Last Sunday, I introduced a brief three-week treatment of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Rules for Discernment. The first step, though not necessarily the most important, is necessary, for if we are not even aware of the thoughts, feelings, and desires that are moving within us, we will not make much progress in the spiritual life. I hope you have been more attentive to these movements as they come up throughout the day.
The second step is to understand. This is by far the most complicated, and it is really at the heart of the teaching of the Rules of Discernment. The 14 rules that St. Ignatius proposes are ways of coming to understand which voice is speaking – that of the Good Spirit, or that of the Enemy. By understanding whose voice is speaking, we are then better able to take action, by accepting or rejecting that voice (more on that next week).
We do not have the time or space to address all of the rules, so I will just make a few remarks that are, in my mind, the key takeaways from the rules. Let’s begin by quoting the first rule, just so you can see what the rules look like, but also to point out an important qualification that St. Ignatius makes regarding these rules:
The first Rule: In the persons who go from mortal sin to mortal sin, the enemy is commonly used to propose to them apparent pleasures, making them imagine sensual delights and pleasures in order to hold them more and make them grow in their vices and sins. In these persons the good spirit uses the opposite method, pricking them and biting their consciences through the process of reason.
The important summary here is that the rules for discernment really only benefit those who are striving to grow in holiness. If we are unconcerned about making progress, unconcerned about sins, then the voice of the enemy will leave us with words of pleasure that what we are doing is no problem. The Good Spirit tries to break us from our complacency, stinging us with words that try to make us aware of the peril of continuing down this path. But if we do not really care and we are not convinced that what we are doing is wrong, we will happily ignore the uncomfortable suggestion to repent and remain set in our sinful ways.
On the other hand, the second rule says that when we are striving for holiness, these two spirits act opposite. The evil spirit tries to sting us, telling us we’re wasting our time with prayer, following the teachings of the Church, etc. He might say something like: “You’re missing out on so much!”, or “You can think for yourself, you don’t need the Church to tell you what you can and can’t do.” I think you get the idea. The good spirit, though, continues to offer encouragement, and even if we are stumbling, and the enemy is trying to distract us, our hearts are fundamentally fixed on the Lord, wanting to do His will, wanting to grow in holiness, and so we keep moving forward.
The next two rules treat the topic of spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation. These are the ups and downs of the spiritual life that we are all subject to, no matter how holy we are. There are times when God feels very close (consolation) and times when He feels distant and unresponsive (desolation). We must understand that the evil spirit tries to use those moments of desolation to discourage us, but the good spirit will always be working to sustain us, always offering us the grace necessary to persevere through the darkness, to lead us back to a place of consolation in the future, and to eternal life at the end.
Perhaps a simple thing to remember is this: when we are earnestly striving to grow in holiness, we can be at peace knowing that the Lord always speaks with encouragement. The enemy, on the other hand is, always trying to discourage us. That may be a bit simplistic, but I think it’s a good place to start.
So as we go through this week, and as you continue to be aware of the thoughts, feelings, and desires, in other words the voices speaking into our lives – ask the question: Whose voice is speaking? Understanding this is a key skill in the spiritual life and a means to being set free by the Holy Spirit.