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BEFORE THE CROSS | Discern the difference between God’s voice, the enemy’s tricks

St. Ignatius of Loyola’s guide to discernment helps us be less captive to immediate experiences and feelings

“Setting captives free.”

Father Tim Gallagher wanted that as the title of his classic work on St. Ignatius of Loyola’s rules for discernment of spirits. In his experience, people who learn Ignatius’ teaching are set free to follow the Lord more deeply and reject the devil more decisively. (The publisher ultimately chose a more descriptive title: “Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living.”)

It’s fitting to discuss “discernment of spirits” this week, when we celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola (July 31). Ignatius was founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). But his teaching on discernment isn’t just for Jesuits. It’s a gift to the entire Church.

The most well-known of Ignatius’ teachings are probably his 14 Rules for Discernment. In the first two rules, Ignatius describes the characteristic ways that the Holy Spirit and the enemy act in people who are: a) contemplating sin or acting sinfully, and b) trying to draw closer to God. He then gives 12 more nuanced points about how the Holy Spirit or the enemy usually act in various circumstances.

Does God really talk to people? He does. Very few people hear voices, to be sure. God usually talks to us in more subtle ways: through our joys and frustrations, excitement and discouragement, experiences of peace and anxiety. The teaching of St. Ignatius helps us to hear His voice, in the midst of these experiences, with greater clarity.

Does the devil really exist? He does. And he’s always at work — in the midst of the same joys and frustrations, excitement and discouragement, peace and anxiety — trying to trick us into moving further away from God. The teaching of St. Ignatius also helps us to recognize his wiles more quickly, and avoid his traps.

Think of it this way: We all have a conscience. And we’ve all have had the experience of listening to our conscience, or trying to avoid or silence it. Usually the voice of conscience doesn’t sound like something, though, as much as it feels like something. The older we get the more we learn about the subtle ways that conscience speaks, and the many tricks we use to silence or ignore it.

God’s voice is something like that. And so are the tactics of the enemy. They’re quiet, and subtle, but real.

When we don’t know anything about discernment of spirits, we tend to act and react based on the swirl of our immediate thoughts, feelings and desires. That makes us more vulnerable to manipulation, both psychologically and spiritually.

The more we learn about discernment, though, the less captive we are to our immediate experiences. We learn to identify God’s voice, so we can follow Him, and we learn to identify the tricks of the enemy, so we can reject them.

It’s worthwhile to become more familiar with St. Ignatius’ teaching on discernment. Father Gallagher is a good guide, if you’re looking for a place to begin. As we conclude July — a month in which we celebrate our nation’s freedom — let’s commit to becoming more free for a life in Christ.

Through Aristotle logic became the first science of philosophy; through Ignatius … the discernment of spirits became the science of the saints.

Father Harvey Egan, SJ, Professor of Systematic and Mystical Theology, Boston College

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