Discerning how to Discern

Catholics love Catholic words. We often utilize words like “Thomism” and “Canonical” without fully grasping their meaning. The Church faces greater challenges than loose vocabulary, but these Catholic buzzwords do create some fascinating problems. One such problematic word is “Discernment.” It is a rich word, full of meaning. However, since every serious Catholic has to discern at some point, the word has the misfortune of being overused by those who do not grasp its depth. I know that before I entered seminary, the word “discernment” created only vague, hazy notions. “Discernment” was this magical process by which God was… well… God was going to do something anyway.

After having spent some time in seminary, I think I can enflesh the ghost of discernment. Discernment of spirits is the process by which one reflects on the movements of his heart as they relate to God, determines the source of the movements, and decides how to act. The goal is to follow the voices that come from God and to reject the voice of the enemy. Learning discernment requires time, so what follows here merely introduces a deep topic.

St. Ignatius and his Rules

St. Ignatius of Loyola did not pioneer the discernment of spirits. Discernment claims vast roots in Catholic spirituality, even back to the desert fathers. Ignatius stands as the master of discernment because he reflected on the teaching of the spiritual masters and systematized their insights into a simple set of rules. The rules explained here come from his Spiritual Exercises (also known as the Thirty Day Retreat). In his introduction, he states that these rules are proper to the first week of the exercises. That means that beginners can learn these rules. There are 14 rules on this list, but this post will only cover the first five.

Rule One

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.

This first rule applies only to those who are moving away from God in a multitude of sins. The enemy aims to keep sinners trapped, so he promises greater pleasures: “Next time will be better.” The good spirit attacks the conscience by use of reasonable arguments. Book 8 of the Confessions by Saint Augustine shines as the paradigmatic example of the good spirit’s action in the life of a sinner.

Now I know this is a discernment blog, and most of you probably do not fall into this first category. But this rule is important to know about it because it contrasts what comes next.

Rule Two

In the persons who are going on intensely cleansing their sins and rising from good to better in the service of God our Lord, it is the method contrary to that in the first Rule, for then it is the way of the evil spirit to bite, sadden and put obstacles, disquieting with false reasons, that one may not go on; and it is proper to the good to give courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations and quiet, easing, and putting away all obstacles, that one may go on in well doing.

Notice to whom this rule applies–those who strive to walk in God’s ways. That’s you! The good spirit keeps you going, and the enemy attempts to stop you. The good spirit comforts, while the enemy deploys chaos: darkness, discord, confusion, and depression. Rules 3-14 apply only to those to whom rule 2 describes.

Rule Three

I call it consolation when some interior movement in the soul is caused, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord; and when it can in consequence love no created thing on the face of the earth in itself, but in the Creator of them all.

Likewise, when it sheds tears that move to love of its Lord, whether out of sorrow for one’s sins, or for the Passion of Christ our Lord, or because of other things directly connected with His service and praise. Finally, I call consolation every increase of hope, faith and charity, and all interior joy which calls and attracts to heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul, quieting it and giving it peace in its Creator and Lord.

Love is the name of the game here. The good spirit produces an act of love in the soul, removing obstacles between the soul and God. Profound feelings of joy and peace often accompany this movement, called consolation. If you witness somebody weeping tears of joy in front of the Blessed Sacrament, it is probably strong consolation.

Notice, however, that the feelings are not the point. Ignatius speaks of love first, then tears and joy. Consolation does not necessarily produce strong feelings. It could be as simple as an increase in faith accompanied by interior peace. If your prayer life has not yet produced tears, fear not. God has not abandoned you. God knows exactly what sort of consolations you need and when you need them.

Rule Four

I call desolation all the contrary of the third rule, such as darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to things low and earthly, the unquiet of different agitations and temptations, moving to want of confidence, without hope, without love, when one finds oneself all lazy, tepid, sad, and as if separated from his Creator and Lord. Because, as consolation is contrary to desolation, in the same way the thoughts which come from consolation are contrary to the thoughts which come from desolation.

The enemy prowls again. He throws these obstacles in our way to keep our eyes off God and on ourselves. The enemy intends to create self-pity and compromise. Anything that is contrary to the third rule applies here. Later rules draw plans of action in times of desolation, but we will only cover rule five here.

Rule Five

In time of desolation never to make a change; but to be firm and constant in the resolutions and determination in which one was the day preceding such desolation, or in the determination in which he was in the preceding consolation. Because, as in consolation it is rather the good spirit who guides and counsels us, so in desolation it is the bad, with whose counsels we cannot take a course to decide rightly.

Let me tell you a story about a seminarian. Joe was always a kind soul. He was ever ready for a laugh or a joke, and had your back no matter what. He diligently studied his material and stayed faithful to his prayer. In short, he was an ideal candidate to be a priest. Near the end of the fall semester, I noticed a change in Joe. He was positively radiant. His smiles were bigger, his laughter was louder, and even the way he walked seemed relaxed and carefree. Before finals week, he announced that he was leaving seminary. He is now happily married.

I present Joe to you because he exemplifies how to discern well. He went all in for Jesus and pursued priesthood fervently. When he discerned out, he rested in a place of strong consolation—so strong that I could see it. Truly, the Holy Spirit guided him.

Rule five saves vocations. If you are in a place of desolation, then you are unable to hear the voice of the good spirit. The enemy influences the desolate soul most (although God’s grace never leaves you). Thus, if you attempt make an important decision while in desolation, you cannot hear God. Who are you listening to?! This rule might be the most important in the spiritual life, and I know men whose vocations were saved by both this rule and a stubborn spiritual director.

Not the end, but a beginning

The world of discernment exceeds what I have been able to sketch here. We did not even say a quarter of the things that could be said about these first rules, to say nothing of rules six through fourteen. If this primer has left you hungry for more, I suggest you check out the work of Fr. Timothy Gallagher. He literally wrote the book on discernment of spirits and you can find a series of free podcasts by him on the discernment of spirits here.

“Stay sober and alert. Your opponent, the devil, is prowling like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith.” 1 Peter 5:8-9a


DoctorSimplex is a diocesan seminarian in his second year of theology.


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