St. Ignatius of Loyola began to learn about the discernment of spirits while convalescing. He noticed different interior movements as he imagined his future. In his autobiography, Ignatius writes (in the third person):
He did not consider nor did he stop to examine this difference until one day his eyes were partially opened and he began to wonder at this difference and to reflect upon it. From experience he knew that some thoughts left him sad while others made him happy, and little by little he came to perceive the different spirits that were moving him; one coming from the devil, the other coming from God.
Ignatius believed that these interior movements were caused by “good spirits” and “evil spirits”. We want to follow the action of a good spirit and reject the action of an evil spirit. Discernment of spirits is a way to understand God’s will or desire for us in our life.
Talk of good and evil spirits may seem foreign to us. Psychology gives us other names for what Ignatius called good and evil spirits. Yet Ignatius’s language is useful because it recognizes the reality of evil. Evil is both greater than we are and part of who we are. Our hearts are divided between good and evil impulses. To call these “spirits” simply recognizes the spiritual dimension of this inner struggle.
The feelings stirred up by good and evil spirits are called “consolation” and “desolation” in the language of Ignatian spirituality.
Spiritual consolation is an experience of being so on fire with God’s love that we feel impelled to praise, love, and serve God and help others as best as we can. Spiritual consolation encourages and facilitates a deep sense of gratitude for God’s faithfulness, mercy, and companionship in our life. In consolation, we feel more alive and connected to others.
Spiritual desolation, in contrast, is an experience of the soul in heavy darkness or turmoil. We are assaulted by all sorts of doubts, bombarded by temptations, and mired in self-preoccupations. We are excessively restless and anxious and feel cut off from others. Such feelings, in Ignatius’ words, “move one toward lack of faith and leave one without hope and without love”.
The key question in interpreting consolation and desolation is: where is the movement coming from and where is it leading me? Spiritual consolation does not always mean happiness. Spiritual desolation does not always mean sadness. Sometimes an experience of sadness is a moment of conversion and intimacy with God. Times of human suffering can be moments of great grace. Similarly, peace or happiness can be illusory if these feelings are helping us avoid changes we need to make.
Good and evil spirits operate according to the spiritual condition of the individual. For people who have closed themselves off from God’s grace, the good spirit disturbs and shakes up. It stirs feelings of remorse and discontent. The purpose is to make the person unhappy with a sinful way of life. On the other hand, the evil spirit wants such people to continue in their confusion and darkness. So the evil spirit tries to make them complacent, content, and satisfied with their distractions and pleasures.
For people who are trying to live a life pleasing to God, the good spirit strengthens, encourages, consoles, removes obstacles, and gives peace. The evil spirit tries to derail them by stirring up anxiety, false sadness, needless confusion, frustration, and other obstacles.
Discernment of spirits is a challenging task. It requires maturity, inner quiet, and an ability to reflect on one’s interior life. Discernment takes practice. It is something of an art. We must be ready to improvise and adjust because God works in each of us so uniquely.
The good spirit usually brings love, joy, peace, and the like; the evil spirit characteristically brings confusion, doubt, disgust, and the like. When you are leading a seriously sinful life, a good spirit will visit you with desolation to turn you around; an evil spirit will keep you content so that you will keep sinning. Another clear pattern is the opposite of this: when you are seriously serving God, the spirits change roles. The evil spirit clouds your day with desolation to lead you away from God, while the good spirit fills your day with trust and love of God. And a final, easily grasped pattern: a spirit that works in light and openness is good, while a spirit cloaked in secrecy and deception is evil.
Later Ignatius had other occasions to discern “spirits” and to note how the evil spirit cloaks himself as an angel of light for those who have advanced a bit in their journey into a deeper intimacy with God. It is characteristic of the evil angel, who takes on the appearance of an angel of light, to enter by going along the same way as the devout soul and then to exit by his own way with success for himself. That is, he brings good and holy thoughts attractive to such an upright soul and then strives little by little to get his own way, by enticing the soul over to his own hidden deceits and evil intentions.
Ignatius discovered that God is not the only source of pious thoughts. The discernment of the spirits rests on the belief that the human heart is a battleground where God and the evil one struggle for mastery. Jesus of Nazareth himself believed this. In the desert he had been tempted by the evil one masquerading as an angel of light. Jesus came to recognize who the real enemy of God’s rule is. He cast out demons, and equated his power over the demons as a sign of God’s coming to rule: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” The majority party of the Pharisees and most Jews of the time saw the real enemy of Israel, and therefore of God, as the pagans, and especially the Roman occupiers. Over and over again Jesus warned his hearers that the real enemy was Satan.
It is important to realize that, in the view of Jesus, . . . human beings were not basically neutral territories that might be influenced by divine or demonic forces now and then. . . . Human existence was seen as a battlefield dominated by one or the other supernatural force, God or Satan. A human being might have a part in choosing which “field of force” would dominate his or her life, i.e., which force he or she would choose to side with. But no human being was free to choose simply to be free of these supernatural forces. One was dominated by either one or the other, and to pass from one was necessarily to pass into the control of the other. At least over the long term, one could not maintain a neutral stance.
Jesus’ own discernment of spirits rested on his Jewish belief that God was acting in history and that the evil one was acting to thwart God. Once again, we see that the discernment of spirits is a matter of faith put into practice. Indeed, faith is not just an intellectual affirmation of truths; faith is a verb. Faith is a graced response to our self-revealing God. This goes for the faith of the church as well as for the faith of the individual who is trying to discern a path through life.
Prayer to Know God’s Will: May it please the supreme and divine Goodness to give us all abundant grace ever to know his most holy will and perfectly to fulfill it.