A Guide to Ignatian Discernment: Exercising Our Spiritual Muscles

June 5, 2022

Brady completed his first year of high school last week.  In the final days of his freshmen year, I watched his tenacity grow as he studied for his exams.  The diligent exercise of studying.  Practicing math problems over and over again.  Reviewing concepts.  Reading and re-reading material.  His muscle memory and routine of school finally finding its groove after fits and starts throughout the year.  

At one particular moment during his exam preparation, I stood at our kitchen bar watching Chris and Brady side by side working through a tough math problem. I was struck by the father and son pair that sat across from me that resembled so many images of Joseph with the young Jesus by his side. After months of attempting to go at it alone, Brady exercised one of his muscles- receiving accompaniment.  Pride swallowed, he humbly came down to ask his dad, who has a unique gift with numbers, for help in understanding a complicated concept.  

I stood for a long time quietly watching the two of them work.  My heart swelling with love both for my husband as he patiently accompanied our son and for our son who was maturing before me.  The fruits of the moment born out of a year of learning to exercise his muscles.  

It is easier for us adults to understand the patience of practice and exercise when we seek to teach young people something new or accompany them in mastering a new skill or art. For some reason, the grown up versions of ourselves forget that the same patience and gentleness we offer to a young person who is simply finding his way into the next unfolding season is what we also need to offer ourselves. There is no greater place I see this need for gentleness, patience, and accompaniment than in our spiritual lives.  

St. Ignatius of Loyola understood that our spiritual muscles need steady exercising.  It is why his pathway and series of meditations are called the Spiritual Exercises.  They begin with an important note or annotation which says: 

“The first annotation is that by this name of Spiritual Exercises is meant every way of examining one’s conscience, of meditating, of contemplating, of praying vocally and mentally, and of performing other spiritual actions, as will be said later.

For as strolling, walking, and running are bodily exercises, so every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all disordered tendencies and after it is rid, to seek and find the Divine will as to the management of one’s life for the salvation of the soul is called a spiritual exercise.” 

~From the translation of the Spiritual Exercises by David Fleming, SJ

Ignatius knew we needed to practice moving the interior muscles of our spiritual lives.  He offers various meditations and exercises for us to do so that we can grow ever closer to Jesus and discover our unique way of following him.  He also offers us rules to practice and notice the discernment of the spirits in our lives. 

Our next blog series, A Guide to Ignatian Discernment, will focus on St. Ignatius’ first set of rules of discernment.  This series will walk us through the first fourteen rules of discernment.  In intentionally moving through the rules, we hope to offer all of us a chance to exercise our listening to the movements of the spirits so that we can continue to strengthen the listening muscles of our ears and hearts to notice both the Holy Spirit’s movement in our lives and also the false spirit’s movement.  

Adults and young people alike need support in exercising the discernment of the spirits.  Spiritual directors and other accompaniers walk with us to discern the movements of the spirits.  Our Into the Deep writers are ready to accompany you these next weeks by sharing their reflections on the lived application of the discernment rules.  

May this series exercise our spiritual muscles in the same way Brady exercised his muscles of studying and receiving accompaniment.  May it well in us a spirit of courage to follow wherever the Holy Spirit calls us to go.

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Photo by Compare Fibre on unsplash.com 


Becky is an Ignatian-trained spiritual director, retreat facilitator, and writer. She is the author of the Busy Lives and Restless Souls (March 2017, Loyola Press) and The Inner Chapel (April 2020, Loyola Press). She helps others create space to connect faith and everyday life through facilitating retreats and days of reflection, through writing, and through spiritual direction. With nearly twenty years of ministry experience within the Catholic Church, Becky seeks to help others discover God at work in the every day moments of people’s lives by utilizing St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and the many gifts that our Catholic faith and Ignatian Spirituality provide.

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1 Comment

  1. Mare

    I was touched by your son’s ability to ask for help and was reminded of how hard it has been for me to do this over the years….an oldest child in the family characteristic, I wonder.? It struck me, again, that there is no time line here. We keep at it and receive the grace in the Holy Spirit’s time. It was a gentle reminder and relief for me this morning. I am grateful for this great gift of time without limit and God’s patience until we can be ready. The resource sheet of the 14 Rules is great! Thanks for that. I’ve already printed it out and put it in my prayer journal.


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