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

Updated: Feb 4

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.