St. Ignatius wrote many letters, and on occasion I read from a collection of them to learn more about his approach to applying spirituality in a practical way to life. I recently read one in which he had been asked by a wealthy couple to help them decide what to do with their property after the death of their son and only heir (“To Fillipo Leerno, Sept. 22, 1554”). The husband wanted to sell the property, and the wife wanted to donate it after their deaths to a worthy cause. I can’t help but imagine that the couple had experienced significant conflict, and each was hoping that Ignatius would vindicate his or her side.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Ignatius takes a third way and gives rich guidance for how to go about discernment. Here is the main element of his reply:
I will say two things. The first is that without sinning either could carry out his or her intention—however they think best. Secondly, the husband’s plan seems to be the more spiritual, especially if he is a man who is able and accustomed to employ himself on better things than possessions, and if he intends after his death, or even during his lifetime, to give what he has for the benefit of his soul and the service of God. (Ignatius of Loyola: Letters and Instructions, eds. Palmer SJ, Padberg SJ, and McCarthy SJ, St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2006, p. 516)
I confess that on my first read, I thought Ignatius was taking sides, but a second look assured me that his aim was in fact to reconcile their two views. We don’t know what the husband’s original intentions were in wanting to sell the property. Did he plan to save the money, spend it on himself, or give it away? Despite the unclear intentions, Ignatius appeals to the best part of the husband’s nature, perhaps even praising his plan as the better of the two in order to encourage him. Ignatius writes as if the man’s intention all along were to use the money for the benefit of others and not himself.
Through this suggestion, Ignatius accomplishes at least two things. First, he practices his principle of always assuming the best intentions of others when they speak. Second, he aligns the desires of the two married partners, by saying that it really does not matter too much exactly how the wealth is used generously, as long as their aim is to share it and to let go of materialism. In slightly different words, Ignatius encourages them to be a man and woman for others.
Ignatius is also clear that no matter what they choose, there is no sin. Perhaps here, he is reminding the married couple not to get into a dynamic of regarding one person’s answer as good and the other as bad, but rather to praise the good desires behind both people’s actions.
Ignatius concludes the letter by consoling the couple on the death of their son and assuring them that they can have a worthy “heir” in whatever charitable project they pursue. His tone is kind, and he encourages them to “make an election worthy of spiritual persons.” In other words, Ignatius speaks to what might really be at the heart of the couple’s dispute: figuring out how to move forward after a very difficult loss that has upended their lives. He encourages them to find a way forward through finding new meaning in discovering a new legacy, together.
While this couple’s situation will not apply exactly to every reader today, Ignatius’s wise words about discernment remain relevant:
- Choose from a generous part of our spirit. We cannot keep our material possessions after death, but our legacy can continue through generous actions.
- When discerning with others, remember there is not always one “right” way, but there are often many good paths forward. Be generous with co-discerners.
- When there are conflicts in discerning, we have to recognize the deeper desires and dynamics at work. It’s not always only about the decision at hand; it might be about how to meet deeper human needs. Attend to those needs, too, knowing that God wants to work with them.