St Ignatius offers two sets of rules, each to be used according to the spiritual condition of the user. They are meant to help one understand to some extent 'the different movements produced in the soul', so that recognising those that are bad we may reject them.
The first set of Rules of Discernment
A. About Desolation:
These rules deal chiefly with 'desolation', that state of interior disturbance which is caused by the devil: 'darkness of soul; turmoil of spirit; urgings to what is low and earthly; restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations, which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord.'
St Ignatius comments that people who are leading sinful lives and so, are in need of a basic conversion, are treated very nicely (!) by the enemy, who 'fills their imagination with sensual delights and gratifications, the more readily to keep them in their vices, and increase the number of their sins.' But the Holy Spirit, making use of the light of reason, causes such people to feel uneasy, rousing the sting of conscience in them, and filling them with remorse.
Those, on the other hand, who are seeking to live good lives have the opposite experience: 'The evil spirit harasses them with anxiety, afflicts them with sadness, raises obstacles backed by fallacious reasonings that disturb the soul. Thus he seeks to prevent the soul from advancing. It is characteristic of the good Spirit, however, to give courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations, and peace. This He does by making all easy, and removing all obstacles so that the soul goes forward in doing good.'
B. How to act in 'desolation':
'In time of desolation, we should never make any change, but remain firm and constant in the resolution and decision which guided us the day before the desolation, or the decision to which we adhered in the preceding consolation. For just as in consolation the Good Spirit guides and counsels us, so in desolation the evil spirit guides and counsels. Following his counsels we can never find the way to a right decision' (Rule 5).
'Though in desolation we must never change our former resolutions, it will be very advantageous to intensify our activity against the desolation. We can insist more upon prayer, upon meditation, and on much examination of ourselves. We can make an effort in a suitable way to do some penance' (Rule 6).
'When one is in desolation, he should be mindful that God has left him to his natural powers to resist the different agitations and temptations of the enemy in order to try him. He can resist with the help of God, which always remains, though he may not clearly perceive it. For though God has taken from him the abundance of fervour and overflowing love and the intensity of his favours, nevertheless, he has sufficient grace for eternal salvation' (Rule 7).
'When one is in desolation, he should strive to persevere in patience. This reacts against the vexations that have overtaken him. Let him consider, too, that consolation will soon return, and in the meantime, he must diligently use the means against desolation which have been given in the sixth rule' (Rule 8).
'The principal reasons why we suffer from desolation are because we have been tepid and slothful or negligent in our exercise of piety, and so through our own fault spiritual consolation has been taken away from us.
The second reason is as a trial, that we may learn what we are able to do, and how much we will advance in his service and praise when left without the generous reward of consolations and signal favours.
The third reason is to give us a true knowledge and understanding of ourselves, so that we may have an intimate perception of the fact that it is not within our power to acquire and attain great devotion, intense love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation; but that all this is the gift and grace of God our Lord. God does not wish us... to rise up in a spirit of pride and vain-glory and attribute to ourselves the devotion and other effects of spiritual consolation' (In other words, God wants us to be 'Spirit-filled yet hungry!').
Ignatius cautions that the one 'who enjoys consolation... should take care to humble himself and lower himself as much as possible. Let him recall how little he is able to do in time of desolation, when he is left without such grace or consolation' (Rule 11).
C. The behaviour-pattern of the Devil:
'He is a weakling before a show of strength, and a tyrant if he has his will. He becomes weak, loses courage, and turns to flight with his seductions as soon as one leading a spiritual life faces his temptations boldly, and does exactly the opposite of what he suggests. However, if one begins to be afraid and to lose courage in temptations, no wild animal on earth can be more fierce than the enemy of our human nature. He will carry out his perverse intentions with consummate malice' (Rule 12).
'Our enemy may also be compared in his manner of acting to a false lover. He seeks to remain hidden and does not want to be discovered... In the same way when the enemy of our human nature tempts a just soul with his wiles and seductions, he earnestly desires that they be received secretly and kept secret. But if one manifests them to a confessor, or to some other spiritual person who understands his deceits and malicious designs, the evil one is very much vexed. For he knows that he cannot succeed in his evil undertaking, once his evident deceits have been revealed.'
'The conduct of our enemy may also be compared to the tactics of a leader intent upon seizing and plundering a position he desires. A commander and leader of an army will encamp, explore the fortifications and defences of the stronghold, and attack at the weakest point. In the same way, the enemy of our human nature investigates from every side all our virtues, theological, cardinal, and moral. Where he finds the defences of eternal salvation weakest and most deficient, there he attacks and tries to take us by storm' (Rule 14).
The second set of rules of discernment
(These are meant for those already converted, that is, who have firmly decided to follow Jesus as Lord, and who are seeking to grow in discipleship)
A. About consolation:
These rules deal mainly with 'consolation', that state of interior warmth 'by which the soul is inflamed with the love of its Creator and Lord'. This includes 'tears that move to the love of God, whether it be because of sorrow for sins, or because of the sufferings of Christ our Lord, or for any other reason that is immediately directed to the praise and service of God'. Ignatius calls consolation 'every increase of faith, hope and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one's soul, by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord.'
'It is characteristic of God and his Angels, when they act upon the soul, to give true happiness and spiritual joy, and to banish all the sadness and disturbances which are caused by the enemy. But it is characteristic of the evil one to fight against such happiness and consolation by proposing fallacious reasonings, subleties, and continual deceptions' (Rule1).
B. How to act in consolation:
'Consolation' may or may not be from God! It is certainly from God if it comes without previous cause ('without any preceding perception or knowledge of any subject by which a soul might be led to such a consolation through its own acts of intellect and will'). But if a cause precedes, both God and the evil spirit could have given that consolation to the soul, though for quite different purposes.
God's purpose in consoling is 'for the progress of the soul, that it may advance and rise to what is more perfect'. But the evil spirit tries 'to assume the appearance of an angel of light. He begins by suggesting thoughts that are suited to a devout soul' (like fasting with enthusiasm) 'and ends by suggesting his own, drawing the soul into his hidden snares and evil designs' (e.g., influencing one to completely give up all fasting and self-discipline).
The result is a loss of the peace, tranquillity and quiet which the soul had before, or one ends up by deciding to do something less good than one had formerly proposed. The evil one gradually tries to make someone 'step down from the state of spiritual delight and joy in which he or she is', till finally he even draws the person to his own evil designs.
Moreover, 'When consolation is without previous cause, as was said, there can be no deception in it, since it can proceed from God only. But a spiritual person who has received such a consolation must consider it very attentively, and must cautiously distinguish the actual time of the consolation from the period which follows it.
At such a time the soul is still fervent and favoured with the grace and after-effects of the consolation which has passed. In this later period, the soul frequently forms various resolutions and plans which are not granted directly by our Lord. They may come from our own reasoning and the consequences of our judgements, or they may come from the good or evil spirits. Hence, they must be carefully examined before they are given full approval and put into execution' (Rule 8).
St Ignatius therefore advises a review of such experiences, so that once the process has been carefully observed and understood, one can guard oneself for the future against such 'customary' deceits of the enemy.
C. The behaviour-patterns of the spirits:
In disciples who are making progress towards sanctity, the action of the Holy Spirit 'is delicate, gentle, delightful. It may be compared to a drop of water penetrating a sponge. But the action of the evil spirit upon such souls is violent, noisy, and disturbing. It may be compared to a drop of water falling upon a stone.'
'In souls that are going from bad to worse, the action of the spirits mentioned above is just the reverse. The reason for this is to be sought in the opposition or similarity of these souls to the different kinds of spirits. When the disposition is contrary to that of the spirits, they enter with noise and commotion that are easily perceived. When the disposition is similar to that of the spirits, they enter silently, as one coming into his own house when the doors are open' (Rule 7).
A Practical Method To Follow
When seeking to discern God's will in a particular situation, e.g. choosing one's state of life, or for other major decisions like changing one's job, or also for the smaller yet important decisions one must make in daily life, one can follow this method. (One must be personally "indifferent" about the choice, and ready to follow whatever one perceives is more for God's glory).
- After prayerful reflection, write down on a sheet of paper the pros and cons (in two columns) of the possible choices. Then, according to right reason ("and not because of any sensual inclination"), take a decision one way or another about it.
- According to the importance of the decision, spend some days in this second stage. (If it is a matter of one's state of life, 8 days are recommended, if about one's job 3-4 days, for smaller decisions 1-2 days, for quick decisions even a short moment of silent prayer). At the start of the day, present the decision you have made to God, asking the Spirit to confirm that it is the right one "for God's greater service and praise". Then go about your business as usual. At the end of the day, prayerfully reflect on how the day has gone: did you experience the fruit of the Spirit ("love, joy, peace..." - Gal.5:22), or were these absent? Note this down.
Do the same exercise over again daily in the time allotted to this discernment. You will see a pattern developing, according to which either the fruit of the Spirit has been predominant or the opposite. (It does not mean that you must all the time experience love, joy, peace, etc., but that on the whole this has been your experience). If yes, it is a sign of confirmation. If no, then the rightness of your rational decision has not been confirmed, and you must enter into a new process of discernment.
This is a method, based on St.Ignatius' teachings, that is to be used in "a time of tranquillity, when the soul is not agitated by different spirits, and has free and peaceful use of its natural powers" (Spiritual Exercises, 177-183). Help may be required from a Spiritual Director to learn how to be sensitive to the movements of the Spirit.
In the context of Charismatic Renewal
St Ignatius could well be speaking directly to the Charismatic Renewal, for several of these rules seem tailor-made for its members! That the Good Spirit 'makes all easy and removes all obstacles so that the soul goes forward' whereas the Evil one 'harasses with anxiety and afflicts with sadness... to prevent the soul from advancing' is something commonly experienced in the Renewal.
A new power for normal, holy, Christian living comes through 'the baptism in the Holy Spirit', and it has brought many disciples, almost overnight, freedom from obsessive habits (like smoking, bad temper, foul language, drugs, alcohol, sex, the occult, etc.). Previously, however, their efforts to tackle the problem brought them tension and frustration, partly because of 'fallacious reasonings' about the futility of struggling with the impossible, or about their right to self-fulfilment, or about their need to be self-indulgent sometimes, etc. But once they give their lives to Jesus the Lord, the Holy Spirit begins to take the initiative in them, and gives them significant courage, strength, inspiration and peace.
The advice about never changing a former decision in times of 'desolation' is very important. After a time of initial enthusiasm (following the experience of 'a baptism in the Spirit'), several find that 'God has taken away the abundance of fervour and overflowing love and the intensity of his favours'. Hence they are tempted to doubt their spiritual experiences, and to question whether it was all an illusion, or mere sentiment. According to St Ignatius, 'consolation will soon return', and in the meanwhile, one must 'resist with the help of God, which always remains, though one may not clearly perceive it' - 'one must strive to persevere in patience, and react against the vexations that have overtaken him/her' (by more prayer, etc.).
Similarly, the word of caution to those enjoying 'consolation' is important. We should guard against 'a spirit of pride and vain-glory', remembering 'that it is not within our power to attain great devotion, intense love, or any other spiritual consolation, but that all this is the gift and grace of God.' One must be like Mary, the model Christian, Spirit-filled yet hungry, rejoicing in one's privileged state as well as knowing one's creatureliness.
Perhaps the insight of greatest value is that sometimes 'consolation' can come from the Enemy, and that even in those cases where it is undoubtedly from God, the Enemy can influence us during the period that follows such consolation. This subtlety of the Deceiver ('the Father of Lies') is something that we must really be on guard against. Too often have good people taken the wrong decisions, because they failed to 'distinguish the actual time of consolation from the period which follows it'. One has to learn to examine the whole process of a good undertaking, what was the original inspiration, how it was put into execution, and its final conclusion. Throughout, one must be open to the Holy Spirit, so that whatever is done is really for God's glory, and is not vitiated somewhere along the line by the Enemy's influence. Discernment, then, not only concerns 'what is God's will for me', but also 'How it is implemented from moment to moment.'