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Ignatian discernment and women’s needs

· ​Reinterpretation: the spiritual exercises ·

One says “discernment” and thinks straightaway of the small and precious text of the Spiritual Exercises by St Ignatius of Loyola. Obviously spiritual discernment – in the sense of “making a choice after evaluating forces, movements and desires, and expressing a judgement on their origin and value”, as the Jesuit Maurice Giuliani emphasizes in his Gli esercizi nella vita quotidiana, Ed. Adp [The Ignatian ‘Exercise’ in Daily Life] – is not an Ignatian invention but its practice is as old as Christianity itself. It suffices to remember that St Paul had already spoken explicitly of “the ability to distinguish between spirits” (1 Cor 12:10) and that the subsequent tradition, above all monastic, always recommended paying the greatest possible attention in prayer and recollection to what moves in the most profound depths of the heart.

Pablo Picasso, “Mother and Son” (1905)

However, Ignatius, articulating his proposal on the basis of the need to make a demanding and binding decision (“choice” in his terminology), places discernment at the heart of his spiritual reflection and concentrates on it in an unprecedented way, providing criteria for choosing in conformity with God’s will and spelling out precise rules in order to discern effectively.

After Ignatius, entire generations, not only of Catholics but also of Christians of different denominations and even of non-believers, practised his exercises, drawing enormous spiritual and psychological benefits from them in terms of inner peace.

And women? With the passing of time they too have drawn closer to the Ignatian spirituality in ever greater numbers, integrating it into their own particular female experience, based on a faith which bears the impression of what characterizes them as women.

It is true that Ignatius never wanted to found a women’s order yet his letters bear traces of a dense correspondence also with women whom he had the opportunity to meet and to know at first hand.

It can immediately be pointed out that the importance which Ignatius recognizes in all that stirs in a person’s innermost depths is fully in tune with the feminine ability for recollection which seeks to overcome the distraction stemming from immersion in various external occupations (cf. in this regard Luce Irigaray’s latest book, Nascere. Genesi di un nuovo essere umano, Bollati Boringhieri, Turin 2019) [Being born. The genesis of a new human being].

The Ignatian criteria for making a choice and Ignatius’ rules for discernment are very far from being merely a manual of precepts; their attention to detail indicates solely the desire “to help souls”, as Ignatius used often to repeat, guiding them to be able to distinguish between what comes from God and what is the fruit of diabolical temptation.

Feminine sensitivity can find in the Ignatian rules for discernment an effective support for that work of excavation which leads to an ever better knowledge of ourselves and to a form of prayer rooted in interiority and not the fruit of a fleeting emotion.

Two concepts are crucial in the Ignatian rules, namely that of “consolation” and the opposite one of “desolation” with which he wishes to indicate the peace and serenity that come from divine inspirations and, on the contrary, the aridity and turmoil that come from the devil. Moreover there is no doubt that women are particularly well trained in recognizing what it is that stirs within them.

The practice of the Ignatian exercises, however, raises one difficulty which, although it is real for everyone, can nevertheless prove insurmountable for the concrete organization of women’s lives.

The exercises, in fact, in their classical form, provide for a month (which in some cases may be just a single week) of a “closed” retreat, that is distancing oneself from one’s usual places and occupations and from one’s customary interpersonal relations.

How can this be reconciled with the double or even triple work of women and with their commitments to caring for and bringing up children?

We can insert here, as an answer to this question, the proposal of which Maurice Giuliani speaks in the above-mentioned text cited above, that is, that of the Exercises in ordinary life (EVO), in which the process of discernment, meditation and prayer is no longer concentrated in a brief span of time but occupies a long period, without involving distancing oneself from one’s customary life.

Of course the dynamic of these exercises, which fully conform with the Ignatian spirit and which are explained in notes 19 and 20 in the introduction to the text, is very different from the way they are carried out in the closed retreat, but the aim, the choice and the discernment for doing them remain the same.

Obviously the Exercises in Ordinary Life (EVO) were not conceived to meet women’s needs but rather as a resource for all those who cannot take a break from their daily commitments or who, because of a special spiritual sensitivity, would not be able to draw any benefit from the retreat or from prolonged solitude.

Nevertheless it seems possible to see them as a valid aid for those women who want to open themselves to Ignatian spirituality, but who cannot grant themselves a period of isolation and it is therefore a matter of seeing, beyond the identity of the goal, the essential differences, above all with regard to discernment.

In the closed retreat discernment is at the heart of the rhythm of these days punctuated by prayer and meditation and the testing of it is postponed to when, on their return to ordinary life, exercitants can evaluate the goodness and the outreach of the decision they have made.

The situation experienced in the EVO is radically different, in the alternation of prayer and daily occupations and relationships, and every moment of the day affords an opportunity to evaluate one’s own spiritual progress which, without altering the dynamic of events, profoundly changes the spirit in which they are lived.

God’s will, sought and found through discernment and the recognition of the origin of interior movements, becomes progressively the criterion that informs every decision and every personal position taken, colouring normal life with a new light.

Moreover, if discernment has an influence on life, it also has profound repercussions on the spiritual journey, avoiding the risk of fleeting enthusiasms and abstract decisions that are not rooted in the concreteness of existence.

The interiority of discernment and daily exteriority become the two poles through which a path unfolds that brings the person to an ever better knowledge of him or herself and of the voice of God who speaks, even in the din of daily activities.

It is obvious that exercises of this type demand a strong motivation and a high degree of inner maturity, in order to be faithful to a commitment that continuously risks being hindered by distractions coming from the outside world; yet women may find in them a crucial resource for their faith and personal discernment, without having to give up their daily occupations, and, above all their interpersonal relations.

Giorgia Salatiello




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 14, 2019