A lot of people have grown up with an understanding of "discernment" and "vocation" as being a matter of following a path already laid out for us. In this understanding, all we have to do is translate the signs and keep following the path, lest we become lost and (maybe) even stray from God. The problem with this is that it takes God's relationship with us out of the process.
St Ignatius of Loyola is the Church’s go-to authority when it comes to discernment and not without reason. His Spiritual Exercises are some of the most practical and spiritually rich materials you can find on the subject. In his writings, the idea of "discernment" is not related simply to "vocation" but to the process of making decisions generally. It’s not necessarily referring to the smaller decisions (like what to eat for breakfast) but the bigger ones: Who am I? Where am I going? What do I want to do? What is God’s will for me in this particular situation?
In fact, there is one section of his Spiritual Exercises called the “discernment of spirits”, which refers to the process of becoming spiritually aware. It’s about listening to and understanding the stirrings of our hearts as spiritual realities, identifying those that are of God and those that aren’t. This is also one of the great things about Ignatius: he understands the human heart and takes it seriously.
One of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s gripes with the Western philosophical tradition was that it didn’t take seriously the idea that the human heart had spiritual value. Because the heart was associated with emotions and the affective dimension of human life, it was seen by ancient philosophers to be part of the “baser” and more “animal” part of us. The best figures in the Catholic tradition have instead seen that the heart is of immense spiritual significance. Learning to listen to it and understand the spiritual movements at play inside of us is essential for attaining clarity and confidence in our decisions.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says that the person whose life is centred around him is ‘like the man who when he built his house dug, and dug deep, and laid the foundations on rock’ (6:46-49). Ignatius begins his Spiritual Exercises with what he calls the ‘foundation’ of the whole spiritual edifice. Digging deep inside of ourselves to build on this foundation is the most important starting point for any later discernment. So let’s take a look.
Many of the great Catholic thinkers have spoken about the “end” of human life – and no, this isn’t referring to the apocalypse or human extinction. The word “end” is an ancient one (telos in Greek) which means something like “purpose”. Every created thing has an “end” towards which it is naturally oriented. So, the “end” of the stomach is to process and digest food. That’s what it naturally does and insofar as it digests food, it is fulfilling its “end” or “purpose”. Ignatius of Loyola begins his Spiritual Exercises by asking us to reflect on the “end” of human life, our purpose, and why we exist at all.
In contemplating the purpose of human life, Ignatius says there are ‘three great truths’ that should act as the foundation for our spiritual lives:
I come from God; I belong to God; I am destined for God.’
So firstly, that God created us from a sheer act of love; secondly, that creation is not over and God continues to create us every single moment of our life; thirdly, that we are destined for ‘the glory of God and our salvation.’
Unless we allow these truths to become part of us and change us, the rest of the Spiritual Exercises will not succeed as well as they could, Ignatius says. Keeping this “end” in front of us is so important for discernment because later Ignatius will talk about how we should never make a decision or choose a state of life that actively leads us away from our true end in God. We should instead make our decisions in view of our transcendent purpose.
Interestingly, Ignatius critiques people who would prefer to skip the whole discernment process and say, “I’ll just try and serve God as best I can in this situation.” This is getting things backwards, Ignatius says. It’s trying to ‘draw the will of God to ours instead of making ours bow to that of God.’
This leads us to a principle at the heart of Ignatius’ method that’s also important for us to grasp. It’s the principle of “indifference”. Ignatius says we should be indifferent to the decision we’re making. It’s a strange choice of words for us today but to clarify: “indifference” does not mean that we shouldn’t care about the decision we’re making. The fact that we’re engaging in a process of discernment at all means we care about it a great deal. Instead, it’s about trying to reach a state of interior freedom about the decision.
Ignatius puts it this way:
'Prevent your will from pronouncing prematurely either for or against the object in question; establish yourself rather in a perfect equilibrium.’
It’s about trying to reach an interior state of freedom and peace where we can say, with Jesus, ‘Let your will be done, not mine’ (Luke 22:42). This way we can prevent ourselves from being swayed one way or the other by disordered attachments. We can instead listen more clearly for God’s stirring.
Sometimes this can be a hard thing to achieve but it’s necessary.
One of the things that makes Ignatius’ method so human is his emphasis on the use of human reason. He doesn’t expect people to wait endlessly for a voice from the heavens, or treat God as if he’s going to reach down and subvert our decision-making process. No – he tells us to use the power of human reason, the God-given power, to discern the will of God for us. How does he recommend doing this?
Well, firstly he recommends weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of any given decision. When assessing alternatives, think through each one in turn, looking firstly at what advantages the decision might bring (the "pros" column) especially in light of our final and true end; then go through each alternative looking at the disadvantages, naming the perils and obstacles that will await us as we walk that path (the "cons" column). Then, once we have gone through each alternative we should choose the one that is most in accord with ‘sound reason’, offering it to God and praying that he will ‘receive it and confirm you in it.’ This sense of peace and confirmation following a decision is essential if we are going to stick by it with confidence.
Another bit of advice Ignatius has is more of an imaginative one. He tells us to imagine ourselves in different situations in order to gain clarity. So one of the first things we might do is imagine that someone we care about is coming to us with this decision instead. What might we say to them? What might we recommend they choose?
Then, we might like to imagine ourselves at the moment of our death. Looking back, what decision do we wish we could have made? Do we have any regrets? If we could go back, would we choose differently? If we feel a pull one way or the other, we should probably offer it to God and act on it. Another thing we might like to do is imagine ourselves standing before the judgment seat of God, again with the same thought process in mind. Looking back, what decision do we wish we could have taken? If we feel pulled one way or the other, we should probably act on it. That way, Ignatius says, we will have greater confidence for when we actually stand before the judgment seat of God.
This is just a barebones sketch of some of the principles at play in Ignatius’ masterpiece, The Spiritual Exercises. If you want to find out more or are looking for further direction, there are a couple of things you can do. Firstly, find yourself a spiritual director. Find someone who is more experienced in the spiritual life than you and talk with them and learn from them. This is how we will grow in knowledge and confidence and spiritual depth. Secondly, purchase some guides to St Ignatius. The Discernment of Spirits by Timothy Gallagher O.M.V. is a great starting point, as is The Jesuit Guide to (almost) Everything by Fr James Martin SJ. These are both great reads and will provide further helpful tips.