Q&A: Father Timothy Gallagher’s new book brings Ignatian wisdom into marriages

For many years, Father Timothy Gallagher, O.M.V., has strived to guide people in their spiritual lives and offer them comfort through St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Rules for Discernment of Spirits.  

In addition to looking for ways to make these rules understandable and applicable to thousands of Catholics who seek spiritual guidance for their souls, Father Gallagher also seeks to help married couples apply these rules to their marriage through his latest book, Discernment of Spirits in Marriage: Ignatian Wisdom for Husbands and Wives 

Father Gallagher serves as the St. Ignatius Chair of Spiritual Formation at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, in addition to his work with the Lanteri Center for Ignatian Spirituality. He was kind enough to chat with the Denver Catholic and share more details about his book and how couples can be strengthened through St. Ignatius’ teachings.    

Denver Catholic: Tell me a little bit about your latest book Discernment of Spirits in Marriage. 

Father Gallagher: It is a short book in which I try to make accessible St. Ignatius of Loyola’s wisdom about the ups and downs of the daily spiritual life and apply this wisdom concretely to husbands and wives.  St. Ignatius expressed this teaching in his 14 practical guidelines — his 14 “rules,” as he terms them.  I’ve been writing books about these rules for a number of years.  This one is different in that it explores how to live this teaching in a specific vocation — one that many of us live!

DC: What inspired the idea for this book?   

Father Gallagher: Five years ago, my editor approached me and asked if I would ever consider writing a novel about discernment.  He thought that this might engage a wide range of readers, introduce them to St. Ignatius’s teaching, and awaken a desire to read more formal books about it.  The idea interested me, and I thought about it during the next years.  This book eventually emerged.   

It is not a novel in the strict sense of that term.  Rather, I would call it a “semi-novel.”  Like a novel, it does tell a story.  The reader follows the spiritual experience of a married couple, “Mark and Anne,” as that experience unfolds.  Their story continues through the 14 chapters of the book, each chapter illustrating one of St. Ignatius’s rules.  In each chapter, after we see Mark and Anne’s experience, I apply that experience to the corresponding rule. This shows in a concrete way how that rule is practiced in daily life.  My hope is that the ongoing story lightens the reading and engages the reader even as it exemplifies the teaching. 

DC: Who are “Mark” and “Anne”?  Are they specific people whom you know? 

Father Gallagher: No, they are not individuals by those names whom I have met.  Mark and Anne are amalgams of the many people I have known in almost 40 years of presenting this Ignatian teaching.  Their experiences, as I share them, reflect what I see occur as people — husbands and wives, in this case — live the daily spiritual life and apply St. Ignatius’s rules.  In this sense, their experiences are very real, and I believe readers sense this.  They find themselves saying, “Yes, I know what that’s like.  I’ve been there. I’ve struggled with that too.  But now I understand it better, and I see how to deal with this.”  In crafting Mark’s and Anne’s experiences, I simply held a mirror to what happens in the daily spiritual life as husbands and wives live it. 

The book has only been published a few months, and the feedback thus far has been encouraging.  The nicest response came from a woman who said that she and her husband are reading the book together.  She told me that they are now speaking together in a way they never had before in their marriage.  This is just one example of the power of St. Ignatius’s short, practical, clear, and usable 14 rules.  Among many other blessings, they provide husbands and wives with a vocabulary to speak about personal spiritual experience. 

DC: Give a quick overview of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Rules for Discernment.  

Father Gallagher: As I’ve mentioned, St. Ignatius examines the “ups and downs” of the daily spiritual life.  He terms these “spiritual consolation” and “spiritual desolation.”   

We all know that, at times, prayer is alive, God feels close, and we have energy for new steps in living our vocations.  We also know that, at other times, the bottom seems to drop out of that energy.  Then it’s hard even to want to pray, we don’t feel God’s closeness, and the energy for spiritual growth wanes.   

St. Ignatius, a master at this, helps us understand this ebb and flow.  He assists us to identify, in the many thoughts and feelings we experience every day, what is of God and what is of the enemy — the tempter, the father of lies (Jn 8:44).  Once this experience, so often confusing, is clarified, we can respond to it: we can accept what is of God and reject what is of the enemy.  St. Ignatius, in his 14 rules, gives us effective tools to help us respond in this way.  Imagine a spiritual life in which husband and wives are no longer captive to the enemy’s discouraging lies!  It can be — I’ve seen it over and over — literally life-changing. 

“Imagine a spiritual life in which husband and wives are no longer captive to the enemy’s discouraging lies!  It can be — I’ve seen it over and over — literally life-changing.”

Father timothy gallagher

A quick overview, as you asked, of some of these tools: Don’t make changes in time of spiritual desolation; change, rather, the way you are facing the desolation (Ignatius supplies the means); remember that you can get through spiritual desolation safely because, even though you don’t feel it in time of desolation, God always gives you the grace you need to resist it; the three reasons why a God who loves us permits us to undergo spiritual desolation—the fruits that result when we strive to resist it; prepare in time of spiritual consolation for the return of spiritual desolation; be humble in spiritual consolation and trusting in spiritual desolation; resist temptation right in its very beginning; when the enemy’s discouraging lies burden your heart, speak with a wise and competent spiritual person; identify that aspect of your spiritual life in which you are most vulnerable to the enemy’s attacks and strengthen it.  Again, this is just a rapid overview.  The book develops and exemplifies each of these tools. 

DC: How can couples apply these rules into their daily lives?  

Father Gallagher: First, by learning the rules.  Then, by putting them into practice in daily life.  If they can do this together, they will be further strengthened in this effort.  I’ve seen beautiful things happen in marriages when these rules are applied.  Learn the rules — my hope is that this book will serve as an instrument for this.  Then, live them.  You will love what will result. 

DC: What surprises did you encounter as you did your research for Discernment of Spirits in Marriage?  

Father Gallagher: It felt a little bold even to write this book!  As far as I know, in all the abundant literature about these rules composed in their 500-year history, this is the first book that applies them specifically to marriage.  And so many people live this vocation. 

While I was writing, I submitted each chapter to various husbands and wives who read the chapters and offered me their comments.  Their input was invaluable to me because it came from people living the married vocation.  The book is much better because of their help, and I’m grateful.  In particular, the wives helped me understand better the woman’s experience. 

DC: What do you hope couples would take away from the book?   

Father Gallagher: That there is a path to freedom from the burden of spiritual desolation, and that this freedom can bless their marriages in wonderful ways.  St. Ignatius’s teaching is growing more important because, with all that is happening around us, we can find easily ourselves discouraged—in Ignatian terms, spiritually desolate.  And here is a clarion call to freedom from desolation! 

Once, I gave a retreat to a group and shared this teaching over the days of the retreat.  A woman told me that, one afternoon, she looked out the window of her room and saw the gardener go into a shed, get the tools he needed for his work, and then go off to his tasks.  She said, “I feel like that’s what St. Ignatius has done for me.  He has given me the tools I need to live my spiritual life.”  She is right.  My great desire is to share these tools with as many as I can.  That was the basic motivation for writing this new book. 

DC: What advice would you give a couple going through a marriage crisis?   

Father Gallagher: Use both the spiritual and the human means that can help.  The eagle flies with two wings.  Pray more.  Get closer to the Eucharist.  Make regular confession a part of your life.  Turn to Mary.  Speak with a wise and competent spiritual person.  If you can pray together as husband and wife, that has great power. 

If family or marriage counseling can help, use this means as well.  Here in the Archdiocese of Denver we have wonderful resources.  Sometimes even a few meetings with a counselor can make a great difference. 

DC: Is there anything else you would say to potential readers? 

Father Gallagher: As I mentioned, I’ve been studying, teaching, and writing about St. Ignatius’s 14 rules for almost 40 years.  I try, too, to live them in my own life, and I know the difference they make: how many bad decisions I have not made because of them, and how many good decisions they have helped me make.  Please, learn these rules!  If you already know them, you understand why I say this.  If you do not know them and you do learn them, you will understand why I make this plea.  You will be grateful, for the rest of your life, that you did learn them and that you live them daily. 

For information about Father Gallagher’s schedule and materials: frtimothygallagher.org  

See also Father Gallagher’s Facebook page: facebook.com/frtimothygallagher 

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.