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For a Theology of the Discernment of Spirits

Miguel Ángel Fiorito, SJ and Diego Fares SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, Apr 24th 2023

For a Theology of the Discernment of Spirits
The Spiritual Exercises (SE) are St. Ignatius’ kerygmatic legacy, his “Gospel.”[1] The practice of the Exercises – in various modes suited to the needs of each exercitant, always respecting the integrity of the steps involved in the process – is ordered to the choice of one’s state of life or its reform. Therefore, at the heart of the thematic structure of the Exercises is a set of norms and practices that are an essential part of the kerygma.

The exercitant, guided by the one who directs him or her through the Exercises, is situated in the midst of the mysteries of Christ’s life, contemplated from the perspective and according to the rhythm of meditations proposed by St. Ignatius. In this process – that of the “four Weeks of the Exercises,” which are organized around the choice to be made (preparing for and confirming it) – St. Ignatius proposes strategies that we can call “normative” and “practical” and which are proper to the discernment of spirits.

The themes of the Exercises are structured, chosen and ordered in such a way as to necessarily provoke the motions – consolations and desolations – about which discernment will be made according to the corresponding rules, which are dealt with on the normative and practical levels.

The kerygmatic structure of the ‘Exercises’ on the normative level

On the normative level, we observe the rules of discernment themselves. We keep in mind that they include not only those rules that are so explicitly titled, but also others, such as those regarding scruples, those on the distribution of alms, and so on. Such rules directly pertain to our theological intent.[2]

We distinguish between norms or rules of discernment proper and their kerygmatic structure. The norms are more traditional and can easily be found in other spiritual authors; their structure is, however, in St. Ignatius’ writing, more original and personal.

The norms or rules of discernment are those that explicitly bear this title (cf. SE 313-336) and also those that serve for discerning in concrete cases. That is, those dealing with distributing alms (cf. SE 337-344),  understanding scruples (cf. SE 345-351), ordering oneself in eating (cf. SE 210-217), penance (cf. SE 82-90), and the rules – which embrace more than one case – for having the genuine attitude toward  the Church Militant (cf. SE 352-370).[3]

Let us keep in mind that the Spiritual Exercises are geared toward persons making a life choice, whether they choose a state of life or choose to reform one or more important aspects of their lives. Therefore, the structure in which the rules of discernment will be used, with the help of the one giving the Exercises, is fundamental. That is why we say it is a “kerygmatic structure.”

There are two things that condition the use of rules. The first, more subjective, is expressed in the timing of choice; the other, more objective, is expressed in the matter of choice. Although the rules can be found stated – sometimes verbatim – in other authors, these conditions, on the other hand, are original to St. Ignatius, and in this sense they are kerygmatic.

The timing of choice

The times of choice can be seen as proper to the kerygmatic structure of the rules for the discernment of spirits. St. Ignatius discerns three “times,” or “inner climates,” in which a soul may find itself. He arranges them in gradation: from a maximum amount of evidence of God’s action (first time: cf. SE 175) to a minimum of that evidence (third time: cf. SE 177), passing through an intermediate time, in which God’s action is mediated and simultaneously manifested with sufficient clarity through the variety of consolations and desolations (second time: cf. SE 176).

The Lord’s action takes place not only when God chooses directly, as, for example, in the case of St. Paul’s conversion (first time), nor only in the second time, when the person senses motions, different and contrary, coming from the good or evil spirit, but also in the third time, when one is quiet and chooses through reasoning.

The difference lies in the fact that God’s action in the final time is manifested above all in the tranquility during which the exercitant can make use of his or her natural powers (cf. SE 177): the fact that the intelligence can “ponder and reason” without the passions interfering or the bad spirit meddling is a grace (cf. SE 182). Likewise, it is a grace that the will can feel its inclinations (cf. SE 184) without confusion and without bewildering variety. It is here that there is most need for the experience of a director capable of using the appropriate technique to ensure the validity of the choice in practice, without the need to invoke theoretical doubt.

The intellectual difficulty that can be caused by the complexity of the times of choice gives us an opportunity to write about the one who gives the Exercises.[4]  Since time is the one aspect we cannot control – although it is the one we perceive most clearly – we need the help of someone else to give us the Exercises and mark out the timing of the process. This may be very difficult to explain in theory, but in practice, with the help of the one who gives the Exercises (and the Holy Spirit, whose assistance is never lacking to those who want to pray), it is easy to do. Therefore, the kerygmatic theology we propose is not a systematized theology per se, which each person should then put into practice – if he or she can – but a reflection of the simple, though committed, practice of the Spiritual Exercises that every Christian can do in any number of possible ways with the discreet help of the director.

Confirmation of the choice

St. Ignatius’ commentators are wont to deal with the choice, without taking into account, as its essential part, the confirmation. This is a key element, since in the Exercises it is a matter of choosing “what the Lord chooses for me” in my own life. Therefore, it is not a functional and abstract choice, like that of someone who makes a plan by analyzing numbers and statistics; nor is it a passionate choice, by which one chooses independently what one most desires.

It is even more important to note that, for St. Ignatius, a twofold confirmation is possible: one positive, consisting of a peace that is experienced as coming from the Lord and by which one positively manifests one’s acceptance of the choice; another, negative or interpretive, which the tradition after the first generation has tended to forget and which requires a more detailed explanation.

It can be said that this second mode of confirmation is also a peace, but a peace that is an absence of negative experience. That is, there is no sense that the Lord rejects the choice, although He is given time and insistently asked to do so if the choice is not to His liking (cf. SE 183; 188). This silence of the Lord is interpreted as a confirmation – so we call such confirmation “negative” or “interpretative”– because it is believed that if the Lord was not pleased with that choice, after seeing the exercitant do everything possible to choose well, He would have made it clear to him or her in some way.[5]

This quiet confirmation is a great grace, however inferior it may seem to be compared to others. The giver of the Exercises helps the exercitant to “interpret” positively, as a true confirmation from God, the absence of signs of rejection from God. From the kerygmatic point of view, that is, of a theology of grace that does not make theoretical comparisons, always odious, between the grace of one exercitant and that of another, all times of choice, when considered together with their respective confirmations, present, as times of grace, a profound kerygmatic unity. In our view, this conception is evangelically inclusive. It removes any expectation of receiving  “a very special choice” from God or high-profile “mystical experiences.” Compared to the mere “absence of rejection,” these provide no greater confirmation of God’s approval if we rely on the fact that the Lord does not reject anyone who turns to God. This conception clears away any elitism and facilitates the path of the spiritual life, making it accessible to ordinary people.

So far, we have seen what from the kerygmatic point of view – and as a theological reflection on the Lord’s action in each exercitant, in each of the three times of choice – we were interested in affirming in order to highlight the kerygmatic unity that exists between the unique theme of the Exercises – the mystery of Christ – and the time of choice and confirmation. This is the action of Christ Himself, unique in the final analysis, although in the course of the Exercises it may manifest itself in very different ways. The thematic documents of the Exercises are inseparable from the normative ones, for they all form a single kerygma, a single kerygmatic theology of the discernment of spirits.

Now, having considered the subjective conditions of choice, or times of choice, we are left to consider the objective conditions, or the matter of choice.

The matter of choice

The matter of choice – the alternatives from which we must choose – is part of the kerygmatic structure of the rules for the discernment of spirits. As we know, it must be, in general, indifferent or good in itself, and it must be “within the framework of the holy Mother the hierarchical Church” (SE 170 and passim).

But for the choice – let alone the reform – this general orientation is not enough. To the practice of every exercitant, another, more personal condition must be attached to the matter of choice: that he or she be willing to review any situation he or she may find him or herself in, having come to it “not purely or fully for the love of God” (cf. SE 150; 174 and passim).  If the first condition of the matter is its generic indifference, the second should be, so to speak, its personal radicality.

Herein lies the key to all of Ignatius’ theology, which aims at the personal encounter with our Lord at the heart of one’s personal life choice. Ignatius changes the paradigm prevailing in ancient and medieval times: one no longer seeks God only so that God might grace one’s present life with the Beatific Vision, but so that God might assign to each of us the kind of service in which it is possible to contemplate and follow God in history today. This “loving God in all things” by finding and choosing one’s own mode of service – the most incarnate and crucified one – is what is characteristic of the Exercises.[6]

The first stage of the Exercises – which is remote preparation for the choice  – leads the exercitant to the root of his or her personal sin. The second stage of close preparation for the choice, leads him or her down to the root of Christ’s requirement or standard, which is the cross. Therefore, the choice – or life reform – is to be traced back to the root of one’s current state of life. To be more exact, we could say that indifference is a generic condition concerning the matter of choice, which indicates the sphere within which one chooses, for one does not choose between sinning and not sinning. Instead, radicality is a subjective attitude, which enables each exercitant to identify the  matter on which he or she will then make the choice. In each of the exercises he or she will do, each exercitant must find his or her own actual matter of choice; he or she will succeed because of the radical attitude that St. Ignatius makes him or her adopt as the kerygmatic structure of the actual choice.

Why is this radical attitude kerygmatic? Because putting our lives on the line, asking ourselves what we are to choose or reform, means that the themes of Christ’s life that are to be meditated upon will not have a generic and ambiguous meaning for us: instead, they will signify a constant personal call to perfection, which no other exercitant will be able to feel, no matter how much he or she may meditate on the very same mysteries of the life of Christ our Lord.

The kerygmatic structure of the ‘Exercises’ on the practical level

On the level we call “practical,” we will consider a number of documents – rather neglected by other commentators – that are like practical techniques or exercises that either provoke – like prayer themes – motions, or – like rules – presuppose motions. Included here, for example, is the oblation or total offering of self,[7] which is aimed at overcoming any affective problems, in the sense that there may be things to which one is attached to such an extent that they prevent us from freely choosing what God wants.

Like the previous documents, these can be divided into two parts: 1) practices or techniques of choice, and 2) their kerygmatic structure. Let us look at them separately, but mainly focusing on the kerygmatic aspect.

Practices or techniques for the choice

We point out and explain two practices that are most characteristic of the Exercises: the dialectic of request and oblation, and the dialectic of more and less.

The dialectic of request and oblation is present in all the prayers. In fact, they begin with a request and end with an offering or colloquy, with the peculiarity of having a different content, since usually that of the request (the grace to pray well, to know something, and so on) is generic, while that of the colloquy and, especially, of the final offering is always personal (cf. SE 54; 109).

This dialectic is intensified in the offerings of the main structural meditations, namely those of the Eternal King, the Three Categories of Persons, and the Three Degrees of Humility,[8] in which the offering is conducted to the limit, so as to transcend any request – since one cannot ask with certainty for what one does not know will be the Lord’s personal will for each exercitant – and is transformed into an absolute offering, conditioned only by the specific will of the Lord that one does not yet know, although He already has it in mind.

St. Ignatius expressly indicates the dialectic of more and less in regard to penance (cf. SE 89) and diet (cf. SE 213), but it can be applied to anything that, while in itself indifferent – not forbidden – is up to us to use more or less, without yet knowing to what extent the Lord wants us to use it.

Similar to such a dialectic of more and less is that of yes and no, which can mean beginning a day of prayer with one intention, and another day with the opposite intention, to see whether the Lord helps us more, thus manifesting a preference for one intention over the other. This dialectic, which is nothing but a combination of the dialectic of request and oblation with that of more and less, is indicated by St. Ignatius himself: “It might be useful to present to God our Lord one day one solution, the next day the other; that is, one day the counsels and the next the precepts, and observe where God our Lord gives one the greater sign of his will, in the likeness of one who presents different dishes to a ruler and observes which one he or she likes the best of them.”[9]

The Lord’s absolute dominion over our practical life

From a theological point of view, this dialectic is like a practical confession of God our Lord’s absolute dominion over all our actions – even the simplest, such as eating and drinking (cf. SE 213) – and His free initiative in disposing of them. Therefore, it is a very useful exercise in the daily reformation of life, in big and small things. A multiplicity of seemingly insignificant everyday situations – such as eating or drinking, resting, studying one language or another, the use of social media, and so on – will be discreetly dealt with only by means of this dialectic of more and less, that is, by beginning to live them in the Lord, always being alert to the slightest sign of his favor or displeasure, as spiritual trials in which we expect to find his will.

It is a search for the Lord in all things – even the small and everyday things – until we find Him in all, “loving Him in all and all in Him, conforming to His most holy and divine will.”[10]  We point out that even this rule – of contemplation in action – is best expressed as a way of praying that is both a way of choosing and discerning, because it respects the dialectic of seeking (on our part) and finding (on the Lord’s part), which is essential in the Ignatian conception of contemplation as grace and gift.[11]

The spiritual director

According to St. Ignatius, all these practices presuppose a spiritual director – both one’s regular director and the one giving the Exercises – who either commands them to be done, or, once done, observes them.

Spiritual direction, conceived as the presence of a person of God – and therefore a person of the Church – who gives directives to the soul by pointing out to it the exercises it must do as it goes along, and discerns the fruits of each exercise or of their combination and succession, is the most typical structural element of St. Ignatius’ Exercises.

The director’s presence, which is active with respect to the exercitant – although the director must be passive, so to speak, with respect to the Spirit of the Lord, without intruding into the  inspirations of the Spirit – presupposes experience and/or knowledge.[12] If the director has experience, he or she will be able to discern by connaturality,[13] and if the director has knowledge, he or she will discern by reflection, applying to each case the rule of discernment he or she knows by tradition (cf. SE 8-10), while inviting the exercitant to reflect in the same way.

But the director’s activity will also manifest itself in giving exercises, that is, in prescribing now one test and now another, now one theme for prayer and now another, now a repetition and now an examen, and so on, with regard to each thematic, normative or practical document of the Exercises (cf. SE 17), which the director must therefore know thoroughly, from his or her own personal experience and through study.[14]

Both aspects of spiritual direction – exercising and discerning – are typical of the Ignatian conception of choice and belong to the kerygmatic structure of spiritual discernment because they affirm the living presence of the Church, of which the spiritual director is the authorized representative.

But, from the kerygmatic point of view, there is something more to the spiritual action of the director who exercises and discerns – in a word, directs “as one who has authority” – the exercitant. A spiritual director who acts out of spiritual knowledge believes in the value of the rules and the exercises, just as he or she finds them in the tradition of the Church. He or she believes in them with certainty, because he or she does not judge those same rules on the basis of his or her own experience or that of the person he or she directs, but, on the contrary, he or she judges those experiences according to those rules. And when the director sets forth to the exercitant the reason for what is being done, the director asks the exercitant to believe with the same faith and certainty. Therefore spiritual knowledge is not, like any other knowledge, a mere exercise of reason, but an exercise of faith; and the reading of authors is not like any other reading, but a spiritual reading.

In the case where the director, not by reflection but by connaturality, becomes aware of something that concerns the personal direction of the exercitant, we find a novelty, important for our kerygmatic theology of discernment. For in that case, the director begins to know, in the Lord – as happened more than once to St. Ignatius in the government of the Society – either what he or she has to do with the exercitant, or what the Lord plans to do, even before the director can give a considered explanation, and thus, without being able to explain to the exercitant why certain exercises are to be done. It is here that a structural element is inserted that, alongside the ecclesiological one already explained, characterizes Ignatian discernment of spirits. The Lord manifests himself not only through the spiritual motions of the one who is directed and as mediated in his Church represented by the director, but also immediately in the same director.

The total structure of the discernment of spirits is thus triangular and dialectical: the exercitant alone with the Lord (cf. Annotation 15), but in his Church; the director, who must never stand between the Lord and the exercitant, although at all times he or she unofficially represents the Church, whose spiritual tradition he or she appropriately communicates to the exercitant (cf. Annotations 8; 9; 10); and, finally, the Lord, represented by the director as representative of the Church, but who reserves the right to intervene in person with both the exercitant and the director. In other words, the whole Christ – that is, Christ in person and Christ working through his Church – is involved in the Exercises. He is present at all times, but his presence becomes more evident to the extent that we approach the climax of the Exercises, which is the choices.

This presence of the whole Christ gives a distinctive meaning to the solitude of the exercitant, that is, it makes it ecclesial; and, at the same time, it gives the true meaning to the presence of the director, who, without ceasing to represent the Church, never stands in for the Lord himself.

This ecclesiological structure of the discernment of spirits, which is made manifest especially in its practice, is an essential part of its kerygmatic theology, and it theologically completes the Christological structure of the same discernment, highlighted especially in its themes. In this way, the Church, although seemingly absent from the theme of the Exercises, is not absent from their kerygmatic experience. This was implied by the “Rules for the Genuine Attitude in the Church,” which, not by chance, are found at the end of the Exercises,[15] but we now recognize that it could not be otherwise, and already from the beginning, because of the ecclesial function of the director. We believe that this living, embodied presence of Christ’s Church is more important than its mere thematic presence in any isolated meditation.

The Exercises are, from beginning to end, the experience of that great truth that St. Ignatius proclaims when he says that “between Christ our Lord, the bridegroom, and the Church, his bride, there is the same spirit that governs and rules us for the salvation of our souls” (SE 365).


In these notes for a theology of the discernment of spirits in the Exercises of St. Ignatius, we have made use of some personal schemes, such as, for example, the division of the documents of the Exercises between thematic, normative and practical, and, in each of these groups or plans, the distinction between historical elements, common to other spiritual authors, and kerygmatic elements, proper to St. Ignatius.

These patterns have enabled us to characterize its content, that is, to discover the selection of revealed truths that are included in it, the order in which they are presented and, consequently, the peculiar efficacy they possess, by reason – a theological reason – of their concentration in the mystery of Christ. We have thus come to establish, as the theological core of the discernment of spirits in St. Ignatius, a Christological-ecclesiological kerygma, manifest in its themes, norms or rules, and practices or techniques, which enable us to consider St. Ignatius’ theology of the discernment of spirits as a kerygmatic theology.

We have seen how the reason for this term is not only a matter of intention or spirit, but of mentality, and especially of expression. In relation to mentality and especially expression, we can clearly distinguish a kerygmatic theology from one that is not. Since it is a matter of a difference in attitude (moving the affections, or refuting errors) and in the means used (the one more affective, the other more conceptual), we can say that the difference between the two theologies lies mainly in mentality (the one affective, the other conceptual), and especially in expression (the former more suited to moving the heart, while the other is more suited to enlightening the human mind).

We intend to follow St. Ignatius, distinguishing his theology from any kind of speculative, systematic or asystematic theology and, where he speaks of “positive theology,” we prefer to speak of “kerygmatic theology.” We consider this to be an expression more suitable for the purpose we are pursuing, which is to call attention to the originality, and at the same time the actuality, of the theology of discernment in the Exercises of St. Ignatius.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 7, no.2 art. 7, 0223: 10.32009/22072446.0223.7

[1].    This paper is a summary of an essay that appeared in the original language, in two articles, under the title “Apuntes para una teología del discernimento de espíritus”, in Ciencia y Fe 19 (1963) 401-417; and in Ciencia y Fe 20 (1964) 93-123. Cf. the previous article by M. Á. Fiorito – D. Fares, “Notes for a theology of the ‘Spiritual Exercises”, in Civ. Catt. En January 2022.

[2]. There are also other important rules for the practice of discerning spirits: the rules of prayer (or supplementary notes), those of the examen, as well as others.

[3].    It also includes all the attention to discretion which, “from the abundance of his heart,” St. Ignatius scattered throughout his writings and that these rules summarize.

[4].    Cf. D. Fares, “Il direttore spirituale come compagno, maestro e padre”, in Id., Aperti alle sfide, Milan, Àncora, 2016, 62f.

[5].    This negative, interpretive confirmation is very similar to the argument from silence, used in theology to prove the traditional  theological ruling with respect to which no tradition is found to the contrary and the principle Qui tacet consentire videtur is applied.

[6].    Cf. D. Fares, “Prefazione. Gli Esercizi: anche l’amore si impara”, in Ignatius of Loyola, Esercizi Spirituali, Rome, La Civiltà Cattolica – Corriere della Sera, 2014, VIII.

[7].    The oblation which St. Ignatius recommends in the Note to the “Three Categories of Persons” (SE 157), which he repeats in the “Three Degrees of Humility” (SE 168), and which he had already announced in Annotation 16.

[8].    See SE 98; 147; 156-157; 168; 199; 226.

[9].    Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesu. Monumenta Ignatiana. Directoria, Doc. 1, no. 21, with parallel passages in almost all other Directories, including the official one.

[10].   Cf. Constitutions, p. III, c. 1, no. 26.

[11].   Cf. Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesu. Monumenta Ignatiana, series 1, II, 236.

[12].   In the direction of beginners, knowledge is more important; in the direction of advanced people, experience is more important.

[13].   Sum. Theol. , II-II, q. 45, a. 2, in c.

[14].   Unctio et traditio; that is, the anointing of the Spirit, in personal experience, and contact with Tradition, through study (cf. H. Rahner, Saint Ignace de Loyola et la genèse des Exercices, Toulouse, Apostolat de la Prière, 1948, 109-118).

[15].   St. Ignatius assumes that the exercitant, having changed and reformed his or her own life, comes out of the Exercises desiring to do the same in the Church.

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