Assuming the Best Intentions While Discerning as a Couple

silhouette couple facing different directions on beach - photo by Daniel Joshua on Unsplash

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.

If you have insights into how to discern as a couple or as a group, feel free to share in the comments section below.

Photo by Daniel Joshua on Unsplash.

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Marina Berzins McCoy
Marina Berzins McCoy is a professor at Boston College, where she teaches philosophy and in the BC PULSE service-learning program. She is the author of The Ignatian Guide to Forgiveness and Wounded Heroes: Vulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Philosophy. She and her husband are the parents to two young adults and live in the Boston area.


  1. I don’t believe at all in the sexism argument. The husband is the head of the family and the ultimate decision maker as he lives, honors and cherishes his wife’s desires. As long as the husband’s decisions aline with God’s will and take into account his wife’s desires, there is no sin. And Augustine is assuming the husband is doing just that.

  2. Thank you for your reflection on Ignatius’ advice, thought provoking. I read it yesterday and was left conflicted and thought I would give more time to reflect. Here is what I think:
    – Yes he offers good advice to both and thus there is no sin in this discernment. However, the section of his writing you chose seems to reflect the sexism of Ignatius’s day. “Secondly, Ignatius does put his thumb on the scale by citing the husband’s plan as better and seems to be the more spiritual. I disagree with his assessment when Ignatius notes: ” 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”.
    In this passage Ignatius is telling his male fried “yours is the better plan because you have the ability to make even more money which after your death, you can leave for good causes.” The woman’s plan which was not worthy of Ignatius mention – to keep the land in honor of her deceased son as a memorial to him – does that not offer a better path of rememberance and ultimately reflect an eventual gift to good causes is actually HER SONS GIFT! Does she not have the more insightful plan? Dear old dad can keep making money and donate his resources to a good cause when his time comes.
    I certainly appreciate that Ignatius’ advice in the sexist world of his day was ahead of its time but in the 21st century, it should be noted. Thank you again.

    • I read this differently. I don’t see Ignatius encouraging the husband ‘to make even more money..”. When Ignatius writes, “if he is a man able to employ himself on better things than possessions”, he’s saying several things. First, holding onto the land until after the couple’s death is to keep a major possession. Even if that land is held ‘as a memorial’ to the deceased son, it remains a kind of dead weight. But he’s also encouraging the couple, and perhaps the man in particular, to continue on the path of dispossession of material wealth. Ignatius may suspect that the wife’s desire to hold on to the land until after their deaths bespeaks a reluctance to be freed from a possession (which she’s come to associate with her dead son). Hence, selling the land immediately and then using the funds to address the needs of others in their own lives, is perhaps the more ‘spiritual’ path. Death strips us all of every possession. The work is in letting go of possessions in our own lifetime.

  3. My mother-in-law was a very religious person but knew nothing about Ignatian Spirituality. However she once said to me that she always assumed that people had the best of intentions. I think it’s a good way to live.

  4. Couples often assist each other in accumulating retirement stability. If they have children it may be best to let them inherit after the couple’s death. We were lucky to allow my wife to take care of our children but in today’s world many couples both have to work which sometimes puts additional strain on the marriage. Ignatius advice to us today would be interesting.


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