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Weeds Among the Wheat: Discernment, Where Prayer and Action Meet by Thomas H. Green, S.J.

by davesandel on January 24th, 2013

Following is a summary of the principles of Ignatian discernment as described by Thomas H. Green, S.J. in his book Weeds Among the Wheat: Discernment, Where Prayer and Action Meet.

Fr. Green died in 2009 at the age of 77.  After his American education in philosophy, theology, education, physics and the philosophy of science, he spent most of his career in the Philippines as a spiritual director and teacher.  He has written several very popular books on prayer, including Opening to God and When the Well Runs Dry.  This book was published in 1984.  it is 204 pages long, with a preface, introduction, nine chapters, epilogue and appendix.

In this book Fr. Green takes the time to carefully examine the role of discernment in the Old Testament, in the life of Jesus, and in the New Testament.  Only on this foundation does he then carefully explore and explain the ideas of Ignatius about discernment, most of which are found in 22 “rules” which accompany the first and second “weeks” of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises.

Relationship with God

God is not a watchmaker who leaves his creation to itself, or a puppeteer, who controls his creation entirely himself.  He is also not the “father of small children.”  The God of Jesus Christ chooses to relate to us as a loving Father to adult children: God is involved in our history, and allows us to make choices in our lives.  He will show us how to become responsible and mature, so we want our choices to align with God’s desire for us.

But God’s is not the only “voice” we hear; there are conflicting voices completing for our attention.

Discernment is the process of distinguishing God’s voice from the others as best we can and then making faith-filled, mature choices.

Presuppositions of discernment:

  1. The desire to do God’s will.
  2. Openness to God, which requires the discerner to be humble, charitable and courageous.  Ignatius calls this “simplicity of intention.”
  3. A knowledge of God and what pleases him (our lived experience, our experiential knowledge, which makes discernment the meeting point of loving prayer and action, which Ignatius calls discreta caritas, discerning love).  Green points out the value of a spiritual director in the context of this presupposition, because this “knowledge” takes time and patience to acquire.

Problems that make discernment difficult:

  1. Our experiential loving knowledge of God is always partial.
  2. The devil appears as an “angel of light.”  He will do anything a Christian does, anything God encourages, but his end goal is always to destroy the kingdom of God, not build it up.

Because of these two factors, discernment is difficult, and it can only be accurate “to some degree,” as Ignatius says.  Green says, “It is tentative and reformable because it is made in faith.  Discernment is not a way of short-circuiting faith; rather, it is a way of choosing how to act in faith” (p. 66).

Essential Qualities of the Heart:

  1. Humility: “Faith situations are obscure, and our discernment is always impeded to some extent by our own sinfulness.”
  2. Charity: “As a mature pray-er, such a person knows well his or her own weakness and sinfulness and capacity for self-deception.  Thus he or she will be very slow to judge others harshly because they happen to see things differently.”
  3. Courage: “The healthy self-doubt in the genuine discerner’s heart does not lead to timidity or paralysis, but rather to the courage to risk.  But his is a “certitude of faith and not of reason, and it is practical rather than theoretical.”


The Lord always speaks in peace.  Turmoil, anxiety and restlessness are never signs of his voice, since they are forms of desolation.  This is the most basic of the rules for discernment proper” (p. 69).

The when of discernment

Ignatius does not question “unchangeable” choices (e.g. marriage, priesthood) which “have been made validly.”

Even changeable decisions are not re-examined if we have already “made a choice properly and with due order.”  Instead, we are to “perfect ourselves as much as possible in the decision we have made.”  God’s goodness is evident in “his willingness to write straight with our crooked lines.”

When a choice is available to us, each alternative “must be either indifferent or good in itself, and lawful within our church, and not bad or opposed to her.”  God can never will evil, so all alternatives must be good, or at least indifferent.  Of course, we may not have a clear idea of whether something is good or evil.  In this case, we can use the process of discernment to discern whether this alternative is something we can bring to God at all. We can also gather more data and apply our own reasoning to the question of whether the alternative is acceptable to God.

The how of discernment

Ignatius lists three occasions “when a correct and good choice of a way of life may be made:”

  1. “Revelation time:” when God’s will is so clear that we cannot doubt what God wants.  There is no ambiguity and no uncertainty about God’s will, and thus there is nothing more to discern.  This can be called a “miraculous sign.”  It is an ideal situation, of course, and rare.  It is not the usual way we discover God’s will.  Usually there is a “much larger dose of obscurity of faith.”
  2. This is the neglected “middle way” between the clarity of the revelation time (1) and the free and calm use of our mental powers in the reasoning time (3 – see below).  This is the only one of the three times for making a good choice that Ignatius calls “discernment.” Ignatius says that in this second way, “much light and understanding are derived through the experience of desolations and consolations and the discernment of diverse spirits.”   This will be discussed in detail below.
  3. “Reasoning time:” there is great uncertainty about God’s will.  God seems to be saying nothing.  Ignatius puts this in a positive light: “The soul is not agitated by different spirits (or emotions) and has free and peaceful use of its natural powers (reason and imagination).  Ignatius offers two ways to use these powers:
    1. Recall the matter under question and the end for which you are created.  Enumerate advantages and disadvantages of each alternative.  Then, in a spirit of indifference or detachment, after prayer, “weigh the matter with care and fidelity, and make your choice in conformity with what would be more pleasing to his most holy will.”
    2. Get some light on your present confusion by using your imagination to distance yourself from it:
      1. Consider what you would advise another person if they faced the same choice.
      2. Imagine being on your deathbed.  Ask yourself what you wish you would have chosen in this circumstance.
      3. Picture yourself as standing “in the presence of my judge on the last day and reflect what decision I would then wish to have made.”

Once a decision is made, Ignatius requires that we present that choice to the Lord for confirmation.  In other words, when a decision is made using our natural mental powers, we must still discern what God has to tell us, using the methods of discernment now as we might have earlier.

This natural inclination we have of trying to “figure out” God’s will is thus not wrong, according to Ignatius, but it is incomplete.  We must submit our tentative conclusion to the Lord for his confirmation.

Rules for Discernment (Ignatius’ second way, or middle way) – see above

Whatever Ignatius means by “desolations and consolations,” these are the raw material of discernment.  He expands on this topic in the famous “Rules for Discernment of Spirits” at the end of his Spiritual Exercises.

Green writes, “The rules, so few (14 for the first week and eight for the second), were written in Ignatius’ own sweat and blood.”  Green seeks to “recapture the experiential richness” in which they were written.

First Week

The first week corresponds to the situation of beginners in the spiritual life: good persons, taking God seriously, but not yet very deep.  Often as we move from servant level to friend level with God, we have a painful awareness of how small a role God has played in our lives until now.

Because this remorse is likely, rules for the first week deal primarily with desolation.

Desolation never comes from God.  Desolation always comes from the devil.  (Green   Discouragement is the first tool the devil will use.   It might become easy for us to think, “The demands of self-knowledge are unreasonable, psychologically unhealthy, too heavy for the ordinary person to bear.”

Ignatius defines consolation as inflamed love for God: “every increase of faith, hope and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord.”  It may involve strong positive emotion, may be tearful, may be quiet and deep.  The common denominator is peace in the Lord.

All the words Ignatius uses are feeling words.  “It is the feeling we discern and not the thoughts” (p. 98).   Green continues, “There is perhaps no point about discernment which is so little realized or understood as this, especially in a culture or religion where feelings are given little value or are considered suspect.”

Can we trust our feelings?  They are treacherous, but also crucial to decision-making.  The proper balance, Ignatius says, is discernment of our religious feelings.  These are the “raw material of our experience with God.  But they must be judged, rationally evaluated to distinguish the weeds from the wheat.”

Ignatius defines desolation as the very opposite of consolation.  “Darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness arising from many disturbances which lead to lack of faith, lack of hope, lack of love.  The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord.”

Desolation also can take shape in turmoil or in tepidity, but the common note of all forms of desolation is loss of peace.

Both consolation and desolation are feeling states and lead to thoughts or inspirations to act.  Discernment involves the whole person: feelings, intellect and will.  The feelings are the raw material which we discern; it is the intellect which judges the source and validity of these feelings; and it is the will which is moved to act on the basis of this judgment.

But without the feelings, the whole process of discernment has no content.  First, we must find a way to be in touch with our feelings.  Then we must have grounds for judging them: the rules for discernment are, very simply, the norms Ignatius gives us for so judging.

Fundamental Options

While desolation only comes from the devil, consolation comes from God.  But apparent consolation can come from the devil.  Ignatius points out two fundamental orientations of the seeker: going “from one mortal sin to another” or “earnestly striving to cleanse his soul from sin and seeking to rise in the service of God our Lord to greater perfection.”  The fundamental option can be against God and for self, or for God and his service.

One whose fundamental option is against God will be “consoled” by the devil and disturbed by God.  For the one who has chosen to pursue God, disturbance or desolation comes from the devil and peace from God.

So persons committed to an evil life seem to be serene in their wrongdoing.  The devil will use every means to preserve this complacency, this pseudo-consolation.  Whereas the soul truly committed to God will find the devil working overtime to shake his or her commitment.

What to do during desolation

Desolation is never from God, and yet it can be a most effective means of growth.  The dark night, dry well, cloud of unknowing … is really an experience of desolation, at least in its early stages.  But it is not a sign of God’s voice.  Most people infer that God is sending them a message through discouragement and frustration, that they should do something differently.  But this is not true.

So Ignatius’ first rule for dealing with desolation is crucial: “In time of desolation we should never make any change but remain firm and constant in the resolution which guided us the day before the desolation, or in the decision to which we adhered in the preceding consolation.”

If I made a decision in peace, I should never change it while in turmoil or depressed or discouraged.  A previously made decision should never be changed in desolation.  Nor should a new decision be made.  In desolation, Ignatius says, “the evil spirit guides and counsels.  Thus we can never find the way to a right decision.”  Unless we want the devil as our spiritual director, we should not make decisions during desolation.

Fr. Green says that if we follow this one rule, we “will eliminate 90 percent of the unhappiness in our lives.”

What should we do instead, during times of desolation?  Do the opposite of what the evil spirit suggests, and renew our faith and trust in the Lord who seems to have abandoned us.  Pray more, not less.

The Lord does not cause desolation, but he does permit it.  Why?  Ignatius says there are three reasons:

  1. our own negligence
  2. God’s desire to “test” our love (not as an examination, but as a tempering and hardening of the love)
  3. God’s desire to teach us that genuine consolation is pure gift, that we cannot manipulate or expect it.

So only one of the three reasons has to do with my behavior.  I may have displeased God, but the chances are only one in three.  The two positive reasons – the testing and the letting go – are both applicable when desolation comes in the life of a faithful friend of the Lord.

John of the Cross says many enter the dark night of the soul, but few persevere.  These are not bad souls, but they are presented new challenges and attacks.  Fears about my own resources, self-pity, anxiety concerning the “dehumanizing” cost of journeying onward – all forms of desolation – lead good pray-ers to settle for a comfortable mediocrity in their relationship with the Lord.  They will “buy peace with the devil by abandoning dreams to love as they are loved” (p. 126).

Second Week

Distinguishing “peace with the devil” from true peace is the purpose of Ignatius’ rules for the second week of his Exercises.  When is consolation true and not false?

First, there are two occasions for consolation:

  1. Consolation without previous cause.  This is something the devil cannot simulate.  What is a “cause” in this case?  It could be a beautiful sunset, or the presence of a loved one, for which I am grateful to God.  It could be a passage of Scripture or favorite hymn or beautiful tree.  Most religious experiences would have a preceding cause in the senses.  Since they do involve the senses and imagination, they have to be discerned carefully.

Consolations without a cause come in spite of my senses, often in the midst of suffering, when God’s presence is substantive but there’s no “reason” for it.  I feel peace for no reason.  In mature pray-ers, this may be a fairly common state.

Ignatius wants us to notice that our resolutions to serve and love God in new ways might come just after the consolation without cause, in the afterglow, a “lingering peace and joy which remains in the soul even after the Spirit of God has passed by.”  In this case (when the first consolation is the cause of the second), we can be deceived by the devil into making promises God has not asked us for, and that we cannot keep.  So these resolutions must be carefully examined before they are given full approval.

  1. Consolation with preceding cause. This can come from God or the devil.  Why would the devil make me feel good?  By masquerading as an angel of light, the devil can “begin by suggesting thoughts that are suited to a devout soul, and end by suggesting his own.”  We are talking about mature believers, for whom obvious evil has little attraction.  So the devil uses my very desire for God and holiness as a means to lead me astray, hoping to draw me into pride or superiority or disdain for “mediocrity.”  What looked like a good gift can thus turn bad quickly.

Fr. Green, a seasoned spiritual director, says, “One of the surest signs of interior maturity which I have found is a healthy mistrust of even our best motivations.” This “healthy mistrust” is the arena for discernment.  Is this consolation from God or from the devil?  This is the trickiest and most important aspect of discernment.

Ignatius has two rules to deal with this problem.

  1. “If the beginning and middle and end are wholly good and directed to what is entirely right, it is a sign that they are from the good angel.”  Can we find the “tail of the snake” in any of the three?
    1. Beginning: what is the concrete context of my inspiration to pray?  Is this the right place and the right time?  Am I praying for the right reasons?
    2. The middle: what happens during the actual consolation experience itself?  Is there a touch of vanity or judgmental thought?  There!  The tail of the snake.  Or perhaps I am disgusted and upset by interruptions to my heartfelt prayer.  What consolation I may be feeling is not “wholly” from the Lord.  Not that I am bad or insincere; this happens to everyone.  The devil is always working, especially against the good.  So … notice the tail of the snake, then laugh at myself and my own instincts.  Let the pride and judgment go.
    3. The end: where does the consolation lead?  What are we moved to do or say or think?  Most subtle are the results that might be good but are “less good” than my previous commitment to the Lord.
  2. When things have gone wrong and mistakes have been made, take enough time to review the whole course of the temptation.  How did these “good” thoughts arise and gradually convince me to step down from the delight and spiritual joy in which I was into the wicked designs.  This review will help me guard against the same thing happening in the future.

This does not mean that I think and think until I’ve sucked the life out of my thought.  It doesn’t mean continual second-guessing or self-censorship.  It calls for balance.

Fr. Green does not want his directees or retreatants to do this self-analysis during their prayer, but afterward.  Doing this during prayer “would destroy any human encounter” with God.

The examen of consciousness, done regularly, is a time to do this, and thus a very valuable part of genuine Christian spirituality.


The above information is summarized below:


from Weeds Among the Wheat by Thomas H. Green, S.J.

Is discernment possible?  Yes, IF:

I desire to do god’s will

I am open to God

I have an experiential knowledge of God and what pleases him

I am humble, charitable, and courageous

Otherwise, no.


I can examine decisions only if they are changeable, and only if they were not previously decided in peace.


Each alternative must be good in itself; God will never do evil or choose evil for me.  Deciding what is evil and what is not, however, is not simple.  The tools Ignatius suggests below can be applied to this decision as well.


It is right to make a choice when:

1) God gives me a clear sign so I am certain of his will.

2) I must discern his will with the rules of discernment.

3) I have no sense of God’s will from discernment, so I reason and imagine my way through to a choice, then return to discernment (2) with the tentative choice.


The rules of discernment ask, “What am I feeling?”  Ignatius uses the terms consolation and desolation to describe feelings.  We discern God’s will by noticing our feelings, and then thinking about them, deciding whether they come from God or from the “devil.”

Fr. Green includes subconscious motivation and cultural stimuli, along with the supernatural evil spirit, in his definition of devil.


Desolation always comes from the devil, but it is permitted by God and used by God.


Consolation is marked by peace, whereas desolation is marked by loss of peace.


My response to desolation: 1) don’t make any changes or decisions while feeling desolation and 2) remember when I last felt consolation, then wait for it to return.  Remember God’s reason for allowing the desolation might be my own negligence, but it might also be a time God wants to strengthen my faith and/or renew my gratitude.


Consolation is of two kinds: without previous cause (which only comes from God) and with cause (with can come from either the devil or from God).


If there is a previous cause, I can look at the beginning, middle and end of the consolation to see if there is any sign of the “tail of the snake.”  After I have made a mistaken choice and realized it, I should take time to review the entire course of the temptation so I can learn from it and avoid the same mistake in the future.

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