It’s been a rough semester, hasn’t it? If you can’t agree, and have truly been walking on Cloud Nine all semester, then I’m glad for you, really.
But this has been a hard semester for me, at least. We all know the drill, so I won’t bore you by going on about my classes, homework, papers, work shifts, household commitments, fundraisers, retreats, late nights, early mornings and midnight meltdowns.
And I will be honest — on many days, I’ve let discouragement get the best of me.
Last week at a household commitment, I pulled out my copy of Ignatius of Loyola’s rules for discernment of spirits. These rules are not necessarily for discerning your religious vocation, nor are they related to the charismatic gift of discernment of spirits, although they can be helpful for both.
Ignatius himself describes them like this: “(These are) rules for becoming aware and understanding to some extent the different movements which are caused in the soul, the good, to receive them, and the bad to reject them.”
Basically, they help you recognize what’s going on in your prayer time and spiritual life, so you can interpret the spiritual movements, thoughts and feelings during prayer.
As stated in the first and second rules, the guiding premise is that, for someone going away from God, the enemy “proposes apparent pleasures to them, leading them to 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 a contrary method, stinging and biting their consciences through their rational power of moral judgment.”
But for someone going toward God, “intensely purifying their sins and rising from good to better in the service of God our Lord, the method is contrary to that in the first rule. For then it is proper to the evil spirit to bite, sadden, and place obstacles, disquieting with false reasons, so that the person may not go forward. And it is proper to the good spirit to give courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations and quiet, easing and taking away all obstacles, so that the person may go forward in doing good.”
If you are pointed toward God by keeping up a daily prayer life and striving for virtue, the good spirits, angels, will encourage you in your spiritual progress, and the enemy, Satan, will discourage you. Usually, we experience this through consolation or desolation and dryness, which Ignatius defines in rules three and four.
A few of my favorite rules are five through eight, which address how to handle a period of spiritual desolation.
Rule five says, “In time of desolation never make a change.” For example, you might be in the port for a holy hour and start to think, “I’m so distracted; it’s so crowded in here; it would be better for me to just leave.”
How do you combat desolation in this moment? Do not leave! Do not make a change to any resolution you made prior to experiencing desolation. If you committed to pray for 30 minutes every day, do not skip your prayer because you are busy, stressed or distracted. Instead, keep to the commitments you made when you were in a period of consolation, which is when we can typically hear God and His inspirations more clearly.
If someone experiences spiritual desolation, like dryness in prayer or aversion to Mass or adoration, the enemy often discourages him with “false reasons” about how hard it is to pray or how unnecessary it is to proceed in the spiritual life or put in more than the bare minimum (of which I am so guilty). But these are lies straight from hell and human weakness. In reality, God wants to carry our burdens with us.
When I read these rules for discernment with my household last week, I was filled with such deep peace for the first time in months. Something about reminding myself of these simple truths set my anxious heart at ease in a way nothing else has all semester.
Even though I’ve been re-reading these rules for half-a-dozen years now, I had been settling for desolation instead of rejecting it, resigning myself to feeling stressed and overwhelmed and forgetting that Christ wants to actually carry my burdens with me and give me the gift of consolation.
I realized I had let myself be discouraged by stress, responsibility and sadness. Although I kept going to Mass and dragging myself to prayer, I wasn’t really letting God enter in to speak encouragement. I forgot to “rejoice in hope” as my household verse reminds me every time I walk into our common room (Romans 12:12).
Desolation, sadness or heaviness doesn’t define us as Christians. The joy and hope that comes from God’s love does.
I highly encourage you to look up the Ignatian rules of discernment. The Rev. Timothy Gallagher, OMV, has several excellent books, podcasts and other resources which break down the rules.
“Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” — Nehemiah 8:10