Applying St. Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment to the Recovery Journey: Part Two

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Rule 1 of St. Ignatius’ “rules of discernment” stands alone in many ways, describing the experience of one who is moving in the wrong direction, away from God, and towards vice and sin. In a modern sense, this first rule also describes those of us who are diving into the ever-deeper waters of addiction and attachments to the things that bring short-term relief and long-term pain and death.

In Rule 2, St. Ignatius “flips the script,” and shifts to those of us who are struggling towards God and away from self-destruction. That is, we are now in the territory of recovery, discovering the life and beauty that recovery offers, but also never far from the clutches of a “cunning, baffling, and powerful” disease and its Siren-song enticing us towards the shoals of relapse.

The Second [Rule]: In the case of those who go on earnestly striving to cleanse their souls from sin and who seek to rise in the service of God our Lord to greater perfection, the method pursued is the opposite of that mentioned in the first rule.

Then it is characteristic of the evil spirit to harass with anxiety, to afflict with sadness, to raise obstacles backed by fallacious reasonings that disturb the soul. Thus he seeks to prevent the soul from advancing.

It is characteristic of the good spirit, however, to give courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations, and peace. This He does by making all easy, by removing all obstacles so that the soul goes forward in doing good.

Another translation describes the person in this rule as “rising from good to better,” in contrast to someone who is being drawn ever back to the “sensual delights and pleasures” of addiction (Rule 1). Obviously, in recovery from addiction and codependency, we are never free of the disease but we are rising towards “the better,” what St. Ignatius terms “the Magis,” or choosing what is most “conducive to the greater service of God and the universal good.” In his book The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living, Fr. Timothy Gallagher describes such people as those who have “not overcome all sin but are seeking to diminish its presence in their lives and are doing so ‘intensely’…”

Recovery, whether from a particular addiction or from our sins in general, is a dangerous journey. In this state, the spiritual disease of addiction (which Ignatius calls the “evil spirit,” or “the enemy of our souls”) recognizes that we are moving away from self-gratification and dependence. Its reaction is thus to “harass with anxiety, afflict with sadness, and raise obstacles” that seem on the surface to be quite reasonable, all in an effort to “disturb the soul” and prevent its advance.

Can any one of us in any kind of recovery not identify with such language?

Cravings come, and our anxiety skyrockets. We feel an overwhelming compulsion to do the very thing that we know will kill us, but we feel powerless to resist.

The “good spirit,” on the other hand, also changes tactics when we change course away from addiction. The more we stay in recovery, the more we find that attending group meetings, reading literature, talking with our sponsor, and a regular practice of prayer and meditation calm us, and make us more likely to sidestep cravings and relapse. This is the “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit of God drawing us towards greater “courage, strength, and hope.”

Our consoling or distressing feelings are thus the wildcard variable in our recovery because they can have their source in either “spirit.” They can lead us astray if we are not discerning and prayerful. St. Ignatius will teach us in subsequent rules how to determine which directions our positive and negative feelings are leading us, and which spirit is generating them in us.


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.