The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living by Timothy Gallagher

Summary: An overview of the first 14 ‘rules’ of discernment. 

Regular readers will know that I am working on a training program to become a spiritual director. I intentionally choose a Catholic program because while the Evangelical and broader Protestant world has been rediscovering Spiritual Direction over the past 10 to 20 years, the Catholic stream of Christianity has never lost access to this discipleship tool. Ignatius (late 15th and early 16th century) wrote the Spiritual Exercises to guide spiritual directors to give a 30-day retreat.

That guide included two sets of ‘rules’ for discernment. These rules (guides) to help people in their discernment are split into ‘first’ and ‘second’ week rules, or the types of rules that were most helpful for people early in their retreat or people later in their retreat. You can roughly think of these as a type of spiritual maturity. However, Ignatius would not have assumed straight-line growth (in other words, once you are in the second week, you will not always be in the second week.)

Gallagher only talks about the first set of 14 rules in this book. It took a while for me to start to make sense of the rules of discernment. I started by listening to the book, which gave me an overview. I then read the book a second time, mostly in print, but with a little bit of listening. But just as important is that toward the end of my second reading. I downloaded a PDF of the rules and made it a part of my morning reading. For a week, I read them every morning and highlighted or made notes about how they related to one another or rewrote some of them in my own language. I am far from an expert and do not think of them as the ‘be all, end all’ of discernment. But the process of getting them deeper into my brain by reading them regularly (I think I still need to probably read them about once a week for the next couple of months). Thinking about how they relate to one another and trying to use them in my own life does matter.

I am even more convinced that Spiritual Direction is an important component to revitalizing discipleship in the American Evangelical Church. But there are clearly other discipleship methods that can do similar things as what Spiritual Direction is trying to accomplish. But regardless of the method of discipleship, one component of discipleship is the teaching of discernment. I am not sure that Ignatius’ rules are the right way to start teaching this to an Evangelical world because the rules’ traditional language is a barrier. One of my classmates did a presentation introducing the rules as if she were presenting them to her AME church using her own language, but communicating the broad concepts of the first two rules, and that type of presentation I think would be very helpful.

We have to look no further than the broad impact of conspiracy theories and the distrust of expertise to understand how a lack of focus on discernment has become harmful. Ignatius is not talking about media literacy or understanding science, but about discerning whether a message is from God or a spirit/satan. By this, Ignatius did not mean only literal demonic attack, although he did include that. More broadly, for our purposes, when he talks about discernment of the spirits, he would include temptation, our psychological inclinations and sin, and the more rudimentary character issues that come up regularly in our daily interactions, as well as direct guidance from the Holy Spirit and temptations from Satan.

There are some books and teachings in the Evangelical world that talk about discernment. Hannah Anderson’s All That Is Good is one of the better ones I have read, and I would probably start there if you want a good introduction to Evangelical discernment. But two of the weaknesses of most Evangelical discernment teaching has, is that it tends to rely on utilitarian decision-making too strongly (if it works, it is probably of God or at least a good idea) and that it is too focused on individual discernment. Thomas Green’s book Weeds Among the Wheat presents discernment as something that should never be undertaken alone. Green teaches spiritual directors how to teach discernment, but that assumption that discernment should be undertaken in the context of a relationship is an assumption that we need to cultivate intentionally. Too often, we do not talk to others about our decision-making because we do not want to hear others’ input. That reluctance is the first sign of a potential problem.

Recently, I was talking to a friend who had made a significant life decision. It was a big deal, both professionally and personally. He and his wife gathered together a group of about ten people. Including their bosses, several that the decision would impact, several outside of the impact of the decision, and hired someone who had convened groups like this before as a facilitator. They met a couple of times, were very open about the process and issues to everyone in the group, and took the group’s comments and advice seriously. It wasn’t that the group made the decision, but there was an openness to the group that the decision needed to be made and a clear openness to seeking God’s will. At the end of the process, the group sensed a clear direction. And there was significant buy-in by my friends and the whole group that participated in the process. Because my friends are in the senior leadership of a Christian ministry, they will also try to encourage this type of collaborative discernment in many other situations. Because it went so well in this case, it does not mean it will go equally in all cases. But in a culture that is so oriented toward individual decision-making, I think this type of intentional cooperative work can help push back against some of the negative individualistic aspects of our culture and communicate our trust in both God and the church community around us.

As I hope I have communicated, I am not sure that Ignatius’ rules are the best path forward in teaching Evangelical discernment, but they are one path. Because they are one of the most well-known teachings around discernment in the Christian world, I think it is worth gaining some familiarity with them if you try to teach or learn about discernment.

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