How St. Ignatius’ 14 Rules for Discernment Apply to Marriage

BOOK PICK: ‘Discernment of Spirits in Marriage’

How should discernment apply to the sacrament of matrimony?
How should discernment apply to the sacrament of matrimony? (photo: Sophia Institute Press book cover)

Discernment of Spirits in Marriage

Ignatian Wisdom for Husbands and Wives

By Father Timothy Gallagher 

Sophia Institute Press, 2020

149 pages, $14.95 

To order: or (800) 854-6316

Are you feeling down or frustrated? Could it be God directing you away from something not good for you, or is the devil trying to veer you off the right path? Consolation and confusion come from both places, which is why discernment of spirits is so important. Intentional living in union with God does not come with personalized instructions, yet we have access to spiritual consolations and formation through the elements of our faith such as prayer, Scripture and involvement in the Church. 

In the book Discernment of Spirits in Marriage, Father Timothy Gallagher entwines St. Ignatius of Loyola’s 14 Rules for Discernment with ordinary life. Using the story of Mark and Anne, an amalgam of spiritual experiences he has seen in marriages over the past 40 years, each chapter covers one of the 14 rules alongside a story that acts out spiritual struggles reflecting that rule. 

Their introspections through dialogue and journal entries are neatly packaged in ways that will likely seem contrived to most couples. It’s important however, to keep in mind that Father Gallagher did not set out to write the Great American novel. The ups and downs of this couples’ spiritual life demonstrate the journey and challenges readers face in their own lives. It’s not so much about married life per se, but the couple growing in knowledge together and thus helping each other along the way to discern the push and pull between God and the devil.  

The first rule states that someone in mortal sin is easily led deeper into sin, but at this stage, the “good spirit uses a contrary method, stinging and biting their consciences through their rational power of moral judgement.” It is the stinging and biting that nudges a person back to God, Father Gallagher explains. “Ignatius’ first rule also indicates that if any family members are far from God, God will never stop stinging and biting, never stop calling them back to himself.”

The second rule of St. Ignatius shows that for one purifying their sins and rising from good to better in the service of God, the method is contrary to the first rule. Here, God offers consolation while the devil attempts to disquiet the soul with false reasons and create obstacles to get him off the path. But the person will experience consolation going forward. Through awareness of these tactics, Father Gallagher explains that we can look for them. 

During the third rule, consolation continues to the point that “the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord when it can love nothing on the face of the earth in itself but only in the Creator of them all. 

Despite this seemingly progress, the next rule — the fourth — warns of spiritual desolation, such as a feeling of darkness of the soul and agitations moving one to temptations and loss of confidence. In the story, Mark falls to his old temptations of viewing porn and keeping bad company. As he and Anne come to identify it on a personal level through the Ignatius rules, they come to see that progress is not necessarily measured in feelings but rather on staying the course or at least getting back onto it. 

The next rule — No. 5 — helps to keep us disciplined. 

“In times of desolation, never make a change, but be firm and constant in the proposals and determination in which one was the day proceeding such consolation, or in the determination in which one was in the proceeding consolation. Because, as in consolation the good spirit guides and counsels us more, so in desolation the bad spirit, with whose counsel we cannot find the way to right decision.”

It is the ninth rule in which we are told that this desolation can be caused by our own negligence or as a testing of spirits and recognition of our dependence on God. This process continues up to the 14th rule where an individual is ready to take charge and conquer temptations and desolations.

Although the book has a married couple walking their way through the Ignatius rules and talking with each other about it, Father Gallagher demonstrates with examples that apply to anyone just as readily. He has also written other books on prayer and discernment for individuals. 

“We can see the importance of living the discerning life, of knowing when we are in spiritual consolation, or spiritual desolation,” he writes. “The meaning of much that stirs within clarifies when we do. Through the discerning life, we are set free from harm and set free to grow in the vocation that God has given us.”