St. Ignatius of Loyola is well known for his founding of the Society of Jesus, a religious order also known as the Jesuits. He is also well known for providing a method of spiritual discernment by which one regularly examines his life (which is called the examen) and a process for discerning the origin of one’s thoughts and emotions (which is called the discernment of spirits). There are many approaches and many spiritualities in the Catholic Church, but St. Ignatius’ spirituality is particularly helpful for the systematic and specific methods he recommends. Following is our adaptation of the Ignatian method for a process of spiritual discernment for laypersons. We begin with discerning our many thoughts and emotions.
Discernment of Spirits: In general, we must realize that there are four sources for our thoughts and emotions. We also need to remember that emotions arise only from thoughts, even thoughts of which we are not yet conscious. The four sources are what we might call (a) the authentic self, (b) the wounded self, (c) God’s inspiration, and (d) demonic temptation. Just considering these four possible sources, it should be obvious how important it is to be able to discern the source. Any idea that comes into our heads and emotions that arise from the two dangerous sources must be identified and rejected. Clearly, it is important to develop the ability to discern among the various possible sources, and to develop the habit of continually doing so. The challenge is that when ideas or emotions arise, our default response is to assume that they are all from our authentic selves. After all, without this insight it would be reasonable to assume that if a thought is in our head, it must be from us. Let’s look at each of these four sources and consider some strategies for discerning among them.
Our authentic self is best defined as the way we would act, the choices we would make in each situation if we were not subjected to temptations, to bad habits, or to sinful choices that seem to restrict our freedom to choose. For most of us, we would hope our authentic self is one who would give ourselves fully to God and selflessly to others. This is the primary source of thoughts for those who are able to flourish in their relationships. These thoughts and emotions are not always loving and true, and so we need to discern carefully if they are from us and if they are, whether we have need of repentance because of our consent to them.
Another source of thoughts, which is also from us, we can call our wounded selves. What we mean by this is harmful habits we developed by responding to past hurts we have received from others or from events, or from our own sinful choices. These wounded habits commonly start from some hurtful experience in childhood in which we responded with an immature attempt to protect ourselves from the emotional trauma. The initial response can then begin a pattern of responding to similar situations (or at least we can imagine them to be similar) where we develop more selfish, protective, and/or aggressive manners of behavior as we get older. These patterns of behavior can become more deeply ingrained.
These habits of responding can become increasingly destructive of ourselves and of our relationships. They often seem to bind us, but we must also realize that we can develop the freedom to reject the thoughts as well as the emotions which come from them. However, we first must become aware of the bad habits and what seems to trigger them. It is also helpful if we can trace the source of these bad habits of responding. Satan will always use our wounded patterns of behavior to make his temptations more effective. Thus, we need to be aware of our weaknesses in order to close the doors, the windows, and even the cracks in the walls by which Satan can enter and be more successful in his temptations. If we choose to leave ourselves unaware of these weaknesses or we choose not to work to overcome them, then we are choosing to side with Satan over God. We also must discern our level of consent to any thoughts and emotions that are selfish or otherwise evil, and to repent of any consent. Even minor levels of consent can be sufficient to strengthen the bad habit/vice and so, Satan’s claim over us.
We also know that God is always calling us to Himself. At times this can be in the form of thoughts that appear in our consciousness or it can be the form of emotions which respond to thoughts that are below the level of our awareness. God’s inspirations can be discerned by the quality of our feelings but also the way in which the thoughts and emotions lead us. The feelings associated with God’s inspiration are invariably feelings of joy, peace, fulfillment, delight, tranquility, and contentment. The direction we are moved when inspirations come from God is always directing us toward obedience to Church teaching, to works of love, to acts of communion with God and others, and to acts which lead others to God.
Satan is the fourth possible source of thoughts within our consciousness. His temptations always leave traces, even when he is at his most subtle. This is because he has turned himself completely and purely into an anti-word. He is always and everywhere completely against everything that is true and good. He will not, he cannot change who he has made of himself. Everything he does therefore, necessarily leaves hints of his efforts to lead us to damnation. Though we must realize, he sometimes can use good things to try to lead us astray from God’s plan for us. Emotional traces of his temptations usually include feelings of fear, anxiety, despair, loneliness, being victimized, discouragement, cynicism, and anger directed toward other persons. These feelings are usually detectable more in the aftermath of the temptation than during it. Although at times, he can suggest thoughts to try to emulate feelings within us that are associated with divine inspiration.
In these cases, it is also important to discern where the thoughts and emotions are leading us. They come from Satan if they direct us toward violating Church teaching, provide inclinations toward harming others (physically, spiritually, emotionally), suggest thoughts of vengeance or getting even, induce temptations to turn inward and toward acts of selfishness, incline us toward indifference to the good of others, or move us toward even more subtle acts that weaken our selflessness and love for God. They can also be thoughts or emotions that lead us away from paths we have previously discerned as God’s plan for us.
For example, Satan can tempt someone discerning a religious vocation or a vocation to the priesthood with thoughts of missing out on marriage and family life. However, perhaps surprisingly, he can also repeatedly suggest thoughts of the priesthood or religious life to someone in courtship who is discerning marriage, if Satan is convinced that God is indeed calling the couple to marriage. While the priesthood and religious life are objectively the highest vocations, they are not good for those to whom God is not calling. Thus, we must develop habits of being aware of where we are casting our gaze, what we are thinking, and what we are feeling, and we must subject them to ongoing discernment. This is the purpose of the examen which we will discuss next time.