A Guide to Ignatian Discernment: A Spiritual Vaccine

I have a friend who had serious time management problems.  She was always late.  Seriously late. This included Sunday mass, even though she loved the liturgy and the spiritual community she was with each week.  Then one day she shared with me that she had stopped going to Sunday mass.  She said she just couldn’t get there on time and that she hated walking in late.  “Everyone looks at me and frowns at me.  I feel so ashamed and I feel like a big lazy disappointment to God. If I can’t get there on time, what’s the point of me going at all?”  My friend was in desolation. 

Spiritual desolation is somewhat like the COVID virus.  Just like the physical virus, when it infects us, it can put us out of commission temporarily.  Many times, we don’t see it coming, and by the time we realize we have it, we are not our best self.  But the good thing about both of these is that there are ways to treat both.  In the case of COVID, we have preventive measures and several vaccines.  When we are in spiritual desolation, we have a spiritual vaccine, St. Ignatius’ Rules for Discernment of Spirits.  These rules taken together are St. Ignatius’ vaccine against the spiritual “dis-ease” of desolation.   Each individual rule is a booster shot of wisdom, building on each preceding rule.  I especially like Rules 5 and 6 – those are the “wipe out desolation” rules! 

So, back to my friend.  How did I know she was in desolation?  The main clue was she had stopped attending church, something that before her desolation was giving her spiritual support.  Other clues were her use of absolutes (everyone looks, everyone frowns), negative self worth (ashamed, lazy, a disappointment), and hopelessness (what’s the point?).  Of course none of this was from God, who never wants us to feel this way about ourselves.

She needed booster shots of spiritual awareness and action, and that’s just what discernment Rules 5 and 6 can  deliver!  

Rule 5 states that “In time of desolation we should never make any change, but remain firm and constant in the resolution and decision which guided us the day before the desolation…”  

When we are in spiritual desolation, we are being led away from God by the false spirit.  When the false spirit leads, we’re being led into a troubling place.  We are turned inward, our focus not on God but on our despairing inner self.   So it follows that any decision we make in this frame of heart will not be a good one and will bring us farther away from God and God’s desires for us.  We should never change a decision we made in consolation when we are in desolation.

Rule 6 is also about taking action:  …”It will be very advantageous to intensify our activity against the desolation.  We can insist more upon prayer, upon meditation, and upon much examination of ourselves.  We can  make an effort in a suitable way to do some penance.”  .  

Let’s look at each component of Rule 6:

Prayer – This might be the hardest time to pray, but it’s what we must do.  When we feel the movement of desolation, we need God’s help and Ignatius invites us to petition God for help.  Admit you are in a low spot spiritually.  Being vulnerable before God always gives hope.  And God’s hope will always defeat desolation.    

Meditation – Ignatius invites us to spend time with scripture, good memories and experiences, and previous times of consolation.  Recall those times now, relish them and realize that they are a sign that God is still with you and ready to be with you again.  Look to a favorite scripture passage for encouragement.

Much examination – We should move from ourselves in desolation to reflecting on ourselves in desolation.  When we reflect on ourselves in desolation, we think about when the desolation started, what caused it, and what we can do to move out of it.  When we work to understand our desolation, we can, with God’s help, begin to move out of it.  

Suitable penance –  Perhaps we could do something nice for someone, spend more time with spiritual readings, or do something contrary to the stuckness we are feeling and give glory to God.  

Notice these rules as applicable to my friend.  As we talked, she recognized that the false spirit was moving in her by focusing her on her tendency to be late.  She spiraled into self-absorption and negativity. That’s when she changed her consolation decision to attend mass to a desolation decision to stop going, depriving her of spiritual support and graces.  Without this support and grace, she continued to spiral even further into desolation.    

With this awareness and understanding, my friend realized it was time to take action. She went to prayer and focused on the Eucharist in scripture.  She also recalled how attending mass invigorated  her.  She realized she missed that spiritual support.  She was eventually able to ask God for the desire to return to mass,  she began visualizing Jesus standing at the door of her church, welcoming her with open arms no matter what time she arrived.  Church was her spiritual home, a safe place where she could be herself with a loving, welcoming God.  I’m happy to say she returned to Sunday mass and has stayed faithful in attending.  

These times of COVID can be difficult times in which to live and pray. Time in desolation can be difficult also.  The good news is that there are remedies for covid and spiritual desolation. St. Ignatius’ Rules for Discernment is the vaccine to help us recognize, understand and act on spiritual desolation. The next time you feel  yourself slipping into spiritual desolation, roll up your sleeve and  get a dose of Rules 5 and 6.  They’re good for what ails you!

Go Deeper:

  • See the previous blogs on Rules 1 – 4 posted here by Jean Heaton (Rules 1 and 2) and Mary Ann Gessner (Rules 3 and 4) for great insights on discernment.
  • God’s grace is always sufficient to sustain us and move us to consolation. The next time you feel yourself spiraling into desolation, just remember the words of St. Paul’s letter to the Philipians:  “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.”  (Phil 4:13)
  • Fr. Mark Thibodeaux’s book God’s Voice Within is a good source for learning about the inner movement of spirits and decision-making.


Photo by Annie Theby on unsplash.com 


Melinda is an Ignatian-trained Spiritual Director who is passionate about helping others deepen their relationship with God through individual direction, group faith sharing, and retreats. She received her certification in Spiritual Direction from the Archdiocesan Spirituality Center in New Orleans in 2012. She also holds a Master's of Pastoral Studies degree from Loyola University. Most recently, she served as spiritual director and campus minister at Christ the King parish at LSU and was on staff at the St. Joseph Spirituality Center. She also serves in the Women of the Well ministry and is currently on the board of the Louisiana Association of Spiritual Directors. She and her husband Darrel live in Baton Rouge and enjoy birdwatching and fishing.

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1 Comment

  1. Mary Ann

    Thanks so much for this…noticing when I am stuck is such a challenge. The noticing, the awareness really is a grace that helps me ask in prayer to get unstuck.


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