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.

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The Discerning Heart: Discovering a Personal God by Maureen Conroy

Summary: A book for those training to be spiritual directors focusing on developing discernment and using case studies to guide spiritual direction training.

The Discerning Heart is a book that was hard to track down. It is out of print, and when I finally found a copy for my classes, I was sent (and charged) for two. I am ambivalent about the book. I would rate it 3.5 stars if I were rating it. Some sections were very helpful. But the case studies got repetitive and didn’t feel like real conversations.

Where she was helpful was a good discussion on consolation and desolation (Ignatian technical terms) and their relationship to discernment. Conroy, on page 13, says, “The experience of consolation and desolation is the foundation of discernment,” but that base-level assumption is simply outside the realm of understanding for most Evangelicals that I know. One of the central areas that Evangelicals will need to be convinced to participate in Ignatian Spiritual Direction is that emotions are not contrary to spiritual reality. There are those working in this area, like Pete Scazzero’s work in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Jonathan Walton’s derivative work in Emotionally Healthy Activism, and Richard Foster and the late Dallas Willard’s work in discipleship through the organization Renovare. But those are not mainstream movements at this point.

I started reading this as I read Jesus and John Wayne, a history of the past 75 years of how Evangelicals conceived of the implications of leadership, gender roles, authority, and discipleship. The book’s final chapter pulls out many of the players that were discussed earlier in the book. Those leaders had consensual affairs, raped employees or church members, covered up rape or child abuse of others, abused their organizational power or authority, misused funds, destroyed their or other’s families, demeaned the name of other Christians (or non-Christians) falsely, or other sins. Cases where pastors called out a particular sin but then engaged in it or allowed it when convenient were common. Not every person mentioned in the book advocating “militant masculine Christianity” engaged in the above list, but a very high percentage did.

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When Faith Becomes Sight: Opening Your Eyes to God’s Presence All Around You by Beth and David Booram

Summary: Beth and David Booram present spiritual direction as a method of discipleship to an Evangelical audience. 

I am halfway through a program to become a spiritual director. It is a program rooted in Ignatian theory, as is the Boorams. As I have been in my program, I have been intentionally seeking out Protestant or Evangelical books with similar content to the (Catholic) Ignatian perspectives to help me often understand subtle differences in language or approach that I am blind to. When Faith Becomes Sight, I think, is the best overview of Ignatian spiritual direction that I have read for an Evangelical audience.

The rough structure of When Faith Becomes Sight is to start first by recognizing the signs of God that are already around us. This approach begins with the assumption that God seeks to communicate with you personally (not individually, but personally.) Signs of God are often subtle, and in a loud world with little silence, we need to develop skills to see and listen. Once we start seeing the signs of God around us, we need to develop skills of discernment, which requires examining our conscious and unconscious understanding of God. The book’s final section is more directly about the tools of spiritual direction and the lifelong process of discipleship.

When Faith Becomes Sight uses their work as spiritual directors (and their personal history) as examples of what discipleship looks like. As I glanced through some reviews, I saw that some people objected to their retelling of scripture. Retelling or immersion in scripture is part of the Ignatian practice of absorbing scripture and then retelling it in ways that the scripture speaks to you. That does not mean that the retellings are the same as scripture; we are always limited in our perspective, and often, in trying to make a point, we can distort a passage. That is not a reason to not deeply explore scripture, but instead, it is a reason to develop discernment about how we read scripture and theologically approach the world. And for those still skeptical, sermons explicate scripture, not merely read the scripture and sit down. Retelling scripture in your own words is very similar in purpose.

Part of the assumption of Ignatian spiritual direction is that a God will speak, and we can understand. Not necessarily in vocal words, but it may be vocal. The point is that Ignatius and many other streams of spiritual direction assume that the Holy Spirit can and will communicate his direction to us. And while we may not be perfect in understanding, with help, we can make a reasonable attempt at discerning God from our desires, sins, and satanic interruption.

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Care of Mind/Care of Spirit by Gerald May

Summary: A psychiatrist explores spiritual direction. 

This is another assigned book from my spiritual direction class. The focus of this semester’s class was spiritual direction and psychology. So assigning Care of Mind/Care of Spirit makes a lot of sense. Gerald May was a psychiatrist who became disillusioned with psychology and became a spiritual director.

My reading of Care of Mind/Care of Spirit was tainted by having his Addiction and Grace book assigned the same semester. I really did not like Addiction and Grace. My problem was mainly with his messy definition of addiction. However, my frustration with May in the Addiction and Grace book did not give me a lot of charity in reading Care of Mind/Care of Spirit.

There is value here. Because he was a psychiatrist, he understood that spiritual direction and psychology are different. There is a temptation for spiritual directors without much training in psychology to over-psychologize the spiritual direction.

…all of life’s experiences can appear legitimately in spiritual direction, but they need to be seen in the light of spiritual concern, and at all costs they should not be allowed to eclipse that light.

He also cautions the spiritual directors to understand their role. They are a facilitator of the work of the spirit; they are not the ones doing the work.

In spiritual direction however, the true healer, nurturer, sustainer, and liberator is the Lord, and the director and directee are seen as hopeful channels, beneficiaries, or expressions of grace for each other. This is a radical difference, and one that cannot be overemphasized.

One of the points that are most helpful is his distinguishing between psychology, which diagnoses a patient, and spiritual direction, which assists a person in discernment.

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All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment by Hannah Anderson

Summary: Discernment is a spiritual gift, something that all Christians should work to develop, and a role of a community of Christian practice 

Any regular readers of probably know that I started a graduate certificate program in Spiritual Direction last fall. I intentionally chose to do my training with a Catholic university because I wanted to challenge my blind spots. Most of the books we are assigned are by Catholic authors, and I often pick up a book by a Protestant author to read in conversation. Because I have previously read All That’s Good, I knew it would be helpful to read with Weeds Among the Wheat by Thomas Green. Both books are about developing or teaching discernment, but they approach the topic very differently, and the tension between that difference was constructive.

All That’s Good is the third book in a trilogy of books about discipleship. Weeds Among the Wheat is a manual for Spiritual Directors to teach and partner with their directees in discernment. For the average person, I would recommend All That’s Good as the better book to read, both because it is targeted at a more general reader and because it is full of stories and illustrations that are more applicable to the average person.

I think what is most helpful about All That’s Good is that 1) Anderson views discernment as a practice to be developed, 2) for judgment to be fruitful, we need to know not just what is wrong but, even more importantly, what is right, and 3) that the tough thing about discernment is that often we are choosing not between what is right and wrong but from a range of things that are themselves are good, but attempting to find what is best right now.

Both Anderson and Green approach developing discernment as essential to developing maturity. Anderson talks about helping her children learn to shop, not based on impulse, but a range of issues including need, quality, goodness, etc.. Green draws on Paul’s illustration in I Cor 3 of trying to move people toward solid food and away from milk. And Anderson says, “In other words, you develop discernment by becoming a person who knows how, not simply what, to think.” Both authors view discernment as moving from simple rules toward a more mature and nuanced understanding of ethics and discipleship.

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Becoming an Ordinary Mystic: Spirituality for the Rest of Us by Albert Haase

Summary: Haase attempts to show us that we are all just ordinary mystics. 

As I said in my last post, I intentionally read Becoming an Ordinary Mystic in conversation with Finding God in All Things. Both are focused on spiritual formation by experienced Catholic spiritual directors. Both are written as mini-retreats for readers to receive wisdom and spiritual learning from the spiritual disciplines. Both are elders who write after a lifetime of Christian service.

Becoming an Ordinary Mystic was published just a couple of weeks ago. It is very clearly designed for readers to take seriously spiritual formation. Each chapter has questions and exercises to reflect on the chapter’s content. It was rare that I read more than one chapter at a time because I needed the time to process it, and even then, I did not spend enough time processing it before moving on.

The spiritual life is not to be taken lightly, but Haase is here to assure us that we should not take ourselves too seriously as we seek God. Haase frequently takes a real-life person as an example in most chapters to think about how we must re-orient ourselves toward God. Whether it be a misunderstanding of God’s affection toward us, our assumption that God loves us for what we do for God, or distortions in how we understand spiritual disciplines, Haase gently prods us toward greater reliance on God and less reliance on our own strength, while at the same time prodding us toward taking seriously our role.

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Finding God in All Things by William Barry

Summary: A companion to the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.

Finding God in All Things was an assigned book in my Introduction to Spiritual Direction class. Barry is a noted author on spiritual direction, and this is not the first of his books that I have read. In Finding God in All Things, Barry uses the Ignatian spiritual exercises to model spiritual formation.

I paired Finding God in All Things with Becoming an Ordinary Mystic. The two books, both written by Catholic specialists in spiritual direction, were a helpful pairing. Barry is a Jesuit, and Albert Haase is a Franciscan. Finding God in All Things was published a couple of weeks ago by Intervarsity Press, and Finding God in All Things was published nearly 30 years ago by Ave Maria Press. Neither were spiritually fluffy books. In both cases, I found it hard to read more than a chapter at a time because they were pushing readers toward spiritual reflection.

What I continue to wrestle with is the focus on discernment in Ignatian spirituality. Ignatius assumes that someone who is seeking God will find God. And that God will use all available avenues for that. Imagination, coincidence, feelings, stories, etc., are all methods that God can and will apply to draw us toward him. Theoretically, I am all for this. I believe God has used feelings, emotions, stories, and coincidence to pull me toward him and show me areas of service or people he desires me to pursue. The fact that this is true personally is not the issue; I struggle with the explanation of them.

Traditionally, Protestants have been more focused on the Bible; “Do not tell me something that cannot be explicitly shown in the Bible.” That, of course, is in itself a problem, but while I see the issue of over-reliance on proof-texting of scripture, the Ignatian methods feel, at times, way too loose. Ignatius was very conscious of the possibility of being misled. I think many Protestants who would be opposed to Ignatius’ focus on discerning God would do well to pay as much attention to “the enemy” as Ignatius does.

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All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost of Art of Discernment by Hannah Anderson

Takeaway: Discernment is about practice, wisdom, and intention. 

For regular readers of my reviews, it will be repetitive to say that Christianity is not just about being saved from our sins and going to heaven. It is also about abundant life on earth now. When Jesus gave his commission after the resurrection, he said, “Make disciples” in Matthew. Evangelism is essential, but it is the start, not the end, of the great commission.

Hannah Anderson is continuing this exploration of discipleship that she started in her earlier two books with a focus on discernment in All That’s Good. The blurb on the back of All That’s Good says in part, “Discernment is more than simply avoiding bad things; discernment actually frees you to navigate the world with confidence and joy by teaching you how to recognize and choose good things.”

I so much appreciate that Hannah Anderson starts All That’s Good with an exploration of a vision for goodness, “…in trying to keep myself safe, in obsessing over making the “right” choices, I found myself making a whole lot of wrong ones. Because I lacked a vision for goodness, I also lacked discernment.” (page 12)

The main section of All That’s Good (pages 63 to 154) is an extended meditation on Philippians 4:8, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable”, ”if anything is excellent or praiseworthy”, ”think about such things.” (NIV) In many ways (all good), this feels like the type of meditation on scripture that Eugene Peterson writes. It isn’t a word-for-word bible study; it is a practical exploration, not just the biblical concepts of the passage, but also of what that means to how we live our lives.

The practice of discernment as it is explored is not primarily thought of as a spiritual gift given to some (although that is one aspect of discernment for some people) but a skill developed over time. That skill, along with necessary components of humility, wisdom, virtue, the correct understanding of goodness, not just the avoidance of evil but the knowledge of good, and a touch of shrewdness, allows us to see the world around us rightly.

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