Conversatio Divina

Part 12 of 17

Discernment of Spirits

Annemarie Paulin-Campbell

Every day we find ourselves in the midst of many different inner pulls, desires, feelings, and impulses. How do we choose well? In the midst of so many conflicting inner and outer voices, how can we distinguish which inner movements will draw us towards God if we follow them and which will move us away from him? In Ignatian language, growing in our ability to distinguish what leads to God from what does not, and in our ability to sense God’s invitation in the ongoing events and experiences of our lives, is called the discernment of spirits.

01.  Dancing With God

A metaphor that helps me understand the discernment of spirits is that of dance. From the time I could walk until I was in my early twenties, I studied classical ballet for many hours each day. At a certain point in our training, when our own dancing was quite established, we began to work with a partner in what were called pas de deux classes. In those classes the focus was no longer on our own movement. It was about learning to sense and tune in to the movement of the other. When one partner pulled in the opposite direction or anticipated the movement of the other, it jarred, and the beauty of the unity in movement was spoiled. The longer one danced with a particular partner and the more experienced one became through long hours of practicing many different sequences, the more easily the movement between the two flowed. One’s whole attention needed to be attuned to the subtlest change in the other. One could sense in the other’s eyes or in a change of breathing the need to adjust one’s placement. Discernment of spirits is in many ways like the dance of God and the person, in which he or she learns to sense God’s movement with increasing subtlety and become more and more attuned to it.

Discernment of spirits is connected with, but not the same as, more general discernment. Discernment is about key choices and moments of decision. Discernment of spirits is the development of a deepening moment-by-moment awareness of where our thoughts, feelings, desires, and moods are coming from and leading to. It can be compared with the shifts of movement within the same dance.

02.  Learning Discernment at Loyola

Discernment of spirits is not something new. It was always part of our Christian tradition. The desert fathers and mothers in the earliest centuries of Christianity were well aware that we are constantly pulled between those things that draw us closer to God and those that pull us away. St. Ignatius lived in the sixteenth century, a time when much was happening spiritually. It was the time of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the time of the great Spanish mystics John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. The great gift of Ignatius was not that he discovered something new but that he was able to draw together much Christian wisdom about discernment of spirits in the form of guidelines that pilgrims and their guides can use.

While convalescing after a cannonball shattered his leg during a battle against the French at Pamplona, Ignatius first began to notice that God communicates God’s self through our deepest feelings, imagination, and thoughts. Prior to that, Inigo, as he was first called, had been pursuing a life centered on desires for fame and success. After coming close to death, he had to recuperate in the family castle at Loyola for six months. Driven by boredom, he sought books to amuse himself, but to his frustration the only books in the castle were a Life of Christ by Ludolph of Saxony, and a Life of the Saints. He began to read them, and his reading became intermixed with his daydreaming. At times he dreamt of the beautiful woman he wanted to impress and of the daring exploits he would do to win her favor. At other times he dreamt of the great things he would do for God and the sacrifices he would make. But slowly he became aware of something that intrigued him. He noticed that during both kinds of daydreams he felt excited and happy. However after the first kind of daydreams, he was left feeling dry and ill at ease, but after the daydreams about the things he would do for God, he was left with a feeling of contentment and peace. He came to think about these different inner feelings as being important ways in which he could begin to distinguish where God might be drawing him. This was the beginning of a powerful realization that God communicates with us through our moods, desires, and impulses.

The Spiritual Exercises is where St. Ignatius shares most clearly his guidelines for the discernment of spirits. This book was written not for the average person seeking to understand discernment but for retreat directors. What he describes as the “rules” for discernment of spirits are not so much regulations to be followed as descriptions of what tends to happen when people are earnestly striving after God. Some of these are more helpful for beginners in the spiritual journey, and some are intended for those who have already been journeying for some time, when the pulls and temptations become subtler. Together they help determine when an inner movement is from the Holy Spirit and when it is not. They help us discern what draws us towards God and what (whether from outside or from within our own psyche) hinders that movement.

03.  Good Spirit, Evil Spirit

Ignatius begins by explaining the actions of the Good Spirit (the Holy Spirit) and of the evil spirit.Ignatius’ language in The Spiritual Exercises is the language and cosmology of his time. Thus, he speaks of the Good and Evil Spirit, and of God and Satan. Not everyone is comfortable with using this language, but in practice it doesn’t matter whether one uses that paradigm or a more modern, psychologically based one. These work differently, depending on whether the person has basically turned away from God and is leading a sinful life or is sincerely seeking God. When turned away from God, the evil spirit encourages the person to continue with his or her current situation: “What you are doing isn’t really bad. Everyone’s doing it” or “That’s just the way the world is. It’s every man for himself. It’s your duty to put yourself first.” With such a person the Good Spirit (Holy Spirit) arouses the sting of conscience, trying to get him or her to turn back to God.

With a person who is earnestly striving after God, it works exactly the opposite way. In this case, Ignatius says, it is characteristic of the Good Spirit to console and encourage and the evil spirit to set up apparent obstacles and fallacious reasoning. It makes perfect sense. The Good Spirit wants the person to continue striving after God and so gives him or her courage, peace, and inner joy. The evil spirit wants the person to abandon the desire to grow in relationship with God and so tries to disturb and discourage so that the person is tempted to give up.

Lisa, a young woman with three children and a demanding job, recently came on retreat. She was overworking to the point of serious burnout. In the previous eighteen months she had started to take her faith very seriously and had begun to pray regularly and make regular retreats. She arrived at the retreat sad and burdened with a sense of guilt. She said, “I’m not doing enough for God. I don’t pray enough. I know God is disappointed in me.” Her anxiety and false guilt were making it impossible for her to allow herself to experience God’s love. The inner voices accusing her of not doing enough for God were not of the Good Spirit. She needed to be encouraged to listen for the consoling, encouraging voice of God. Eventually, after long walks or prayerful listening and the gentle encouragement of her spiritual companion, she was able to hear God’s invitation to her to lean on him.

04.  Consolation and Desolation

Often the process of listening to another in spiritual direction is about sensing whether what is happening in the inner spirit of that person is truly leading him to God. One is listening for what Ignatius calls “consolation.” True consolation is a sign of God’s action and invitation. It is any increase in faith, hope, and love. Often the feelings that come with consolation are joy and delight. But not always—sometimes feelings of consolation can be much less positive; feelings of sorrow that might accompany a realization of how one’s sin has affected others or oneself can also be an experience of consolation. But whether the consolation is joyful or painful, it always brings a sense of deep peace. The litmus test is whether this experience is drawing one closer to God. When the person to whom one is listening is “in consolation,” one should rejoice with her and remind her to store up the memory of this experience so as to be able to draw strength from it in the more difficult times when it is hard to sense God’s presence.

Ignatius also speaks of “desolation,” the opposite of consolation. In times of desolation, a person feels little or no desire for prayer or the things of God. Desolation does not come from God but may be allowed by God as a means of deepening and purifying one’s love. In desolation a person may be tempted to give up on his relationship with God. He may begin to wonder if all he experienced in consolation was simply an illusion. Ignatius’ advice is that when a person is in desolation, she needs to recognize it as such so she can choose to resist the temptation to give up.

We have to choose to trust what we know to be true: that God loves us and is with us. Sometimes rereading our prayer journals helps us remember the times we were able to feel God’s presence strongly.

When we are in desolation, it can seem as if things were never different. When a directee is in desolation and comes to us for spiritual accompaniment, he or she needs gentle reassurance that this is a normal and necessary part of growing in relationship with God. It is not her fault, and if she can simply stand her ground and keep putting her trust in God, the desolation will eventually lift. The pain of desolation is precisely because she loves and desires God. If God did not mean so much to her, then this sense of distance would not be so painful. God allows desolation so that we may learn to love God for God’s self, not just for the warm and fuzzy feelings of consolation. We may grow more in the spiritual journey in resisting the temptations of desolation than we do in the midst of the profound joys of consolation.

Ignatius also talks about the shrewd tactics of the evil spirit. The evil spirit will continue to harass and bring desolation, but if one stands up boldly against the attack or temptation, it will give up and stop the harassment. Or to put it into more modern language, if one firmly resists the temptation, it will dissipate. Ignatius also counsels that one confide the temptations of the evil spirit to a wise spiritual person. The reason is that in secrecy the temptations gain more power, and it is harder for the person caught up in them to unravel the fallacious reasoning and lies that will be self-evident to an experienced outsider. Finally, the evil spirit, like a brilliant army commander, seeks out our areas of greatest vulnerability in order to gain advantage by attacking at our weakest point. So we need to come to know our own areas of vulnerability so that we can be particularly careful in that area.

When I was a young student, I became caught up in a very messy situation of student politics. It had been going on for about eighteen months, but I had only just come to see with sadness and clarity that I had been complicit in an unjust situation. When I went to spiritual direction, my director asked me to write an essay tracing back the steps of how I had allowed myself to be deceived and drawn more and more into a situation of serious structural sin. As I reflected, I discovered it was my desire to be successful and to impress that was my weakest point and what the evil spirit used to hook me into the first wrong steps. Now when I find myself trying too hard to succeed and impress, I know I’m in dangerous territory and need to be very careful. I also know that my tendency to overwork is something that pulls me away from being deeply rooted in my relationship with God.

05.  Advanced Rules of Discernment

The second set of Ignatius’ rules focuses on the person who is really deepening his or her relationship with God. Such a person will not be as easily fooled as a beginner in the spiritual life, so the temptations of the evil spirit are subtler. Often they are disguised as something that looks as if it would lead closer to God, but in fact is designed to do the opposite.

Take the example of a person coming back from retreat after a profound experience of God. She is the mother of two children and has a demanding full-time job as well as being involved in ministry in her church. She decides to increase her prayer time from thirty minutes to an hour and a half a day. To be able to do this, she decides to get up substantially earlier each day. She feels it is a good sacrifice to make to deepen her relationship with God. Very soon things start to unravel. She is too tired in the day to cope well and becomes irritable with her husband and children. Her job and ministry also suffer. She becomes frustrated, overwhelmed, and discouraged and ends up not praying for even the thirty minutes that used to be her special time with the Lord. What looked like a generous desire to give more time to God was not, in fact, the invitation of God. If she had confided in her spiritual director, he might have been able to help her see the deception beforehand or as soon as it became evident.

Ignatius describes a kind of consolation in which there can be absolutely no doubt that it is of God. In those generally rare moments, one is completely overwhelmed by a depth of experience of God that is out of all proportion to anything one had anticipated. Such touchstone moments in one’s relationship with God are indelibly imprinted in one’s deepest core.

We may, however, still be vulnerable to being pulled off track in the period immediately following such a powerful consolation. Ignatius calls this the “afterglow,” when we are still enflamed by the power of the consolation but in danger of allowing ourselves to make all kinds of decisions that were not an intrinsic part of what we heard God saying to us in the experience.

Once when our team was involved in giving a retreat in daily life, a man had an extremely powerful experience of knowing himself to be unconditionally loved by God. Just after the experience, he felt God was telling him to give up his job and become involved full-time in giving retreats. His director helped him by discouraging him from making that kind of decision in the afterglow of such a powerful experience. The consolation was not about giving retreats. It was about knowing himself to be unconditionally loved by God. The evil spirit subtly tried to attack that profound experience by suggesting an apparently generous course of action that would, in the long run, have negatively impacted his relationship with God.

The most important prayer for growing in the practice of the discernment of spirits is called the Examen of Consciousness or the Awareness Prayer. The idea is to spend time at the end of each day prayerfully reflecting on the events of the day and on the interior movements experienced in response to those events. As I look back on the day from the time I woke up, I notice the moments of consolation. When did I feel a sense of generosity, creativity, deepening faith, hope, or love? In which encounters did I experience being drawn closer to God? Perhaps a particularly beautiful sunset reminded me of God’s greatness, or a significant conversation moved me, or a program on TV made me aware of a critical need. Then I reflect on the moments in which I felt trapped, ill at ease, frustrated, or despairing, moments of desolation when I felt a decrease in faith, hope, or love. I notice what experiences triggered those feelings and impulses in me. I offer the consolations and desolations of the day to God, thanking him for the moments of consolation and bringing the times of desolation to him for healing.

If one reflects this way each day and journals the key moments of consolation and desolation, one will begin to notice patterns. These patterns are the information one needs in order to make good choices. This reflection on the “stuff” of daily life is like the raw data of discernment that needs to be interpreted. A spiritual director can help one sift the experiences through which God is communicating moment by moment.

Discernment of Spirits grows in each person through prayer and daily reflection on the events and experiences of his or her life. Like the dancers who must dance every day whether they feel in the mood to dance or not, the one who seeks to dance in union with God must spend time each day listening, sensing, and allowing him- or herself to hear God in depth.


Annemarie Paulin-Campbell is a Catholic laywoman. She is a psychotherapist by training but currently works mainly in the area of spiritual direction, retreat giving, and the training of people in the ministry of spiritual accompaniment. She was the founder and for seven years the director of the Centre for Ignatian Spirituality. She is now the coordinator for Ignatian Spirituality at the Jesuit Institute, South Africa. Annemarie is currently completing her doctoral studies in the interface between psychology and Christian spirituality. Contact her at