Discernment for the Postmodern Condition

There is hope even in the disintegration and drift of modern culture. Ignatius’s life is one exemplar of hope for our postmodern condition. Christ gave the Church one of its greatest saints out of the crucible of Loyola’s dysfunction. He also gave the Church a dynamic spiritual discernment methodology that can meet, head-on, the most profound social, intellectual, religious, and psychological crises the Church encounters.

It all began with the consolations Ignatius received while recuperating at Loyola. They propelled him into the desert of his first purgation of the senses. Ignatius received consolations at Manresa that enabled him to remain faithful to his vocation during a time of great spiritual purgation. The “great clarity of mind” they gave to Ignatius enabled him to see not only the wrong in a habit of scrupulously confessing (destructive to his spiritual goals), but also in surrendering control of his life entirely to God. The trials at Manresa, followed by his illumination and great clarity of mind, constitute Ignatius’s more integral “second” conversion that led him to a deeper selflessness, docility to the Spirit, and profound mystical graces. St. Paul VI understood the tremendous need of Ignatius’s vibrant spirituality, especially in light of the crises facing postmodernity. Nearly every Pope since has used his words to highlight Ignatius’s legacy and to embrace afresh his profound gift to the Church in our own times.

The breadth and depth of today’s challenges in education and evangelization, the needs of the Church in effectively responding to them, and the role the entire Catholic community is being asked to play in that response, are reminiscent of what confronted Ignatius and the Church of his day. His life, conversion, and spiritual legacy are needed now more than ever. His progressive conversion (and the spiritual vision it gave birth to) are revealed in his two-level Examen—the Spiritual Exercises in miniature—that he relied upon as the foundational discernment discipline for his first companions. He used the Examen to lead his companions into integral conversion. They then taught the method to countless thousands of men and women throughout Europe and the New World. The goal of Ignatian spirituality, of all authentic Catholic spirituality, is to facilitate a rebirth that can help individuals and institutions become transformative, culture-changing forces that serve the Kingdom.

How and where can we bring about a similar process of dialogue and conversion? The how can be answered in a careful and methodical application of Ignatius’s discernment Rules, both in our personal lives and corporate works—especially our educational institutions. We need to reaffirm the strategic nature of these discernment Rules and honor the principles they present to practitioners trying to navigate amidst a world of few, if any truths—a world of multiplying diversities and almost no unity. Where to begin might be with the most personal and perhaps most difficult and problematic evangelization challenge the new document from the Congregation for Catholic Education offers: the ideological colonization of an age characterized by “sin against the Creator.”

If this is a place to begin, it cannot be as enforcers of rules and laws with those cultures, persons or institutions at odds with the faith of the Church. Enforcement, as a primary teaching strategy, is a failed paradigm. While enforcement will always be necessary in a broken world, we are called to accompany, but with clarity of purpose. What is demanded of us in this difficult mission is to use our unique gifts of discernment to distinguish “with absolute lucid clarity between the demands of the world and those of the Gospel”.[1] Our mission is to discern and develop creative evangelical and apostolic methods to vivify the Church’s revealed truths about Christ, the human person, and creation.

This is a daunting mission, for the dominant secular culture we are missioned to evangelize is, with few exceptions, present even in the very structures of our educational and pastoral apostolates. But Pope Francis beautifully captures in a single phrase a positive way forward when he says: truth is a person. We must foster a real encounter with the Lord of History—the Way, the Truth, and the Life—for all those entrusted to us so they know him, love him, serve him, and become his daily disciples.

Ignatius’s Rules of Discernment are still our best resource and guide for a creative renewal that bridges the “demands of the world and those of the Gospel.” I want to offer two core principles that Ignatius’s Rules require when used in our ecclesial and educational contexts. For success in these missions requires a proper understanding of the principles undergirding his Rules, as well as their faithful application in our personal and corporate situations.

The framework of these two core principles—one for spiritual consolation and the other for spiritual desolation—helps us sift the authentic from the counterfeit. They keep us aligned with Christ as we discern how to evangelize on those peripheries—geographic, intellectual, educational, and spiritual—entrusted to us. Together, they furnish discernment practitioners with two clear signposts on each pole of Ignatius’s discernment paradigm. The dominant culture that transforms everything it touches, including persons and institutions of the Church, needs the principles Ignatius’s Rules safeguard as a counterweight to stimulate the dialogue needed for creative change, faithful to the demands of the Gospel.

Principle 1: Consolation

Consolation is inclinations, inspirations, and choices that enflame the heart with love for God, increase docility and humility and as they align the heart to truths proposed by the Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium.

The foundation for the first principle comes in a congruent reading of consolation’s graces, both of the First Week Spiritual Exercises [316.3], and of the Second Week, or what Ignatius calls consolation without previous cause, (consolación sin causa, SpEx [330.2]). How does Ignatius describe consolation in the First Week Rules?

I call it consolation when an interior movement is aroused in the soul, by which it is inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, and as a consequence, can love no creature on the face of the earth for its own sake, but only in the Creator of them all (SpEx [316.3]).

In his Rules for the Second Week, Ignatius says of consolation without cause that it “belongs solely to the Creator to come into a soul, to leave it, to act upon it, to draw it wholly to the love of His Divine Majesty,” (SpEx [330.2]). Its effects, and those of regular consolation, are identical, with a single source, the Spirit who animates all creation and who is with the Church until the “end of the age.”

The effects of consolation without cause are paradigmatic of all genuine consolation, and the direct consequence of the Holy Spirit’s most profound actions in the human subject, inflaming the heart with love of God and moving one toward selfless charity. It “sums up that Father-initiated ‘flight from self-love, self-will, and self-interest’ [Ex 18]. It corresponds to the exercitant’s basic dynamic for fulfillment . . . arising from gratuitous and purely disinterested love . . . and is emphatically Christocentric.”[2] The involvement of Spirit, Father, and Son in such consolation identifies a Trinitarian grace unique to Ignatius’s mysticism.[3]

There is a critical third dimension to consolation without cause, apart from being “inflamed” with love for God and inspiration toward selfless charity, which we affirm applies to all genuine consolation coming from the Divine. This is its “ecclesial” context, a dimension that is both a quality and a confirmation of the consolation’s character as “sin causa.[4] Divinely initiated consolations never contradict Scripture, Tradition, or the Magisterium. Ignatius’s letter to Dominican sister Theresa Rejadell is the clearest example from his pen to confirm this characteristic of divinely initiated consolations.[5]

At both fundamental and integral levels of conversion, divinely initiated consolations facilitate a graced encounter that draws one wholly to God in selfless love, without contradicting the truths of the faith. Consolation provides “illumination” but not in the sense of private revelations. Instead, it facilitates a type of knowledge that reveals one’s authentic personality before God; one’s sins, yes, plus the evidence of things in one’s life opposed to God, but also one’s authentic self, altogether revealed in light of God’s fundamental and all-embracing love for God’s creature.

All Divinely initiated consolation can be described as the fundamental reorienting grace of conversion. It is made possible by Christ’s supreme sacrifice, a sacrifice that is visibly and invisibly, with deliberate intention and relentless love, repairing the damage to human nature and creation wrought by Original Sin and the enemy of human nature (1 Cor 15: 25-8; 2 Cor 5:16-20; Col 1:15-20; Phil 3:21). The subject who receives it does not always apprehend it as a reorienting grace, but the consolation is operative nonetheless, and becomes more thematic as the subject’s conversion deepens. And it is operative for all people and in all contexts because Christ wishes that all be saved (1 Tim 2:4).

In summary, the signature characteristics one uses to determine the authenticity of genuine spiritual consolation are these: authentic consolation will always open and enflame the heart with love for God and it will increase one’s docility of spirit and one’s humility and selflessness. Finally, the inclinations and choices inspired by consolation, using the Ignatian paradigm of discernment, will not contravene Scripture, the Tradition, or the Magisterium, but motivate obedience in the Spirit who is not divided or contradictory. Furthermore, the obedience is to the Truth of the one whose Spirit and Presence confirms the faith of the Church (Mt 16:17-19, 28:16-20; Jn 20:19-23). It is neither a rigid adherence to rules and norms, nor a blind conformism to the law of external authority, but the harrowing and hallowed surrender in freedom of one’s life to the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.[6]

Principle 2: Desolation

Desolation is inclination to things low and earthly, which defines appetites dissimilar to Scripture, the received Tradition, and the teaching of the Church.

St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians encourages his listeners to “put to death” (3:5) those actions and aspects of self that are opposed to Christ. St. Ignatius defines these Pauline attributes of the “old self” more succinctly as “inclinations to things low and earthly” (SpEx [317.4]). Affirming this dimension of the human experience as problematic is, however, itself problematic.

The Catholic Philosopher Charles Taylor identifies our epoch as an age defined by an Ethics of Authenticity—the celebration of instinctual desires as benchmarks of human freedom and legitimate expressions of individuality—as fuel for the contemporary “supernova of unbelief.” The meaning of language shifts in this epoch and words like “genuine,” “freedom,” and “authentic” are appropriated to define the evolving ethic of free sexual expression, relativism, diversity and individualism the Church heralds as profoundly inimical to Gospel values.[7] Desires deemed acceptable and therefore celebrated today are as often sensual as they are material and honorific; i.e., lusts for material gain and the comforts of “riches, honor, and pride” that far exceed the basic necessities of life. The Ignatian paradigm of discernment categorizes all such inclinations as attractions to things low and earthly.

Yet, inclinations and appetites that contravene Scripture, received Tradition and the Teaching Church are, according to the measures used by Ignatius, indicators of spiritual desolation. Even many Catholic and Christian moralists can support the dominant culture’s hegemony in this regard. Yet, Ignatius’s Rules provide solid guidelines for those trying to navigate the radically individualistic waters of human desire in the postmodern world.

St. Ignatius’s Exercises refer to Satan as “the enemy of human nature.” Ignatius’s distinctive understanding of human nature in his Rules, and his definitions of desolation, as “darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit inclination to what is low and earthly,” signifies an understanding of human nature that is consonant with the Tradition upon which his Examination of Conscience and the First Week meditations on sin in the Spiritual Exercises are fixed.[8]

For Ignatius’s own struggles with “things low and earthly” prior to his conversion—addictions to gambling, illicit sexual behavior, a violent temper, and his desire for riches and the honors of the world—are, in fact, what grounded his graced insights into the meaning of spiritual desolation and dysfunction. Ignatius’s strategic identification of inclinations and actions contravening the three pillars of the Church (Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium), as symptoms of desolation, creates significant dissonance in an age of quieted conscience and institutional accommodation to the overwhelming pressures of individualism that the dominant culture champions and markets.

But Ignatius’s definition of desolation offers little, if any, wiggle room, to accommodate instinctual desires and pleasures, when those desires and pleasures contravene ecclesially sanctioned norms of truth. For Ignatius says that desolation is “entirely opposite” of consolation and that the “thoughts that spring from consolation are the opposite of those that spring from desolation” (SpEx [317.4]). Thus, if consolation’s thoughts lead to inspirations, desires, and inclinations supporting ecclesial tradition, then desolation’s inspirations lead one in an entirely opposite direction.

The linkage of Ignatius’s definition of desolation to “inclinations low and earthly” with objective norms of Church sanctioned righteousness, guarantees the reliability of Ignatius’s Rules for Christian decision-making. Shifting the ground rules on the objective rightness or wrongness of moral inclinations and actions according to mere individual self-experience compromises a central definition of spiritual desolation. And to do so renders Ignatius’s discernment principles utterly useless as a reliable system of conduct.

Greed, materialism, anger, sexual lusts, and all inclinations to things low and earthly are things Ignatius defines as enemies of true human nature. For discernment to be effective and strategic as Ignatius intended, all such inclinations must be examined as indicators of inordinate attachments, and signs of one whose interior, spiritual freedom is compromised.

Helping individuals and educational institutions accurately identify inclinations and behaviors, decisions and choices that do not align with the living Tradition, and revealing them as indicators of spiritual desolation, can lead the willing to probe much more deeply into their personal or corporate histories for the roots of those inclinations. For the goal of Ignatian discernment, when used in ecclesial contexts, is to identify “inordinate attachments” at the root and core of one’s personal or institutional being. This is the Ignatian path to authenticity and freedom that allowed God to draw Ignatius to service of the Kingdom.

Discernment in the Postmodern Condition

How do the applications of these principles affect the practitioners of Ignatian discernment today? First, in spiritual direction and individual discernment they provide clarity. A spiritual director, using these Ignatian principles, could guide a directee—frequently accustomed to understanding desires and impulses that contravene the received moral codes and commandments as the genuine expression of their genuine self—to a deeper reflection on the freedom and authenticity Ignatius discovered. He scoured these desires and inspirations as a sign of dysfunction rooted in a false reading of human nature. 

Yet, these principles may have more far-reaching impact in institutional settings. For in our institutional settings, guided and populated more and more by lay professionals and non-Catholics, it is the principles of diversity and inclusion underlying various secular theories that often guide policy decisions more than authentic discernment processes and principles. These counter-principles of reflection, discernment, and decision reflect the values of Taylor’s Ethics of Authenticity, rather than the integral freedom and conversion Ignatius’s discernment Rules connote. Explaining, teaching, and applying the solid principles of Ignatius’s Rules of consolation and desolation in a Catholic parish, high school or university could have many re-creative results. They could ground evangelization efforts where individuals are invited to personally encounter Christ in daily prayer and learn the art of spiritual discernment.

Ignatius’s principles can also enable grade school and high school students to have a counter-narrative of happiness, holiness, and spiritual health in the face of the relativism that condones, even celebrates, the basest of instinctual desires. Definitions of authentic human thriving can drive new barometers of success in a business school that understood that desire for riches is a sign of desolation; spur discussions on how Ignatian freedom might reshape understandings of academic freedom; impel curriculum review committees not to supplant the core with “functional” disciplines in place of philosophy and theology; invite care for the earth grounded in a Gospel vision of the new heaven and new earth promised as our inheritance. It can also call us to do more than just walk with the marginalized, but to do so in a way so they, too, can come to know Jesus and the Father.

Delineating the ecclesial principles of Ignatian Discernment at its two poles in no way minimizes the work necessary to find holy solutions in individual or corporate choices and decision-making. If anything, it increases the attention one must pay to process and details. For the individualism, and dare I say, narcissism, undergirding many discernment processes described as “Catholic” or “Christian” today, whether applied to personal or corporate situations, has removed much of the effort required in reaching Gospel solutions to life’s and society’s challenges.

The integrity of Ignatius’s and the Church’s spiritual disciplines promoting integral growth must be protected, their potency nurtured. There are temptations on all sides. Early on, the Inquisition prevented St. Ignatius from “helping souls” by prohibiting him from defining sin. We must be vigilant in our own day and not make their same mistake. Ignatian Spirituality, in its various methods, including the Examens, can help souls properly identify the roots of corruption, and the reality of sin’s destructive power, by naming sin for what it is, especially at the foundational stage of conversion.

Gospel faith is necessarily linked to the needs of the poor and the powerless. Sin, running through the center of human hearts, disrupts not only our knowledge of God, but also our desire to care for others, especially the most disadvantaged. This spiritual blindness and sickness manifests itself in the glorification of the self, the desire for wealth, the seeking of worldly honors, and the heart’s unbending pride. It constantly evolves into the horrors of war, insatiable greed, ecological damage, injustice, and poverty.

Unless and until Original Sin’s spiritual superstructures, rooted in individual hearts and souls are targeted and disarmed, no sustainable peace or justice in Church or human society is possible. This is true no matter how organized, expansive and effective our social service networks become. Vatican II declared that human effort to achieve positive progress for the world is constantly “endangered by pride and inordinate self-love” (Gaudium et spes §37). Both the language and the experience of the Council match Ignatius’s life story and spiritual insights.

Awakening to spiritual and social realities—awakening to one’s conscience and true human nature—are directly linked to the conversion process. Ignatius’s foundational conversion after his wounding, leads to his general examen, and his “night of the senses.” The social awakening he experiences on his pilgrimage to Montserrat, allows Ignatius to “see” the beggar who becomes a recipient of his support and care. But at the deeper, integral level of conversion at Manresa, leading to Ignatius particular examen, is when Ignatius’ desire to help others is born.

It is this deeper purification—his night of the spirit—when Ignatius awakened to his root sin. It is this more integral conversion that slays his pride and nullifies his lusts and greed. By it, he was illumined to life and launched his ministry to others, shaped by his daily examination of conscience and the keen awareness of his interior spiritual movements.

Success for the Church’s evangelization efforts is achievable along this same narrow path of God’s Mercy and Justice pioneered by Ignatius and so many saints of the Church. For God’s mercy, compassion, and patience is abundant, and indispensable, for humanity’s sufferings caused by the mortal damage to human nature in the Original Sin. Furthermore, God’s justice is that very same love, in the form of principles, protecting the created order, and the distinctness of our human nature, crafted in the image and likeness of the Trinity. When we evangelize with mercy and justice, we can help people find their way back to God, enabling them to grow in human freedom for service to the Kingdom.

Those committed to serving the Church in this most complex of ages, can creatively embrace the principles Ignatian Discernment imposes on them in their ecclesial context, whatever it might be. The true prophets and trailblazers with Ignatian discernment as the foundation of their choices and decisions, are those whose innovation is congruent with the received wisdom of the Church, more than those whose choices and decisions set them apart from that wisdom. It is these pioneers of the New Evangelization that will create true unity from the diversities of cultures and experiences of the human family in our postmodern world.

Practitioners of Ignatius’s discernment techniques must follow an exacting science to claim a process that follows his principles. The principles of Ignatius’s Rules are essential tools in our era of individualism and relativism: of diversity but little unity. The tremendous pressure our age imposes on persons and institutions of the Church and society demands a counter-weight of equal, if not greater force. And Ignatius’s discernment principles—his Rules—are that needed fulcrum in our efforts at recreating and re-founding the Church’s evangelization efforts for the sake of Christ and the eternal salvation of all the peoples of the world. It is a mission that we, his followers and disciples, have pledged to serve faithfully.

[1] “Discernment, for which Ignatian spirituality especially trains you, must always sustain you in the difficult quest for the synthesis of the two charisms, the two poles of your life. You will have to be able always to distinguish with absolute lucid clarity between the demands of the world and those of the Gospel, of its paradox of death and life, of Cross and Resurrection, of folly and wisdom”. Address of Pope Paul VI to the Members of the 32nd General Congregation. Decrees, 388.

[2] Harvey D. Egan, SJ, The Spiritual Exercises and the Ignatian Mystical Horizon (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1976), 36-37. Cited hereafter as “Egan”.

[3] “One cannot find any adequate cause for it in sensible experience. Rather, it is an experience of being grasped or elevated by the love of the Trinity. The truth is in the experience. Simply, I know I am taken over by the Trinity’s love when this happens. Paul speaks about this in Romans when he says: ‘This hope is not deceptive for the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit himself and our spirits bear witness that we are children of God’ (Rom 8: 14-16). Such self-authenticated experiences of the unconditional love of God St. Ignatius calls ‘consolation without previous cause.’” John J. English, SJ, "The Mind and the Heart of Christ," The Way 23 (October 1983): 296.

[4] “Ignatius’ transcendence is not without dogma, because the same Spirit who guides the exercitant’s transcendence to Election also ‘guides and governs our Holy Mother Church’ (Ex 365). The CSCP, therefore, is intrinsically linked to established, historical, ecclesial norms which may be used to measure the CSCP’s authenticity (Ex 170). For Ignatius, even a vocation discovered not to be from God cannot be changed, if that choice is deemed immutable by the hierarchical Church (Ex. 172).” Egan, op. cit., 64.

[5]It remains for me to speak of how we ought to understand what we think is from our Lord and, understanding it, how we ought to use it for our advantage. For it frequently happens that our Lord moves and urges the soul to this or that activity. He begins by enlightening the soul; that is to say, by speaking interiorly to it without the din of words, lifting it up wholly to His divine love and ourselves to His meaning without any possibility of resistance on our part, even should he wish to resist. This thought of His which we take is of necessity in conformity with the commandments, the precepts of the Church, and obedience to our superiors.” Martin Palmer, SJ, John W. Padberg, SJ, John L. McCarthy, SJ, Ignatius of Loyola: Letters and Instructions (St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2006), 22.

[6] Rahner states that Ignatius did not expect life in the Church to "be without pain or conflict”. Nor can one simply "deduce" from doctrines how one is to make decisions. Otherwise he says: "Ignatius' Rules for an Election, which put the individual on his own before God, would make no sense and have no area where they could be applied.” Neither is an election “anti-Ecclesial for the “charismatic element” that informs election and conversion “belongs to the nature of the Church”. As cited in: Ignatius of Loyola: His Personality and Spiritual Heritage, ed. Friedrich Wulf (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1977), 293.

[7] "Indeed, precisely the soft relativism that seems to accompany the ethic of authenticity: let each person do their own thing, and we shouldn't criticise each other's ‘values;’ this is predicated on a firm ethical base, indeed, demanded by it. One shouldn't criticise others' values, because they have a right to live their own life as you do. The sin which is not tolerated is intolerance.” Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2007), 484.

[8] SpEx [42]. As such, both St. Paul and Ignatius’ benchmark of human nature appears to conform less with those who propose an evolving ethic of human nature and align instead with formulations of human nature and natural law like those put forth in more recent Church encyclicals. See: Veritatis Splendor (Boston: Pauline, 1993). [Especially: VS: §32, 34, 38, 42, 46, 48, 50, 53, 55, 64, and §84-94 on the role of faith in Christ in relation to freedom, truth, and the good].

Featured Image: Peter Paul Rubens, Miracle of St. Ignatius, 1618; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


William Watson

Fr. William Watson, SJ is the Founder and President of the Sacred Story Institute, which applies Ignatian spirituality for integral evangelization. 

Read more by William Watson

What Is the Catholic Imagination?

Michael Murphy, Director of the Hank Center at Loyola University Chicago, invites you to reexamine a hotly debated notion. 

Catholic Imagination