Ignatius on the Discernment of Spirits (1536)

Sr. Teresa Rejadell was a Benedictine nun of the convent of Santa Clara in Barcelona. In this letter, Ignatius gives her detailed advice on the discernment of spirits, including the distinction between true and false humility (a favorite theme of Ignatius), evil under the appearance of good, and the proper treatment for scruples. His remarks constitute an important commentary on the relevant rules in the Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius wrote a second letter to Rejadell with additional instructions—on moderation in prayer and asceticism, and how to counter temptations with thoughts of God’s love. In this present letter, Ignatius refers to “Cáceres,” meaning Lope de Cáceres—he was an early companion of Ignatius who later failed to persevere.

For more sources from Ignatius, please visit the Letters of Ignatius of Loyola.


May the grace and love of Christ our Lord be always for our favor and our help.

I received your letter some days ago, and it has brought me much joy in the Lord whom you serve and desire to serve even more, and to whom we must ascribe all good that appears in creatures. You wrote that Cáceres would inform me at length about your concerns; he not only did so but also told me the means or opinion he gave you for each of them. Reading over what he tells me, I find nothing to add, although I would prefer getting the information in a letter from yourself, since no one can explain a person’s sufferings as well as the one undergoing them.

You ask me for the love of God our Lord to undertake the care of your person. It is true that, without my deserving it, his Divine Majesty has for many years now given me the desire to give whatever satisfaction I can to all—both men and women—who walk in the way of his will, as also to serve those who labor in his just service; and since I have no doubt that you are one of these persons, I long to be where I could demonstrate what I say through deeds.

You also earnestly beg me to write what our Lord tells me, and to tell you conclusively what I think. What I think and have concluded in the Lord I will most willingly tell you. If on any point I seem harsh, I will be so more towards the one who is trying to upset you than towards yourself. There are two matters in which the enemy is causing you confusion, though not so as to make you fall into any sin that could separate you from your God and Lord; however, he does confuse you and draw you away from his greater service and your greater ease. First, he is persuading you to have a wrong humility; second, he is producing an excessive fear of God, which you dwell upon and occupy yourself with too much.

Regarding the first point, the enemy’s general practice with persons who desire and have begun to serve God our Lord is to bring up obstacles and impediments. This is the first weapon with which he attempts to wound them’ namely, “How are you going to life your whole life amid such penance, with no enjoyment from friends, relatives, or possessions, leading such a lonely life and never having any ease? There are other less perilous ways you can save your soul.” He suggests that we will have live a longer life amid all these hardships than any human ever lived. He does not tell us about the great comforts and consolations which our Lord is accustomed to give to such persons if the new servant of the Lord breaks through all these obstacles and deliberately chooses to suffer along with his Creator and Lord. Next, the enemy resorts to his second weapon; that is to say, pride and vainglory. He intimates to the person that he possesses much goodness and holiness, placing him higher than he deserves. If the servant of God resists these arrows by humbling and abasing himself and refusing to consent to the enemy’s suggestions, he comes with his third weapon, a wrong humility. Seeing how good and humble the Lord’s servant is, how while fulfilling what the Lord commands, he still considers it useless, looks only to his own weakness, not to any vainglory, he gives the person the thought that if he discovers anything that God our Lord has given him by way either of deeds or of resolves and desires, he sins through another species of vainglory by speaking in his own favor. He thus tries to keep the person from talking about the good things he has received from his Lord, so that he will not produce fruit in others or in himself. For to recall what one has already received is always a help towards even greater things—although this speaking must be with great moderation and only for people’s greater benefit, that is, one’s own or that of other persons one sees are properly disposed and likely to believe the speaker and be benefited. Thus, by getting us to be humble, the enemy manages to draw us on to a wrong humility, namely, to one that is excessive and flawed.

What you say bears apt witness to this. After recounting certain frailties and fears which are very much to the point, you say, “I am a poor religious; I think I desire to serve Christ our Lord.” You do not even dare to say, “I desire to serve Christ our Lord,” or “The Lord gives me desires to serve him.” Instead you say, “I think I desire to serve him.” If you reflect carefully, you will realize that these desires to serve Christ our Lord are not from yourself but bestowed by the Lord. And so when you say, “The Lord give me strong desires to serve him,” it is the Lord himself you praise by making known his gift; it is in him and not in yourself that you glory, for you do not attribute the grace to yourself. Hence, we must be very careful: if the enemy lifts us up, we must put ourselves down by counting our sins and miseries; if he casts us down and depresses us, we must raise ourselves up by genuine faith and hope in the Lord, through counting the blessings we have received, and the great love and goodwill with which he awaits our salvation—whereas the enemy does not care whether he speaks truth or falsehood so long as he gets the better of us.

Reflect how the martyrs, when placed before idolatrous magistrates, declared that they were servants of Christ; and so, when you are placed before the enemy of all human nature to be tested by him in this way, and he tries to rob you of the strength given to you by our Lord and to make you weak and fearful like this with his tricks and deceits, you will not dare to say that you desire to serve our Lord; rather, you must say and fearlessly confess that you are his servant, and that you would rather die than depart from his service. If the enemy gives me thoughts of justice, I will immediately think of mercy; if he gives me thoughts of mercy, I will counter by thinking of justice. This is how we have to proceed if we are to avoid being upset, and if we are to delude the deluder. We should quote the text from Sacred Scripture: “Beware of being so humble that you fall into folly.”

Now for the second point. Once the enemy has made us fearful through a semblance of humility—a humility that is wrong—and has gotten us not to speak even of good, holy, profitable things, he then comes with a far worse fear: that we are separated, estranged, and alienated from our Lord. This fear follows largely from the foregoing; for once he has won a victory with the previous fear, the enemy finds it easier to try us with this second one. To clarify this somewhat, I will mention another procedure that the enemy uses. If he finds a person who has an easy conscience and lets sins go by without weighing them, he does his best to make venial sins out to be no sins at all, mortal sins venial, and very grievous mortal sins small matters. He thus takes advantage of the failing he perceives in us, in this case an overly easy conscience. If he finds another person whose conscience is delicate (no fault in itself) and sees that the person not only repels all mortal sins and all the venial sins that he is able (for they are not all in our power), and even tries to repel every semblance of slight sin or fault against perfection, then the enemy attempts to trip up this excellent conscience by alleging sin where there is no sin and fault where there is perfection, so that he can confound and distress us. Thus, in many cases where he cannot get a person to sin and has no prospect of doing so, he will try at least to torment the person.

To clarify how this fear is produced, I will mention, although, briefly, two lessons which our Lord gives or permits (he gives one and permits the other). The less that he gives is interior consolation, which dispels all confusion and draws to utter love of the Lord. Some persons he enlightens in this consolation, to others he reveals many secrets, and beyond. In a word, with this divine consolation all hardship is pleasure, all toil is rest. When a person is going forward with this fervor and warmth and interior consolation, the heaviest burden seems light, the greatest penances or hardships seem sweet. This consolation shows and opens up to us the way we ought to go, avoiding the opposite. It is not always with us; it always follows its own definite times as has been ordained; and all this with a view to our own progress. For when we are without this consolation, the other lesson comes’ that is to say, our ancient enemy throws up every possible obstacle to turn us from what we have begun, sorely afflicting us in ways completely opposite to the first lesson: he frequently gives us sadness without our knowing why we are sad; we cannot pray with any devotion, we cannot contemplate, we cannot even speak or hear of the things of God our Lord with interior taste or relish. Not only this, but if he sees us weakened and cast down into these accursed thoughts, he suggests that we are totally separated from our Lord, and that all we have done and desired to do is worthless. He thus strives to reduce us to total discouragement. Thus we can see that all this fear and weakness of ours comes from dwelling excessively at such times on our miseries and submitting so abjectly to his lying suggestions. Consequently, we must observe who is giving battle. If it is consolation, then we must abase and humble ourselves and remember that the trial of temptation will soon come. If temptation, darkness, or sadness comes, we must resist and not let it taint us; we must patiently await the Lord’s consolation, which will dry up all confusion and outer darkness.

Finally, we need to say something about how to understand things which we experience as coming from God our Lord, and how, once understood, to make use of them. It often happens that our Lord moves and drives our soul to one action or another by opening the soul up, that is by speaking inside it without the din of words, lifting the soul wholly to his divine love, so that even if we wished to resist his impression, we could not. This impression of his which we receive must be in conformity with the commandments, the precepts of the Church, and obedience to our superiors, and entirely filled with humility, for the same divine Spirit is present in all this. The way we can often go astray is this: after a consolation or inspiration of this kind, while the soul is still full of joy, the enemy approaches all under cover of joy and on a pretext of good to get us to add to what we have experience from God our Lord, so as to bring us to disorder and total confusion.

At other times he gets us to abate the lesson we have received by throwing up obstacles and difficulties to keep us from fully carrying out what has been shown to us. Here more than anywhere else we need to be alert, often reining in our greatest eagerness for speaking about the things of God our Lord and at other times saying more than the impulse or movement prompts us; for in this we must look more to the other person’s character than to my own desires. When the enemy acts in this way to get us to magnify or abate the good impression received, we need to feel our way so that we can help others, as in fording a river; if I find a good footing or path, or the prospect of producing some good, I go forward; but if the ford it turbulent and the persons will take scandal at my good words, I stay reined in, seeking the best time or moment to speak.

Matters have been brought up that cannot be written about this way, at least not without very ample treatment, and even then there would be things that are more readily experienced than explained, particularly in writing. Our Lord willing, I trust we will meet there soon, and then we can go more deeply into some matters. Meanwhile, since you have Castro closer at hand, I think it would be a good idea if you corresponded with him; no harm can come of it, and possibly some good. And since you ask me to write just what I think in the Lord, I say this: Blessed will you be if you can hold fast to what you have.

I close, praying that the Most Holy Trinity by its infinite and supreme goodness may bestow upon all of us abundant grace, so that we may know its most holy will and entirely fulfill it.

Venice, June 18, 1536

Poor in goodness,



Original Source (English translation):

Ignatius of Loyola: Letters and Instructions, ed. John W. Padberg, et al. St. Louis, Mo.: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996, “To Teresa Rejadell, Venice, June 18, 1536,” pg. 18–22 .

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