those movements within the soul that are ontologically “good” and evil spirits cause movements in the soul which are ontologically “evil.” This is helpful because Ignatius helps us to realize the reality of evil, and that our hearts are divided between good and evil spirits. The word “spirit” helps us recognize the spiritual dimension within us.


Ignatius then touches on two different feelings: those of spiritual consolation and those of spiritual desolation. Ignatius calls feelings of spiritual consolation those that “through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord” (Spiritual Exercises). We in turn feel the necessity to praise and worship God. In a word, we feel alive and connected with the Lord. On the contrary, feelings of spiritual desolation occur “when one finds oneself all lazy, tepid, sad, and as if separated from his Creator and Lord” (Spiritual Exercises). One’s soul experiences feelings of darkness. In turn, one can feel restless and anxious and cut off from the Lord and others. Ignatius says that we “move one toward lack of faith and leave one without hope and without love” (Spiritual Exercises) when we experience spiritual desolation.


We must now pose the question, “where is the interior movement coming from and where is it leading me”? Thus, spiritual consolation is not necessarily equated with happiness, nor is spiritual desolation always equated with sadness. We must look to which spirit is influencing the feeling. A good spirit (i.e. one that leads us toward God and away from sin) encourages, consoles, and gives us peace, whereas the evil spirit stirs up restlessness and anxiety. Understanding our feelings in terms of spiritual consolation and desolation therefore leads us to a fuller understanding of who we are as God’s creation. Once we reach what Ignatius calls “sufficient discernment,” we are called to act upon what God has revealed to us through our soul’s interior movements. Moments of spiritual consolation calls us to act upon the good spirit’s will, or the will of God.


Discernment of Spirits requires maturity, silence, prayer, and practice. We are constantly discerning the will of God. In the beginning, God called us to Him through creation, culminating in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our end is to be united with God, and to do God’s will. Saint Ignatius’ Discernment of Spirits provides us a guide to reach that end: be holy and seek, understand, and do the will of God.


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