What is Ignatian Discernment?

By Rev. Doug Leonhardt, S.J.

Anyone who day dreams can understand Ignatian discernment. A junior in college is sitting by a lake and begins thinking about what she might do in graduate school. She sees herself as a physician’s assistant working in a clinic for the poor in her home town of San Antonio, Texas and begins thinking about serving immigrants. Then her thoughts drift toward another interest of hers. She has always has been attracted to getting a Master’s degree in English so she could go back to San Antonio and teach in Immaculate Heart of Mary High School from where she graduated. As she relishes her day dreams she begins to notice subtle differences in her feelings when she considers each of the alternatives. When she ponders working at the clinic, she feels some heaviness come over her. So she looks to where this heaviness might come from. She traces it to two experiences: her dislike of the sciences and a character trait in which the suffering of others causes her sleepless nights. When she considers high school teaching, there is a different feeling. She feels positive energy about working with the young women in the same manner her teachers affirmed her and gave her confidence in an ability to write.

Pondering and noticing interior movements of attraction and heaviness are at the heart of Ignatian discernment. Discernment involves prayer and weighing facts and feelings about the several good choices which ultimately leads to a choice about what is the best fit for an individual.

In the traditional language of Christianity, good Christians try to find the will of God for their lives. They look for signs but often when no clear signs are given, they make a decision and then ask God to bless it. 

St. Ignatius Loyola developed a way of decision making/discernment from his own experiences. When St. Ignatius was convalescing after a cannon ball injury, he began daydreaming about his future and noticed interior facts. Those facts which enlivened his heart and gave energy toward a certain path, he called consolation. Those interior facts which left one restless, hollow or with distaste, he called desolation. And he came to understand that consolation usually came from the Spirit of God touching into one’s heart and thoughts. And he came to learn that the spirit of dis-ease, hollowness and restlessness came from the enemy of human nature that he saw as the evil spirit.

With this awareness of how God leads a person, Ignatius began to develop a set of guidelines for individuals wanting to make decisions about where God is calling them. He called these guidelines the Rules for the Discernment of Spirits. Use of these guidelines are for serious decisions an individual needs to make—what path of life to take, what occupation best suits one’s gifts and talents, changing jobs, determining the number of children a couple chooses to bring into life, buying a house, choice of college for a son or daughter or determining the best living environment for an aging parent. These are decisions in which there are competing goods and not a choice between good and bad.

As one faces important choices, St. Ignatius says there usually are three times when one can make a choice. His times are not linear but refer to one’s awareness level as he or she goes about choosing. Sometimes as one ponders a choice, there is great clarity about which way one should go. There is a sense of, “That’s it.” Another time is described as having alternating certainties and doubts, of consolation and desolation, of strength and weakness. The third time is when one feels nothing. There is no leaning one way or another but a calmness and feeling one is stuck in one’s head.

Ignatius counsels that the first two times are appropriate for weighting facts and feelings and coming to a decision. When one is in the third time, more work attention is needed. It can involve listing advantages and disadvantages, looking at the decision from a stranger’s perspective or imagining one’s self at the moment of death and looking back at the decision. Usually when one ponders these realities, there is stirred up consolation or desolation in one’s heart which can light the pathway to a decision.

Finally, when a decision is made, St. Ignatius invites an individual to bring the decision before God and offer it to God. As one offers it in prayer, Ignatius expects that God will fill the person with consolation which is confirmation of the choice. What one can expect to experience a subtle drawing of heart toward the choice that has been made.

Discernment is at the core of Ignatian Spirituality.