At the Heart of the Spiritual Life 


Father Gallagher fulfills what Ignatius desired: that is, for Christians of good will — whatever their background — to attain the ability to understand "to some extent, the different movements produced in the soul and... recognizing those that are good to admit them, and those that are bad, to reject them."

At the Heart of the Spiritual Life

In Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Levin, a main character in the story, has just encountered God in an experience of deep joy. The witness of an upright man who lives for God has opened for Levin the way to spiritual clarity. Tears express the profound happiness of his heart in the Lord. His faith has grown strong and new spiritual life opens before him. Levin hopes that the spiritual richness he has received will strengthen and deepen his relationship with his family. He is disheartened to find, however, that he continues to struggle as he interacts with various people of his household. When, finally, he is alone for a moment, Levin reflects on his recent spiritual experience:

He was glad of a chance to be alone to recover from the influence of ordinary actual life, which had already depressed his happy mood. He thought that he had already had time to lose his temper with Ivan, to show coolness to his brother, and to talk flippantly with Katavasov.

"Can it have been only a momentary mood, and will it pass and leave no trace?" he thought. But the same instant, going back to his mood, he felt with delight that something new and important had happened to him. Real life had only for a time overcast the spiritual peace he had found, but it was still untouched within him.

Joy in God — then the depressing of that joy. A happy mood — then interactions that discourage and raise doubts about authentic spiritual progress. Anxiety that what seemed to be strong faith may have been only a passing mood — then again delight. Spiritual peace — then an overshadowing of that peace. Finally, untouched peace in God .... In this description of Levin's thoughts and emotions, Tolstoy illustrates something fundamental in every life of faith: the alternations of joy and fear, peace and anxiety, hope and discouragement that the human heart experiences as it journeys toward God.

These alternations matter. The joy of experiencing God's closeness instills new energy into the effort to love and serve. The darkness of discouragement and fear chills that quest and may overwhelm it completely. All faithful persons in all walks of life experience some form of these inner spiritual fluctuations: times of energy and desire for the things of God, and other times when that energy and attraction wane. Are we helpless in the face of such contrasting movements of the heart? Is there a way for us to understand this complex spiritual experience? Can we learn how to respond wisely to these changes in our hearts? If any teaching can answer these questions, clearly we will benefit immensely by learning that teaching. Such wisdom is, literally, at the heart of the spiritual life.

Ignatius of Loyola

All who have preceded us in the journey of faith have experienced such movements of the heart, and they, like us, have made choices in response to these movements, accepting or rejecting them. From the experience of the first human beings described in the Book of Genesis and throughout both the Old and New Testaments, we encounter persons who must distinguish between attractions that are of God and those that are not. Through the centuries, figures of holiness have offered assistance to dedicated people in understanding and responding to these stirrings of the heart: Origen, Anthony of Egypt, Augustine, John Cassian, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Catherine of Siena, to name a few.

What St. Augustine has done for the problem of evil, or St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross for the phenomenology of prayer, St. Ignatius, by the grace of God, has done for the art of discernment.

Among them, however, one emerges in a distinct way: Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), the spiritual guide whose teaching on discernment will be the focus of this book. As we will see, in a way all his own, Ignatius found practical language to explain these contrasting movements of the heart and taught effective ways of responding to them.

Ignatius's own interior life was characterized by rich affectivity and a remarkable spiritual self-awareness. References to this keen spiritual awareness abound in the writings of those who knew him personally and are classic in the Ignatian tradition. Jeronimo Nadal, one of those closest to Ignatius, affirms that Ignatius's special grace was "to see and contemplate in all things, actions, and conversations the presence of God and the love of spiritual things, to remain a contemplative even in the midst of action."  Many other witnesses express similar thoughts.

In his life and writings, and through the words of witnesses, Ignatius appears as a person deeply attuned to the spiritual movements of his heart, sensitive to these stirrings and careful to distinguish in them what is and what is not of God. For Ignatius, this spiritual awareness was critically important, and he was vigilant to maintain it throughout the hours of the day; it was at the heart of his entire spiritual life and writings. Such awareness of the contrasting spiritual movements of the heart, coupled with an effort to understand and respond wisely to them, is known as the discernment of spirits, the subject of this book.

Discernment, in the sense intended here, signifies the process of distinguishing one thing or idea from another. To discern (from the Latin discernere — to separate things according to their qualities, to distinguish between one thing and another) is to identify one spiritual reality as different from another. The phrase of spirits describes what is to be discerned, that is, which spiritual realities are to be distinguished, one from the other. The word spirits, as Ignatius uses it in this context, indicates those affective stirrings in the heart — joy, sadness, hope, fear, peace, anxiety, and similar feelings — with their related thoughts, that influence our life of faith and our progress toward God.

At this point, therefore, we may say that, for Ignatius, discernment of spirits describes the process by which we seek to distinguish between different kinds of spiritual stirrings in our hearts, identifying those that are of God and those that are not, in order to accept the former and to reject the latter? This book is concerned with explaining, illustrating, and applying "discernment of spirits" to the ordinary, daily spiritual experience of dedicated people.

Our basic text in Ignatius's writings will be the rules for the discernment of spirits that he includes in his Spiritual Exercises. These rules are the clearest and most concrete teaching on discernment of spirits contained in our spiritual tradition. As Green writes regarding the practice of discernment of spirits:

The classic source is the Rules for the Discernment of Spirits in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. Even today these rules, written 450 years ago, are the church's canonical locus on discernment. What St. Augustine has done for the problem of evil, or St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross for the phenomenology of prayer, St. Ignatius, by the grace of God, has done for the art of discernment.

A Personal Word

Twenty years ago my work in retreats and spiritual direction first drew my attention to discernment of spirits in a particular way. I began to discuss these rules in retreats and, later, in seminars on discernment. The enthusiastic response to this teaching I regularly encountered convinced me that, in these rules, Ignatius had touched something fundamental in the experience of all who sincerely seek the Lord. I realized that Ignatius here provides an unparalleled resource for overcoming what is generally the major obstacle faithful persons encounter in their efforts to grow spiritually: discouragement, fear, loss of hope, and other troubling movements of the heart.

I was struck to see how often, at the end of a retreat or seminar, such persons would say that Ignatius had supplied them with an invaluable set of spiritual tools for overcoming discouragement and fear. They sensed that Ignatius had assisted them in the struggles of the moment and had equipped them with the spiritual means to conquer similar trials in the future. With this learning came new hope.

Over the years I developed the method of presenting these rules that I am following in this book. This method is based on two convictions. The first is that the most effective way to convey the full teaching of these rules is to examine attentively what Ignatius actually says in them: to explore the rules, phrase by phrase, at times word by word, just as he wrote them. This is all the more necessary since Ignatius's style is, as de Guibert says, hard, complicated, and difficult.  In fact, I have found that on first receiving the text of the rules, at times people feel disappointed. When first read, the rules may appear to say little, or little that the person does not already know. Only when a person examines them phrase by phrase, attentively exploring their dense wording, does their full and vital richness emerge.

The second conviction is that, since these rules are born of experience, they are best explained by constant reference to experience. Ignatius wrote these rules as a digest of spiritual experience — his own and that of many others he assisted. For this reason I have chosen to present these rules less through abstract considerations than in the light of examples drawn from spiritual experience. Each rule will be discussed through examples taken from the lives of various people, some well known in our spiritual tradition, others less so. Our commentary on these examples will reveal the meaning of the rule itself.

In this way, the rules come alive. I have often observed how Ignatius's rules are, in a sense, transformed when they are related to spiritual experience. This approach situates the rules in their original and proper setting, and something electric occurs. The bare and laconic quality of the language disappears, and dedicated persons realize, with a sense of marvel, how profoundly Ignatius understands and describes their own spiritual experience and how skilled he is in assisting them to respond wisely to it. It is my hope that the examination of the rules in this book will foster a similar realization in those who read it.

The Purpose of This Book

My aim, then, is to offer an experience-based presentation of Ignatius's rules for discernment of spirits in order to facilitate their ongoing application in the spiritual life. In accord with the nature of the rules themselves, I have kept this practical purpose constantly in mind. This is a book about living the spiritual life.

The Discernment of Spirits
by Father T.M. Gallagher, OMV

In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius provides two sets of rules for discernment.  In this book I will discuss the first set, composed of fourteen rules. My intention is to comment also on the second set of rules in a separate volume. Ignatius himself, in fact, indicates that the second set of rules should not be discussed simultaneously with the first, and that to do so is unhelpful to persons engaged in applying the first set of rules (SpirEx, 9). As we will see, the growth involved in assimilating the first set of rules is already great. By focusing our reflections in this book on the first set of rules, the material remains manageable and will be more easily understood and applied in our lives.

Ignatius composed these rules for those who guide others in the Spiritual Exercises, a time of prayer and of seeking the will of God. He presumes that these guides will know the rules well and will explain them to the retreatants in accordance with the retreatants' spiritual needs (SpirEx, 8). In this pedagogy, Ignatius desires that with the help of their guides the retreatants will increasingly develop a personal ability to apply these rules to their own experience, an ability that they will retain when the days of retreat have concluded.

These rules for discernment, therefore, do not apply only to the formal time of retreat but also to the ongoing spiritual experience of all who seek the Lord. Once they have been learned and, with the continuing assistance of a competent spiritual guide, dedicated persons will find these rules irreplaceable in understanding and responding to the daily spiritual stirrings of their hearts.

This book is intended for all who desire deeper understanding of Ignatius's rules for discernment in order to apply them in their spiritual lives. It is written for those giving and for those receiving spiritual guidance, and may serve them as a resource in transmitting and receiving Ignatius's teaching on discernment. It envisages those striving to live these rules both in the context of the Spiritual Exercises and in daily life. This book may serve as a systematic introduction to the fourteen rules or be used, according to need, as a reminder of individual rules. As the choice of examples throughout will demonstrate, the teaching contained in this book applies to persons of every walk of life and vocation. The same examples also indicate that this book is concerned not with remote spiritual phenomena but with the ordinary spiritual experience of all faithful persons.

Excellent literature on the rules for discernment already exists. A gap, however, remains in that literature, a gap that explains in part why the rules for discernment continue to be too little known and too seldom utilized. Some of the writing is extensive, thorough, and conceptually rich but, by that very fact, inaccessible except to specialists. Other writing helpfully simplifies and renders the rules more accessible to many readers, but can not, in a few pages, describe them fully. The presentation of the rules in this book seeks to combine both accessibility and essential completeness. Each rule is the subject of a separate chapter and is discussed in depth. By examining what Ignatius actually writes in each rule, without attempting to explore further issues and complexities, we respect Ignatius's own pedagogical choices and permit an intelligible and substantial discussion of each rule without undue length or difficulty of exposition.  The explanation of the rules through use of examples lightens the reading, sets the teaching in its original experiential context, and clarifies the rules themselves.

In the fourteen rules, as will be evident, Ignatius first instructs us regarding the nature of discernment and then, when we have grasped this, offers practical guidelines for living according to the discernment we have come to understand. Most readers will find that from the third chapter forward this book will apply directly to their personal experience and will offer practical guidelines for spiritual action. The first two chapters, in keeping with Ignatius's sound pedagogical sense, supply the necessary foundation for a fruitful understanding of those that follow.

The basic message of Ignatius's fourteen rules for discernment is liberation from captivity to discouragement and deception in the spiritual life. One of my happiest experiences in working with these rules has been to witness consistently how they awaken new hope in those with whom they are shared. Dedicated persons, at times long subject to the spiritual discouragement mentioned above, find in Ignatius's rules a teaching that begins to set them free. The words that Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue of Nazareth as a summation of his entire redemptive mission also express the central theme of this book: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, / because he has anointed me / to bring glad tidings to the poor. / He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives ... / to let the oppressed go free" (Luke 4:18; emphasis added). This is a book about setting captives free. Each rule, as we will see it in the following chapters, will guide us one step further toward that freedom. 




Father Timothy M. Gallagher, OMV. "At the Heart of the Spiritual Life." Introduction in The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2005): 1-6.

Reprinted with permission by The Crossroad Publishing Company.


Father Timothy M. Gallagher, O.M.V., was ordained in 1979 as a member of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, a religious community dedicated to retreats and spiritual formation according to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. He obtained his doctorate in 1983 from the Gregorian University. He has taught (St. John's Seminary, Brighton, MA; Our Lady of Grace Seminary Residence, Boston, MA), assisted in formation work for twelve years, and served two terms as provincial in his own community. He has dedicated many years to an extensive ministry of retreats, spiritual direction, and teaching about the spiritual life. Fr. Gallagher is the author of The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living, The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today, Spiritual Consolation: An Ignatian Guide for the Greater Discernment of Spirits, An Ignatian Introduction to Prayer: Scriptural Reflections According to the Spiritual Exercises, Meditation and Contemplation: An Ignatian Guide to Praying with Scripture, and Discerning the Will of God: An Ignatian Guide to Christian Decision Making.

Copyright © 2005 The Crossroad Publishing Company

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