How did St. Ignatius come up with The Rules for the Discernment of Spirits?

Who was St. Ignatius of Loyola? (click here)

St. Ignatius of Loyola’s (1491-1556) Rules for the Discernment of Spirits are the result of both:

  • His own interior life, characterized by rich affectivity and a remarkable spiritual self-awareness.
  • And a result of reflecting upon his own spiritual experience, that of others he assisted, and a desire to share these reflections with others.

A watershed moment in Ignatius’ life that began this whole process of the “discernment of spirits” was while he was on his convalescent bed in Loyola. After being wounded during a battle with the French troops in Pamplona, Ignatius returned to his native Loyola to undergo multiple surgeries on his damaged leg.

  • God’s providence: The doctor’s professional failure “opened a space in which God could intervene in Ignatius’s life. Had the [first or second] surgery been successful, in all likelihood the conversion story would end here: Ignatius, as he so desired, would simply have returned to his earlier life, the life his father and all his brothers were living, and Ignatian spirituality might never have been” (Gallagher, SCF, xxiii).

I’ll comment on his conversion story, as outlined in Luis Gonzalez’s Autobiography of St. Ignatius:

“Ignatius was passionately fond of reading worldly books of fiction and tales of knight-errantry. When he felt he was getting better, he asked for some of these books to pass the time. But no book of that sort could be found in the house; instead they gave him a life of Christ and a collection of the lives of saints written in Spanish.”
By constantly reading these books he began to be attracted to what he found narrated there. Sometimes in the midst of his reading he would reflect on what he had read. Yet at other times he would dwell on many of the things which he had been accustomed to dwell on previously. But at this point our Lord came to his assistance, insuring that these thoughts were followed by others which arose from his current reading.
While reading the life of Christ our Lord or the lives of the saints, he would reflect and reason with himself: “What if I should do what Saint Francis or Saint Dominic did?” In this way he let his mind dwell on many thoughts; they lasted a while until other things took their place. Then those vain and worldly images would come into his mind and remain a long time. This sequence of thoughts persisted with him for a long time.
  • Ignatius’s heroic desire to serve God like St. Francis and St. Dominic begs the question: In my respective vocation, why should I be less heroic?

A shift will now begin from:

  • intellectual exercise: “read”, “reflect”, “dwell”, “thoughts”, “reason”
  • affective experience: “intense pleasure”, “weariness”, “dry and depressed”, “great joy”, “sad”, “joy”
But there was a difference. When Ignatius reflected on worldly thoughts, he felt intense pleasure; but when he gave them up out of weariness, he felt dry and depressed. Yet when he thought of living the rigorous sort of life he knew the saints had lived, he not only experienced pleasure when he actually thought about it, but even after he dismissed these thoughts, he still experienced great joy. Yet he did not pay attention to this, nor did he appreciate it until one time his eyes were opened a little and he began to marvel at the difference. Then he understood his experience: thoughts of one kind left him sad, the others full of joy.

Although both the worldly and the sacred projects were capable of intensely engaging his thought for hours at a time (the intellectual exercise) and felt welcome, happy affectivity and a kind of delight during the intellectual exercise (the affective experience), Ignatius felt “dry and discontented” after reflecting on the worldly project and “content and happy” after reflecting on the sacred project.

  • Pondering “worldly deeds”:
    • During = happy
    • After = discontent
  • Pondering “holy deeds”:
    • During = happy
    • After = happy
“his eyes were opened a little”
  • At this moment, Ignatius steps into a whole new spiritual arena.
  • He is now aware of the different patterns within his heart. This is the 1st step = “become aware”
  • This is when Ignatius’ teachings on the discernment of spirits is born.
  • Ripples of grace: “The ripples of grace that have gone out into the Church and the world because one man’s eyes were “opened a little” to become aware of, understand, and take action in response to the spiritual movements in his heart relative to different sets of thoughts, continue to expand and bless the Church and the world” (Gallagher, SCF, xxvi).
  • How about us? “What will be different in our lives if we begin to live with our spiritual eyes ‘opened a little,’ enough to notice the spiritual experience in our hearts and thoughts, to work with it until we understand what in it is of God and what is not, and to take action accordingly, faithfully accepting what is of God and firmly rejecting what is not?” I answer, “The same two things that happened in Ignatius’s life will happen also in ours: a grace-filled step of personal transformation toward God, and, like Ignatius in his time, we will become agents of renewal in the Church… Living the discerning life matters” (xxvii).
And this was the first time he applied a process of reasoning to his religious experience. Later on, when he began to formulate his spiritual exercises, he used this experience as an illustration to explain the doctrine he taught his disciples on the discernment of spirits.

Ignatius begins a process of reasoning based upon the contrasting affectivity.

  • Thinking about worldly projects causes a delight that consistently turns into sadness = this does not have the “feel” of God’s action but rather of the bad spirit. Thinking about sacred projects causes a delight that consistently lasts = this does have the “feel” of God’s action. This is the 2nd step = understanding.
  • Ignatius, as a result of becoming aware and understanding, rejects the bad spirit, accepts the good spirit. This is the 3rd step = take action.
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