• Seeds of the Word

"The charism of discernment of spirits: a necessary charism for the spiritual companion"


Deacon Georges Bonneval

Author of “The Spiritual Exercises,” St. Ignatius of Loyola has been a remarkable director of conscience and a ‘master’ for the whole Church in the charism of discernment from the 16th century until today.

Ignatian spirituality has also become one of the main schools of formation for spiritual accompaniment.

The Spiritual Exercises is a work of approximately 200 pages of meditations, prayers and pedagogical rules, organized into four weeks. The book is intended to lead spiritual directors through a thirty-day retreat. All teaching is oriented towards discernment, because for Ignatius, every human decision is an opportunity for a particular encounter with the Lord.

St. Ignatius of Loyola received spiritual accompaniment in Montserrat and Manresa, at the time of his conversion. Later, he began to practice spiritual accompaniment with people who sought his guidance. His desire was to “help souls,” to enable everyone to “seek and find God in the disposition of their life.” A pedagogy of inner freedom and discernment was involved for each person he accompanied.

In the Exercises, there are two dimensions that must never be dissociated: 1) the school of prayer and union with God; 2) the school of discernment which leads us to make a decision.

To undertake the Exercises is to deepen our relationship with God, which will at the same time inform and guide the decisions we must make. For Ignatius, there cannot be union with God without making decisions which lead to practical consequences.

Principles and rules given by St. Ignatius during the first week of Exercises

The first week is a week of preparation, so that the retreatant may have the right conditions for discernment (election):

1) Whoever wants to make a decision is asked to return to the Principle and Foundation (see text below), and is invited to accept being surprised by the murmur of the “light breeze,” a sign of God’s presence in all inner and outer movements (Cf. 1 Kings 19: 9-18).

In the first week of Exercises, the Principle and Foundation text is intended to help the retreatant verify if they are in a situation of “holy indifference,” that is to say, if they have an open and generous interior disposition of cooperation and abandonment to God’s will, no matter what it may be.

This inner state shuns laziness, resignation and carelessness, and is in itself a disposition given by grace.

Principle and Foundation

“Man is created to praise, reverence, and

serve God our Lord, and by this means to

save his soul. And the other things on the

face of the earth are created for man and

that they may help him in prosecuting the

end for which he is created. From this it

follows that man is to use them as much

as they help him on to his end, and ought

to rid himself of them so far as they hinder

him as to it. For this it is necessary to make

ourselves indifferent to all created things in

all that is allowed to the choice of our free

will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on

our part, we want not health rather than

sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor

rather than dishonor, long rather than short

life, and so in all the rest; desiring and

choosing only what is most conducive for us

to the end for which we are created.”

(Spiritual Exercises, No. 23)

2) St. Ignatius then speaks of two states that are found in every spiritual life: consolation1 and desolation2. The states of consolation and desolation are certainly linked on two levels: spiritual and psychological. But the vocation of every human being should be seen from the side of consolation. Ignatius’ objective was to help the retreatant feel and recognize the different “motions” that occur in their soul: those that come from the Spirit of God, those that are creations of the human spirit, and those that come from the evil spirit.

“I call consolation every increase of hope,

faith and charity, and all interior joy which

calls and attracts to heavenly things and to

the salvation of one’s soul, quieting it and

giving it peace in its Creator and Lord.”

(Spiritual Exercises, No. 316)

For Ignatius, spiritual consolation (and not just a psycho-emotional passing feeling) comes from union with God as a gift of grace. It can be perceived as an increase of faith, hope and charity, as a new proximity with God, as a renewed confidence in others, as a deeper and more profound joy… This consolation is offered when we least expect it and translates into a

great desire for God’s glory and an increased fervor to serve Him.

This consolation – contrary to consolation that is centered on oneself – can also take the paradoxical but dynamic form of a greater desire for union with the suffering Christ, and a life that is more attentive to the suffering of others. It is always considered to be a gift from God.

“I call desolation all the contrary of the third

rule, such as darkness of soul, disturbance in

it, movement to things low and earthly, the

unquiet of different agitations and temptations,

moving to want of confidence, without hope,

without love, when one finds oneself all lazy,

tepid, sad, and as if separated from his Creator

and Lord. Because, as consolation is contrary

to desolation, in the same way the thoughts

which come from consolation are contrary to

the thoughts which come from desolation.”

(Spiritual Exercises, No. 316)

Conversely, spiritual desolation is the inner feeling that seems to denote division, interior struggle, a time of confusion and darkness, sadness, discouragement and loss of inner peace; even the spiritual life comes to lose its appeal and interest. These feelings are normal

(because no one can live a life of only consolations) and are not a sign that God has rejected or dismissed someone who is seeking Him.

According to Ignatius, this desolation is a result of obstacles that the retreatant has unconsciously placed before God in their life; obstacles that their good will is incapable of overcoming.

Ignatius sees God’s call in this state, inviting the person to no longer act as a child but as a responsible adult who must grow and mature. In this state, it is not their outer life that must change but their interior being. Ignatius teaches that they must react to the discordant actions of the evil spirit and seek to identify the causes of desolation.

Ignatius suggests three reasons for desolation: tepidness, laziness or negligence in prayer or in our spiritual exercises. God permits our patience and hope to be tested, helping us learn that consolations are pure gifts from Him and do not depend on us!

St. Ignatius teaches that no important decisions should be made in times of desolation, but that we must remember God’s presence and keep walking in the direction we were heading in before falling into desolation.

“In foggy weather, do not change the direction you

took on a clear day!” 3

3) There are then certain exercises aimed at giving the retreatant criteria to become familiar with the signs of the good spirit and be able to detect the characteristics of the evil spirit.

Ignatius calls the evil spirit either “the enemy” 4 or “the evil angel” 5. He always sees him as “the enemy of our profit and our eternal salvation.” “The evil spirit”, according to St. Ignatius, “seeks to go unrecognized” 6, which is why he uses all sorts of tactics, tricks and innuendos to cause confusion. During the retreat, he might seek to mingle with the nature of the person, find their shortcomings and faults to use them as accusations against them and lead them to discouragement.

Ignatius uses three pedagogical analogies to help unmask the devil in this first week of Exercises:

a) The devil behaves like a “weak and cowardly being” and, when we resist him, he flees. He is relentlessly timid and a coward in the face of your convictions… In fact, as he cannot use brutality with those who belong to Jesus Christ, he must act with subtlety (cf. Spiritual Exercises, No. 325).

b) The devil also acts as a “licentious lover”, desiring that his proposals remain secret and do not arrive at the ears of your spiritual director (cf. Spiritual Exercises, No. 326).

c) The devil acts like a “military chief”, seeking to discover the weak points of a person (physical and psychological weaknesses) to attack them (cf. Spiritual Exercises, No. 327).

Between the first and the second week, Ignatius plans a transitional exercise that he calls “Contemplate the life of the King Eternal”.

The main purpose of this exercise is to purify the retreatant’s desires through contemplating the person of Christ. By contemplating the Lord and seeking to attach themself to Him, the retreatant will be enlightened about their own life and will be invited to give themself completely and without limits to Christ.

d) “The call of the temporal king” exercise (Spiritual Exercises, No. 91).

The purpose of this exercise is to strengthen the retreatant’s personal faith in their Lord. The spiritual companion must ensure that the retreatant is mature and committed throughout this exercise, before reaching the discernment itself.

This stage will allow the retreatant to examine whether their desire to serve God is according to the conditions of their own desires and the criteria of their choice. They will be invited to freely offer their personal desires to God so that He may use them - or not - for the work of His Kingdom. The retreatant will have to focus more on the person of Christ to discern the true call that Christ is inviting them to consider. At this stage, the retreatant has not yet arrived at the question of a life choice. They are offering their life in conformity to Christ.

Whoever wants to be more devoted to and distinguished by their service to the Eternal King should affirm their unconditional yes with an offering of great value, one that binds the future in a committment to take the Gospel seriously (cf. Spiritual Exercises, No. 97). During this exercise, the spiritual director must remain attentive and prudent, ensuring that the retreatant is well-placed in God’s Presence.

e) The exercise of the Two Standards (cf. Spiritual Exercises, No. 136-148).

This exercise is aimed at the retreatant’s mind and intelligence. A later exercise will be more about their will. By appealing to the mind of the retreatant, Ignatius seeks the deep purification of their affectivity. Thus they will be able to discern what comes from the Holy Spirit and what comes from the evil spirit. The Holy Spirit and the enemy are two very different leaders, each with their own standard, so that the retreatant must decide which standard they want to follow. He or she is obliged to choose one.

The goal is that the retreatant manages to disentangle (with intelligence) their emotional and spiritual life; the influences that animate them and that come from either the Lord or the Evil One. The retreatant can sometimes perceive the “opposing forces” that act in them and, above all, discern a single “thread” that is preventing them from giving themself completely… The retreatant is invited to ask for the grace to imitate the poor Christ, a grace which places

them in holy indifference.

The meditation on the Two Standards opens the way for election (second week) and consists in choosing “between the best and the worst”. Ignatius states that there are signs that show when the devil is at work: the retreatant is anxious for their future and loses the peace they possessed, demonstrating that Christ was not at the origin of their thoughts7. A good sign of the Spirit of Christ is when the person experiences spiritual joy and enthusiasm in all of their being at the simple thought of imitating Christ.

At the end of this first week, the retreatant, having meditated on their sin and false freedom, discovers that true freedom can only be a free gift granted in Jesus Christ by God Himself. Election takes place at the end of the second week, where their liberty passes through two stages before they can choose freely and properly, and then they have to go through two other stages to express all the consequences of this choice.

During the third week, while being attentive to the sufferings of Christ, the retreatant strives to make the old person within them pass away. This will also be the theme of the exercises of the fourth week.

In meditating on the Resurrection, joy enters the retreatant who has found freedom through following the example of the Risen Christ. All of their desires are now adapted to the Spirit of God.


1 St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, No. 316.

2 Ibid., No. 317.

3 St. Ignatius of Loyola.

4 St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, No. 314.

5 Ibid., No. 331.

6 Ibid., No. 325.

7 St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, No. 333.