In life we constantly make choices, both big and small. Smaller choices might include how to recreate or what movie we will see. Bigger choices include buying a house, whether or not to get married, and with whom, or whether or not to enter religious life and if so, which religious order. As we make choices, we often take a moment to step back and think of the pros and cons before making the decision, especially when it comes to long-term consequences. However, it is important to recognize that God also has an opinion in those decisions we make, which is rooted in God’s love for us. It is the act of discerning God’s will in our lives that is fundamental for every Christian and a skill we are encouraged to develop.
What is discernment?
If we focus only on the concept: the word discern comes from the Latin discernere which means to distinguish or separate. So discerning is the act of distinguishing one thing from the other, or separating one thing from the other. 1 Applied to our lives as Christians, the activity of discernment is fundamentally about distinguishing what leads us closer to God and God’s will for us.
Today, St. Ignatius of Loyola is considered one of the most important teachers of discernment for Christianity. By the time he founded the Society of Jesus, he had already put in writing his wisdom on discernment through the Spiritual Exercises, which, as Ian Peoples, SJ puts it, has become one of the most influential writings in the history of the Catholic Church. Such discernment is what we call Ignatian Discernment. While Ignatius is considered a master of discernment, he became so precisely because of the many mistakes he made as he sought to follow God’s will for him.
Two years after his conversion, fueled by the lives of the saints he read about during his healing, Ignatius set his path to follow God’s will for him perfectly. He decided to embark on a trip to the Holy Land, Jerusalem, to visit the holy places and to stay there doing good deeds. 2 This experience of traveling to Jerusalem would become one of the most important of his life. Important, because for Ignatius it turned out to be a failed one: while he did reach Jerusalem, he was not able to remain there for reasons out of his control. Although Ignatius’ desire was good, it wasn’t what God had planned for him. While being an experience of failure, it is precisely this experience that causes Ignatius to return to the act of discernment he began during his time of healing and reconsider the question of what to do with his life. 3
The Movements Within Us
While Ignatius read about the saints and the life of Christ during his healing, he began noticing “an important distinction between the way he felt after his chivalric dreams”, thus the desires of his life before his conversion, and “the way he felt after dreaming of religious life”, aided by the religious books he had at hand. 4 Eventually, he became convinced that, within us, we have tendencies reflected in our thoughts, emotions and actions that bring us closer to or away from God. In other words, Ignatius discovered movements (or motions) that are present in our hearts in which some come from God and others do not. These movements he named in terms of the good spirit and the evil spirit.
Saint Ignatius spent a lot of time on this subject of interior movements and has elaborated it in great detail in the Spiritual Exercises, which we cannot properly summarize here. But at least we can capture a good idea of what this spiritual master shares with us by asking ourselves this question: How do I know that I am on the right track? On the path that God has in mind for me?
During a spring semester, while a senior in college back in 2016, I found out about an opportunity to participate in a music-related research project at a research lab in New York. Because I saw the great possibility of combining both my studies in Computer Engineering with my passion for music, I thought to myself: why not? So I applied to this program, and I kept making decisions throughout the semester to get this opportunity. But at the same time, I was already entertaining the idea of whether to enter religious life or not. In the end, the opportunity I wanted didn’t work out.
For me, it was a failed experience and, honestly, I became frustrated. I was frustrated at God because I thought we had developed a good relationship through prayer and the Spiritual Exercises, yet I felt like it still wasn’t clear what God’s will for me was. I asked God: “Just tell me: what do you really want from me?!” However, my experience of failure opened my eyes to become aware of the moments where I experienced an inner peace that same semester. An inner and enduring joy. A feeling that motivated me to get up every morning.
I felt this peaceful and joyful movement within me during my work as a student in one of the university departments, where we helped produce events for students and other departments. During my 3 years in that job, I experienced deeply a sense of adventure, availability, service, and belonging to a diverse family with my colleagues at the time. It was in those moments of deep peace and inner joy, after my experience of failure, where I began to become aware of God’s opinion of love for me at a time where I was still questioning what was the purpose of my life:
“Reynaldo, I have something bigger for you.”
“Come. Follow this direction.”
“This path is the path that will make you happy. A path where all these desires you have been feeling restlessly, will be aligned.”
“This is the path that will give your life, Reynaldo. Follow me here. Trust me”.
Even though I didn’t know exactly what these comforting experiences meant, I did give myself the opportunity to follow that direction I was being attracted to, step by step. It was those feelings of adventure, service, availability and diverse family that were strong indicators for eventually leading me to join the Society of Jesus. Joining this new lifestyle was my response to God’s invitation for me.
Consolations and Desolations
Those indicators that gave me profound inner peace and joy is what Saint Ignatius calls consolation. It was this experience that Ignatius felt during his healing as he dreamed about the life of the saints, and it is the fruit of the good spirit. Opposite to consolation, however, is what Ignatius calls desolation; which is the state of being under the influence of the evil spirit. The best way to know that we are experiencing consolation or desolation is by considering the three virtues of faith, hope and love (which leads to charity) that the Catholic Church holds as fundamental to our lives as Christians. 5
As we examine the course of our thoughts, emotions, and actions, we can determine whether we are being guided by the good spirit by first examining:
- Our sense of faith: Did my actions lead to a greater trust in God, in the Church and in the God-given people of my life? Or have they led me to unproductive and paralyzing doubts?
- Our sense of hope: Have the feelings I’ve been experiencing lately led me to greater optimism for the future and deeper confidence in God’s providence? Or have they led me to despair and to forget that God will always care for me?
- And finally, our sense of love that leads to charity: have the things that have preoccupied me in my thoughts have ultimately led me to greater love of my neighbor and an impulse to serve others? Or have these thoughts persuaded me into isolation, secrecy, passivity or aggressiveness? 6
When we experience growth in one of these three virtues or a combination of these in our lives, it is here that we realize we are in line with the good spirit. Furthermore, when we grow in these three virtues, and we go from good to better (i.e. an inner peace; an inner joy; that which encourages me to get up every morning), this is what Saint Ignatius calls consolation. In my case, the inner joy and sense of peace that I felt during my work time as a student were strong indicators that I was in consolation. Because it definitely led me to love and serve others (charity), to greater optimism for the future (hope), and greater trust in God (faith).
Conversely, we can know that we are in desolation when we feel that we are decreasing in faith, in hope, or in charity, or in a combination of these. 7
Going back to my experience of seeking a research opportunity in New York, as I made more and more decisions towards obtaining this position, I noticed that I was gradually losing my sense of faith, hope, and charity. Because:
- In terms of faith, I felt that I was doing things more for myself. Which made it more evident that I didn’t trust God in this pursuit of mine.
- I felt less hopeful, because my sense of deeper confidence in God’s province in my life was decreasing.
- And in terms of charity, I did not feel that impulse to serve others.
In short: I was falling towards selfishness, isolation and even aggressiveness. Through this desolating moment, I was feeling an inner dryness, despair, and a sense of mistrust. I gradually went from bad to worse. It took the failure of not being able to fulfill my dream for this job to realize the course the evil spirit was leading me to. Not realizing all the positive things that were happening through my work as a student.
This overall experience of noticing how the spirits were influencing my overall choices was not easy at all, however. It was thanks to prayer, my spiritual director at the time, and through a daily examination was able to observe all these things. This is why prayer is a fundamental part for discerning the spirits moving within us, and thus recognize God’s will for us.
How can I get started with Ignatian Discernment?
The Ignatian Examen is a great start. This 5-step short prayer will help you begin noticing and articulating those interior movements that we have explored here. The Examen involves taking time each day to review the moments in our day so that we can become more aware of God’s presence in our lives. It is also through the Examen that we can better notice whether we are experiencing consolation or desolation by paying attention to our reactions. The Examen was central to my own discernment and a major reason to have been able to share my experience with you. Check out this video for more information and a step-by-step guide.
As you make decisions in your own life, even if you already responded to a particular vocation God has invited you to, Ignatian Discernment can help you recognize more and more clearly, God’s opinion for you at any stage in your life.
- Definition and etymology of ‘discern’ – Merriam-Webster ↩
- Autobiography of St. Ignatius #45; translation by Joseph N. Tylenda, S.J., 200. ↩
- Autobiography of St. Ignatius #5-#10. ↩
- Mark Thibodeaux, S.J., God’s Voice Within (2010), pg. 10 ↩
- Catechism Of The Catholic Church #1813; 2ed, 1997 ↩
- Mark Thibodeaux, S.J., God’s Voice Within (2010), pg. 18 ↩
- SSEE #316. Also: Mark Thibodeaux, S.J., God’s Voice Within, pg. 13 ↩