The Danger of Discernment: The Need for Recollection of The First Principle and Foundation (Part 1)

The Danger of Discernment: The Need for Recollection of The First Principle and Foundation (Part 1) October 2, 2023

There’s a real danger to the Spiritual Exercises, more specifically, the Discernment of Spirits, codified by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Many, many articles pop up with a simple search about Ignatian discernment. And for good reason: it is a great and important thing to know and do God’s will, and St. Ignatius was a spiritual master. However, the danger lies in some impatient rascal like myself, who wants to take a few of Ignatius’ 14 rules of discernment, apply them haphazardly, detach them from the entirety and essence of the Spiritual Exercises, and call it doing God’s will. Now, there’s always some sense of wanting to do God’s will for anyone seeking out guidance on discernment, but things can quickly become a confusing mess when one doesn’t have in the forefront of his mind, “What am I living for?”

The First Principle and Foundation

There should be at least a week-long waiting period before someone clicks on an Ignatian how-to-discern article, in which he has to sit and pray with the very purpose of the Exercises themselves. The most transformative place and perhaps appropriate place to start is The First Principle and Foundation (a dozen variations on it here), namely that: “Human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God, our Lord, and by means of this, to save their souls…I ought to desire and elect only the thing which is more conducive to the end for which I am created.” (George Ganss edited a great Classics of Western Spirituality version, another more recent edition exists from Word on Fire). Very few articles on discernment start with The First Principle and Foundation. St. Ignatius even advises essentially to not do the exercises without this or alone.

I’ve come back to the discernment methods fairly regularly, as this past season of my life has involved growing into a husband, having children, getting my feet firmly planted in a career, and forming a home. All beautiful things and good things, but not my ultimate end, not my destiny (though not unrelated). I catch myself living for those as ends and grow disappointed and/or restless when they don’t fulfill me in the way the human heart longs for. I try to “discern” how to get the thing I want, the way I want it. I apply the method apart from the foundation, forgetful of the end. It runs dry, gets confusing, and I try again. So is this what I am living for? Just an endless cycle of the next best thing? Ignatius, of course, says no. The exhortation for the exercises, to “praise, reverence, and serve God,” is not an empty, moralistic call to be better, but really a call to do these things because my life is found there. 

What’s All This For?

There’s a profound goodness and grace that flows through praising, reverencing, and serving God. It makes clear all the goodness in life that has been given and the good that has been done for me. If we really want the fruits of Ignatian discernment, we need to really follow him. We see in the First Week, in which our sins and the reality of Hell are evoked in juxtaposition to God’s mercy and unconditional love for us. Furthermore, for me, it brings to mind the inadequacy of what I previously lived for. As Jesus asks, “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? What could one give in exchange for his life?” (Mark 8:36-37). Do I just keep trading out one temporal aspiration for another? Or unfairly and unrealistically expect to squeeze more and more of the divine love I long for out of my family? I start to worship the creation rather than the creator, assuming I could control and manipulate it to get just what I want, when I want, how I want. 

In The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times,  Jesuit priest Dean Brackley illustrates this well: “Idols thrive on the insecurity we feel in our bones…We make idols of money, law, the party, efficiency, the church, my job, my rights, status, approval…They demand [our] sacrifice.” The Exercises prompt the question: what do I get in exchange for that idolatrous trade-off? Nothing. So why continue? Why keep giving into the same pattern: I get discouraged with something. I forget whom I belong to and do not trust God can do much about it and experience desolation. I seek some temporal “solution” that will “finally” make me happy. I get excited about my plan for a day or week, and then get frenzied, frustrated, and even despondent that I cannot make it happen right now. Or, deep down, I know it is not really what I am looking for. I would be embarrassed to count the times I have done this knowing full well it leads nowhere good. 

Keeping the End in Mind

God is not a trickster. Brackley reminds us that God gives “genuine happiness and spiritual joy, and thereby [banishes] any sadness and turmoil induced by the enemy.” This is not necessarily what is easiest, most practical, most accessible, etc. However, this understanding lets me look at the obstacles to what I feel I am called to do and more confidently and peacefully say, “So be it. I know that is what is for my good and the good of others.” It turns me away from Zillow: Stealer of Joy as my sister-in-law calls it, and back to The First Principle and Foundation, to consider the end for which I am created, with a growing awareness and desire for Christ, the savior of my soul.

(more on this in Part 2)

Note: this article was modified from a course on Ignatian Spirituality at Creighton University.

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