I’ve been frequently asked since beginning my journey in spiritual direction and as a spiritual director what “discernment” is. I’ll unthinking drop it into conversation as an assumed concept, or someone will spy the cover of some book I’m buried in about discernment. Etymology, the origin of a word, can sometimes provide us a blind lead about its meaning. But in this case, I always return to the root of “discernment” for its clearest explanation. Like all good English words (and there aren’t many), it’s based in Latin: discenere (dis [apart] + cenere [to sift]), literally, “to sift apart.”
Let the image be threshing and winnowing grain, which allows the light, empty seed coverings to lay apart from the grain seeds. To discern is to sift and separate alternatives—often, choices—often, to choose the better. What’s “the better”? That’s discernment.
The hard work of discernment isn’t choosing between something good and something bad but choosing between goods. We don’t discern whether we should steal; we discern whether we should buy a new, reliable car or not. We don’t discern whether we should quit our job to stay at home and watch TV instead of providing for our family; we discern whether to accept a promotion or begin a different occupation.
What Is Good?
So what is “good”? We can approach this various ways. We can look, for example, at what our goal of discernment really is. What’s really at stake? Whatever options we’re discerning, what are we discerning for?
Maybe we want to weigh job opportunities in order to find greater professional fulfillment. Maybe we want to figure out whether getting married is really what we want for our life. Our goal for discernment can provide the measure for whether it’s on track so we don’t get sidetracked by other considerations (Does one job have better parking? Do we feel the coercive expectation of our potential in-laws?). This idea of a goal might provide the principle guiding our discernment and the foundation undergirding it.
At the same time, we might decide that there is something more ultimate we want to guide us. This is true if our bottom line desire is to please Gød. Yet this might also be true if our goal is to find the greatest personal fulfillment through our decision. The idea is the same—only we’re looking for a larger principle and a more profound foundation.
Our Principle and Foundation
Everything I now know about discernment—since I doubt I knew anything before—comes from St Ignatius of Loyola. Almost 500 years ago he outlined “rules” for discernment, which really are more of a grammar than they are regulations. Ignatius’ rules don’t say, “Here is how you must discern,” as a matter of authority but, “Here is how discernment works,” as a matter of experience. In addition, he writes that there are several points to guide the process. The first, which I’m glossing over for now, is to have clearly in mind what the alternatives are, what is being discerned. The second is to lay the kind of principle and foundation for discernment we’re talking about.
Ignatius puts it this way:
“It is necessary to have as my objective the end [or “ultimate purpose”] for which I am created.”
I want to pause here to consider something. Ignatius is of course writing from a theological ground, but there isn’t anything uniquely theological in this idea so far. He’s simply talking about nature. He’s talking about giving serious consideration to what humans are and, consequently, what is good for and fulfills a human person. Think of it like this: We’re created to require water, so water is good for us. We’re created (Viktor Frankl tells us) to strive after goals, so labor and challenges too are good for us. But again, we’re looking among all such good things some ultimate, foundational good.
So he continues:
“. . . to have as my objective the end for which I am created, that is, to praise God our Lord and save my soul.”
My ultimate good is tied to Gød (Ignatius says, “praise of Gød” or, elsewhere, service to Gød) because it’s ultimately Gød that I’m designed to enjoy. Of course, we’re built to enjoy a ton of other things besides. Like hummus. Or strong black coffee. Which is why we all every one of us without possible exception find these both such pleasing and indisputably wonderful things. Ultimately, however, I’m built for Gød. For friendship with Gød. For service to Gød’s kingdom. For enjoyment of Gød’s grace and justice.
Consider, if this greater glory is in fact what I’m created for in my nature, isn’t this where I’d find the greatest pleasure, the greatest sense of completeness, the greatest good for myself and, even, the greatest enjoyment of other good things in turn? In the short text known specifically as “The Principle and Foundation,” Ignatius finally writes,
“Humans are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save our souls. The other things on the face of the earth are created for humans to help us in attaining the end for which they’re created.”
First Things First
To call Gød’s praise or Gød’s greater glory above all other things our “principle and foundation” isn’t to disregard the other things that are good for us. It’s not to disregard the things we enjoy, that make us alive, that make us, us. It’s not to say that the only considerations that matter for our discernment are religious in nature. It’s to put things in an orderly order—first things first, the bottom line as the bottom line.
If it helps, it’s not even that our ultimate consideration is “religious.” Forget about “religion.” Again, our first and fundamental consideration is what our nature is, ultimately. What is the “water” for our human nature? What is the the ultimate striving that will satisfy your soul? Because if we lose our grounding in what it means to be a fulfilled human, bearing in mind that I as a creature am not ultimate, we’re unlikely to find a meaningful answer in what it is to be a fulfilled professional, a happy person, anything of significance.
So begin by answering for yourself.
What are you ultimately created for? Maybe Ignatius’ articulation resonates with you. Maybe it doesn’t. Write down in a journal your principle and foundation. Don’t just think about it. Write it down with real paper and ink. Take your time. Pray through it. Maybe you need to revise and refine it over time—that’s OK. Dogear the page. You’ll return to this again and again as you go through the steps of discernment, to remind yourself of your solid grounding.
This statement is what you’re discernment is about. It’s what you’re about. This is why you’re discerning in the first place. This is why you are, in the first place, and what you mean to found your life on as you begin this journey of discernment and head to the next stage: indifference.