Applying St. Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment to Recovery: Part One

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In my own recovery, I have found many helpful tools in St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. I could almost call the Exercises a recovery program for addiction and codependency

Within these exercises, St. Ignatius offers rules for the “discernment of spirits” to help a person see more clearly what kind of “spirits,” whether good or evil, are driving that person at a given moment. This, too, fits with recovery. As Carl Jung once wrote to Bill W., the “formula” for recovery is, “spiritus contra spiritum,” or a spiritual program set against alcohol (“spirits”). That is, recovery is spiritual warfare.

Recovery is often about choosing between short-term relief and long-term health. Ignatius’ “rules” help me make more effective distinctions between these competing drives and choose the truly good over what simply feels good.

Let’s take, for example, his first rule:

In the persons who go from mortal sin to mortal sin, the enemy is commonly used to propose to them apparent pleasures, making them imagine sensual delights and pleasures in order to hold them more and make them grow in their vices and sins. In these persons the good spirit uses the opposite method, pricking them and biting their consciences through the process of reason.

This rule, to me, is at the heart of addiction, as well as recovery. In my disease, I am prone to listen to voices that promise relief from distress, and I am more likely to ignore voices that are desperately calling me to not give in. The first skill I need to develop is to determine, consciously, which voice I am hearing so that I can begin to respond appropriately.

In this rule, St. Ignatius gives me a clear direction on how to do this in the earlier stages of my recovery: When I am distressed, and beginning to imagine the things that would make me feel better quickly, I can presume that is the voice of “the enemy.” Because I feel anxious, depressed, lonely, or bored, I am likely to ignore my reason and my conscience; I just desperately want to feel better. This will, of course, only carry me “from mortal sin to mortal sin.”

There is a good spirit, though, a Holy Spirit working with my conscience and reason to urge me to find more appropriate ways to manage my distress. I can presume that this is the voice I really need to listen to, even though it makes me uncomfortable. It “feels” bad but it is for my greater good. That is the voice to heed.

My disease will lurk nearby for the rest of my life, whispering deceptions, making me doubt the love of God and others for me, and offering easy alternatives to ease my pain, relieve my stress, and make me feel better about myself. It is a spiritual voice I can’t easily ignore. If I successfully apply Ignatius’ first rule, this disease—this evil spirit—will reverse its tactics on me, as we’ll see in his second rule. The “enemy of my soul,” as Ignatius calls it, never quits.

The good news is that there are other voices speaking to me, too. These voices are spiritual as well, and they are good. They wish me well, they support my recovery, and they would lead me to God if I let them. However, sometimes it is easy to ignore these spirits. This is where St. Ignatius’ rules for discernment become vital disciplines, potent weapons in the spiritual war that is our recovery.


Jeff Thompson, Ph.D., is a therapist, a recovering codependent, and a grateful convert to the Catholic Church. He lives and works in the Pacific Northwest, and is the proud dad of two young adult children.