How I Use Ignatian Discernment to Help Make Decisions Big and Small

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I always thought I knew exactly where my sons would go to school. There’s an excellent Catholic school right next to where I work. So, from the time I knew we were having our first child, I had a plan for what would happen when he turned 4. My husband’s not Catholic, but I told him sometime during our first few months of dating that I had two requirements for my future children. 1) They would be raised Catholic. 2) They would go to Catholic schools. 

As our first son neared 4, however, I had some fears about whether or not he’d be able to go to Catholic school after all, and during his pre-K interview, my fears were confirmed. The teachers had trouble understanding his speech, which didn’t surprise me because we also had trouble understanding it. So, he stayed in daycare for a year while we worked to figure it all out. When we finally discovered that his speech problems were connected to hearing loss, we addressed the issue head-on. He got hearing aids, speech therapy, and occupational therapy. I even started to learn sign language. Still, however, there was this looming question: “Where do we send him to school next year?” As I met more and more families with children experiencing hearing loss, I noted that many of them chose to send their children to local public schools to utilize the special education resources the state provided. I knew from a lifetime in the Catholic educational world that these resources were not as readily available at Catholic alternatives. Suddenly, the decision that I thought was the right one, the only one, the one God wanted for us, didn’t seem so easy anymore.

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For the last decade, I’ve been immersed in Ignatian Spirituality, and I’ve read and studied all about Ignatian Discernment. So, after my initial panic (the panic that always ensues when I have a big decision to make), I settled down and thought about the steps Ignatius taught about making decisions just like these. A Jesuit named Gerald Fagin, S.J. put it best in a series of lectures he once gave called “A Dream Confirmed.” He said that when faced with a decision, big or small, Ignatius teaches us to “[P]ray, get good information, listen to the spirit moving in your heart, use your head to decide the pros and cons, make a decision, and bring it to God for confirmation.” So, that’s what I did.

I prayed. When faced with a decision, I find that this step must come first for me for the rest to fall into place. So, I let the decision of where to send our son to school marinate in my head and show up in my prayers as I reminded myself that asking for God’s help would ground me and direct my efforts. 

I got good information. I researched all the websites and social media platforms that provided concrete information as to what a child with hearing loss would need in the classroom. I spoke with the school. I spoke with the special ed department of our local school district. I spoke with representatives of the special ed department of the district the Catholic school was located in. I asked questions. Lots of questions. And I discussed all the information with my husband, considering each source as I went. 

I listened to the Spirit moving in my heart. Ultimately, when I have a decision to make, my heart, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, already knows more than my head. So, I considered what my heart was telling me. I examined how I was feeling when I thought about sending him to our local public school and how I was feeling when I thought about sending him to the Catholic school instead. I considered which decision made me feel contentment and peace and which made me feel disquiet. 

I used my head to decide the pros and cons. After I listen to the movements in my heart, my head also gets a turn to weigh in as it helps me assess the pros and cons. In this case, I weighed which option would not only provide my son with the accommodations he would need but also provide him with a good education and the elements of faith I desired for him. Each place had pros and cons, and so I weighed which one would provide a better, more holistic experience for him specifically. 

I made a decision. Making a decision in the Ignatian sense involves a step of using your imagination to pretend you already have made the decision and assessing what your head and heart are telling you as you live in that decision for a while. I walked through a day imagining we had officially decided to send him to a public school, and then I walked through a day imagining we had officially decided to send him to Catholic school instead. Based on the contentment and peace I felt walking through the later path, I decided to go with the original plan and send him to Catholic school. 

I brought it to God for confirmation. My usual way of bringing a decision such as this to God for confirmation is to pray, from the depths of my heart, “Lord, this is what I’ve decided. Please give me the grace of knowing that this is the path you wish me to take.” And usually, confirmation comes in the form of a feeling of peace that flows through me and eliminates all anxiety, allowing me to move forward in faith. 

After making the decision to send my son to Catholic school,  I felt this peace almost immediately. 

Sometimes, however, confirmation comes in other, less immediate ways. It might instead come through an interaction with another person once the decision has been made or it might be the opportunities that arise or doors that open for you once you’ve moved forward with a decision. Confirmation can be immediate or it might take some patience, but in conversation with God, it will come. In the end, my son had a wonderful first year and is looking forward to first grade! So, next time you face a decision, big or small, use these steps from Saint Ignatius to help you discern your path and find peace.

Originally published July 31, 2019.

Gretchen Crowder is the director of campus ministry at Jesuit Dallas and an adjunct faculty member for the University of Dallas. She has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s of education from the University of Notre Dame, as well as a master’s degree in theological studies from the University of Dallas. After teaching mathematics for almost a decade, she fully embraced her passion for ministry. She lives in Dallas with her husband, three sons, two dogs, and six chickens.