Lesson #31 – Method of making choices and Examination

                    Mary’s School of Sanctity                   


Having finished the last meditation set out by St. Ignatius, we would now like to share some of his additional gems, namely, his words of advice concerning how one should make choices; his method on how one can make a special examination of one’s conscience geared to the exercitant during a thirty-day retreat; and likewise on the penance he recommends during the retreat.

First let us address St. Ignatius’s advice concerning making choices.  He says:


In every good choice, in so far as it depends upon us, the direction of our intention should be simple.  I must look only to the end for which I am created, that is, for the praise of God Our Lord and for the salvation of my soul.  Therefore, whatever I choose must have as its purpose to help me to this end.  I must not shape or draw the end to the means, but the means to the end.  Many, for example, first choose marriage, which is a means, and secondarily to serve God Our Lord in the married state, which service of God is the end.  Likewise, there are others who first desire to have benefices [an ecclesiastical office], and afterward to serve God in them.  These individuals do not go straight to God, but want God to come straight to their inordinate attachments.  Acting thus, they make a means of the end, and an end of the means, so that what they ought to seek first, they seek last.  My first aim, then, should be my desire to serve God, which is the end, and after this, to seek a benefice or to marry if it is more fitting for me, for these things are but means to an end.  Thus, nothing should move me to use such means or to deprive myself of them except it be only the service and praise of God Our Lord and the eternal salvation of my soul.

Next, St. Ignatius gives:


This contains four points and a note:

First point: All matters in which we wish to make a choice must be either indifferent or good in themselves.  They must meet with the approbation of our Holy Mother, the hierarchical Church, and not be bad or repugnant to her.

Second point: There are some things that are the objects of an immutable choice, such as the priesthood, matrimony, etc.  There are others in which the choice is not immutable, as for example, accepting or relinquishing a benefice, accepting or renouncing temporal goods.

Third point: Once an immutable choice has been made there is no further choice, for it cannot be dissolved, as is true with marriage, the priesthood, etc.  It should be noted only that if one has not made this choice properly, with due consideration, and without inordinate attachments, he should repent and try to lead a good life in the choice that he has made.  Since this choice was ill-considered and improperly made, it does not seem to be a vocation from God as many err in believing, wishing to interpret an ill-considered or bad choice as a divine call.  For every divine call is always pure and clean without any admixture of flesh or other inordinate attachments.

Fourth point: If one has made a proper and well-considered choice that is mutable, and has not been influenced either by the flesh or the world, there is no reason why he should make a new choice.  But he should perfect himself as much as possible in the choice he has made.


It is to be noted that if this mutable choice is not well-considered and sincerely made, then it will be profitable to make the choice anew in the proper manner if one wishes to bring forth fruits that are worthwhile and pleasing to God Our Lord.

Then St. Ignatius sets forth when a wise choice can be made by the following:


THE FIRST OCCASION is when God Our Lord moves and attracts the will so that the devout soul, without question and without desire to question, follows what has been manifested to it.  St. Paul and St. Matthew did this when they followed Christ Our Lord.

THE SECOND OCCASION is present when one has developed a clear understanding and knowledge through the experience of consolations and desolations and the discernment of diverse spirits.

THE THIRD OCCASION is in a time of tranquility.  Here one considers first for what purpose man is born, which is to praise God Our Lord and to save his soul.  Since he desires to attain this end, he chooses some life or state within the bounds of the Church that will help him in the service of God Our Lord and the salvation of his soul.  I said “a time of tranquility,” when the soul is not agitated by diverse spirits, and is freely and calmly making use of its natural powers.


The first method of making a wise and good choice contains six POINTS:

THE FIRST POINT: To place before my mind’s eye the thing about which I wish to make a choice.  It may be an office or a benefice to be accepted or refused, or anything else that is the object of a mutable choice.

THE SECOND POINT: I must have as my aim the end for which I am created, which is the praise of God Our Lord and the salvation of my soul.  At the same time I must remain indifferent and free from any inordinate attachments so that I am not more inclined or disposed to take the thing proposed than to reject it, nor to relinquish it rather than to accept it.  I must rather be like the equalized scales of balance, ready to follow the course which I feel is more for the glory and praise of God Our Lord and the salvation of my soul.

THE THIRD POINT: I must ask God Our Lord to deign to move my will and to reveal to my spirit what I should do to best promote His praise and glory in the matter of choice.  After examining the matter thoroughly and faithfully with my understanding, I should make my choice in conformity with His good pleasure and His most holy will.

THE FOURTH POINT: I will use my reason to weigh the many advantages and benefits that would accrue to me if I held the proposed office or benefice solely for the praise of God Our Lord and the salvation of my soul.  I will likewise consider and weigh the disadvantages and dangers that there are in holding it.  I will proceed in like manner with the other alternative, that is, examine and consider the advantages and benefits as well as the disadvantages and dangers in not holding the proposed office or benefice.

THE FIFTH POINT:  After having thus weighed the matter and carefully examined it from every side, I will consider which alternative appears more reasonable.  Acting upon the stronger judgment of reason and not on any inclination of the senses, I must come to a decision in the matter that I am considering.

THE SIXTH POINT: After such a choice or decision has been reached I should turn with great diligence to prayer in the presence of God Our Lord and offer Him this choice that His Divine Majesty may deign to accept and confirm it, if it be to His greater service and praise.

The second method of making a wise and good choice contains four RULES and a note:

THE FIRST RULE is that the love which moves me and causes me to make this choice should come from above, that is from the love of God, so that before I make my choice I will feel that the greater or lesser love that I have for the thing chosen is solely for the sake of my Creator and Lord.

THE SECOND RULE is to consider some man that I have never seen or known, and in whom I wish to see complete perfection.  Now I should consider what I would tell him to do and choose for the greater glory of God Our Lord and the greater perfection of his soul.  I will act in like manner myself, keeping the rule that I proposed for another.

THE THIRD RULE is to consider that if I were at the point of death, what form and procedure I would wish to have observed in making this present choice.  Guiding myself by this consideration, I will make my decision on the whole matter.

THE FOURTH RULE is to examine and consider how I shall be on the Day of Judgment, to think how I shall then wish to have made my decision in the present matter.  The rule which I should then wish to have followed, I will now follow, that I may on that day be filled with joy and delight.


Taking the above-mentioned rules as my guide for eternal salvation and peace, I will make my choice and offer myself to God Our Lord, following the sixth point of the first method for making a choice (above).

Here is a method St. Ignatius explains as to how the exercitant can make a special examination of conscience while making his thirty-day retreat.

PARTICULAR EXAMINATION OF CONSCIENCE TO BE MADE EVERY DAY [geared to be done during a thirty-day retreat, but this can be adapted for outside of retreat]

This Exercise is performed at three different times, and there are two examinations to be made.

THE FIRST TIME: As soon as he arises in the morning the exercitant should resolve to guard himself carefully against the particular sin or defect which he wishes to correct or amend.

THE SECOND TIME: After the noon meal he should ask God Our Lord for what he desires, namely, the grace to remember how many times he has fallen into the particular sin or defect, and to correct himself in the future. Following this he should make the first examination demanding an account of his soul regarding that particular matter which he proposed for himself and which he desires to correct and amend.  He should review each hour of the time elapsed from the moment of rising to the moment of this examination.  He should make note on the first line (of a chart that he keeps for himself) and make a mark for each time that he has fallen into the particular sin or defect.  He should then renew his resolution to improve himself until the time of the second examination that he will make.

THE THIRD TIME: After the evening meal he will make a second examination, reviewing each hour from the first examination to this second one, and on the second line (of his chart), he will again make a mark for each time that he has fallen into the particular fault or defect.


The following directions will help to remove more quickly the particular sin or defect.

1) Each time that one falls into the particular sin or defect, he should place his hand on his breast, repenting that he has fallen.  This can be done even in the presence of many people without their noticing it.

2) Since the first line of the chart represents the first examination, the second line, the second examination, at night the exercitant should observe whether there is an improvement from the first line to the second, that is, from the first examination to the second.

3) He should compare the second day with the first, that is to say , the two examinations of the present day with the two examinations of the preceding day, and see if there is a daily improvement.

4) He should also compare one week with another and see if there is a greater improvement during the present week than in the past week. 

Fr. Hurter gives a more extensive explanation of the purpose of this particular examen:

Everyone has a more or less characteristic fault into which he falls more frequently than into others; it is more noticed by his companions than his other faults; it is the root of many other faults, and if it be eradicated, the faults which sprang from it will cease.  A man’s capital fault may be compared to the capital of an enemy’s country, which is the key entry point that an experienced general would use to enter into the entire region in time of war.  Thus, a person will make great progress in perfection if he attacks and overcomes his capital faults.  He digs out the fertile roots of many other faults.  If we have succeeded in doing away with our more noticeable faults, we can change our particular examen and aim at cultivating the more necessary virtues.[1]

Fr. Hurter explains the importance of being strict with oneself when fighting his particular fault.  St. Ignatius suggests one good way to do this is to strike one’s breast and say an ejaculation such as, “My Jesus, mercy,” when one becomes aware of having fallen into the fault.  He says that we have to make a firm resolution to combat the particular fault and direct our daily meditations and other prayers to this actual battle in order to strengthen our efforts.  He says, “By the attentive use of the means we shall gradually mend our ways with regard to the more radical faults, and plant the most beautiful virtues in the garden of our heart, thereby reaching the basic virtues and great purity of soul.”[2]

The above advice is designed to be used while the exercitant is on retreat; however, one can use these methods to conquer his predominant fault at any time.  It is a great blessing to discover one’s predominant fault and if one has not found it, he should earnestly entreat God to enlighten him so he may find it.  Once one has found his predominant fault, he should try with all of his might to conquer it, of course, with God’s all-powerful aid.

Now let us turn to what St. Ignatius says about penances done during retreat.


He first addresses the importance of keeping silence. In general, he speaks about keeping exterior and interior silence when making the Spiritual Exercises.  These Exercises were designed to be done for the period of a month.  The exercitant keeps exterior silence including restraining his eyes and keeping a guard of himself, remaining in a serious frame of mind.  For example, he can even go so far as to deprive himself of light in his room when he is trying to excite feelings of pain, sorrow, and tears for his sins.  The exercitant refrains from speaking to anyone besides the retreat master.

The interior silence is kept by the exercitant focusing on the subjects of the meditations and not allowing his mind to wander from the topic at hand.  This interior silence is intended to help the exercitant stay recollected so he can make the Exercises better and they can assist him in finding what he desires for his soul.   

In addition to his instructions on silence, St. Ignatius speaks of interior penance as follows:

The interior penance is sorrow for one’s sins and a firm resolution to not commit them.  Exterior penance is a fruit of interior penance, and is the punishment we inflict upon ourselves for the sins we have committed. We perform these penances in three ways:

a. Regarding food.  It will be noted that when we deny ourselves what is superfluous, it is not penance but temperance.  It is penance when we deny ourselves what it is proper for us to have, and the more we deny ourselves, the greater and better is the penance, provided we do not harm ourselves or cause ourselves serious illness.

b. Regarding sleeping.  Here again it is not penance when we deny ourselves the superfluity of delicate and soft things.  But it is penance when we deny ourselves what is suitable for us.  Again, the more we deny ourselves, the greater is the penance, provided we cause ourselves no injury or serious illness.  Nor should we deny ourselves our due amount of sleep unless we have the bad habit of sleeping too much.  It may then be done to arrive at a proper mean.

c. By chastising the flesh, thereby causing sensible pain.  [Here St. Ignatius mentions particular austerities.]

What seems the most suitable and safest thing in doing penance is for the pain to be felt in the flesh, without penetration to the bones, thus causing pain but not illness.


1. Exterior penances are performed principally to produce three effects:

          a. To satisfy for past sins.

          b. To overcome ourselves, so that sensuality will be obedient to reason and our lower inclinations be subject to higher ones.

          c. To seek and find some grace or gift that we obtain, as for instance, a deep sorrow for our sins and to grieve for them for the pains and sufferings that Our Lord endured in His passion, or for the solution of some doubt that is troubling us.

When St. Ignatius discusses the types of exterior penances, he stresses doing the penance that obtains for the exercitant the desired goal, whether it be tears of compunction or the curbing of one’s passions, etc., and that the exercitant should alternate penances as needed in order to obtain the desired goal.  It should be noted, though, that he advises that the penances which refer to the chastising of the body are not to be done in public.


1. There is less need to abstain from bread for it is not the kind of food over which the appetite is usually inclined to be uncontrolled, or over which temptation is so insistent as with other kinds.

2. Abstinence is more appropriate with regard to drink than in eating bread.  Therefore, one must consider carefully what would be beneficial to him and therefore permissible, and also what would be harmful, and so to be avoided.

3. With regard to foods, greater and more complete abstinence must be practiced because here temptation is likely to be more insistent and the appetite inclined to be excessive.  In order to avoid overindulgence, abstinence may be observed in two ways: by accustoming oneself to eat coarse foods, or if delicacies are taken, to eat them sparingly.

4. While taking care not to become sick, the more one abstains in the quantity of food suited to him, the sooner he will arrive at the mean he should observe in eating and drinking. There are two reasons for this: first, by thus helping and disposing himself he will more frequently feel the interior directions, consolations, and divine inspirations that will show him the mean that is proper for him.  Secondly, if he finds that with such abstinence he lacks sufficient health and strength for the Spiritual Exercises, he will easily be able to judge what is more suitable for sustaining his body.

5. While one is eating, he may consider that he sees Christ Our Lord at table with His Apostles, how He eats and drinks; how He looks and how He speaks, and he will strive to imitate Him.  He will thus keep his understanding occupied principally with Our Lord, and less with the sustenance of his own body.  Thus, he may adopt a better method and order in the manner in which he should govern himself.   

6. At other times, while eating, he may consider the lives of the saints or some other pious contemplation, or he may consider some spiritual work that he has to perform.  If he is occupied with such matters, he will take less delight and sensual pleasure in the nourishment of his body.

7. Above all, he must take care that his mind is not entirely occupied in what he is eating, and that he is not carried away by his appetite into eating hurriedly.  Let him rather master himself both in the way that he eats and the amount that he takes.

8. To avoid excess, it is very useful after dinner or after supper, or at another time when one feels no desire to eat, to make a determination for the next dinner or supper, and so for the subsequent days, on the amount of food that is proper for him to eat.  Let him not exceed this amount, no matter how strong his appetite or the temptation.  Rather, it is the better to overcome every disorderly appetite and temptation of the enemy.  If he is tempted to eat more, he should less.

Although these eight rules are meant for the duration of a retreat, they can be adapted for outside of a retreat.

In our next lesson we will complete our treatment of St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, which include his advice concerning scruples and his additional meditation points on the life of Our Lord.  We will also include some thoughts about resolutions we can take based on the Spiritual Exercises.

[1]           Considerations from Sketches for the Exercises of An Eight Days’ Retreat by Hugo Hurter, S.J., Ph.D., D.D., Professor Emeritus of Theology in the Catholic University of Innsbruck, copyright 1918; third edition, 1926, St. Louis, MO and London, Pages 89-91.


[2]            Considerations from Sketches for the Exercises of An Eight Days’ Retreat by Hugo Hurter, S.J., Ph.D., D.D., Professor Emeritus of Theology in the Catholic University of Innsbruck, copyright 1918; third edition, 1926, St. Louis, MO and London, Pages 90-91.