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Discernment of Spirits

Today I've been attending "day one" of a weekend retreat on "Discernment of Spirits", directed by Fr. Timothy Gallagher, OMV, and sponsored by the Sisters of Life at their centre at St. Catherine of Siena Church on the Danforth in Toronto.

Fr. Gallagher is growing in renown as popular retreat leader, lecturer, and scholar of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He has written best-selling books in recent years on discernment of spirits, the examen prayer, discerning God's will, Ignatian meditation, and a few other themes. He is a gifted communicator, and the message clearly flows from his own interior life.

The "rules" for the discernment of spirits, of course, come from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. They were the fruit of Ignatius's own experience and observation of interior motions, which he refined and bequeathed to the Church. They are as valid a means of spiritual growth today as they were when he wrote them in the 16th century. In brief, they are rules for becoming aware and understanding to some extent the different movements which are caused in the soul, to discern which ones are good, and which are bad (and accepting or rejecting them).

They end up being wonderful tools for knowing ourselves, and the provenance of the various motions, desolations and consolations, whether they are from God or the evil spirit, and what to do. There are fourteen of these "rules" to begin with, but I put that word in quotations because they are rules in the sense of principles, that help guide the soul to greater intimacy with God. Fourteen is too large a number for a blog entry, but I will share the first two:
First Rule: in persons who are going from mortal sin to mortal sin [i.e. usually from bad to worse, because we are rarely in a static state - bracketed interjections are mine], the enemy is ordinarily accustomed to propose 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 conscience [a great mercy] through their rational power of moral judgement. 
Second Rule: in persons who are going on 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, consolation, tears, inspirations and quiet, easing and taking away all obstacles, so that the person may go forward in doing good.
Keep in mind that over many years of his life, St. Ignatius refined everything in his book of spiritual exercises, so every word is precisely chosen, loaded with meaning, and worth reflecting on. One might focus on the key words imagine, contrary, rational, reasons, consolation and obstacles. For his definitions of consolation and desolation, you will need to read rules three and four, which are here, along with the rest.

If you are interested in any of the topics that Fr. Gallagher writes about, I recommend his books. They are available inexpensively from our favourite online discount retailer, the Book Depository, where titles are cheap, and the shipping is always free.

There's also more about Fr. Gallagher's books and ministry at his website.


  1. My wife and I found the retreat very valuable. Glad you've written it up!


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