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Discernment & Decision-Making Process: Notes from St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises

Updated: Feb 4, 2023

All decisions are a means to an end, but where? and with who? and for Who?

In the fields of cognitive research, psychologists and neuroscientists have offered us insights into our inner landscape as never before, especially on how our associated memory and subconscious biases operate when it comes to making decisions. We have a conformational bias, in that we will look for reasons to move ahead that agree with our us while ignoring reasons not to.

To address that concern so as to be more objective, we have a variety of decision-making tools and techniques to use, in addition to the multiple ways to view the decision-making process as either directive, analytical, conceptual and behavioral. Which one to use?

Is there an integrative decision-making tool that will take into account who we are, whose we are, how we are to be, our life's end goal, and how to evaluate if a decision will be the means to our end goal?

It’s the Ignatian way of decision-making called Discernment.

About five centuries ago, Ignatius of Loyola realized from his personal experience and in also working with others that we have a deep well of self-serving irrationalities and biases that can and do affect our decision-making. He knew the most critical element needed for good decision-making was to know one's end goal, and that every decision was a means towards that end. He saw the need to be indifferent to those biases, he called attachments, in order to discover the path forward that fits best with who we are.

For Ignatius, his end goal was to love and serve God in all that he did.

For Ignatius, his end goal was to love and serve God in all that he did. Such an end goal encompassed who he was, whose he was, and how he was to be and act. Every decision was weighed against that end.

Ignatius believed that desire was the main way we discovered what we were meant to do. Desire for him was the key to a fulfilling life. For Ignatius desire is our deepest yearning that points to your ultimate end.

Yet he needed to know how to determine if a particular decision would serve that end goal in finding God's will or desire for us. And what was needed was clarity - from those self-serving irrationalities and, more importantly, to be aware of one's inordinate desires and disordered attachments that hinder one's freedom to respond that call.

Saint Ignatius realized that the peace and joy he felt when imagining life as Jesus' disciple was a sure sign that that was the choice he should make; such he called it consolation. He believed that the heart gives a sounder and deeper understanding of God than our minds do.

The Way of Discernment- An Integrated Approach to Decision-Making

Discernment is the ability to separate what is important from what is not – irrelevant or misleading. It is both a skill and a methodology. It's a way of making a decision – rooted in prayer, sifting through our thoughts and feelings, using reason carefully weighing the facts and factors, to achieve self-knowledge and greater freedom.

When we have something important to decide, we often have inner conflict. The way forward is to observe and interpret those interior movements (sensations, emotions, feelings, and thoughts) and to choose what will best serve God and give us the greatest joy.

We desire many things, yet we need to prioritize to put the first things first – our ultimate end goal. We are to identify those attachments that can pull us in one direction or another – to become indifferent to them for the goal is freedom - to be spiritually free to choose what will give the greatest glory to God, thus our greatest joy, which is our end goal.

In decision-making, we are to ask, "Is this action consistent with who I am or who I am called to become"?


As a skill of reflective awareness, we are to interpret our inner workings.

In discernment, we are to ask what are my thoughts and feeling are?

They indicate where you are heading - towards consolation or desolation.

· What affections do I have that are disordered that I am attached to?

· What feelings and thoughts are not serving me well?

· Are these thoughts and feelings reflective of my best self?

· If not, we are to use our 'intellect and will' to change direction.

(Note: The Examen)


Contemporary Version on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (#169-189)

During the process of decision-making, Ignatius offers insights into three situations we may find ourselves. This is from Marquette University a contemporary version

1. Inner Clarity - At times, rarely, we sense 'there's no doubt about it'. The decision resonates within, there is an interior freedom in which the means (the action[s]) are ordered towards our deepest desire that is our ultimate end of loving and serving.

2. Inner Conflict –Many times, when we are in the midst of making an important decision, we find ourselves facing inner conflict. We may feel hope then fear, anxiety and excitement, clarity followed by confusion. This is the classical case when the discernment process is used, when our hearts are divided.

The way forward is to go forward in observing and interpreting our interior movements (bodily sensations, emotions, feelings and thoughts, and intentions), while reviewing the list of list facts and factors of each potential decision, with its pros and cons. We are to ask ourselves what am I sensing, what emotions are presenting themselves, what feelings and thoughts are being provoked?

By properly interpreting these inner motions, those that offer a sense of consolation will point to the choice that will best serve us, others, and God, thus giving us the greatest of joy. This requires an attitude of openness, spirit of generosity, and courage in setting aside our preferences, and intentionally detaching from any disordered attachments (actions, thoughts, and feelings do not serve us well or are put ahead of our end goal) and with an intention to seek what will best serve that end goal (one's deepest desire). Being open and putting aside our preconceived biases –being indifferent – allows for inner freedom to be open to God's call and direction.

3. No Inner Movements- The third situation we may find ourselves in is not having strong feelings or thoughts one way or another when we look at the two good alternatives. It is as if God isn't saying anything, and not much is happening in prayer.

Ignatian offers two approaches to a decision in the circumstances.

A. The first approach to tackle it analytical what makes the most sense as you review the list of pros and cons. As you do, ask God to direct your heart; eventually, one the right choice will become clear.

B. The second approach employs imagination. He suggests 3 scenarios.

i: What advice would you give someone else? Imagine a person telling you about their situation. As you listen - what do you feel, what seems important, less relevant? This exercise helps you achieve some space to detachment from your situation to view it more objectively.

ii. Imagine you are on your deathbed and you're looking back at the time when you made a decision, what choice do you wish you had made. This can help you look at the long-term consequences of your decision guarding against too much emphasis on the immediate benefit.

Iii: Imagine you're standing before God at the last judgment what choice do you wish you had made.

No matter how a decision is made, it needs to be confirmed. Ignatius is insisted on this point; often, the step is neglected and skip. A tentative decision can morph into a final one without your noticing it. He said we should turn with great diligence to prayer and ask God to confirm the decision.

From Translation of Puhl (SE 175-188)

Three Times When a Correct and Good Choice of a Way of Life May Be Made

1. First Time Consolation without Cause

When God our Lord so moves and attracts the will that a devout soul without hesitation, or the possibility of hesitation, follows what has been manifested to it. St. Paul and St. Matthew acted thus in following Christ our Lord.

2. Second Time - Testing the spirits

When much light and understanding are derived through experience of desolations and consolations and discernment of diverse spirits.

3. Third Time - Reason

This is a time of tranquillity. One considers first for what purpose man is born, that is, for the praise of God our Lord and for the salvation of his soul. With the desire to attain this before his mind, he chooses as a means to this end a kind of life or state within the bounds of the Church that will be a help in the service of his Lord and for the salvation of his soul. I said it is a time of tranquillity, that is, a time when the soul is not agitated by different spirits, and has free and peaceful use of its natural powers.

If a choice of a way of life has not been made in the first and second time, below are given:

Two Ways of Making a Choice of a Way of Life in the Third Time
3.1 First Way of Making a Good and Correct Choice of a Way of Life

This contains six points First Point This is to place before my mind the object with regard to which I wish to make a choice, for example, an office, or the reception or rejection of a benefice, or anything else that may be the object of a choice subject to change. Second Point It is necessary to keep as my aim the end for which I am created, that is, the praise of God our Lord and the salvation of my soul. Besides this, I must be indifferent, without any inordinate attachment, so that I am not more inclined or disposed to accept the object in question than to relinquish it, nor to give it up than to accept it. I should be like a balance at equilibrium, without leaning to either side, that I might be ready to follow whatever I perceive is more for the glory and praise of God our Lord and for the salvation of my soul. Third Point I should beg God our Lord to deign to move my will, and to bring to my mind what I ought to do in this matter that would be more for His praise and glory. Then I should use the understanding to weigh the matter with care and fidelity, and make my choice in conformity with what would be more pleasing to His most holy will. Fourth Point This will be to weigh the matter by reckoning the number of advantages and benefits that would accrue to me if I had the proposed office or benefice solely for the praise of God our Lord and the salvation of my soul. On the other hand, I should weigh the disadvantages and dangers there might be in having it. I will do the same with the second alternative, that is, weigh the advantages and benefits as well as the disadvantages and danger of not having it. Fifth Point After I have gone over and pondered in this way every aspect of the matter in question, I will consider which alternative appears more reasonable. Then I must come to a decision in the matter under deliberation because of weightier motives presented to my reason, and not because of any sensual inclination. Sixth Point After such a choice or decision, the one who has made it must turn with great diligence to prayer in the presence of God our Lord, and offer Him his choice that the Divine Majesty may deign to accept and confirm it if it is for His greater service and praise.

3.2 Second Way of Making a Correct and Good Choice of a Way of Life

This contains four rules and a note First Rule The love that moves and causes one to choose must descend from above, that is, from the love of God, so that before one chooses he should perceive that the greater or less attachment for the object of his choice is solely because of His Creator and Lord. Second Rule a. I should represent to myself a man whom I have never seen or known, and whom I would like to see practice all perfection. Then I should consider what I would tell him to do and choose for the greater glory of God our Lord and the greater perfection of his soul. I will do the same, and keep the rule I propose to others. Third Rule b. This is to consider what procedure and norm of action I would wish to have followed in making the present choice if I were at the moment of death. I will guide myself by this and make my decision entirely in conformity with it. Fourth Rule c. Let me picture and consider myself as standing in the presence of my judge on the last day, and reflect what decision in the present matter I would then wish to have made. I will choose now the rule of life that I would then wish to have observed, that on the day of judgment I may be filled with happiness and joy. Note Guided by the rules given above for my eternal salvation and peace, I will make my decision, and will offer it to God our Lord as directed in the sixth point of the First Way of Making a Choice of a Way of Life.


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