This can be particularly true when we are discerning a major decision in our lives, such as our vocation. Is there any way of knowing the source of our ideas? Is there any way in influencing how we respond to them?
In his “Spiritual Exercises”, St. Ignatius develops an incredibly rich yet simple doctrine on the discernment of spirits which can be read in their entirely here. If you have taken the Spiritual Exercises, you know how important these rules of discernment can be. For the purposes of this short blog, I’d like to summarize the main principles to help us keep this fundamental rules top of mind in our daily and more serious discernments.
First, we need to be aware of what is the state of our soul. There are really only two options: either I am striving to do good and avoid sin (albeit with various levels of intensity) or I am carelessly falling into sin with no effort to get myself out of it. Depending on our state of soul, the devil will respond in different ways. To the one in sin, the devil will “support” and encourage him to continue on his path to destruction, while the good spirit (God or His angels) will prick the conscience through reason to show them the error of their ways. For the one who is striving to grow in holiness, it is the exact opposite: the devil will try to confuse and lay obstacles while the good spirit will try and encourage us.
We must then be aware of the notions of “consolation and desolation”. It is important not to confuse these with mere emotional states. Consolation is not the excitement we have when we get a new job, win a sporting event, or accomplish some task we have been seeking. In a state of consolation, we are inflamed with a love of God and a desire to do His will, whereas in desolation we find ourselves in a state of spiritual dryness, often plagues with doubts, fears, and tension. The rules of St. Ignatius depend entirely on which state we find ourself in.
And now to the heart of the rules: what must I do?
If we find ourselves in a state of desolation, we must first follow the golden rule: DO NOT MAKE ANY CHANGES. This is perhaps the fundamental rule. If I have made a good discernment, and decided to do something, and then find myself in a state of desolation, this is not the time to make any changes. Rather than give in to the desolation, we must fight against it with prayer and good works. We ought to consider that God, who has providence of all things, is permitting this for some good reason (for example, to grow in our faith), and that at some point the darkness will pass. I must continue on the path and put my faith in God.
On the contrary, if we find ourself in a state of consolation, that is, “all interior joy which calls and attracts to heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul”, then we must first humble ourself and give thanks to God, aware that this is an unmerited grace totally beyond our control. This can also be a good time to see where God is calling me.
It is also important to be aware of the general tactics of the devil. St. Ignatius characterizes the devil as a coward who runs at the first sign of strength (while pouncing on weakness); a general (who ‘prowls around’ looking for our weakness), and a licentious lover, who seeks to seduce in the shadows and not have his deceiving tactics be made known. Our response must be then to respond with strength against the devil’s cowardliness; to examine ourselves to find any weaknesses and strengthen against his attacks, and to make known to a confessor or spiritual director any serious temptation. Often the simple act of bringing to light a temptation can cause the devil to flee.
Our life is a struggle (cf. Eph 6:12), and we must continually fight against temptations and seek to do the will of the loving God who made us. Perhaps one of the best ways for us to grow in our discernment is the “renewal of our minds” (cf. Rm 12:2), where we seek to see reality through the lens of the Gospel. Through meditation on the word of God, a life of prayer and frequent reception of the sacraments, we can be better equipped to know the voice of God. Some of the best areas in scripture for this are found in 1 Corinthians 13 (on charity) and Galatians 5 (on the fruits of the Holy Spirit).
We know too that the devil can present himself as an angel of light (cf. 2 Cor 11:14), and so St. Ignatius provides additional rules to help guard us against these attacks. These rules are worth viewing in their entirety, and we are always helped by revealing our soul to a confessor or spiritual director to help understand whose voice we are listening to.
In short though, it is important to remind ourselves of the truth that God is of peace (cf. 1 Cor 14:33), and He operates in peace, not in the “wind, earthquake, or fire” (cf. 1 Kings 19). If we let the “same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus” (cf. Phil 2:5), we can come to know His voice and be able to better discern His loving will for us.
May we follow the example of Mary, who at the voice of the angel “pondered” (cf. Luke 1:30) what this might mean, that we too might be able to say “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38).
 Ven. Fulton Sheen develops this idea that it was more the Eucharist than avarice that drove Judas’ betrayal. See more here.
 If you haven’t taken them, you can learn more see upcoming dates here.
 Cf. Article 176 in the Spiritual Exercises.