My perfect compass


16 Sep 2020

Discerning the better path requires nuance and skill. St Ignatius, through his teaching on discernment, offers us a way to develop the necessary skills.

Life is made up of choices. Often our choices seem natural and effortless. At times, however, big decisions call for deep thought and can change one’s life journey.

Determining the right decision can be overwhelming and exhausting. That is why, there is an entire industry devoted to decision-making advice and tools. Often these resources are focused on decisiveness. The skills of critical thinking, evaluation and swiftness are valued and encouraged.


St Ignatius offers us a more complete understanding of decision making and how we can ensure contentment regardless of the competing choices we face.

I believe that St Ignatius’ greatest gift to humanity is his teaching on discernment. If done well the Exercises are encapsulated into the worldview and connection to the Spirit that flows from the discernment process.

Our success in life depends on considered decision-making. If we are to thrive, we need to make good decisions that are life-giving and lead to wholeness.

As our decisions affect others, what we choose is worthy of attention. Being aware of these connections one can begin to enter into decision making at a much deeper level.


Society calls for decisiveness and rapid action. Good decisions can be made under this framework.

In today’s world time is of the essence and the danger of being left behind can cause us to make good decisions based on some thought but lacking in deep contemplation. Thus, the art of discernment may be seen as limiting in the modern world.

On occasion decisions made according to this method may be unintentionally based on emotion or ego. In such incidences, the outcome may still be positive, but the underlying factor may be fickle or, at worst, based on personal gain.

Ignatius knew that generally people seek to make good decisions and are capable of doing so based on good intentions.

What was revealed to Ignatius though was that discernment often hinges on the decision between two good outcomes and that seeking the better can be nuanced and require skill. Ignatius was an exceptionally organised person who learned that all skills can be practised and developed to ensure greater accuracy and efficiency.


Discernment relies on two critical aspects detachment and guidance. These can be learned and will become more efficient in the skill with practice.

Detachment is a skill that can be a great challenge to people as often our happiness and worth can seem to be linked to relationships, routine or possessions. In discerning the better choice one has to be removed emotionally to the situation. There are, of course, exceptions in our lives such as vows we have made to a spouse or commitment to children. Otherwise, we are encouraged to view the situation from an objective position. This allows us to truly consider all the options.

Detachment also helps us to carefully review all the available choices. Initially, a possible outcome may be discarded due to emotional attachment. By viewing all options impartially, a potentially better option might be identified.

Detachment is a skill that can be improved with repetition and attention to sentiment.


Guidance is required if one is to choose the better of two good choices. Ignatius teaches that the desire we have must be pure and given over to God. Anything that leads to disquiet or agitation is not of God.

The discernment of spirits guide us to identify those that limit one’s detachment, and to identify those feelings that are not pure.

Ignatius describes these two spirits as, ‘the good Angel (that) touches such soul sweetly, lightly and gently, like a drop of water which enters

into a sponge; and the evil touches

it sharply and with noise and disquiet, as when the drop of water falls on the stone’.

From a contemporary perspective, we experience these conflicting emotions as agitation or peace guided by the Spirit.

Deep within our soul, the Spirit guides us as a compass to our true north – God. This compass is ever true and will resolve any disorientation or obstacle that may mislead one in discerning the better choice.


Entering into decision making through discernment ensures completeness and joy.

What is vital in the process of discernment is patience. One needs to connect deeply with the Spirit and with great attention to true contentment.

The Spirit speaks to us with a ‘still small voice’ that can easily be drowned out by our busy lives or the competing voice of our ego.

Sensing what the Spirit reveals requires a level of sensitivity to the guidance being offered. Patience is required to use time well and enter into discernment at God’s level.

The time we have is limited and rushing to a conclusion is a human trait. God’s way is eternal and not limited by the days or years. To truly experience discernment, timeframes must be removed. Imposing time upon oneself and the Spirit limits the outcome and one’s experience of God.

Ignatius offers us the best ‘self-help’ process about decision making.

In our busy lives, discernment may be the best way to approach the pace of modern life and the demands the immediate nature of decision-making in the modern world places on us.

Discernment requires skills that are not mainstream to be developed and reinforced.

However, not having these skills, may have limited us individually and as a society in recent times.

This article first appeared in the Madonna magazine Spring 2020 edition. Brendan Nicholls is the liturgy coordinator for St Ignatius College, Geelong, Victoria.

Brendan Nicholls is the liturgy coordinator at St Ignatius, Geelong.
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