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St. Ignatius Examen of ConsciousnessHow do we know what God wants us to do in life? That’s the question for people in discernment, isn’t it? We know that God wants all of us to be united with God, serve God, and share our gifts in service. But how? For each of us that’s different.
To “discern” means to try to figure out what God wants us to do. How do we know? How do we find out? It’s not easy. Fortunately, St. Ignatius of Loyola offers time-tested guidelines for the discernment of spirits to help us discover what God is calling us to do in the big and small decisions of our lives – including vocational discernment – that I have found extremely practical and helpful both in my personal discernment as well as in helping others discern what God is calling them to.
Seven Attitudes or Qualities Required for an Authentic Discernment Process
(Draw Me Into Your Friendship: The Spiritual Exercises, A Literal Translation and a Contemporary Reading by David Fleming, SJ, [5, 16, 24-26, 149-55, 169] Numbers refer to the paragraph numbers of the Ignatian text. All quotations from The Spiritual Exercises in this booklet are taken from Fleming’s contemporary reading of the Spiritual Exercises. )
At the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius spells out seven basic attitudes or qualities that a person must have as preconditions for entering into an authentic discernment process seeking God’s will. They are the following.
1. Openness: We must approach the decision in question with an open mind and an open heart. We cannot find God’s will for us if we enter into the decision-making process with a pre-conceived outcome based on our self-will, biases, and what Ignatius calls “attachments,” that is, an attitude of “I already have my mind made up, so don’t confuse me with the facts!” “Attachments” refer to areas in our lives where we limit freedom and put conditions on a decision. An example could be: “I’ll go to college anywhere as long as it’s within a day’s drive of my parents’ home.”
2. Generosity: To enter into a decision-making process with such openness requires a generous spirit with which we, with a largeness of heart, put no conditions on what God might call us to. This is like writing God a signed “blank check” letting God fill in the amount and content of the check. Only a generous person would do this.
3. Courage: Such openness and generosity require courage, for God might be asking something difficult, challenging, and risky of us. It takes courage to give up control and trustingly put the decision in God’s hands while seeking God’s will over our own. There’s no telling where God might be calling us – whether to be a religious sister or brother, a priest, a lay minister working for the Church, a lay missionary, or a married parent of a large family. To be that open and generous takes courage.
4. Interior freedom: To make such a prayerful, generous, courageous decision requires interior freedom. Ignatius describes three types of people and their differing approaches to decision making (Spiritual Exercises, [149-155]):
a. The first type is “all talk and no action.” This kind of person is full of good intentions but remains so distracted by his or her busyness about so many relatively inconsequential things that they never get around to the “one thing necessary,” namely, God’s will for them. Not to decide ends up being their decision. For example, I have experienced people “discerning” a possible vocation to religious life or priesthood for so long without ever making a decision that they end up becoming too old to enter.
b. The second type of person does everything but the one thing necessary. These people may do all kinds of good things in their life but don’t face the central issue of what God is calling them to. They are in effect putting conditions on what God can call them to. They’ll do good things as long as it doesn’t ask too much of them – especially demand a total commitment that would call them to adjust their priorities to what God is asking of them and thus put God’s will first in their lives. An example could be, “I’ll enter into any career as long as it will support me in an upper middle class lifestyle.” This would preclude a lot of options God might be calling us to!
c. The third type of person is the only one who is truly free. Their whole and deepest desire is to do whatever God’s will is for them with no conditions attached. This is the attitude necessary to authentically find and follow God’s will for us.
5. A habit of prayerful reflection on one’s experience: How can we hear God’s call if we’re not listening? How can we listen, if we’re not praying? To make a prayerful decision, we must first pray, putting aside a significant portion of time (twenty minutes or more) on a daily basis to quiet ourselves, put ourselves in God’s presence, and listen to what God is saying to us in the interior of our hearts.
The “Examen”: A key method of prayer which Ignatius recommends to help us with this is called “The Examen of Consciousness” or simply the “Examen.”
— We begin the Examen with an awareness of God’s presence with us and ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to prayerfully reflect on our day.
— We reflect on our day and ask ourselves how God has been present in the events and encounters of our day and in the feelings we experienced that day.
— We then look at how Christ has called us through these experiences as well as how we responded.
— Another helpful method for the Examen is to look at what we are grateful for and what has given us life this day. And then look, on the other hand, at what we are not so grateful for and what has drained life from us. Reflecting on these patterns over time will help point us toward what God is calling us to.
— A simplified form of the Examen I often use is simply to ask myself where I have experienced God in the past day (what were the key “God-moments”) and how I responded.
— We thank God for the blessings of the day.
— We also beg God’s forgiveness for any failures to respond well to Christ’s calls that day.
— We end by begging God’s help to respond generously to Christ’s calls to us during the coming day.
6. Having one’s priorities straight: There is a ruthless logic to Ignatius’s spirituality. If serving God, our Creator and Lord, is the ultimate goal of our lives, then everything else in our lives must be kept in the subordinate position of a means to that end. This means that things such as opportunities, experiences, and relationships are to be valued and chosen only insofar as they contribute to our ultimate goal in life and rejected insofar as they deter us from that goal. “What we want above all is the ability to respond freely to God, and all other loves for people, places, and things are held in proper perspective by the light and strength of God’s grace. …In coming to a decision, only one thing is really important – to seek and to find how God is calling me at this time of my life. …God has created me out of love, and my salvation is found in my living out a return of that love. All my choices, then, must be consistent with this given direction in my life.” (Spiritual Exercises, [16, 169, 23]). For example, states of life such as marriage, single life, religious life, or priesthood are means to serving God. So, we must put serving God first, and then choose whichever state of life that might be the best way for us to serve God.
7. Not confusing ends with means: Ignatius comments: “It becomes obvious how easy it is for me to forget such a simple truth as the end and goal of my whole existence when I consider the manner in which choices are often made. Many people, for example, choose marriage, which is a means. They then only secondarily consider the service and praise of God our Lord in marriage, though to follow God’s lead in my life is always our human project. Many people first choose to make a lot of money or to be successful, and only afterwards to be able to serve God by it. And so too in their striving for power, popularity, and so on. All of these people exhibit an attitude of putting God into second place, and they want God to come into their lives only after accommodating their own disordered and self-centered attachments. In other words, they mix up the order of an end and a means to that end. What they ought to seek first and above all else, they often put last.” (Spiritual Exercises., )
One of the examples of confusing ends with means mentioned above is a person who first chooses to make a lot of money and be successful and only afterwards look at how they might serve God with this (such as by making charitable donations or volunteering). A person like this in effect puts God into second place, only wanting God to come into their lives after first choosing what they want. They mix up the order of an “end” and a “means to that end,” not putting first things first.
Having these seven essential attitudes of openness, generosity, interior freedom, prayerful reflection on experience, having one’s priorities straight, and not confusing ends with means, the discerner has their satellite dish pointed in the right direction in order to receive God’s signals. Possessing these qualities is the precondition for hearing God’s call through an authentic discernment process.