The Jesuit Notion of Discernment

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Besides their universities and high schools, Jesuits – members of the Society of Jesus – are known for the Spiritual Exercises of their founder, Ignatius of Loyola.

And I’m told that an essential part of those exercises or retreats (in which I, personally, have never participated), is learning the practice of “discernment,” which I would describe as faith-full perception and decision-making.

Here’s how Jesuit William J. Byron describes discernment in a text called “Humility, Magis (a Latin word meaning “more completely,” according to my Latin dictionary) and Discernment: A Jesuit Perspective on Education for Business Leadership,” found online.

“If a choice is to be made or an action taken, the relevant facts should be laid out first. This means having the necessary data and information in hand. On the basis of the available information, appropriate judgments of fact are made. Does this in fact add up? Does it all compute? Do we have adequate and correct information?

Plausible Choices

“After judgments of fact comes the question: What now shall we do? Options — each representing a plausible choice; each representing a relative good — are raised. Then the “goods” are weighed and measured against the feelings stirred in the decision maker in the face of any particular option.”

Sounds pretty rational, right? Well, it doesn’t cease to be rational after the element of faith is added, which Ignatius did.

“To discern or decide well,” says Byron, “one must be: (1) ready to move in any direction that God wants, therefore radically free; (2) open to sharing all that God has given him or her, therefore radically-generous; (3) willing to suffer if God’s will requires it, therefore radically patient; and (4) questing for union with God in prayer, therefore radically spiritual.”

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I see the first condition as related to “openness,” a quality that is more difficult the older you get. I’ve noticed, however, in the behavior of my grandchildren that young children like repetition and known ways of doing and acting while maintaining an openness to what’s new. That’s how they learn skills and form ideas. But as you age, you’re more likely to think all the best ideas and practices are already known, and that’s an obstacle to faith, in my view.

The key to openness to God for Jews and Christians over the centuries – and for us who are searching for God today – is heeding the words of the prophet, Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”

The vast majority of people today, I believe, appreciate the second condition: the importance of generosity. We all admire generous people and Ignatius had it right when he connected it to discernment. For people searching for God, it has to be part of every decision.

The third condition is a toughie. Who wants to suffer? But our wants are not the point. It’s our attitude toward suffering, which comes to all of us in various ways and at various times, that’s needed for acquiring and maintaining faith. And acceptance of suffering is, indeed, about patience.

God as Parent

Finally, prayer is an essential ingredient in faith-full decision-making. For me, recalling that God is my father is crucial in prayer. I’m reminded of Jesus’ words about prayer: “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?”

For those who are skeptical about whether God answers prayers, ask yourself whether a father would always provide a fish or an egg, under any circumstance, to his child. God answers prayers but not always as we expect.

Finally, in faith-full discernment, decision-makers ask themselves how they feel about a proposed decision and whether that feeling is “from God.” In other words, does it align with what I know about the ethical and moral positions of my faith, or my potential faith?

Advice on making decisions may not seem to be related to faith, or lack of it. But our lives are filled with choices, and the decisions we make are determinant in our search for God.