All I know about Ignatian spiritual exercises was orally transmitted to me from priests and others, therefore I may misunderstand Ignatian spiritual exercises and in that case please correct me.

According to this video and from what I hear from people around me, is that Ignatian spiritual exercises are good for the discernment of vocation (whether one should be married or live as a monk or become a secular priest) for one's life. In these Ignatian spiritual exercises, one should listen internally for some kind of spiritual movement of the soul that comes from Holy Spirit and based on these feelings discern what path in life to take. These movements from the Holy Spirit are conferring some grace to one's soul, but why believe that one should feel the receiving of grace? One typically does not feel grace, rather, it is perceived through a longer time by considering objectively one's life. From what I understand about these Ignatian spiritual exercises it seems to me that they just add to what solid Thomist Rev. Fr. Richard Butler O.P. calls "An Unnecessary Mystery".

Question: Whether Ignatian spiritual exercises are good for the discernment of vocation according to Thomistic understanding of vocation?

Some related questions that shed more light on the Thomistic understanding of vocation and which will help in understanding my question:

  1. Catholic doctrine on spiritual vocation.
  2. History of the doctrine of a religious vocation in the Catholic Church.

2 Answers 2


Father Romanus Cessario, O.P.'s essay, Thomas Aquinas and Vocational Discernment may be of use to you. There he argues that the Ignatian commentarial tradition deviates from a Thomistic understanding of grace and vocation. For example:

Aquinas does not encourage a man to practice a “discernment” of Dominican life in order to distinguish it from other possible vocations in the Church. The reason is simple. Growth in charity results only from a divine gift given. We call this gift, the gift of grace. Strictly speaking however, no one can discern a grace, no one may discover by human means whether or not he possesses sanctifying grace. The Church in fact disallows a direct knowledge of the presence of habitual grace in a given individual: “Since it belongs to the supernatural order, grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith.” (29) Aquinas reasons as follows: God is the principle and source of all graces given. God, however, remains “beyond the reach of our knowledge on account of his sublimity.” (30) So no man can discern with certainty, that is, grasp, perceive, apprehend, or judge, that he possesses the gift of divine grace.

From what I remember, the gist of the article is that simple things guide discernment, such as love of God, a desire to serve him, and a free choice of the will. For Cessario the tradition that has come out of Ignatius' Exercises is too complex and seeks out a kind of certainty that just isn't attainable or realistic.


Spiritual Exercises and vocations

St. Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises are recommended by Thomists Fr. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., in his Three Ages of the Interior Life (pt. 1, ch. 16, § "The Spiritual Works of the Saints"), and Fr. Antonio Royo Marín, O.P., in his Theology of Christian Perfection (passim, esp. pp. 626 ff., "Discernment of Spirits").

§ "Rules for the Discernment of Spirits" (Spiritual Exercises pt. 2 ch. 6) includes how to choose one's state of life.

Man can know he has grace.

why believe that one should feel the receiving of grace? One typically does not feel grace, rather, it is perceived through a longer time by considering objectively one's life

There are ways in which we can know (not "feel") we have grace, although not with certainty (aside from a direct revelation).

In "Whether man can know that he has grace?" (Summa Theologica I-II q. 112 a. 5), St. Thomas Aquinas explains the ways the reality of grace can or cannot be known in one's soul:

There are three ways of knowing a thing:

  1. by revelation, and thus anyone may know that he has grace, for God by a special privilege reveals this at times to some, in order that the joy of safety may begin in them even in this life, and that they may carry on toilsome works with greater trust and greater energy, and may bear the evils of this present life, as when it was said to Paul (2 Cor. 12:9): "My grace is sufficient for thee."

  2. a man may, of himself, know something, and with certainty; and in this way no one can know that he has grace. For certitude about a thing can only be had when we may judge of it by its proper principle. Thus it is by undemonstrable universal principles that certitude is obtained concerning demonstrative conclusions. Now no one can know he has the knowledge of a conclusion if he does not know its principle. But the principle of grace and its object is God, Who by reason of His very excellence is unknown to us, according to Job 36:26: "Behold God is great, exceeding our knowledge." And hence His presence in us and His absence cannot be known with certainty, according to Job 9:11: "If He come to me, I shall not see Him; if He depart I shall not understand." And hence man cannot judge with certainty that he has grace, according to 1 Cor. 4:3,4: "But neither do I judge my own self … but He that judgeth me is the Lord."

  3. things are known conjecturally by signs; and thus anyone may know he has grace, when he is conscious of delighting in God, and of despising worldly things, and inasmuch as a man is not conscious of any mortal sin. And thus it is written (Apoc. 2:17): "To him that overcometh I will give the hidden manna … which no man knoweth, but he that receiveth it," because whoever receives it knows, by experiencing a certain sweetness, which he who does not receive it, does not experience. Yet this knowledge is imperfect; hence the Apostle says (1 Cor. 4:4): "I am not conscious to myself of anything, yet am I not hereby justified," since, according to Ps. 18:13: "Who can understand sins? From my secret ones cleanse me, O Lord, and from those of others spare Thy servant."

  • 1
    Is a recommendation of The Exercises at the same time a recommendation of the Ignatian model of discernment? Although some emphasis is placed on making a particular discernment within the Exercises, this is not a necessary part of and the retreatant is permitted to skip over it. Ignatius' professed goal is broader: to grow in knowledge, love, and service of God.
    – zippy2006
    May 27, 2019 at 3:02
  • @zippy2006 Rules for the Discernment of Spirits (Spiritual Exercises pt. 2 ch. 6) includes how to choose one's state of life.
    – Geremia
    May 27, 2019 at 4:07
  • @Thom If one has decided on religious life, it is indeed praiseworthy to pursue it, but for those who do not know what state of life to choose, St. Ignatius's discernment process can be helpful.
    – Geremia
    May 27, 2019 at 22:38
  • 1
    @Geremia As I said, there is some emphasis placed on a particular discernment but it is in no way central to The Exercises. Beyond that, your first source recommends Ignatius' writings along with 50 other spiritual authors, and your second source doesn't mention Ignatian spirituality at all, focusing instead on Carmelite discernment of spirits. The case for Thomistic approval of Ignatian vocational discernment simply isn't very strong here.
    – zippy2006
    May 29, 2019 at 22:15

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