Discernment of Spirits

Discernment of spirits makes the most sense told in the context of the story of Ignatius of Loyola. Stories help us to make sense of our own lives. Jesus taught through parables and homespun stories. I myself learned the Catholic faith largely through the stories of the Bible portrayed in art and architecture first, then later in reading the lives of the saints. The Bible was written as the People of God reflected on their experience of God’s living presence in their lives; Ignatius of Loyola wrote the Spiritual Exercises as he reflected on his own experience of having been formed and converted by the grace of God. Discernment of spirits is the reflection on what is real in the human heart at any one instance, and how God may be leading us through that moment, drawing us to Godself.

Before he was Ignatius of God, he was Iñigo of Loyola, a Basque Spaniard, a man of honor, a man at arms, chivalrous and romantic. What became his mantra, “All for the Greater Honor of God” (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam) may well have started out as “All for the greater honor and glory of Ignatius and Loyola.” For all his idealism, however, Ignatius was an administrator and pragmatist. These qualities perfectly suited him to organize on paper what became the Spiritual Exercises where he described the “rules of discernment” in detail, based on his personal experience of conversion.

This brave Basque soldier fought at the battle of Pamplona where a cannonball shattered his leg. His recovery was very long and painful because he had his legs re-broken as they were mending crooked. In his vanity, Iñigo could not bear the thought of deformed legs in those sixteenth century Spanish stockings. It is worth reflecting on just how much God converted Iñigo’s heart in the months of silence and reflection during his long recuperation.

Iñigo occupied himself with imaginings of chivalrous deeds of heroes, much like our preoccupation with our modern-day media and sports heroes. The other stories at his disposal were a book on the life of Christ, and another on the lives of the saints. Over time, Iñigo recognized a difference in how he felt when he occupied himself in these two imaginary worlds: that of chivalrous deeds, and that of Christ and the saints. The latter was far more satisfying in the aftermath; there was a sense of “sweetness” and delight. Imagining himself doing as St. Francis did was invigorating. Imagining himself rescuing the damsel in distress was delightful in the moment but soon faded into discouragement and dis-ease. Thus was born discernment of spirits, what Iñigo called the good spirit and the bad spirit, according to whether what he felt in the depth of his soul a movement toward God or away from God.

So what fills me with lasting peace and “sweetness”? What may start out delightful but unravels into self-pity, self-reproach or a general sense of dis-ease?

Discernment of Spirits

When I get in touch with how I am really feeling, what the thoughts are behind the feelings, and how I am responding to a particular experience, I allow God to be present to me in that moment, to look on with me at my very self.

  • What is from God and what is from my lesser self?
  • What is God’s will for me in this situation for now?
  • What is for the greater honor and glory of God and what is for my own self-interest?

“Good spirits” lead us toward God and our best self (who God created me to be);

“Bad spirits” lead us away from God and our best self.

These are “movements” (toward) and “countermovements” (away) are also known as consolation and desolation in Ignatian parlance. As complex human beings who are made in God’s image and likeness, we are also formed by so many other forces that are often hard to sort through. The question is not only about God as outside myself. The question is, “Who am I really in my most authentic self?” This opens up our understanding of who we are in relationship with self, God and others. Stepping back, slowing down and attending to the spirit of the moment is an ongoing practice.

How did this experience make me feel?

Replaying the details of the past is not helpful, but rather a recalling of the feelings and desires that arose within me when I remember the incident. To replay the scene is to fuel the negativity rather than focus on what is happening just within me, the only component I can change, with God’s grace. I can bring this wounded-ness (i.e., anger, bitterness, unforgive-ness, shame, etc.) to God for healing if I can own up to it and willingly give it over.

Allowing myself to feeling this feeling and the thoughts behind it (experiencing the truth of where I really am), where is God in this moment? Take time to attend to the answer. This is the healing and strengthening gift of silence.

  • Without judgment, just gentle attention to what is, as you would listen to a beloved child.
  • God is I AM, utterly in the present.

Spiritual practices that build up our spiritual acuity over time include personal and liturgical prayer, Eucharistic community, meditation on Scripture, examination of conscience, etc. These practices literally exercise our ability to recognize a movement that comes from God, like a spiritual muscle. The voice of God, the lead of the good spirit, becomes ever more recognizable in the practice of listening.

Discernment of Spirits in Community

Discerning together in community necessitates that each participant do this (discerning) sorting in the silences. The silent space allows God to help each participant sort through what is the good spirit and what are the private agendas and triggers that make it hard to listen to the Spirit for the sake of the presenter or the common good. On the group level, as soon as there is any sense of agitation or wordiness that does not allow for the spirit’s work, the group may be asked to fall back into silence in order to re-center and seek the peace of the good spirit’s lead.

A few caveats:

Saying something hard that may agitate others can be a prophetic movement. The “sense” (or “movement”) in the individual who shared may have been an experience of consolation, a sense of peace and rightness even in the difficult challenge. Sometimes the dissident voice is the voice of the Spirit. Any agitation we feel at hearing this voice, may need to be discerned in our own hearts in terms of resistance. The good spirit does not always make us feel “good,” but certainly, in the silent interludes, we may come to understand for ourselves whether the sharing was a movement or a countermovement. The Spirit moves where and how it wills. Even it was a countermovement on the part of an individual or the group, because of the intention of all, the Spirit can still bring fruit from this difficulty. The “mistake” should not be too readily judged, but the focus may be on how God is using this encounter for the good of all.

Because feelings are mercurial, it is good to attend to something in the silence long enough until the “fire” of it passes. The desert fathers spoke of apatheia, or disinterestedness, as a spiritual good. Feelings are great barometers for where we stand emotionally in terms of our attachments. But we are more than our feelings; we are rational creatures with memory, imagination and will. Waiting for the passion to subside in order to speak from a place of peace and equilibrium is the goal. If it is slow in coming, ask for the grace. God draws us; our work is to respond rather than react.

At the same time, if a person tends to be reticent by nature, the “fire” may be not to speak, because of fear and awkwardness. This more introverted person should also examine himself to see if his resistance needs to be overcome for the sake of the group. In other words, test the initial spirit to see if it comes from God or not.


Practice discernment of spirits in daily examen, or even several times a day. Attend to times when you are “moved” toward life, or times of “countermovement” away from what is life-giving. Ask God for guidance and compassion for yourself as well as others. Attend to these movements without judgment but rather as a training ground for how God speaks to you. Journal results. Share them with your spiritual director.

Practice waiting for the “fire” (strong feeling) to pass when you feel a compulsion to say or do something. Wait until you feel a sense of freedom and equilibrium before speaking or acting. If your “fire” is a compulsion not speak or act, ask for the grace to move forward in freedom.

Group Reflection:

Give an example of a time that you noticed a “dissident” voice actually dislodged you or the group from your narrow vision and opened up a possibility, even if it seemed jarring at first. This was actually a “consolation” as it moved you toward greater freedom.

Give an example of getting from a place of compulsion to that of disinterested freedom. What happened between the compulsion and the freedom? This is a movement of grace. Savor the consolation with others.

Here is the PDF handout of this article: Discernment of Spirits

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