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Ignatian discernment: making better choices

James O'Brien  |  17 July 2019

The Church celebrates the feast of Saint Ignatius of Loyola on 31 July.

Born into minor nobility in Spain in the late 15th century, he became a soldier. During a losing battle at Pamplona, he was wounded by a cannonball. Brought dangerously close to death, he recovered in the family home at Loyola. With the only books being on the Life of Christ and the Lives of the Saints, he began having daydreams about serving Christ similar to St Francis of Assisi or St Dominic. This was to begin his road to becoming a pilgrim, a student at the University of Paris, a giver of what became known as (the) Spiritual Exercises, and founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The Ignatian path to God is through discernment and ‘finding God in all things’.

A new pilgrim, Ignatius once let a donkey decide whether he would go after and attack a man he met on the road who had insulted Mary, the mother of Jesus. As a knight, he felt it appropriate to kill in order to defend the honour of the Mother of God. At a fork in the road, the donkey took the better path, and so then did Ignatius.

It is not often, however, that we are faced with such obvious good and bad choices. Often our choices are more nuanced and made because of often complex and competing motives. How then to make the right choice? How, in the language of Ignatius and the Jesuits, to discern that choice? The wiser and older Ignatius often talked about ‘the greater glory of God’ – the better choice to give the ‘greater glory’.


Ignatius’ God was one of sustained presence and constant communication who encourages us towards taking action. Not just any action, but the better action – the action which we have discerned that will bring about the deeper reverence, the more loving service, the more joyful praise.

Discernment then is the constant disposition towards choosing the better of two good options. Ignatius noted our motives when making decisions take on two configurations ­– ‘consolation’ and ‘desolation’.

Consolation gives us joy and deep peace, confidence and hope. When consoled there is a sense of lightness and ease within us as we go about our day. Desolation leads us away from God’s presence, into a sense of anxiety, heaviness, and negativity with self and others. Desolation is associated with losing a sense of our own worth or with the evaporation of our hope.


The regular practice of the awareness examen helps us become aware of consolation and desolation in ourselves and our day.

By finding cause for gratitude, and calling on the presence of the Spirit to be with us as we recall our day, we are accompanied in reflecting on what had happened. As we see desolation entering our thinking and acting, we become more conscious of the deeper currents of our lives and humbler before the God who wants us to receive joy and peace in his presence.

In our life of small and large decisions, we make the better choice when we are led by the movements of the Holy Spirit. We can call on this same Spirit for light to see clearly the better option.


In his later years as an administrator in Rome, Ignatius used to look up at the stars by evening from the rooftop of the Jesuit curia in Rome. It was quite often at this time that tears would well up in his eyes from both gazing at the beauty of the universe and in the outpouring of God’s love he felt so personally as he reflected on his experience day by day.

The God of all consolation had given him the grace he had once named in a letter: ‘may it please Our Lady, to obtain for us from her divine Son, the grace that, despite all our pain and troubles, our weak and feeble spirits might be transformed, into spirits which are strong, and which sing God’s praises with joy’.



Topic tags: saints, feastdays, valuesandmoraldecision-making

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