In recent years few words have been so prominent in Christian circles as ‘discernment’. The 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) saw discernment as ‘a gift that we can offer to others’. But in unpacking that ‘gift’ some misunderstandings may need to be cleared away. I do not claim to have a complete understanding of discernment myself (note the question-mark in the title) but perhaps what follows may further reflection and discussion of a subject as important as it is elusive.

Questionable assertions about Ignatian discernment.

‘Who discovered discernment ? St Ignatius?’

I dare say that in a parish centre quiz you would find a few who are under this impression.  It must be stressed that St Ignatius did not discover discernment (the apostles and early Christians were plainly into discerning) and that he is mainly concerned with only one or two spheres of discernment – very important as these are. To these he gives precision and formulation. Some of the others are summarised by Jules Toner.[1]  For example:

  • the ‘signs of the times’, referred to in the Gospels and cited by Pope John XXIII as he summoned Vatican II;
  • discerning between true and false prophets;
  • discerning authentic beliefs and doctrines, a preoccupation of the Johannine

            corpus, for example;

  • discernment leading to exorcism.

But Ignatius’ particular concern is with helping people to discern their fundamental life-choices and experience and with one likely means for doing this – the discernment of spirits. So …..

‘”Discernment” and “Ignatian discernment” are synonymous.’

Clearly, no.

‘”Ignatian discernment” and “discernment of spirits” are synonymous.’

To some they are.  One writer maintains, ‘a decision made in the third time is not discerned in the technical sense. Discernment is a sifting of the movements of the spirits.’  And the National Catholic Register website speaks of ‘discernment, or to use the full expression “discernment of spirits”’.  And yet Jules Toner has written two distinct major studies, one a Commentary on Saint Ignatius’ Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, the other entitled Discerning God’s Will.  To Toner and to most authorities it is clear that the second is wider than the first; and that both really are discernment. George Ganss puts it succinctly – and correctly, I think.[2]

‘At the end of these rules we are in a position to observe a matter of great importance. The Exercises present two distinct forms of discernment, (1) discernment of the will of God and (2) discernment of spirits, which is a means toward discerning God’s will.’[3]

‘The Examen of Consciousness is a tool for daily discernment provided by Ignatius.’ 

Yes, and no! In the collection of his Personal Writings edited by Joseph Munitiz and Philip Endean the glossary simply says: ‘examens The practice of self-correction recommended in the Exercises, Exx 24ff’.[4]  Its great positive potential for a discerning way of daily living, finding God in all things, has been elaborated in recent decades by George Aschenbrenner and others, drawing on authentic Ignatian spirituality.[5]  

‘For Christian discernment the essential thing is to follow Ignatius’s methods formulated in the Spiritual Exercises.’

For the charism of discernment to flourish there needs to be natural aptitude: sensitivity, wisdom, basic common sense. Not everyone well read in it can be relied on to guide it, just as not everyone who feels called to be a spiritual guide is really suited to it. But ‘the essential thing’ is identified in the New Testament: the Gospel values and particularly 1 Cor 13 (Love is…), Matt 25 (the criteria at the Judgement) and Galatians 5: ‘…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control… If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit’ (Gal 5). We cannot be habitually living with our judgements and our actions at odds.[6]

The body of Ignatian material on discernment, its prestige and its intricate formulation, can dazzle to the extent that one may overlook those two essentials: growth in the mind and heart of Christ, and common sense. The Exercises themselves are largely Ignatius’s device for getting the retreatant and their director to realise to the full those two essentials and their implications for this unique person. But the conditions he requires for this are both inspiring and very demanding – demands which in presentations of Ignatian spirituality may be downplayed. Ignatius’s experience while convalescing at Loyola is often referred to as foundational, but notice how ardent and focussed – and protracted – his search was. (He mentions the mixture of prayer with copying out the words of Christ and Our Lady – 300 folio pages of it!).

Recall that although Ignatius allows for making the Exercises in daily life, the model he sets before us, the Thirty Days, assumes that one will begin the process of discernment only after many days entirely devoted to prayer that is intense (I don’t say ‘tense’!) and leading to a conviction and commitment that is reiterated and can be summed up in [189]: ‘… one should seek nothing other than the greater praise and glory of God our Lord in and through everything. Thus it must be borne in mind that a person will make progress in things of the spirit to the degree to which they divest themselves of self-love, self-will, and self-interest’.  Indifference in that sense is costly!  John Veltri listing ‘Principles involved in making a decision according to the Spiritual Exercises’, identifies no less than sixteen (e.g., ‘a deep desire to serve Jesus and a readiness to act against my own sensuality and selfishness’).[7] They may sound perfectionist but it’s hard to name one that you could jettison and yet still look Ignatius in the eye. Paying mere lip-service to the demands of the Exercises brings discernment into disrepute. That becomes even more glaring when one turns to communal discernment (see below).

‘Really good discernment should give the confidence of knowing God’s will –  i.e.,  knowing how God intends my future to unfold.’

No.  The phrase ‘Discerning God’s Will’ is not without its ambiguity and can lead to a common and serious misunderstanding, a fallacy that can be expressed as follows: I have carefully discerned the will of God in my regard;  therefore, since it’s emerged as God’s will, it should happen, it should work out; therefore if it does not work out like that, then either I or my accompanier must have mishandled the process … or I become disillusioned in my stance towards Ignatian spirituality … or in my stance towards God and God’s interest in me. This reveals a fundamental – and common – misunderstanding about what Ignatian discernment claims to be. Sound discernment does not prophesy, it does not forecast what will happen in the future; rather, it brings me to the point where I may trustfully recognise and take the next step forward, attentive to the Holy Spirit’s touch. The next step but one may involve a further change of direction. Examples may help.

With my encouragement a young man, hoping to reach a very important decision, made a ten-day retreat. Afterwards he returned looking exhausted but content. He had reached a decision which would be hard, but the sincere search would surely be blessed. A week later I happened to meet the Jesuit who had directed that retreat. Aware that I knew the story he was breaking no confidences in saying, ‘It was a beautiful thing to see the steps of the Ignatian process being followed, and then the decision drop like ripe fruit off the tree’. A month later the man was back and said: ‘I’m glad that I made that retreat but I now think the right way is the opposite of the decision I made in retreat’. He acted accordingly. Ten years later I met him now engaged in doing very good work for God and God’s people. Another twenty years and that impression was confirmed. 

Jules Toner, in telling the story of an American lay missionary’s discernment, remarks: ‘Tonya could not discern that God intended her to actually go to Guatemala. To know that would require a gift of prophesying the future… Through all that happened God… was giving Tonya the grace to grow in faith and love and trust’.[8] One might think that the young man I mentioned had wasted his time by discerning and reaching a conclusion that was apparently pointing up a blind alley. Not so. After those few weeks he was continuing his life in a different and more mature frame of mind and faith.          

In a famous case regarding a possible cardinalate for Francis Borgia Ignatius said that it would be quite possible for the Holy Spirit to inspire him, Ignatius, to want one outcome for one reason but the Emperor to want the opposite for some other reason.If good discernment were foretelling what will happen, that would be nonsense.

‘The better the discernment process, the clearer will be the outcome’

Naturally, we pray for light, we seek clarity.

As I entered my final year at boarding-school we began the year with a retreat, quite serious in its way. It focussed my mind on the question, ‘Should I apply to enter the Jesuits?’ I thought that if every evening for a week I spent time praying for light, that should do it. To my surprise it required another week. In fact, eight months later I was still praying there and still no clearer. In the end I took my decision in the dark. I had never heard the word discernment, but I now think that this experience illustrates something important about discernment but easily overlooked. During my months of searching I don’t think I was in desolation, nor was there marked consolation beyond that quiet minimum which many a daily Mass-goer might experience. But the essential point can be expressed like this: I was longing and praying for light. I didn’t get it but in my searching I was unconsciously giving God the chance to draw me, to influence me, ‘magnetize’ me, so to speak, in the dark. So, by all means ask for clarity but not receiving it does not mean a failure of the process.

This aspect of discernment invites the question, ‘How long should we give to discerning a particular situation?’  ‘How long have you got? And how important is it?’ My school experience covered eight months but consider this case. A sister who was in Malta during World War 2 told me that she had witnessed one day the fierce bombing of a convoy entering the harbour. Next day she met a ship’s captain who said to her, ‘Sister, I’m glad I’ve met you. Yesterday I was on the bridge of my small ship. Everywhere there were explosions, debris, oil, fire. There were men in the oily water catching fire. They begged me to shoot them. Sister, what should I have done?’ At school I could take eight months to reach a decision. That captain had ten seconds. ‘Surely’, it could be argued, ‘that had to be a snap decision: it’s nothing to do with discernment’. I believe it really is relevant to discernment. The man’s decision was an outcome of his previous one thousand decisions – in other words, the sort of life he had been leading, the sensitivity which (consciously or not) he had allowed the Holy Spirit to generate within him. Which brings us back to the topic of the Consciousness Examen.

‘When directing someone in discernment I find it distracting to keep referring (even just mentally) to Ignatius’s Rules and instructions. But my failure means that I am selling the person short.’      

Ignatius’s terminology here may be misleading. His title for the Rules for the Discernment of Spirits (thattitle, by the way, is an editorial addition) includes a disclaimer [313]: ‘Rules by which to perceive and understand to some extent…’ (my emphasis, of course). Even so, there is a difficulty. The word ‘rules’ does fit some of them quite well, but others are more in the way of guidelines or principles. Leaving aside the question of how far our poor memory ill serves our directee, Ignatius’s instructions need to be pondered and absorbed so that they become part of us, second nature – ‘to some extent’(!) – rather than a straitjacket of rules binding us and consequently the directee, and intruding into the conversation.

On Communal Discernment

‘The Deliberation that led the first Companions to found the Society of Jesus was based on the discernment of spirits.’

A half-truth. The Deliberatio[9] is an inspiring document written by one of the companions, probably Jean Codure. It covers a period of some months, beginning in Lent 1539. In the daytime the companions were scattered, engaged in pastoral work in various parts of Rome (in this way their search was grounded in reality – ‘the smell of the sheep’ as Pope Francis would say). Meanwhile they were praying and reflecting but not exchanging views with one another. In the evenings they would meet in a quiet and prayerful atmosphere and would listen to each in turn expressing his considered view, taking the arguments against on one evening and those for on the next.[10] Thus was the decision taken to found the Society. This is how the Deliberatio ends:

‘We continued in these and other deliberations for almost three months … adhering to this same mode of procedure in our analysis and discussion of each issue, always proposing both sides of the question. By the feast of St John all our business was pleasantly concluded in a spirit of perfect harmony. But it was only by first engaging in prolonged vigils and prayers, with much expenditure of physical and mental energy that we resolved these problems and brought them to this happy conclusion.’  The Deliberation then was marked by the discernment of spirits (cf Exx [176]) but also by the ‘Third Time’ [177-188]: ‘I call this a “tranquil” time in the sense that it is a situation when the soul is not moved by various spirits and has the free and tranquil use of her natural powers’ [177] – calm reasoning etc.

‘Since Vatican II and the ‘return to the sources’ the Deliberatio method is recognised as the model within the Society of Jesus and in the gatherings of others too.’

True, but Fr General Arturo Sosa remarks (25 March 2020) : ‘We should seek out those conditions that allow us to hear the Holy Spirit and be guided by Him in our life-mission. The personal and group disposition to receive and follow the Spirit who communicates with us prevents a false type of discernment in common, which only seeks to clothe in correct Ignatian language decisions that were already made on the basis of the criteria of one’s own group’ (emphasis mine). The spirit of the Deliberatio is demanding, and the danger of unintentionally trivialising or manipulating is considerable.

In the early 1970s enthusiasm for communal discernment was high.  I was asked to spend an afternoon with a group addressing the topic of discernment. I shudder now to think what I probably said but I was certainly stunned to be asked after an hour or two, ‘Thank you but could we please try it now?’  It was the age of workshops and my audience thought that having heard about the method the obvious follow-up was to ‘learn by doing’ – formulate a topic, pray, note the movements of the spirits, share, reach a conclusion. And all this in an afternoon!

No-one would be so naïve today but there remains the tendency to act as if discerning prayer can be switched on for a few days, even a few hours. To some extent it can, and short prayer is better than none at all but there is no substitute for unremittingly giving the Holy Spirit the opportunity to mould our judgements and discretion.

A reading of the Deliberatio and the Exercises shows why Ladislas Örsy could drily remark, ‘It is of some importance that discernment should be made in a prayerful framework; it is of greater importance that those who discern should be prayerful persons’ and ‘Prayerful reflection during communal discernment will not supplement for the lack of devotion and purification.’[11]

The first companions really lived the spirituality of the Exercises, they were people of prayer, and among them were three who would be canonised saints and another two at least (Laínez and Jay) whose cause might be advanced. Their prayer and their lives were in accord. Nothing mattered more to them than living out God’s will to their utmost (take Xavier who at two days’ notice left Rome and the comforts of Europe for ever). And the months of deliberation described above made great demands of prayer, unprejudiced listening, patience and total indifference in the Ignatian sense. Disappointment following gatherings for discerned decision-making is often due to a failure to take the requirements seriously (see Fr Sosa’s words above).

* * * * * * * * * 

As is well known, discernment, both individual and communal has received a great boost from Pope Francis, assisted by his biographers and interpreters, notably Austen Ivereigh. Instances of this emphasis abound in Ivereigh’s The Wounded Shepherd.[12]

‘”Discernment” appeared forty-eight times in the [October 2018] synod’s concluding document, which had two whole chapters dedicated to the “mission to accompany” and the “art of discernment”’.[13]  ‘To the Jesuits in Myanmar, he said the principal criterion for assessing a vocation was “Can the candidate discern? Will he learn to discern?”'[14]

While Francis has done the whole Church a great service in stressing discernment some particular phrasing he uses can be misleading. Examples appear in Ivereigh’s Wounded Shepherd: ‘[Francis] repeated the core principle: “ideas are for discussion, but vital situations have to be discerned” (p 148). ”Brothers, we discuss ideas, but discern situations. We are gathered to discern, not to discuss’” (p 130). This seems to confuse categories. One can discuss in discerning mode (like those first companions) – or in a frenzied free-for-all.

Despite these occasional phrases Francis’s main thrust has been in accord with this quotation from Cardinal Martini: ‘I think there is one specially salient message Ignatius can give us: the great value of interiority. I mean by this everything that has to do with the sphere of the heart, of deep intentionality, of decisions made from within’ and Brian O’Leary comments: ‘Interiority is precisely the word that I too would use. Self-knowledge, purifying the heart, the inner journey, finding one’s centre, the still point’.[15] The contrary is what Francis labours against: superficiality, obstinacy, impatient hurling of slogans, arrogance, manipulation by strong or voluble characters – all deadly for discernment.

Hearing that true Ignatian discernment requires wholeheartedness, generous indifference (in the full sense), Veltri’s sixteen principles, one might despairingly respond, ‘This is perfectionism! What’s the use of trying? It seems we’re only beginners!’

That would be a tragic mistake. We are all in via, en route, and can only by God’s grace head in that direction. But the rather perfectionist approach of Toner, Veltri et al serves a useful, even necessary purpose. It helps us take seriously that Ignatian decision-making is demanding, not to be trifled with – which would be a dangerous waste of time. And that seriousness is worth pondering by both directors and the decision-makers themselves. The tone of this article has been purposely cautious, noting the pitfalls. For balance, the literature17, quite rightly, is awash with the positive and the tutorial.18

[1] cf Jules Toner, A commentary on St Ignatius’ Rules for  Discernment of Spirits, Institute of Jesuit Sources, St Louis 1982, pp 10-11

[2] In Ganss’ translation of the Exercises, p 195. Likewise John C Futrell, ‘Unfortunately, the commentators [on the Spiritual Exercises] have tended to treat almost exclusively the “discernment of spirits”…As a result many readers overlook the fact that this discernment “of spirits” is only part of a larger, much more complex dynamic process of discernment or deliberation leading to both individual and communal decisions.’ Making an Apostolic Community of Love, Institute of Jesuit Sources, St Louis 1970, p 6.

[3] The confusion may be because in the Spiritual Exercises Ignatius does not mention the word ‘discernment’ until he gets to the point in the Election material where he is referring to discernment of spirits in relation to the second of the three ‘times’ for making the choice (here his Spanish word for discernment is ‘discreción’).

[4] Saint Ignatius of Loyola – Personal Writings, Penguin 1996, p xvi.

[5] G. Aschenbrenner ‘Consciousness Examen’ in Review for Religious 31 (1972), and subsequent articles.

[6] There are valuable articles on this vital matter by Nicholas Austin SJ and Nicholas King SJ in various postings on the Thinking Faith website

[7] John Veltri, Orientations 1, Loyola House, Guelph, Canada, 1979

[8] Jules J Toner, What is your Will, O God ?, Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1995, pp 55-58, 96.

[9] The text with commentary can be found in, for example, Javier Osuna Friends in the Lord.

[10] John Futrell remarks, ‘The argument is sometimes given that … to divide the discussion of negative and affirmative arguments will result in the waste of time. Experience shows the contrary to be true and a little reflection explains why this is so. Confrontation of opposing arguments during the same meeting almost inevitably leads to debate rather than to dialogue – especially within the American culture. One does not truly listen to the point of view of the other, but is concerned with forming counter-arguments. The result often is a lack of harmony and the need of more meetings to continue the debate.’ (op citp187).

[11] L. Örsy Probing the Spirit, Dimension 1976, pp 61-62. Örsy also comments interestingly on the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Relevant too is Toner’s question: ‘is the consolation truly spiritual , that is, rooted in spiritual faith, hope and love?’ (What is Your Will, O God?, p 15)

[12] Subtitled Pope Francis and his Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church, Henry Holt 2019

[13] p173

[14] p171

[15]  Brian O’Leary SJ God Ever Greater: Exploring Ignatian Spirituality, Messenger 2018,   p 146: here O’Leary gives the quotation from Martini.

17  Among the dozens, even hundreds, of publications which could be recommended let it suffice to mention the range by Timothy M. Gallagher OMV, published by Crossroad.

18  I have not touched on ‘First Time’ (Sp Exx [175]) since any questions it might raise would be of a kind different from my ‘questionable assertions’. But cf Michael Ivens Understanding the Spiritual Exercises Gracewing 1998, pp 135-136