Some Ignatian principles for making prayerful decisions

How do we know what God wants us to do in life? That’s the question for people in discernment, isn’t it? We know that God wants all of us baptized Christians to be united with God, serve God, and share our gifts in service. But how? For each of us that’s different.

To “discern” means to try to figure out what God wants us to do. How do we know? How do we find out? It’s not easy. Fortunately, St. Ignatius of Loyola offers time-tested guidelines for the discernment of spirits to help us discover what God is calling us to do in the big and small decisions of our lives – including vocational discernment – that I have found extremely practical and helpful both in my personal discernment as well as in helping others discern what God is calling them to.

Historical Background

How did St. Ignatius come upon his famous guidelines for the discernment of spirits? Clearly, St. Ignatius did not invent the discernment of spirits. There is a long tradition of discerning God’s will that goes back to the Hebrew scriptures, continues through the Christian scriptures, and is further developed by the various schools of spirituality within Christianity such as the Benedictine and Franciscan traditions. A crucial confessor and teacher for Ignatius very early in his spiritual journey was a French monk, Fr. Jean Chanon, who was a mentor for Ignatius in methods of prayer at the Benedictine monastery at Montserrat. Fr. Chanon gave Ignatius the book Exercises for the Spiritual Life written by Benedictine reformer, Fr. Garcia Jimenez de Cisneros in 1500.

While Ignatius did not invent the discernment of spirits, building on this great tradition as a master observer of the interior movements of the spiritual life both in himself and others, he articulated very helpful guidelines for the discernment of spirits that many have found extremely helpful over the past four and a half centuries.

St. Ignatius was born in 1491 – the year before Christopher Columbus introduced the New World to his fellow Europeans – at a time when the late Middle Ages were transitioning into the early Renaissance period. This was in many ways the beginning of the modern era – a time of global exploration and resulting intellectual firmament and turmoil. This historical context of Ignatius’ life is no doubt one reason why Ignatian spirituality seems so appropriate to so many people today.

Ignatius was born into a family of middle nobility and became a courtier and quite a roustabout before his conversion. There are records in his hometown of Azpetizia in the Basque country of Spain that he was arrested for being a part of a brawl for which he would have probably been jailed if it weren’t for his family connections. 

A key moment leading up to his conversion occurred when he was defending a castle against a French invasion and was hit by a cannonball between the legs. While convalescing from the resetting of his shattered leg – which he had re-broken and reset so he’d look better in his courtly tights! – he asked for some romance novels to read. However the only two books available for him to read were a Life of the Saints and a Life of Christ.

He spent part of his time lying in bed daydreaming about future courtly adventures and serving some unidentified lady of his dreams. When he daydreamed about these chivalrous adventures, he felt excited but afterwards felt flat, empty, and mildly depressed. However, when he dreamt about serving God as St. Francis, St. Dominic, and the other saints he was reading about did, he also felt excited. But, afterwards, he felt consoled – happy and joyful rather than depressed as he did after his courtly daydreams. He noticed this difference and concluded overtime that God was calling him not to continue as a courtier but to do great things in the service of God as the saints he read about did.

Ignatius continued to reflect on the different “spirits” or interior movements he experienced and eventually included them in his retreat manual called The Spiritual Exercises (the name of which was no doubt inspired by the title of the prayer manual he used by the sixteenth century Benedictine reformer).

Ignatian Assumptions Underpinning His Guidelines

Ignatius assumes in his discernment of spirits that God communicates directly with each of us in our hearts, minds, and souls through various interior movements – our feelings, thoughts, and desires. However, Ignatius was not so naïve as to think that all of our thoughts, feelings, and desires were caused by the Holy Spirit. Some indeed are holy desires that come from God, while others come from other sources – negative spirits ultimately from what he called “The Enemy of our Human Nature.” So, the trick is to figure out which of our inner desires, thoughts, and feelings are from God, and which are not. To help us with this, Ignatius overtime developed his rules or guidelines for the discernment of spirits. 

Preliminary Observations

Before sharing a distillation of Ignatius’ insights on discernment, I would like to share three preliminary observations.

First, discernment of spirits always involves choosing between “goods” (such as between religious life and marriage) and not between good and evil. If our decision is between something good and something evil (such as cheating on a test), that’s not a matter for discernment. We just need to do what we know is right.

Second, discernment of spirits only makes sense in the context of a personal love relationship with God. Ignatius says that love expresses itself more in deeds than in words. If we love someone, we want to please them. If we love God and want to have a good relationship with God and grow closer to God, we will want to please God, serve God, and do God’s will. It’s only in this context of a love relationship with God that the question of how we know God’s will is meaningful.

Third, discernment of spirits comes out of the spiritual warfare and struggle described by the desert fathers and mothers and in the Bible itself. If there were no inner struggle, if God’s will for us was perfectly clear, there would be no need for the discernment of spirits. However, we all have to struggle with our false self, inner compulsions, selfishness, egotistical side, pride, anger, greed, fears, self-doubt, lack of trust, and being co-opted by the unchristian values of our surrounding culture. In Biblical terms the cosmic struggle between good and evil is being played out on the stage of our hearts. We have to take sides. Who are we for and against?

Ignatian Guidelines for the Discernment of Spirits

Ignatius’ guidelines for the discernment of spirits fall into four major categories: (1) seven attitudes or personal qualities required for an authentic discernment of spirits, (2) three different “times” or conditions during which decisions are made, (3) seven practical techniques which can be helpful in the discernment process, and (4) some guidelines for how to distinguish whether a given inner movement or desire comes from the good or evil spirit.

Seven Attitudes or Qualities Required for an Authentic Discernment Process

(Draw Me Into Your Friendship: The Spiritual Exercises, A Literal Translation and a Contemporary Reading by David Fleming, SJ, [5, 16, 24-26, 149-55, 169]  Numbers refer to the paragraph numbers of the Ignatian text. All quotations from The Spiritual Exercises in this booklet are taken from Fleming’s contemporary reading of the Spiritual Exercises. )

At the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius spells out seven basic attitudes or qualities that a person must have as preconditions for entering into an authentic discernment process seeking God’s will. They are the following.

1. Openness:  We must approach the decision in question with an open mind and an open heart.  We cannot find God’s will for us if we enter into the decision-making process with a pre-conceived outcome based on our self-will, biases, and what Ignatius calls “attachments,” that is, an attitude of “I already have my mind made up, so don’t confuse me with the facts!”  “Attachments” refer to areas in our lives where we limit freedom and put conditions on a decision.  An example could be: “I’ll go to college anywhere as long as it’s within a day’s drive of my parents’ home.” 

2. Generosity:  To enter into a decision-making process with such openness requires a generous spirit with which we, with a largeness of heart, put no conditions on what God might call us to. This is like writing God a signed “blank check” letting God fill in the amount and content of the check. Only a generous person would do this.

3.  Courage:  Such openness and generosity require courage, for God might be asking something difficult, challenging, and risky of us. It takes courage to give up control and trustingly put the decision in God’s hands while seeking God’s will over our own. There’s no telling where God might be calling us – whether to be a religious sister or brother, a priest, a lay minister working for the Church, a lay missionary, or a married parent of a large family. To be that open and generous takes courage.

4.  Interior freedom: To make such a prayerful, generous, courageous decision requires interior freedom.  Ignatius describes three types of people and their differing approaches to decision making (Spiritual Exercises, [149-155]):

a.  The first type is “all talk and no action.”  This kind of person is full of good intentions but remains so distracted by his or her busyness about so many relatively inconsequential things that they never get around to the “one thing necessary,” namely, God’s will for them.  Not to decide ends up being their decision. For example, I have experienced people “discerning” a possible vocation to religious life or priesthood for so long without ever making a decision that they end up becoming too old to enter.

b.  The second type of person does everything but the one thing necessary. These people may do all kinds of good things in their life but don’t face the central issue of what God is calling them to.  They are in effect putting conditions on what God can call them to.  They’ll do good things as long as it doesn’t ask too much of them – especially demand a total commitment that would call them to adjust their priorities to what God is asking of them and thus put God’s will first in their lives. An example could be, “I’ll enter into any career as long as it will support me in an upper middle class lifestyle.” This would preclude a lot of options God might be calling us to!

c.  The third type of person is the only one who is truly free.  Their whole and deepest desire is to do whatever God’s will is for them with no conditions attached.  This is the attitude necessary to authentically find and follow God’s will for us.

5.  A habit of prayerful reflection on one’s experience: How can we hear God’s call if we’re not listening? How can we listen, if we’re not praying? To make a prayerful decision, we must first pray, putting aside a significant portion of time (twenty minutes or more) on a daily basis to quiet ourselves, put ourselves in God’s presence, and listen to what God is saying to us in the interior of our hearts. 

The “Examen”: A key method of prayer which Ignatius recommends to help us with this is called “The Examen of Consciousness” or simply the “Examen.” 

  • We begin the Examen with an awareness of God’s presence with us and ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to prayerfully reflect on our day. 
  • We reflect on our day and ask ourselves how God has been present in the events and encounters of our day and in the feelings we experienced that day.
  • We then look at how Christ has called us through these experiences as well as how we responded. 
  • Another helpful method for the Examen is to look at what we are grateful for and what has given us life this day.  And then look, on the other hand, at what we are not so grateful for and what has drained life from us.  Reflecting on these patterns over time will help point us toward what God is calling us to.
  • A simplified form of the Examen I often use is simply to ask myself where I have experienced God in the past day (what were the key “God-moments”) and how I responded.
  • We thank God for the blessings of the day.
  • We also beg God’s forgiveness for any failures to respond well to Christ’s calls that day. 
  • We end by begging God’s help to respond generously to Christ’s calls to us during the coming day.

6. Having one’s priorities straight: There is a ruthless logic to Ignatius’s spirituality.  If serving God, our Creator and Lord, is the ultimate goal of our lives, then everything else in our lives must be kept in the subordinate position of a means to that end.  This means that things such as opportunities, experiences, and relationships are to be valued and chosen only insofar as they contribute to our ultimate goal in life and rejected insofar as they deter us from that goal.  “What we want above all is the ability to respond freely to God, and all other loves for people, places, and things are held in proper perspective by the light and strength of God’s grace.  …In coming to a decision, only one thing is really important – to seek and to find how God is calling me at this time of my life.  …God has created me out of love, and my salvation is found in my living out a return of that love.  All my choices, then, must be consistent with this given direction in my life.” (Spiritual Exercises, [16, 169, 23]). For example, states of life such as marriage, single life, religious life, or priesthood are means to serving God.  So, we must put serving God first, and then choose whichever state of life that might be the best way for us to serve God.

7. Not confusing ends with means: Ignatius comments: “It becomes obvious how easy it is for me to forget such a simple truth as the end and goal of my whole existence when I consider the manner in which choices are often made.  Many people, for example, choose marriage, which is a means.  They then only secondarily consider the service and praise of God our Lord in marriage, though to follow God’s lead in my life is always our human projectMany people first choose to make a lot of money or to be successful, and only afterwards to be able to serve God by it.  And so too in their striving for power, popularity, and so on.  All of these people exhibit an attitude of putting God into second place, and they want God to come into their lives only after accommodating their own disordered and self-centered attachments.  In other words, they mix up the order of an end and a means to that end.  What they ought to seek first and above all else, they often put last.” (Spiritual Exercises., [169])  

One of the examples of confusing ends with means mentioned above  is a person who first chooses to make a lot of money and be successful and only afterwards look at how they might serve God with this (such as by making charitable donations or volunteering).  A person like this in effect puts God into second place, only wanting God to come into their lives after first choosing what they want.  They mix up the order of an “end” and a “means to that end,” not putting first things first.

Having these seven essential attitudes of openness, generosity, interior freedom, prayerful reflection on experience, having one’s priorities straight, and not confusing ends with means, the discerner has their satellite dish pointed in the right direction in order to receive God’s signals. Possessing these qualities is the precondition for hearing God’s call through an authentic discernment process.

Three Distinct “Times” or Situations for Decision Making 
(Spiritual Exercises, [175])

Ignatius observes that in making an important decision we tend to find ourselves in one of three basic situations.  We tend to either (1) feel inner clarity or certainty about what to do, or (2) we feel inner conflict about what to do, feeling pulled in different directions (for example, feeling drawn to both religious life and having a family), or (3) there is not much of anything going on inside and we feel clueless.  If we find ourselves in the first situation where we feel inner clarity, we’re lucky.  Then we know what we should do and just have to go ahead and do it.  If we’re not so lucky to have this inner clarity, and we’re often not, then Ignatius gives the following suggestions to help us make a good, prayerful decision when we’re feeling conflicted and uncertain.

Seven Practical Discernment Techniques
(Spiritual Exercises, [178-187])

1. Ignatius suggests that we start the decision-making process by putting before our mind what it is we want to decide about. For example, we might be trying to decide whether or nor to enter a specific religious community.

2. He then asks us to pray for the grace to “try to be like a balance at equilibrium, without leaning to either side” (Spiritual Exercises, [179]).  In other words, we should try to the extent possible not to prefer one option to the other but only desire to do God’s will. To help us maintain focus and perspective, he asks us to keep the ultimate end and goal of our existence clearly before us.

3. Then we pray for God to enlighten and move us to seek only what is most conducive to God’s service and praise. 

4. One suggestion Ignatius makes is to imagine a person we never met who seeks our help in how to respond to God’s call in the same decision we are considering.  We then observe what advice we give this person and follow it ourselves. This is helpful since most of us are better at giving others advice than at figuring out what we should do.

5.  Another suggestion is that we imagine ourselves at the end of our lives either on our deathbed or after our death standing before Christ our Judge.  How would we feel about our decision then? What would we say to Christ about the decision we have just made?  We should choose now the course of action that would give us happiness and joy in looking back on it from our deathbed and in presenting it to Christ on the day of our judgment.

6. When we do not experience inner clarity about the correct decision to be made, Ignatius suggests that we use our reason to weigh the matter carefully to attempt to come to a decision in line with our living out God’s will in our lives. To do this we should, bearing in mind our ultimate goal, list and weigh the advantages and disadvantages for us of the decision at hand, for example, the reasons for and against entering religious life or a specific religious community. We are then to consider which alternatives seem more reasonable and decide according to the more weighty motives – not from our selfish inclinations. Looking over our list of “pros” and “cons” for the decision at hand, we should notice if any of the reasons listed stand out from the others and why and see which way this might point us. This technique can help us move from inner confusion to greater clarity at least as to the issues that need to be attended to and help separate out which are more significant.

7. Having come to a decision, we turn again to God and beg for signs of God’s confirmation that the decision is leading us toward God’s service and praise.  The usual sign of this confirmation from God is an experience of peacefulness about the decision. The confirmed decision has a feeling of “rightness” about it, and we feel a sense of God’s presence, blessing, and love.  This is a very important step, since the feeling of rightness, peace, and joy about a decision is a positive indicator that we have made the right decision whereas feelings of anxiety, heaviness, sadness, and darkness often indicate the opposite.


In summary, in order to make a good, prayerful decision…

  • We need to look at the decision prayerfully from all angles.
  • We need to take time with the decision, be patient, trust the process, and ultimately trust that God will lead us to the right place if we do our part as best we can.
  • In the end, we must follow what our heart and gut tell us to do and what seems right to us. In life decisions and matters of the heart we rarely feel complete certainty and clarity. This is more than a rational process. However, once we’ve considered the decision prayerfully, consulted others we trust, and have attained all the data we reasonably can, we need to take a leap of faith and make a decision.

Final Thoughts

Discernment of spirits takes us on an exciting adventure. When we give up control and take risks to follow God’s lead not knowing where we will end up, with the attitudes of openness, generosity, and inner freedom recommended by Ignatius, life is a lot more fun and exciting than when we try to control everything ourselves.

We need to trust that God is not going to lead us off a cliff! It is important that we remember that God is a loving God who wants us to be happy and is going to lead us to a good place where we will find joy, fulfillment, and happiness.

That doesn’t mean that where God leads us will be easy or won’t involve sacrifice and even some suffering. But it will lead to a life that matters, makes a difference, has great meaning, and involves more joy than we could ever imagine or find in a life where we try to control everything and only follow our own self-determined plans. Any life worth living involves sacrifice and suffering. But if we are following God’s call – whether that be marriage, religious life, single life, or priesthood – it will also bring great satisfactions and joy.

— Rev. Warren Sazama, S.J.