Discernment of Desires

Much of this end-of-year series exploring values and goals in the sacred life will be spent in the contemporary worlds of positive psychology and coaching; this week’s practice, however, comes from the Ignatian Christian spiritual tradition, which like these more recent disciplines, understands the importance of putting our life under the microscope to see what God may be doing within it. We’ve spent time in this tradition before, in both the week on the Examen and Ignatian Gospel Contemplation. This week, we’ll explore what this tradition has to say about the Discernment of Desires; this is to say, how we might separate our genuine, God-given desires from those that are surfacing from our ego, pride, or momentary whims.


There are two equal and opposite dangers when it comes to the topic of desire. The first, which many Christians — including whole traditions — have fallen into, is to reject all desires as evil. Without too much exaggeration, these Christians see humanity as fundamentally fallen from grace and therefore wholly unable to desire goodness or discern right from wrong. The other danger is the one to which many in our present culture seem to fall, which is to assume that all desires are good and should be carried out with little in the way of boundaries or limitations. If the first view is too pessimistic about the possibilities of human nature, put to any kind of inspection, the second view reveals itself as far too optimistic. “Do what thou wilt” more often than not leaves a trail of devastation in its wake. The mediating position between these extremes (and where most of us live) is to say that our desires are a mixed bag; we have deep and consistent desires of our hearts and we have momentary whims, we have desires that are loving and desires that are selfish, we have desires that lead us to grow and desires that lead us to stagnate or even shrivel. The key isn’t to reject our desires as evil, or to accept them all as good, but to sift them, examine them, and discern which we should follow and which we should set aside. This is the first major presupposition of the Discernment of Desires within the Ignatian tradition.

This first presupposition is an implication of the Principle and Foundation of St Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises:

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created. From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.

From this principle, the main question surrounding our desires becomes not “What do I want?” but “Where does this desire lead me?” Does it lead me further down the path of love? Does it help me to “love God in all things and love all things in God”? Am I being motivated by what I can give and honour, or by what I can get or manipulate? Anything that can be an object of our desire — material possessions, career paths, relationships, health — can contribute to the life of love to which we are called, but they can also become spiritually dangerous if we seek fulfillment in the objects themselves rather than in what they mean in God. For example, if we want to lose weight in order to honour the body God has given us and to live a healthier, more vibrant and vital life, then that’s probably a very good thing. But, if we want to lose weight because of shame about our body or a desire to manipulate or control our life, then that desire is misplaced. It’s not about the desire itself as much as it is about the motivation and how the desire functions within our heart. Discernment, then, is about spiritual freedom, being able to choose with equanimity between desires that lead us toward love and those that do not. As Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au note in The Discerning Heart:

As we sit with our desires in prayer, we try to refine the acoustics of our hearts and hear more clearly the groanings of our beings wrapped up in various desires. Discernment, like panning for gold, is a way of sifting through the complex desires embedded in our hearts (139).

If all this sounds like something out of a twelve step program, it’s for good reason. Ignatian spirituality understands that all things are good but that all things also have the capacity to be misdirected. No puppy can replace the love of an absent parent; no bag of chips can fill the emotional hole in a human heart. Our authentic desires are not analgesics or distractions, but are for our healing and the healing of the world. They manifest God’s love and draw us ever towards God’s love. This is the second presupposition of Ignatian discernment.

The third major presupposition is that genuine desires are vocational, that is, they are deep, recurring, and persistent, and connect to our identity and mission in life. If the vocation of all humanity is to love God in all things and all things in God, that vocation will find different expressions in each of us. Thus our persistent desires are important indicators of God’s will for us as persons: “To live vital and passionate lives requires that we pay serious attention to our desires when discerning life choices. Desires reflect the longing of our heart and point to an incompleteness yearning for fulfilment” (131).  And again: “To mold a life around these deepest aspirations makes a meaningful life possible and galvanizes our spirituality. To base a life on social expectations and the wishes of others can lead only to fragmentation. The challenge of ongoing spiritual discernment is to discover, in the different seasons of our lives, what is our pearl of great price and then to give our heart and soul to it.” (149)

Connected to all of this is the fourth presupposition of Ignatian discernment: that all authentic desires are public. This means that they offer something to the world. It also means that they are not private concerns; they don’t lead us to secrets, double-lives, or compartmentalized areas of life, but to greater openness, unity of purpose, and integration.

To summarize this discussion, the four presuppositions of discernment that guide this week’s practice are:

  1. Not all desires are equally authentic;
  2. The more authentic a desire, the more it moves us towards love: to glorify God, give ourselves to others, and move away from self-centredness;
  3. All authentic desires are vocational (i.e., “integrally connected with who we are”); and
  4. Authentic desires are public and work for the public good.

What is it?

  1. Identify and articulate what it is you want.
  2. Examine the underlying values (human, Christian, spiritual) and personal concerns involved. What is at stake? For whom?
  3. Strive for equanimity. Where will you find God at work if you get your desire? If you don’t?
  4. Take time — as much time as you need — to pray over the matter, paying attention to how you are feeling led in the prayer.
  5. After the ‘head’ work and ‘heart’ work, after testing your desire against your values and the values of your faith, is it something that would be good to pursue?
  6. Discuss the issue with a spiritual friend and those whom the desire affects.
  7. Make your decision and live it out with courage and faith.

My Week

This was a challenging practice for me this week. Not because it was new to me or because I was resistant to it, but because it isn’t always easy to see what comes out of this kind of exercise. I was a bit surprised at how superficial many of the things I want for the coming year are — not superficial in the sense of on the surface or materialistic, but in the sense of unimportant; if I didn’t do them it wouldn’t bother me. At the same time, those desires that are deep and feel the most vocational are those that are the least within my control. (I admit that there’s probably a message in there for me, but it’s still not a pleasant reminder.) As always, I found this exercise to be really helpful and beautiful, but very challenging.


This is one of those practices that resonates profoundly with my beliefs. Whenever I am reminded of its way of looking at the world, my soul screams ‘Yes!’ in affirmation. It works best, of course, with figuring out the big things in life, but it also helps me to clarify what’s at stake with the little desires and momentary whims too. When, as happens every once in a while, I find myself craving McDonalds, for example, rather than leaving that desire unexamined, exposure to this practice has made me dig deeper and ask ‘Where is this coming from?’ Am I feeling nostalgic? Am I feeling empty, hurt, or stressed and want to soothe that with salt and fat? Am I feeling overtaxed or deprived and feel the need for a ‘naughty’ reward or treat? Or, do I just fancy it without any deeper meaning? The answer to those questions may not be a deciding factor — soothing coping mechanisms aren’t necessarily a bad thing provided they don’t become a lifestyle — I do find it helpful to think these desires through. It’s the matter I’ve talked about before of being “in choice,” of being free as much not to follow our desires as we are to follow them. If I do identify some emotional source for such a craving, I can then ask myself if there’s anything I can do about it that’s more constructive than eating about it. I find it very helpful.

But the benefits of this practice increase exponentially with the depth of the desire. The more that is at stake, the more important it is to discern our path carefully. This means, though, that this practice shouldn’t be mistaken for a shortcut to easy and quick discernment. The greater the desire, the greater care that is required; and the greater care required, the greater time that is also required. The biggest example of this for me was the two-year process during which I discerned my way into and then out of the path towards ordained ministry. I discerned my way in because of encouragement from people close to me and my situation, the closing of doors leading to other paths, and a deep love of pastoral care and teaching. Ordained ministry had been an ongoing question for me for close to twenty years; and so it was a path I felt I needed to go down. But as the process went on, I became increasingly uncomfortable. It felt more often than not that my official church responsibilities were pulling me away from my vocation in the church instead of expressing it. Further discernment made me realize that ordained ministry wasn’t my vocation, because, in actual fact, it wasn’t something I desired at all. What I had discerned two years earlier was the need to answer to the persistent question of whether ordained ministry was my vocation. And so, while I felt fully comfortable stepping back from that process (though in a characteristically careful way), I didn’t feel I had made a mistake in pursuing it. It was the path I had needed to take, even if I also needed to turn off that path before its destination. My point in sharing this is that it took a full two years for this discernment to take place. I needed to be open to new insights and not be fixated on my original decision. (Thank God the Diocese has the good sense for their ordination process to be two years long!)

More than anything, I find Ignatian discernment of desires to be a clarifying exercise. It helps me to see what’s what. As I mentioned in my brief description of how my week went, most of the things I looked at were ultimately avocational: I could just as easily not do them as do them. But they were all in line with my identity, values, and faith, and were ways I could express my vocation, even if there are other ways I could equally express it. This is good information for me to have as I look towards my goals and plans for next year, since it means that these can be areas I can explore and play with without feeling like too much is riding on their ‘success.’ The practice was also clarifying for the big and elusive desire at the core of my vocational puzzle. Because it still resonates so profoundly in my heart and because it feels there is so much at stake with it, I understand that it’s still good for me to desire it, as elusive as it is. (That doesn’t make it any easier to live with it, but that is what other sacred practices are for!) That’s a good reminder for me, when I often wonder if it would be better just to accept that it isn’t in the cards for me and try to live out the underlying vocational purpose in a different way.

All told, it was wonderful to spend time with this practice this week, particularly in this season when I’m planning for the year ahead. It’s never a bad idea to put my desires of my heart under the microscope, and I’m grateful to have the resource of Ignatian discernment of desires within my faith tradition to help me do this well.

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