There’s no shortage of major life choices that invite us to take time to discern. Should we get married? Go on a mission? Accept a commitment? Work full time or part time? Go to this college or that one?
Based on the writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Pope Francis recently gave a complete catechesis on discernment. In particular, in December 2022 he spoke of the need to be able to recognize a good decision by seeing “the signs that confirm it or those that disprove it.” It’s a way to be sure of one’s choice and to move forward with confidence. In fact, the process of making a decision is only completed when God confirms that “the thing comes from Him,” as St. Ignatius used to say.
Among the ways in which St. Ignatius teaches how to verify whether decision is good or bad, we’ve chosen three signs, the most easily identifiable: the joy and peace that come from a good decision, as well as the ease with which it is implemented.
1. Inner joy
The first sign that confirms that the decision we’ve made is the right one lies in what St. Ignatius calls spiritual consolation. It’s a certain movement that occurs in one’s soul, an interior motion that brings joy and peace. “I call consolation every increase of hope, faith and charity, and every interior gladness that calls and attracts to heavenly things and to the soul’s own salvation, soothing it and bringing it peace in its Creator and Lord,” writes St. Ignatius.
Spiritual consolation “is an experience of interior joy, that lets us see God’s presence in all things,” the pope explains. “Consolation is an interior movement that touches our depths. It is not flashy but soft, delicate, like a drop of water on a sponge,” he said, employing the metaphor used by St. Ignatius. Consolation is when we feel united to God.
Conversely, St. Ignatius gives the name desolation to a state of restlessness, sadness, boredom, laziness, and inner division. It’s as if we were separated from God.
Knowing how to identify these two states allows us to confirm or reject a decision.
Once the decision is made, it’s a matter of identifying its effects: does it lead to a state of consolation, or to a state of desolation? If it’s consolation, this confirms the decision and I can continue in the same direction. If it’s desolation, I should turn back or take another path.
St. Ignatius specifies that, to be authentic, consolation must be lasting. It cannot be a fleeting joy.
He experienced this himself, and in fact this is how his spiritual experience was born. While immobilized on his bed because of an injury during the siege of Pamplona (1521), he punctuated his days with pious readings on one hand and worldly books about chivalrous exploits on the other. He realized that when he read a life of Christ or a collection of the lives of the saints, he felt the desire to imitate those saints for the glory of God. The exploits of the saints for Christ left him with consolation, happy and cheerful. But when worldly thoughts presented themselves to him, they brought him only fleeting joy, and left him dry and discontented afterwards.
Another element proper to spiritual consolation is an inner feeling of peace.
“The thoughts of the world are attractive at the beginning, but then they lose their luster and leave emptiness and discontent,” the pope explains. “Thoughts of God, on the contrary, rouse at first a certain resistance but when they are welcomed, they bring an unknown peace that lasts for a long time.” No more procrastination, questioning, or restlessness. The soul is at peace, with itself and with the world.
2. Lasting peace
Just as lasting joy is the sign of a good decision, so is peace that lasts over time. “If you (…) make the decision and this gives you a peace that lasts through time, this is a good sign and indicates that the path was good. A peace that brings harmony, unity, fervor, zeal,” the pope emphasizes.
It’s a peace that gives us the awareness of being in the right place for us in life. It grants a certain “peace of mind,” says the pope. “A man can recognize that he has found what he is looking for when his day becomes more orderly, when he feels a growing integration among his many interests, when he establishes a proper hierarchy of importance, and when he is able to experience this with ease, facing the difficulties that arise with renewed energy and fortitude.”
3. A certain ease
“The characteristic of a good spirit is to give courage and strength, consolation, tears, inspiration and peace of mind, by making things easy and removing all obstacles, so that we may go further in the practice of goodness,” wrote St. Ignatius. Thus, the final sign of a good decision is the relative ease with which it is implemented. “In the end, everything went well,” we might say; or, “It was really bad but I don’t know how, everything went perfectly.”
Who hasn’t heard people close to them testify that they finally got out of situations that at first glance seemed impossible? What seemed difficult and insurmountable finally becomes simple and easy. It’s as if the obstacles disappear by themselves. “When we’re called, the Lord gives us a certain ease in practicing what he calls us to do,” emphasizes Fr. Pierre-Marie Castaignos, who works with engaged couples during marriage preparations.
Once joy and peace are felt in a deep and lasting way, and once all the elements seem to be in agreement to facilitate the implementation of a decision, what we have to do is commit ourselves and make a choice.
Indeed, it’s not enough to pay attention to our inner feelings and tendencies. The objective is to reject the bad ones and to welcome the good ones. “Spiritual knowledge is vain if it does not have consequences for our life commitments, if it’s not translated into decisions,” preached Jesuit Fr. Arnaud de Rolland during a Lenten Conference. “I no longer listen to a thought that I have identified as leading in the wrong direction; whereas I follow thoughts that I have perceived as coming from God. Every baptized person is called to this configuration to Christ through the choices he or she makes in daily life. This is the ultimate goal to which St. Ignatius aspired, and which made him close his letters with the following formula: “May his infinite goodness give us all abundant grace to always feel his holy will and to accomplish it perfectly.”