Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment Illustrated in Herod

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius summarized his approach to discernment of spirits in two sets of Rules for Discernment. The rules address ways to interpret states of consolation and desolation that we typically experience as we pursue our spiritual path.

In the rules, Ignatius identifies two types of persons: Those who are growing in their spiritual life, striving to serve God, and those whose orientation is away from God. What Ignatius calls the “angel of light” (or the spirit of God) and the enemy spirit each produce a certain movement and those movements are different depending on which type of person we are talking about.

In the case of those who, in Ignatius’ words, “go on earnestly striving to cleanse their souls from sin and who seek to rise to the service of God our Lord to greater perfection,” the enemy spirit disturbs, causes doubts, encourages weakness, makes person feel unworthy, creates anxiety and the spirit of God encourages and supports those moving in this direction with confidence, joy, delight.

In the case of those who, in Ignatius’ words “go from one mortal sin to another,” the angel of light stings the conscience, trying to shake up the person, making him uncomfortable so as to change his ways. In contrast, the Enemy spirit works to encourage such a person to stay in sinfulness.

Today’s Gospel provides a good illustration of this. Matthew gives us the familiar account of Herod’s beheading of John the Baptist. I once discussed with a Jesuit friend of mine that what troubles (and frightens) me about this passage is that it seems like Herod knows there is something special about John. He sees something in John and is drawn to him. And when the daughter of Herodias comes to Herod with her request to give her the head of John, he knows killing John is wrong but does it anyway.

My Jesuit friend helped me to understand the passage it in terms of Ignatius’ rules of discernment. Ignatius says that when one is moving away from God, the tactic of the evil spirit is to keep one going the same way, but the good spirit tries to disturb one. Herod married Herodias and, secondly, imprisoned John for telling him it was wrong. Clearly moving from wrong to wrong – moving away from God.

The words of the Baptist were the sting of the good spirit, trying to change Herod’s orientation. But Herod ignored them, and remained married to Herodias and kept John in prison, still moving from from sin to sin. The temptation of the enemy spirit continued to pull, and with lust for the daughter of Herodias and a desire not to appear weak before his guests after making his public pledge, Herod could not stand up for what was right.

It is useful for us to recognize how the angel of light and the enemy spirit operate at times when we are moving toward God and times when we are moving away from God.