A Guide to Ignatian Discernment: How do I land this plane?

Don’t let the white hair fool you, I’m not yet 4 years old…in Ignatian Spirituality terms, that is.   The thought of writing my first Into the Deep piece has me pestered by internal voices calling me out as an imposter. What were you thinking saying yes?  You don’t know anything about this and you can’t write that well either!  Those internal voices have the cold, hard edge of authority that comes with long practice and arrogance.  I have believed them for years.

About three years ago, a familiar soul-whisper gently and persistently encouraged me to sign up for Becky’s Overwhelmed No More online retreat.  The world was in COVID lockdown.  I was retired.  I had time for such things.  Six weeks of praying every day! What are you thinking?  You can’t remember to take vitamins every day!  Back and forth alternating soft and loud, yes and no.  The gentle whisper won and so did I.  My life’s transformation began in that retreat.  There I “met” St. Ignatius.  I loved his down to earth, clear and practical approach to prayer and his relationship with God.  He knew human nature and as a leader, he took his job of supporting his troops seriously, even those living 500 years away in a small village in Vermont.  

Discernment is used a lot in Ignatian Spirituality because, for Ignatius, this was the way to a closer relationship with God. Ignatius started with the basics.  Good and evil, grace and sin.  We move away from God when we sin (Rule 1).  We move toward God when we allow God’s Spirit to guide us to God’s love (Rule 2).  Ignatius’ genius was to acknowledge and use his humanity, all that God had given him, to interact with the God he came to know and love.  Through the work of Fr. Timothy Gallagher, OMV’s Discernment of Spirits, my journey deeper into prayer became more intentional.  I began to understand discernment as recognizing signs of grace (consolation) and distraction (desolation).  Those voices, my companions through life, had names…the Holy Spirit and the enemy. 

St. Ignatius wrote the Rules to help us understand the movement of these spirits in our lives. In Rules 3 and 4, he explains for us what those movements are. I often think of the Holy Spirit as my personal air traffic controller…the voice of Consolation (as explained in Rule 3) is calm and gentle, whispering encouragement, memories, clarity, hope, and trust to guide me on my journey into the deeper relationship that God and I long for.  Ignatius compared consolation to a sponge being gently filled by a soft rain of grace.  When moved to tears when I am praying, I chuckle that my sponge is overflowing.  Consolation can also be a nudge to make me just uncomfortable enough to get back on course, to stay on the path grace has brought me.  In consolation we breathe gently and allow the graces, the love of God to soak into our hearts and minds. It is a time of nurturing rest for the heart, a time to savor and be grateful.  We want to remember these moments. 

Remember all those yelling, exclamation-pointed criticisms?  That is not the Holy Spirit.  That is the enemy trying to get me away from the “clutches” of grace and goodness, away from God.  That is desolation (as explained in Rule 4).   Ignatius has an image for that.  Those thoughts, he said, are like a stone on which rain smacks hard.  That rain does damage, erodes the path I’m on, confuses me, distracts, and disorients.  That rain might start off soft but soon it is hard and sharp and hurts.  There can be tears here, too.  We can feel lost, abandoned, and confused.  That is the enemy’s plan.  I’ve come to consider desolation a backhanded compliment.  If the enemy is working this hard to slow me down, I must be on the right track.  

God’s grace is in desolation, too.  Here, the Holy Spirit helps us see and understand how the enemy is moving us away from God.  The enemy’s element of surprise is lost!  We receive the grace to remember the times of consolation we have cherished.  This is the Holy Spirit’s powerful grace whispering comforting reassurance that we are not alone. God is with us.   Those memories are grace helping us believe and trust that this darkness won’t last.  It can’t.  Light always overcomes darkness.  God keeps us safe regardless of what desolation tells us. 

The Holy Spirit is gifted to us to companion us, to help us live and land safely.  Don’t take your seat belt off yet.  Take a moment.  Take a breath and smile, even laugh and whisper a prayer of gratitude.  Ask for the grace to be aware of the Holy Spirit…always.

Go Deeper:


Photo by Apostolos Vamvouras on unsplash.com 


Mary Ann Gessner has worked with all generations as an art teacher, in Nursing Homes as Recreation Director, a Social Services and Admissions Director and Administrator. She was the Director of Admission with a focus on international student recruitment for St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont and holds a BA in Studio Art and Art Education from the University of Bridgeport, CT and a M.S.A. from St. Michael’s College in VT. Since retiring in 2015, Mary Ann enjoyed the gift of time to nest, quilt, and cook. This gift of time led to Ignatian Spirituality in the Inner Chapel and Becky’s Overwhelmed No More retreat and the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises. Mary Ann is currently an intern in the Clinical Pastoral Education Program at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon, NH and is rediscovering her love of storytelling. Her two sons have moved gracefully into their adult lives with their families. Mary Ann and her husband still live in the log home they built 45 years ago in the woods of Sheffield, Vermont.

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