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St. Ignatius: When are pious thoughts not from God?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 09, 2020

One of the great confusions throughout the history of the Church is the common misunderstanding that “pious” or “spiritual” thoughts and motives always come from God. In the fourth century, Arius was “inspired” by his own insight into the Godhead to conclude that Jesus Christ must be a creature and so could not be God. In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther was “inspired” by his special appreciation of the gift and power of faith to conclude that human works have no role in sanctification and salvation.

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Alleged visionaries in many periods have fallen into swoons and reported great heavenly delights. But St. Teresa of Avila, who was herself a great mystic, had to discipline some of her nuns by ordering them to eat and sleep more, when they disrupted convent life with what she perceived to be uninspired “ecstasies”. In our own time, a great many people all around us are “inspired” by their experience of “spiritual liberty” to deny that God has revealed anything which cuts against the grain of our desires. On all sides, many who consider themselves Catholics are moved by an interior certainty of their “sublime spirituality” to rebel against the authority of the Church.

Ignatius of Loyola

This issue was brought to my attention again the other day through my reading of the autobiography of St. Ignatius Loyola, the sixteenth-century author of the famous “Spiritual Exercises” and the founder of the Society of Jesus (which paradoxically seems in our time to be particularly incapable of distinguishing one spirit from another). Ignatius’ autobiography was written at the insistence of some of his most treasured companions in the early days of his community. He was reluctant to write it, but finally did so in the hope that it would be useful to his brethren after he was gone. It covers a relatively short period of his life—essentially the eighteen years from his initial conversion to his completion of the constitutions for the Society of Jesus in Rome.

Ignatius wandered about quite a bit during this period while he was trying to discern exactly what God was calling him to do. His fundamental way of drawing others closer to Christ was through a life of privation spent begging and making himself available to others in conversations about God and the Church. For some years he believed he was called to do this in the Holy Land, and while he visited there once, his efforts to revisit and remain there were always thwarted by circumstances. He also knew that he needed to complete a more formal program of studies in order to be well-grounded in his discussions and advice to others.

In fact, he was repeatedly questioned and sometimes even imprisoned for a time by representatives of the Inquisition who, in various cities, wanted to be sure that he was not misleading people. Ignatius was always exonerated, but his situation was a precarious one because his training and background were as a knight and his approach to others was through poverty, so it was difficult to believe he was really serving as a good Catholic influence in teaching everyone he met about the things of God. Moreover, while Ignatius knew he should get a better Catholic education, he found it extremely difficult to consistently pursue his studies, which he attempted at various universities.

Partly this was a matter of lack of resources. But there was another problem which he mentions in his narrative (where he always refers to himself in the third person, often calling himself “the pilgrim”). Here is one of the passages in which he describes this special problem:

[R]eturning to Barcelona, he began his studies with great diligence. But one thing was proving a great hindrance to him, and that was that whenever he tried to memorize anything, as is necessary in the early stages of grammar study, new understandings of spiritual things and new delights came to him, and in such a way that he could neither memorize anything nor could he rid himself of them, no matter how much he tried. [#54]

Ignatius struggled with these distractions from study on numerous occasions in different courses at different universities, and for a long time he was deeply perplexed by them. But in this as in many other matters he was gradually given genuine insight by God. Here is how he describes that process:

Giving much thought to this matter, he said to himself, “Even when I am at prayer at Mass, such clear understandings do not come to me!” Then, little by little, he came to recognize that these were temptations. [#55]

This is expressed with all the starkness of a saint-in-the-making. His delightfully sublime insights were…temptations! His solution on this occasion was to ask his teacher to meet him in the nearby church of Our Lady of the Sea. There Ignatius explained the problem to him and promised never to miss any of the teacher’s classes over the next two years. The result? “Since he made this promise with great earnestness, he never again had those temptations” (#55).

Ignatius had routed the Devil; but first he had to recognize him.

Discernment of Spirits

It is no wonder that the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola deal extensively with the discernment of spirits. This is (or at least is intended to be) a key to Ignatian spirituality. We must always remember that Satan is the fallen Lucifer, or “Light Bearer”, and that he often masks his temptations in the aura of sweetness and light. Ignatius had considerable difficulty in separating the promptings of the Holy Spirit from vainglorious thoughts of grand achievements, first “worldly” and later “religious” achievements. But he was engraced through his own particular vocational path to become one of the Church’s masters of spiritual discernment. He learned the hard way how to separate the wheat from the chaff in the alleged “inspirations” he experienced.

There are many things that go into this, including attentiveness to the teachings of the Church, sound Catholic education and spiritual formation, the cultivation of humility and the recognition of habitual faults, a clear apprehension of one’s present duty, constant prayer, frequent examination of conscience and confession, a willingness to seriously consider spiritual advice, and more. I am not an expert in the Ignatian method, but perfect discernment does not come “naturally” to anyone. Strong opinions driven by personal piety may or may not be the fruits of sound discernment.

That is what St. Ignatius had to learn. And if the great St. Ignatius had to learn to proceed with caution, then so do we.


For an excellent edition of the autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, see A Pilgrim’s Journey (with introduction, translation and commentary by Joseph N. Tylenda, SJ): Ignatius Press, rev. ed. 2001; paper 204pp. $15.26

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jul. 11, 2020 5:25 PM ET USA

    biosci8938: It is clear in Ignatius' account that these were not "erroneous". But it is also clear that he regarded them as coming from the Devil (who knows far more about God that we do) as a means of distracting him from what God was calling him to do. This is, actually, far more common than we might think in the course of spiritual development. To take another example, a person might feel a certain "consolation" in Church and so spend time in certain devotions as a pious excuse to ignore some duty to which God is actually calling him, when in fact this may simply be a way for the Devil to distract the person from doing God's will.

  • Posted by: biosci8938 - Jul. 11, 2020 2:07 AM ET USA

    I think a lot of people would say his experience was a common sxperience of procrastination. Were the thoughts temptations because they prevented him from studying, say like a piece of cake would prevent one from complying to a desired diet. The cake itself is not bad. Were the 'understandings and delights' erroneous simply because they were temptations or not erroneous but temptations because they just prevented him from studying ? From his conversion story, he seems to have an active mind.