Jesuit education, we have said, is a process that has three key parts, being attentive, being reflective, and being loving. It results in the kind of good decision-making that Ignatius called “discernment.” The goal of Jesuit education is to produce men and women for whom discernment is a habit.
We can think of discernment as the lifelong project of exploring our experience, naming its meaning, and living in a way that translates this meaning into action. We can also think of this process as something we focus on with special intensity at particular moments in our lives — during the four years of college, for example, or when we have to make important decisions and want to do so freely and with a sense of what God is calling us to. At these times, we might be especially conscious of using spiritual exercises to help us negotiate the process. But we can also think of these three movements as the intertwined dynamics of daily life, the moment-by-moment activity of becoming fully human.
Arguably, it is the daily exercise of discernment that grounds the other kinds of spiritual growth — the regular practice of attentiveness, reflection, and choosing through which our lives take on a meaningful direction. In fact, Ignatius thought that the most useful kind of prayer is to spend a few minutes each day deepening our awareness of how God works in the events of the day and how we respond, a practice he called an examen. I begin by calling to mind that God is involved in shaping the direction of my life and I ask for light about this. Then, I review the events of the day, especially those where my feelings have been most engaged, positively or negatively. I notice the patterns and the emerging insights about which experiences lead me towards God and which lead away. And I end by looking ahead to tomorrow and asking to live with a growing sense of God’s trust in my future.
For Ignatius, a key element of discerning is the exercise of imagination. In doing the examen, he suggests we use our imaginations to elicit the feelings that have pulled us one way or another during the day and to picture how we might live differently tomorrow. In the Exercises, when he is advising us how to pray, he urges us to take a passage from the Gospels and imagine ourselves present in the scene, listening to the words of the people there, experiencing their feelings, and he asks us to elicit our own feelings in response. And, in the account of his very earliest spiritual experiences, he tells us that, while he was recovering from his wounds, he used to lie on his bed by the open window of his room and contemplate the stars, lost in reveries about the great deeds he would accomplish, at first for the princess he was in love with, and then for Jesus. Even in old age, when he spent his days sitting at a desk in Rome administering the affairs of the Society, he would go to the roof of the Jesuit residence in the evening and look at the stars in order to see his life as God saw it. Finding images that embody our dreams can be a lifelong form of prayer.
In the practice of discerning, we grow in being able to imagine how we are going to live our lives. We discover our vocations. The novelist and theologian Frederick Buechner describes vocation as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” When we arrive at this place, and understand the fit between who we are and what the world needs of us, Ignatius urges us to be unafraid to live with the consequences of this realization, to respond with generosity and magnanimity because this is the way we can love as God loves. Jesuit tradition uses the Latin word magis or “more” to sum up this ideal, a life lived in response to the question: How can I be more, do more, give more? Jesuit education is complete when its graduates embody this vision of life and work.