Tips from St Ignatius

Ignatius of Loyola was the founder of the religious order, the Jesuits.

Writing in sixteenth century Spain, St Ignatius was a master on spiritual discernment. His teachings come from his own experiences of temptation and of experiencing the movements of God in his soul. Over a long period of time, he began to recognise when it was God that was moving him, and when it was not, and what were the characteristics of both. The following is taken from ‘Hearing with the Heart’:

  1. Step one, Ignatius wrote, is to put the matter before yourself clearly. What are you trying to discern? What is your question? The more clearly you define the question, the better your hopes of coming to a clear conclusion. It is so simple to spend a lot of time focused on the wrong questions. By putting your issue or question down in black and white or at least exploring it thoroughly in your thoughts or in conversation with others and being aware of its background, it is possible to discover facets of the decision that have never occurred to you. You may even discover that the question you thought was uppermost in your mind isn't the right question after all.
  2. Ignatius' second step is to remain open and objective about the possibilities We are not likely to be without a preference for one outcome or the other; rather we are like the contestant on a game show who wants God to pick door number one. But as much as possible, try to remain open to all possibilities. You never know what bit of evidence may tip the scales in an unexpected way.
  3. The third step in Ignatius' system is to pray to God to move our will so that we can know what we should do. We don't rely on our own resources in discernment, but we pray for God's guidance and the will to follow it. This isn't as easy as it sounds; it is easy to say a prayer and ask for guidance and the will to follow through, but it can be difficult to put aside our own willfulness and desire for a specific outcome.

Making a List and Checking it Twice: All three of the steps just described, part of Ignatius' first method, help prepare us for a balanced discernment process. Next Ignatius asks us to focus specifically on our reasoning skills. Ignatius suggests that we make a pro-and-con list for the choices before us. Some questions you might consider while making that list include these:

  • What will be gained in choosing each of the paths before you?
  • What will be lost by rejecting any of the choices?
  • How do the choices benefit others?
  • In what ways do the choices inconvenience or disrupt the lives of others?
  • What excites you most about the options? What do you look forward to?
  • What would you dislike if you picked one path or the other?
  • What are your motivations for choosing one option or another?

Ignatius' fifth step is to examine that list you made and "see to which side reason more inclines." These previous two steps focus on reason alone. It is impossible to separate reason from feeling completely, but Ignatius asks us to do that as much as we can and put feelings or imagination aside for the moment. At this point, you are ready to take the final step in Ignatius' first method for making a sound discernment, which is to take your conclusions to God in prayer and, with open heart, ask for confirmation or guidance that your discernment is correct.

Using Imagination Ignatius' second method of making a good discernment has us turning away from reason for a while and using our imagination to explore the options before us.

As with his first method, Ignatius begins by reminding us to approach the decisions clearly, with a solid sense of the issue to be explored. Then, with the love of God uppermost in our thoughts, we try to practice indifference to the outcome.

Once we have prepared ourselves in this way, Ignatius suggests that we imagine three different scenarios. First, imagine that someone comes to you with the same dilemma you face and asks your advice. What questions would you ask, and how would that imaginary person answer you? Try to get a sense of how you think this person is feeling and how that influences the advice you would give. Keeping uppermost in your mind your desire for the person to choose the dream of God, what path would you recommend taking?

Next, Ignatius asks us to imagine ourselves on our own deathbed, looking back at the decision we are now trying to make. What path do you wish you had chosen? Pay close attention to how you feel emotionally and physically as you imagine these scenarios. Does one give you a greater sense of energy, enthusiasm, or peacefulness (feelings of consolation)? Or does one of them cause tension, tightness in your body, anxiety, anger, or resentment (feelings of desolation)?

Finally, Ignatius suggests that we consider ourselves on the final judgment day … of being face-to-face with God, who loves you, reviewing the choices you have made. Try to imagine what you would say to God and how it would feel to review the choices you have made. Of the choices before you, is there one that you would find easiest to speak to God about? Which would you rather not discuss with God? Which path do you think will bring you into a deeper relationship or responsiveness to God? Finally, which option do you believe is the clearest choice for you as God's loving agent in the world? After exploring these three imaginary scenarios and noticing your feelings and bodily responses, you may have a clearer sense of the path to choose.