Sifting Interior Movements of the Heart


Painting of St. Ignatius Loyola’s vision in contemplation

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.Dt 30: 19-20

The spiritual life consists of, first and foremost, a commitment to a personal relationship with God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whatever spiritual practices one chooses to engage in, the goal of the spiritual commitment is always personal intimacy with God, or communion. Spiritual growth involves not only practice of the virtues, and avoidance of sin, but also sensitivity to the interior movements that affect the heart. Saint Ignatius Loyola describes these interior movements as spirits, and they can be detected by noticing the interplay of thoughts, feelings, and desires.

In the title statement for his Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, Ignatius advises paying attention to the origin and the direction of such interior movements. Where do they come from and where do they lead? Discernment, for Ignatius, is not chiefly about the object under consideration in itself, presuming that it is not harmful, but rather discernment seeks to uncover which spirits are at work in interior promptings toward a particular choice. Some movements arise from the good spirit, advancing our salvation. Other movements arise from the bad spirit, having as their end our destruction. What Ignatius suggests is that people are constantly under the influence of stirrings of grace, and the activity of evil. The discerning person, then, seeks to recognize the agent influencing his thoughts, feelings, and desires. Thus, the spiritual question is not so much “What will I do?” but “Whom will I follow?” “To whom do I listen?” “Whom will I obey?” Seen in a relational context, discernment inevitably involves dialogue with one spirit or another, the good spirit or the bad. That is, by following a particular proposal, one enters into relationship with the spirit that poses this course of action. One yields to the suggestions posed by the good spirit or the bad spirit, thus establishing a relationship of trust with the operative spirit.

Setting aside the broader teaching of the complete Rules for the Discernment of Spirits and the practical ways in which Ignatius counsels one to sift the interior movements to recognize their source, I would like to reflect on the situation that results when we cooperate with the good spirit or the bad. Specifically, I will focus on the import of individual decisions on the overall trajectory of one’s life. Fundamentally, every choice bears spiritual significance because every human act embodies an interior commitment for or against a personal relationship with God. There is no neutral space in which one can be wholly detached from the Lord’s invitation to communion, or the enemy’s provocation to self-centeredness. All human behavior externalizes the deeper attachments of the heart.

The Spiritual Life as Pursuit of, and Commitment to, Relationship
Our spiritual lives embody our desire to live in relationship with the Trinity in the midst of the day-to-day circumstances of our lives. The unique setting of each person’s life is the meeting place in which the personal encounter with the Lord occurs, and a personal relationship with God unfolds. However, if it is possible to enter into relationship with the Lord in daily life, then it is also possible to enter into relationship with the bad spirit in the ordinary unfolding of life decisions. Therefore, when attending to diverse spirits operating on the heart, we must be vigilant about the direction in which we are moving, and what impulse is operating on us, so as to cling to the commitment to Christ. Our choosing how to move, and with whom we cooperate, establishes patterns of thinking, feeling, and desiring that spill into future decisions, even our capacity to perceive and understand accurately. We become habituated into predispositions toward life and established patterns of reacting to situations, both familiar and unfamiliar.

Understood in terms of relationship at the spiritual level, God the Father, in all of our choosing, beckons us closer to Him. He thirsts for communion with His children. He yearns for our total dependence on His care for us, as radical as the dependence of Jesus on His Father. The Father invites us repeatedly to let go into His loving embrace and providential care, yet our response is always mixed, seeking God but at the same time wanting to cling to something for ourselves. We can hesitate to entrust ourselves unconditionally to the Father. Jesus’ mission is to make us participants in His own communion with the Father so that we can share the fullness of Jesus’ joy. Let’s look now at the dynamics by which we move toward, or away from, the Lord, toward or away from deepening intimacy and communion.

Since our activity reveals not only preferences for the objects we choose but also a preference for the one who suggests them to us, our decision-making reflects a certain loyalty to or affection for the spirit addressing us in interior movements. Our behavior reveals the interior allegiance forming between ourselves, and the one acting upon us in the circumstances. Though the concrete action belongs to a particular time and place, we continue to have a rapport with the author of the movements that affect us, and we cross spiritual ground in terms of forming a lasting relational commitment to whichever spirit we heed in the process of choosing. Thus, we advance in one direction or another according to the intentions of the spirits at work. In some sense, every choice that we make embodies a movement toward heaven or hell. Every day and in every circumstance, we decide for heaven or hell. The posture of stagnation or paralysis is a fantasy because we are living beings, ever in motion; therefore, the idea of being in a holding pattern until we sort things out, or have a desired perspective, is merely a delusion. In all of that time of indecision, we continue to live and to move in the daily exercise of choices in favor of virtue or vice. However, it is not the concrete object of the decision that matters most, but the relational context and the ultimate end incarnated in the life that emerges from our choices. That is, every act of the will, large or small, constitutes an openness to the Father’s love, or a closure to his self-offering. Every day we express in our pattern of life a preference for heaven or for hell. There is no path that leads elsewhere than these two outcomes.

People of faith, of course, have explicitly entered into personal relationship with the Trinity through a decisive act, baptism. Faithful Christians adhere to God as the most significant relationship in their lives, and all other aspects of life are configured by this underlying acceptance of God. Being a beloved child of the Father anchors the believer in a fundamental truth that relativizes all other experiences. This commitment to a personal relationship with God mirrors the life-changing effect of marriage, yet ordinary observation shows that not all marriages are smooth or without struggle. So, too, in faith, the disciple lives for and with God sometimes, and for himself in the world of his own preferences other times. Life consists of an intermingling of self-giving and selfishness, love for heaven, and affection for hell. When our will concretely moves us toward heaven through actions that manifest love for God and love for others, then we grow in virtue and in the capacity to recognize and respond to God’s love prompting us in the future.

We become increasingly sensitive and responsive to the Holy Spirit stirring within us, and guiding us in the Father’s loving will for us, and for others through us. We live transparently in the truth of who we are in God. By contrast, when we manifest a preference for hell through concrete behavior or persistent attitudes, we ally ourselves with the work of the enemy in the world. We adopt the patterns of thought reflective of the preoccupation with self-love and self-will. Further, we entertain affections tainted by negativity, condemnation, competition, and idolatry. Through our activity and the interior preferences underlying them, these thoughts and feelings find a home in our hearts and may intensify as we begin to trust them.

A Divided Heart Causes Interior Turmoil
To reiterate, the figure in mind here is the person who has entered into relationship with God, and who has pledged himself as a Christian witness in the world. Yet, constantly exposed to the actions of the good spirit and the bad, this same person may vacillate in the direction of the heart’s pursuits: sometimes for the Lord, sometimes for the enemy. The consequences of the movement toward hell for such a person call for closer attention. There can be long-lasting effects of pursuing the way toward hell, especially over periods of time, like an infection that harbors in the body unnoticed while it spreads to other areas. When we cooperate with the enemy in large and small ways, we place ourselves under the influence of his diabolical deceits. Not only do we participate in the contagion of sin in the world, but we also submit to a manner of thinking that does not correspond to the truth. The mind becomes distorted by false reasoning and jaundiced perceptions.

A person, even a person of faith, who ventures on the path oriented toward hell interiorizes thoughts and affections consistent with the disposition of the enemy. That is, we accept as truth what is in actuality a distortion of truth, as truth corresponds to the vision of God. We might even imperceptibly suffer the gradual erosion of the affection for holiness and virtue that once burned intensely but dims without notice through small, incremental steps away from the Father’s heart. Ordinary sins casually tolerated can eventually dull the fervor for repentance and the ardor of love for God alone. We can harbor a divided heart without noticing the interior contradiction, or without being able any longer to distinguish between the inspirations of the good spirit and the enticements of the bad spirit.

Sin causes alienation from others, from God, and from oneself. Sin distorts the presence of the other as a mere object for another’s use or as a threat to one’s interests. Sin disfigures the face of God by projecting onto God some form of pettiness, making Him much less than the all-loving, all-wise Father that He is. Finally, sin divorces a person from the truth of his own being, and diminishes the capacity to perceive himself correctly. Sin corrupts thoughts, feelings, and desires, leaving them confused or misdirected. Under the influence of sinful tendencies, we find it difficult to distinguish which thoughts correspond to truth, which affections spring from self-offering love, and which desires point us toward our ultimate happiness. In this unfortunate state, we begin to construct justifications for disordered affections, or to casually excuse moral compromises. Participation in any form of evil sets in motion an interior turmoil, the way that smoking coats the lungs with soot so that they cannot function as fully as they were intended. The logic of the gospel becomes comingled with the logic of the world, and the promptings of one and the other become indistinguishable.

Inner Turmoil: Confused Thinking
Insidiously, sin affects perception and thinking, ensnaring us in sentiments and desires that are not good. Particularly for a person of faith, the memory of sin becomes the enemy’s weapon. The bad spirit calls to mind specific memories so as to create a discouraging portrait of the self, and to reinforce the sense of separation from the Lord. When we view ourselves through the memory of our sins, we can carry intense shame as though our whole being is fundamentally and irreparably defective because of the consent to some evil action, as egregious as it may be. The memory of sin can also instill the erroneous idea that we must make up for the harm that was unleashed through sin before the Father can truly love us. In addition, we may adhere to the lie that until we ourselves have healed the wounds our sins caused, we remain inaccessible to the intimacy with God for which we long. In such distorted thinking, the whole spiritual enterprise seems unattainable. Sin collapses the world in upon ourselves. What’s crucial to notice here is how the bad spirit so manipulates the memory as to wage an interior assault with endless accusation, and to rob us of the memory of the Father’s steadfast love and mercy. The twisted logic of the enemy conflates human weakness as being greater than God’s healing power. The enemy foments despair and self-condemnation through thoughts and sentiments that, though truly experienced, ought not to be trusted.

On the other hand, when we see ourselves through the lens of Divine Mercy, the Father lifts our gaze from the fixation upon ourselves, even in the initial steps toward conversion, and he turns our attention to Him so that we can discover who He is, and what He desires for us to receive from Him as pure gift. Divine Mercy awakens us even more humbly to the absolute gratuity of the Father’s love. Only God’s memory of sins reveals the complete picture: the person given over to sin is a person who suffers intensely.Without casually excusing culpability, the Father beholds the suffering of the sinner. The passion of Jesus Christ manifests the fierce love that seeks the sinner’s conversion and healing. Receiving the Father’s gift of His beloved Son at Calvary elevates the believer to a supernatural logic beyond a merely rational sense of justice; one personally enters the mystery of compassion.

Only in communion with the Father, acquiring His perspective, do we really understand what our sin means, and how it has already been taken up into the Heart of Jesus Christ. Yet, apart from the awareness of the Father’s steadfast love, offered to us even in our sinful condition, we can unreflectively operate as if the enemy’s distortions are in fact reality. Left to ourselves, we accept deception and flawed logic as operating principles going forward. Rejecting such distortions and holding fast to the revealed truth, we cling instead to the Father. In such active faith vigorously claimed, the prodigal’s homecoming becomes our own.

The diminishment of thinking’s accuracy in the one moving toward hell is particularly debilitating because one fails to recognize that the proposals that come to mind, while cloaked in zeal or seeming good intentions, are, rather, polluted by an insatiable ego, often manifest in a logic that strives to justify the status quo, that is, the persistence in sinful actions or selfish attitudes. The path toward healing, liberation, and communion appears, then, as illogical, or unachievable, because it always entails some form of self-sacrifice, which looks increasingly unbearable and ugly to the poisoned mind. This situation is especially tragic for the person of faith, because he can too easily mistake the prompts of self-will for the voice of God in him. Without recognizing that the mind has been deluded, he indiscriminately canonizes the suggestions of the enemy as noble, even necessary, pursuits, without perceiving how these impulses merely accelerate the self-destructive flight from God. Taken to the extreme, one may find himself imprisoned in a pharisaic mentality, which, while masquerading behind religious practice, prefers the darkness to the light.

Inner Turmoil: A Plague of Fear
The heart that teeters between heaven and hell, entertaining affections for each, invariably finds itself consumed with fear, a favorite tactic of the bad spirit. The presence of crippling fear gnawing at the heart signals that a destructive spirit is operating at some level. Such vicious fear always distorts the face of God. Demonic fear projects onto God a sense of mistrust or inconsistency. Fear subjects God to the logic of the world, dismissing holy wisdom, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways.”(Is 55:8) Elsewhere, Jesus rebukes Peter, “You are thinking not as God does but as human beings do.”(Mt 16:23) Fear engenders false urgency and the chilling belief that “I am on my own.” Fear proposes a twisted reasoning that disguises grossly unreasonable presuppositions about what God is really like, and what we mean to God. Fear also keeps us from looking that closely at the assumptions which drive us to act. Aware that fear is closing in on us, we need to turn immediately toward the Father, and invite him into whatever reality is related to the fear. It is critical that we replace distortion with truth, self-reliance with self-surrender.

In a fear-induced stupor, we do not remember the mighty works of God on our behalf, including the marvel of our unique creation, nor do we recall the compassion of God who has made Himself vulnerable out of love for His children, and has chosen to enter into our Calvary so that we might pass into the glory of resurrection. Fear provokes amnesia regarding the vulnerability of the Father for the suffering of his children. “How could I forget you? Even if a mother forgets her child, I will never forget you. See, I have carved you on the palm of my hand” (Is 49:16).

A Rudder in the Turmoil: Holy Desires
Very often in the person of faith, fear highjacks holy desires. Fear makes a burden out of holy desires. The desires that God instills in us move us beyond ourselves. The saintliness to which the Father draws us is always beyond our reach. To host such desires is to choose to become destitute out of love. Our only recourse is to implore the Father to satisfy our desires for us, to bring about their accomplishment Himself, for He Himself has moved us to yearn for what we could never possibly attain on our own. Such desires educate us in the generosity of our loving Father as He fulfills the promises He makes to us, precisely in the form of holy desires. Desire for sanctity that is beyond our grasp is the Father’s promise written into our hearts. Impoverished by this desire, we must choose to entrust the satisfaction entirely to the Father’s outpouring love. Our responsibility is to remain poor in spirit, and to receive all that the Father offers, in the wisdom of His timing. By instilling desire in us, the Holy Spirit opens us to deeper relationship with the Father, and more personal experience of His tenderness. Fear, on the other hand, misconstrues the unfulfilled desire as failure, not as the impulse to prayer. Fear turns the yearning of desire inward with a self-focus that generates sadness or discouragement. Faith, instead, calls us to prayer, to relationship, to the child-like cry for the Father to demonstrate His love.

Desire, however, is uncomfortable. The heart that loves yearns for the beloved. The masculine heart, in particular, longs to give himself as a gift, and have that gift received as a source of joy for the other. Waiting on the opportunity for this self-giving can often feel like anguish. The heart eager to share love can experience this desire to give oneself as painful. The suffering of love that awaits communion takes the form of an ache when the occasion of sharing love has not yet arrived. The anguish of desiring, and the joy of communion, both arise from love, but they feel very different in the experience. It takes wisdom and discernment to recognize the holiness of the love from which both the anguish and the joy originate. Fear provokes the heart to rebel against the painfulness of desire that has not yet been satisfied, and to seek some satisfaction within reach. Or fear condemns such a person as a failure for not being able to attain what he longs for. Or fear resents God for placing such a longing in the heart without providing the opportunity to quench it. Fear incites a self-defensive posture in place of love. When fear operates thus, we must be aware that something is out of order. Such oppressive fear is not how the Holy Spirit operates in hearts. The Holy Spirit inflames the heart in love with magnanimous desires, which spontaneously erupt in prayer before the Father. In God alone is there hope of love’s desire being realized.

This dynamic of desire arising from love shows how crucial it is to remain oriented toward heaven. The world does not provide the ultimate fulfillment of the heart’s thirst. Only in heaven can we possess full satisfaction. On the journey, we choose heaven in all the opportunities before us to exercise love of God and love of neighbor, regardless of whether this love takes the form of anguished desire or joyous communion. God invites us to unflinching love, participating in Jesus’ own self-offering love on the Cross. Only from the divine vantage point do we perceive the beauty and the truth of the Cross, do we peer distinctly into the heart of God. Only by sharing life with the crucified and risen Savior do we perceive our own lives correctly. In Him do we find truth and the measure of our worth in God. In Him alone do we find our affections ordered in a way worthy of children of the Father. The more we choose heaven, the more our own human lives are configured to Jesus Christ.

In sum, discernment in daily life involves not primarily arriving at decisions, as important as this is, but first and foremost, preserving and deepening personal relationship with the Lord. The interior movements of our hearts—thoughts, feelings, and desires—inform us of the presence and action of the good spirit or the bad, thus allowing us to cooperate with the good, and to reject the bad. Our external activity manifests an interior disposition for Light or for darkness, for heaven or for hell. One can say that each human act is a step in the direction either toward heaven or hell, as the sealing of a relationship with the architect of either state. On whom do I stake my life? Obeying the impulses of the bad spirit produces harmful interior effects, in addition to objective evil in the world. Our thoughts and sentiments, then, become corroded by the destructive intentions of the bad spirit. In some sense, we begin to harbor that same destructive disposition. Ideas and emotions coalesce around a self-centered ideal, which radically distorts the communion for which we were created. Fantasy and confusion muddle clear thinking because the self has been canonized as the arbiter of reality and goodness. The memory, too, under the influence of the bad spirit becomes a tool of deception and discouragement through a slanted retelling of our own life narrative, cast in selective memories that misrepresent the goodness of our humanity before God. Oppressive fear masquerades as prudence, and stifles the yearning to enter into self-sacrificing relationship. In such a pitiable condition, we lose the sense of our true identity in God, and search vainly for a meaning for existence.

The solution is not simply to convince ourselves to think differently, but instead to welcome the authentic love that reaches us from outside ourselves. We must receive the love of the Father that blesses and saves because it is given gratuitously. We welcome the Father, and honor Him, whenever we submit to the direction of his Spirit welling up in our hearts. We permit the Spirit of Jesus to inhabit us ever more completely, joining our wills to his. The communion that will be perfected in heaven consumes more of our being on earth. Certainly, the Father addresses us through Scripture, doctrine, sacraments, and preaching, but He also speaks intimately in the inner room of our unique hearts. The thoughts, feelings, and desires through which He communicates His will unite us to the mind and heart of Jesus. In particular, the Father inflames our hearts with holy desires that impel us to seek what we cannot humanly attain. Such desires prompt us to pray sincerely from our hearts, turning out of ourselves to communion with the Father who sets our souls on fire. Such prayer, born of holy desire, serves as the meeting point of our filial dependence, and the Father’s lavish faithfulness. Obedient to holy desires, we enter more fully into Jesus’ own sonship before the Father, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We see as God sees, and love with His divine love.

Fr. James Rafferty, S.T.D. About Fr. James Rafferty, S.T.D.

Father James A. Rafferty, S.T.D., Ordained a priest of the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1994, Fr. Jim Rafferty currently serves as Director of Programs and Mission for the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, Nebraska. Fr. Rafferty completed seminary studies at the Pontifical North American College and earned a Licentiate in Sacred Theology with specialization in Moral Theology from the Gregorian University. Subsequently he obtained a Doctorate in Moral Theology from the Alphonsian Academy in Rome.

Fr. Rafferty has served as a high school and university chaplain. He has also worked in seminary formation at the college program in the Diocese of Scranton, Saint Pius X Seminary and at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. Prior to serving in Omaha with IPF, Fr. Rafferty was Vocation Director in Scranton.


  1. This written work is cause for great pause and reflection of the interior life of the soul as it seeks to order experience of being in relationship to God, others and oneself.

    Assessment of ones thoughts,feelings and desires is tricky in a certain sense. I say that because we tend to be subjective and self occupied with our experiences and very often can loose sight of the real truth who is Jesus Christ a real person who exist in us.

    For example, you mentioned the fact that in our desire for holiness and love of God we can
    find ourselves unable to bear the anguish of longing for God’s love when His love is not realized in our self experience. You believe that is because our experience of sin and shame that sin brings into our life muddies our thoughts and feelings that it is impossible to believe that we can at such time experience God’s love for us.

    This is a great area of discernment of the progress we have made in truly standing firm in faith to accept God at His word when he says he so loved us that he gave his son’life to save us from sin death and hell.

    In conclusion the tenacity of spirit is required in enduring to the end until love conquers slavery to fear of death.Death the last of our enemies is the wages of sin. Sin is empowered by self covetousness which is intertwined with ones desire for holiness and love of God.

  2. Your delineation of the origin & posturing of fear is very helpful
    Thank you

  3. Avatar Jim Foley says:

    There is a danger in this leading to neurotic scrupulosity. I do not agree that at each moment we are making a decision to follow either good or bad spirits. Instead we operate by setting our moral compass and moving forward in the confidence of God’s overflowing love. We can go days, maybe weeks, before being confronted with a real moral decision point. These tend to come up unexpectedly, and usually offer little time for spiritual reflection. We make the best decision we can under the circumstances and sometimes our choices are less than optimal. Does that mean we turn our back on Christ in such situations? No, we are always bathed in His love. To separate ourselves from this superabundant love, we have to really work at it and totally reorient our moral compass. I also think you are overly judgmental about “pharisaical ” religiosity. “Taken to the extreme,” you say, ” one may find himself imprisoned in a pharisaic mentality, which, while masquerading behind religious practice, prefers the darkness to the light.” Perhaps some of us are too “rigid” but isn’t it possible that we sincerely are following our consciences rather than being tools of the devil.