Thursday, November 10, 2011

Discernment Advice from St. Ignatius: The Spiritual Exercises

As Father Thomas Nelson, O.Praem. told the Sisters in classes at the Vita Consecrata Institute, when you are selecting books to read, don't look for the initial after the person's name (M.A., Ph.D etc) but rather the initials before the name... St. (Saint)!

For this reason, we would like to share a summary of advice for vocation discernment according to St. Ignatius Loyola, who used this manner in discerning his own vocation. Apparently, it worked so well that he standardized it into a format for others to use, which, with other spiritual meditations added, came to be known as "The Spiritual Exercises."


"Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created."

This is the criterion upon which we must make our life choices - really to meditate on these points: "Why am I here on this earth?" "What are the best means I can use to achieve my goal of praising, reverencing and serving God and saving my soul?"


"And so I ought to choose whatever I do, that it may help me for the end for which I am created, not ordering or bringing the end to the means, but the means to the end."

What does this mean? St. Ignatius says that many people first choose the means (i.e. their state in life e.g. marriage) and then think about how they might be able to achieve their end through that means (glory of God and salvation of their souls). However, the Saint says that this is backwards thinking! First we must think of the end, the goal to which we are heading - and then select the best means to that goal, and not the other way around. So practically, I should ask the Lord in earnest prayer, "Lord, by what state in life may I (me personally, not someone else) best love and serve You in this brief life, save my soul and help others save their souls?"


St. Ignatius knows how difficult it is to be honest with ourselves, so he proposes two "ways" of discernment. The first one is more structred and methodical and the second one is more personal and a person can use either one, or both! They are summarized below:

First Way - 6 Steps

1.Define: Define clearly what you are deciding about (e.g. whether to embrace marriage or religious life as a state in life).

2. Dispose: Think of the end (see main principle) and dispose yourself to be indifferent, to have no inclination towards one or the other, so that you can be open to God's will for you.

3. Ask - Pray! : "To ask of God our Lord to be pleased to move my will and put in my soul what I ought to do regarding the thing proposed, so as to promote more His praise and glory; discussing well and faithfully with my intellect, and choosing agreeably to His most holy pleasure and will."

4. Consider: "To consider, reckoning up, how many advantages and utilities follow for me from holding the proposed state of life for only the praise of God our Lord and the salvation of my soul, and, to consider likewise, on the contrary, the disadvantages and dangers which there are in having it. Doing the same in the second part, that is, looking at the advantages and utilities there are in not having it, and likewise, on the contrary, the disadvantages and dangers in not having the same."

5. Deliberate and Decide: St. Ignatius recommends now, after having in Step 4 carefully looked at the pros and cons prayerfully, in the presence of God, to decide "according to the greater inclination of reason, and not according to any inclination of sense". This seems like a very hard-line approach! But God gave us the gift of reason to aid us in prudently making decisions. Furthermore, St. Ignatius is recommending this method to souls who have not received any extraordinary grace to know their vocation, nor any inclination, rather than to those who already have a sense that God wishes them to enter a particular vocation.

6. Offer: "Such election, or deliberation, made, the person who has made it ought to go with much diligence to prayer before God our Lord and offer Him such election, that His Divine Majesty may be pleased to receive and confirm it, if it is to His greater service and praise."

The Second Way - 4 Rules

This way is more personal and less structured, but can be just as effective:

1. That you be moved in your decision by the love of God.

2. To imagine a stranger comes before you to lay open his vocational struggles and tells you everything (all the details of your own situation in fact!) Now, you, desiring the good of their soul, recommend to them what is for their greater good. Whatever you would recommend to that person - accept that advice yourself.

3. Choose that which you will wish to have chosen when you come to the moment of death.

4. Choose that you will wish to have chosen at the Day of Judgment.

Some may be drawn more to one method than another. Whatever method most appeals to you, we recommend that you take time to pray sincerely and ask Jesus to direct you according to His holy will. May St. Ignatius pray for you all as you continue to pray about God's will for your state in life!


  1. Ah, but after the decision, does St. Ignatius offer some special method for ensuring that one can carry it out?

  2. Dear Catholicus,

    I do not profess to be an expert on the Ignatian exercises, but from what I can tell, the exercises as a whole, as a series of meditations and prayer that would normally take place over a month's time are the context for this election - the meditation to move the intellect, being enlightened by divine truth, by God Himself in prayer; and the will being moved to action by grace obtained by God's mercy in sincere prayer: "Ask and you shall receive." Then of course we are all expected to cooperate with God's grace that goes before us,and assists us at every step of the good work He inspires in us. The exercises provide an excellent context of meditation and prayer, that, please God, will prepare us to cooperate with God in what He desires to accomplish within us. I would welcome other opinions from those more intimately familiar with the exercises.