A phrase that is often used in Jesuit/Ignatian circles is discernment. Some refer to discernment as making decisions in the presence of God while others refer to a more structured approach that arises from rules set down in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius. This process of decision making is intimately tied to the process of Discernment of Spirits.
Discernment of spirits is the interpretation of what St. Ignatius Loyola called the “motions of the soul.” These interior movements consist of thoughts, imaginings, emotions, inclinations, desires, feelings, repulsions, and attractions. Spiritual discernment of spirits involves becoming sensitive to these movements, reflecting on them, and understanding where they come from and where they lead us. (Ignatian Spirituality: Discernment of Spirits)
The practice of discernment of spirits may take place outside of the context of decision making. In fact the practice of discernment takes place in the Daily Examen. The daily examen is a reflective prayer that consists of a review of the day where one tries to discover where God has been a part and how we have responded. By our reflection we hope to discern whether our desires and choices are motivated by a holy spirit or a base or evil spirit. Coming to understand our motivations helps us to choose what is good rather than destructive, holy rather than evil.
The British Jesuits offer a wonderfully simple video on using discernment to make a decision. Discernment: An approach to making decisions (4:21).
But as with all things simple there seems to be more than is initially apparent. A child can begin to draw before learning about perspective or the interplay of color. Drawing becomes art when one is able to understand and employ certain principles and techniques. The same is true for discernment. The following background will help in both understanding and in practicing the art of discernment.
First Principle and Foundation: When we say “make a good decision” we do not mean making a decision that is financially productive. Rather we are speaking of making a decision that will lead us closer to God, make us a better, i.e. holy, person. Ignatius expressed this as his first principle, the foundation for our lives and our choices. Simply put, all our choices should lead us to God and by our actions, praise and serve God. All created things are to be used to lead us to this goal. (See the hyperlink above for a literal and contemporary phrasing of the First Principle.)
Spiritual Consolation is an experience of being drawn closer to God. Such an experience encourages us, leads us to gratitude for God’s presence, gifts and actions in our lives. In consolation we may feel more alive and connected to others.
Spiritual Desolation, on the other hand, is an experience of turmoil. Often characterized by doubts, temptations, restlessness or anxiety, we find ourselves removed from God and from others. Ultimately we feel we lack both faith and hope.
These two states are not to be confused with simply feeling good or bad. Sometimes we find ourselves drawn closer to God and to one another in very painful times like the loss of a loved one. In this case while we are experiencing grief we may truly find ourselves closer to God in our faith and in our hope for resurrection for our loved one. (See Ignatian Spirituality’s Introduction to Discernment of Spirits or excerpts from Margaret Silf’s Inner Compass)
Some will speak of discernment as more of an attitude or way of proceeding. If we are attentive to the interior movement of our souls, we are probably attentive to more than just ourselves. This reflective stance can attune us not only to God’s presence in all moments of the day, it can attune us to the presence of others as well. Reflections on our own struggles can help us empathize with others and our experiences of God’s mercy can lead us to be merciful in turn.
In a 2017 address to seminarians in Rome, Pope Francis spoke of discernment as a way:
"to educate to discernment means to “expose” oneself, to go out of the world of one’s convictions and prejudices to open oneself to understand how God is speaking to us, today, in this world, in this time, in this moment, and how He speaks to me, now." (Discernment is a Choice of Courage)
The goal of discernment is to lead us to discover our “deepest desires and our truest selves.” Through listening to the Spirit (God’s Spirit) we will discover our own prejudices, limitations and our own selfishness. Through God’s grace we learn to choose not according to our own selfish and superficial desires, but what God really wants for us. Back to the “First Principle and Foundation”.
Accompaniment: Like any learning that we engage in, it is often helpful to seek the advice and counsel of others trained in the particular field. The same is true of discernment whether that is the actual process of making a decision or the art of discerning which spirit is leading me. This accompaniment is often termed Spiritual Direction. Asking a friend or asking an expert, both are often fruitful to help us see our blind spots and help us move forward. (See also the Quaker Clearness Committee for a process of enlisting friends to help in decision making)