By Mac Stewart

“The human mind and heart are a mystery; but God will loose an arrow at them, and suddenly they will be wounded” (Ps. 64:7). I have usually been cautious about wading too deeply into discussion of “interior movements” of the soul. “You are what you do,” an early mentor told me, and this has seemed to be wise counsel in a world often inclined toward navel-gazing. Focusing our moral attention on how our actions shape us, rather than what our feelings are telling us, can be liberating for those who don’t find their feelings either consistent or generally reliable. It also extends the range of what we understand as “morality” beyond conventional ethical questions about doing the right thing in hypothetical situations of moral quandary, and includes, among the key ingredients of moral formation, the liturgical life. Our inner life, fickle and confused as it is, is marked and shaped and held most fruitfully by the prayers, hymns, and bodily actions that the liturgy gives us “externally” to pray, sing, and perform. When we worship, we lose ourselves in what we’re doing, and discover the properly ordered moment of self-reflection to be the moment when we know as we are known by God.

Ignatius of Loyola, though, reminds me that this is not the last word on the matter. He, too, is keenly aware of the fickle and confused state of most people’s inner life. But, at the same time, he recognizes that the mysterious human heart is regularly struck by particular “arrows” from God that wound, prod, pinch, heal, and free souls. These arrows he calls “spirits,” and he assumes that an essential part of the spiritual life will be the immensely difficult work of discerning the spirits that so move the soul, parsing out which of them come from God and which do not, and discovering what concrete courses of action one ought to take in response to these spirits. The goal in this work of discernment is the attainment of genuine spiritual freedom, what Ignatius calls “indifference.”

Ignatius is well known for his Spiritual Exercises, the four-week spiritual odyssey that forms Jesuits in their Society and has served many others in their efforts to attune themselves to God’s movements in their souls. The four weeks each have a thematic focus, progressively ordered to move the retreatant all the way from the birth pangs of conversion, through a time of purgation for all one’s past sins, onto a decisive turn to following Jesus in his life, sufferings, and death, and finally to a taste of the consummation of the spiritual life in the joyful contemplation of the Risen Lord. The retreatant, under the direction of a wise and more experienced spiritual guide, is attempting in all this to trace the various movements in the soul in order to reach a place of deeper intimacy with God. The exercises assume that countless subtle and not-so-subtle movements are affecting the soul in one way or another every day, and so their goal is to cultivate in the retreatant a keen sensitivity to these movements, the insight necessary to identify and discriminate and distinguish between them. This, for Ignatius, is the definition of discernment.

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Well aware, not least from his experience, that this is no easy task, Ignatius gives to those directing the exercises some “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits.” These provide a helpful point of reference, a set of guidelines for recognizing and understanding the character of the interior movements one is supposed to be discerning. One of the most important features of these guidelines is Ignatius’s clear assumption that different sorts and conditions of people will be affected by spirits in different ways, and that, therefore, any direction given to them will have to take into account the particular dispositions of each person.

Thus, for example, in his first two rules for the first week, Ignatius makes the point that bad spirits and good spirits will each cause an opposite affect in a person depending on whether that person is mired in heinous and habitual sin or seeking to purge away this sin and progress in the service of God. For the former sort of person, the bad spirit will make them feel good, as it will encourage them to sink ever more deeply into the muck of their apparent delights and pleasures. The good spirit, however, will feel terrible, as it will “sting their consciences with remorse” for the sins they habitually commit (Spiritual Exercises, no. 314). For the latter sort of person, on the other hand, it is the evil spirit that will cause the gnawing anxiety and unsettled sadness, whereas the good spirit will be a source of encouragement, strength, and tranquility. This person is already moving in the direction of God, and so the tactic of the devil in his case is to try to throw him off course with irrational scruples and unreasonable doubts.

Recognizing how these spirits operate in different sorts of people, therefore, will have substantial bearing on the sort of counsel given to them. It might make the difference between advising people, on the one hand, to think harder about the sort of life they’re living (if their feelings are merely leading them into deeper dissoluteness), or, on the other, to trust where their feelings are leading them (if their thoughts are making them overanalyze things to the point of spiritual paralysis).

Also crucial in Ignatius’s guidelines for discernment is the dual notion of consolation and desolation. By “consolation,” Ignatius means any interior movement through which the soul comes to be more enflamed with love for its God and Creator. Indeed, included under this description is “every increase in hope, faith, and charity,” any interior joy that attracts the soul toward heavenly things, “bringing it tranquility and peace” in God (no. 316). This is exactly what the good person feels with the arrival of a good spirit, a settled confidence in God’s favor and goodness toward them. By “desolation,” on the other hand, Ignatius means the exact opposite: “darkness of soul, turmoil within it, an impulsive motion toward low and earthly things,” any motion in the soul that removes faith, hope, and love, and leaves a person feeling separated from their Creator (no. 317).

Discernment, for Ignatius, is not a question of avoiding the desolations and seeking the consolations. Discernment, rather, involves cultivating the spiritual tools necessary for navigating the various stormy movements that will, inevitably, shake the soul. It involves, for example, knowing how to harness the spiritual energy infused into one’s soul by a period of consolation so as to have sufficient reserves on hand — memories of gratitude and joy, perhaps — to make it through the next period of desolation. It involves developing the resolve to make no rash or drastic changes in the externals of one’s life as a result of desolation, but rather patiently “to make vigorous changes in ourselves as counterattack,” possibly saying more focused prayers, making more thorough self-examination, or engaging in some suitable form of penance under the direction of one’s confessor (nos. 318-19).

One of the scenes in which consolation and desolation move into the soul most actively and intensely is at those times when we are trying to make a decision, or an “election,” as Ignatius often calls it. Ignatius seems to envision that the soul in such a state of indecision will initially be racked by various good and evil spirits, a mixture of consolations and desolations that leave a person in a confused emotional muddle about the best path. Ignatius’ counsel in such a case is revealing, and opens for us the central feature of his teaching on discernment. It is necessary in such cases, he says, “to keep as my objective the end for which I am created, to praise God our Lord and save my soul. Furthermore, I ought to find myself indifferent, that is, without disordered affection, to such an extent that I am not more inclined or emotionally disposed” to go in one direction rather than another (no. 179).

“Indifference,” born of a firm conviction as to the sole and true end of one’s life: this is the key virtue of Ignatian discernment. By “indifference,” of course, he does not mean the sort of cynical apathy that gives up hope of finding a good path. He means, rather, that we find ourselves standing in a place of tranquility, “in the middle, like the pointer of a balance,” ready to fall either one way or the other at a moment’s notice, in whichever direction we perceive “to be more to the glory and praise of God our Lord and the salvation of [our] soul” (no. 179).

This process of discernment and the state of “indifference” is, it seems to me, about far more than equipping us with tools for making the right decision in any particular case. It seems more, rather, to be a process of formation into a manner of life, a way of being in the world that orients us toward the end for which humans were created, a way of receiving the things that come into our lives with an open hand. It is equipping us with tools for becoming the right kind of person, a person that can enter into the hard work of making decisions freed from the feverish anxiety that tries to force the issue when a resolution has not yet been given. Such a person can get on with his life, trusting that God will make things clear in his own good time. Ignatian indifference sets us free with the true spiritual freedom that comes only from knowing ourselves as held and preserved and guided to our end by the one who made us, and who loves us beyond our wildest imaginings.

About The Author

Dr. Mac Stewart recently completed a doctorate in theology at the Catholic University of America.

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