Part 5: Is there a reliable method for discerning important life choices in prayer?
Hello, and welcome back. We’re glad that you’ve joined us for this fifth tape in a series of five tapes around spiritual discernment. In the first tape, we tried to answer the question, what is spiritual discernment? In the second tape, we talked about what do we mean by saying a vocation? We have a vocation, or we have a particular calling in life. And third, we looked at the life of Jesus and tried to imagine some factors that influenced his sense of his own vocation, his purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God. In the fourth session, we talked about how we might begin to explore and look for what our purpose in life might be and begin to focus down on a particular path that might be right for us.
In this final video, I’d like to just talk about how we make a choice and how we bring God into that choice and how we can decide. And I’d like specifically to present a method of discernment that is offered to us by Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Saint Ignatius was a 16th century Spanish Saint, and he is the author of “The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius”. And in those exercises, he lays out a method for discernment. So we’ll talk about that method today.
I’d like to begin just by saying a bit about discernment itself. What is discernment and what does it mean to discern? It’s interesting that the dictionary gives two different meetings. One is to discern is to perceive or to recognize. And the second meaning is to discern is to separate mentally one thing from another or others. So if those are the definitions, we can see that in spiritual discernment as well. What are we to perceive or recognize? In another words, what are we to look at? What are we to investigate? And so discernment involves, first of all, a kind of careful look at our lives, an investigation of our gifts, our talents, our interests, our desires, our capabilities. So we’re gathering information about ourselves and about different possible paths that we might follow. And then the second movement of discernment is that movement to separate mentally one thing from another or others. And here we take all of this data that we’ve received and we sift through it to decide what are the most important factors and what seems to weigh in that determines, helps determine our course.
So we’ll engage in both of those things as we go along. I’d like to encourage you to do some reflecting first of all, and you might wanna pause the tape at some point for this. Do some reflecting about your own experience of discernment. You might ask yourself, is there a time in my life where I actually prayed through a difficult or important choice or where I came to a juncture in life and had different options and how I prayed with that, how I discerned which one to take, how did I make my choice? What process did I go through to make this decision? And then ask yourself, how did I sense God was working in me or with me in making this decision? How is God involved? And how certain was I that I was finding in God’s purpose for me? Or how comfortable did I feel with the decision? Did I feel it was right? And did I feel consolation as I thought about this choice? And finally, was there any evidence that confirmed the choice for me? Did someone’s words or actions or something happened that seemed to confirm this choice and reassure me that it was the right choice?
So you might take a pause right now and just pause and think about your own process of discernment. How do you go about making choices? And if you pray about choices, how do you pray? What do you look for? How do you expect God to partner with you and to help you make the best choice?
So let me begin to explain this method that Ignatius proposes. Ignatius begins his exercises with a prayer exercise that is called the Principle and Foundation. The Principle and Foundation of the spiritual exercises is the first thing that retreatants will pray as they move through the spiritual exercises in the course of a retreat. And in the Principle and Foundation, Ignatius is laying out his vision, his understanding of the purpose of life, the meaning of life. So listen to his words. First of all, he says, “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord.” And by this means to save his soul. So he’s saying in the very first sentence, our purpose, human beings have been created to praise, reverence, and serve God. And by this means to save their souls, to live fully into God’s eternal life for them. So if we could think of it, we might rephrase it slightly and say, human beings are created to know God, to love God, and to serve God. And maybe you’ll recognize those phrases from the song “Day by Day Three Things We Pray”, to see thee more clearly, to love thee more dearly, to follow thee more nearly, day by day. So to know God, to love God, and to serve God. We are created to know God, we are unique among all the creatures of the earth. We have a unique capacity to relate to God and to receive God’s love and to return our love to God. So we have a capacity to know God and a capacity to love God. God invites us into a personal relationship with God’s self. That’s what our faith teaches and proclaims.
And then finally, that love expresses itself in service. And we serve God by our worship and by our service to other people. So this is why we’ve been created. As Saint Augustine once said, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. And Ignatius would say, our lives are going to be meaningless and unfocused unless we understand that this is the purpose for which we’ve been created, and this is the way to fulfillment in life, to know God, to love God, and to serve God. So then Ignatius goes on and says, “And the other things on the face of the earth are created for us, that they may help us in prosecuting the end for which we are created.” So he’s saying available to us are all of these gifts that are surrounded, the beauty of the natural world and the creation, the resources of the earth, our homes, our schools, our churches, our families, our loved ones, all of these, our resources, our wealth, our financial resources, material resources, all of these are available to us and they can be used to further us along the way toward the end for which we’ve been created. In other words, they can be used profitably to help us to know, love, and serve God. But Ignatius warns they can also become obstacles to our achieving that purpose of life. And they become obstacles when we cling to them, when we are attached to them, when we make them the center of our focus and when we get absorbed by them so that they become idols, they become gods for us and take the place of God.
And so we get consumed with being wealthy or being successful or being popular or whatever it is, and that skews our life. And so, everything in the world is available to us. We can use this in a good way to further us to know, love, and serve God, or if we handle it wrong and we try to cling to it and possess it and make it the center of our lives, these can be obstacles. These same things can be obstacles that hinder us on our way to fulfilling the purpose for which we’ve been created. Next, Ignatius goes on to say, “From this, it follows that we are to use them as much as they help us to our end. And we ought to rid ourselves of them so long as they hinder us to it.” So just as Jesus spoke to the rich young ruler and said, “For you to find the way to life, you should sell all your possessions.” He recognized that they were getting in the way of him realizing the purpose for which he’d been created. And he said, if you’ll get rid of them, you’ll remove this hindrance that’s in your way and you’ll be able to progress. So these things, Ignatius says, can help us or hinder us depending on how we use them. They can further us toward the end to which we’ve been created, or they can limit us.
And so Ignatius then says his final statement, “For this, it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it. So that on our part, we want not health rather than sickness. We want not riches rather than poverty. Honor rather than dishonor. Long life rather than a short life and all the rest. And we choose only what is most conducive for us to realize the end for which we’ve been created.” So Ignatius says, look at all of these resources around you, your relationships, the things that you possess, the opportunities that you have and decide if they are helps or hindrances. And if they are hindrances, rid yourself of them, and if they are helps, then embrace them. But look at all things, he says, with a spirit of indifference, and that’s a very important word in Ignatian spirituality. And it doesn’t mean what we usually take it to mean. Usually, we talk about indifference as a kind of apathy, see that movie or that movie, I don’t care which, I’m indifferent to that choice. So we talk about it as kind of an apathy, either one will work for me. But Ignatius is talking about it in a different way. He’s talking about approaching a decision or a choice and holding it in balance. So that I say, maybe this job or this path is the right path for me, or maybe it’s not. And I’m going to come to God with both of my hands balanced, like in equilibrium. And I’m going to present this choice before God and pray about it and to see which God leads me to. So his indifference has do with freedom. I don’t insist on having this thing nor do I immediately reject it, but I come with a balanced view, trying to be free, trying to be indifferent toward the outcome in order that I can choose the thing that will give glory to God. So he says we desire and choose that which is most conducive for us to realize the end for which we’ve been created and thus to bring honor to God.
So you see, Ignatius has this framework in which he’s doing discernment. He says, all of us have been created for this purpose. We’ve been created to know, love, and serve God. All of us have access to gifts and resources and material things, but we should use them if they help us progress, but we should get rid of them if they become obstacles and hindrances. And so we need to approach everything, every choice and everything. Should I buy a bigger house or should I invest in this relationship? And we bring those things before God in a spirit of indifference, a spirit of freedom to invite God to help us identify which things will be helpful to us and which will be hindrances. So he creates a large framework, the purpose for which we’ve been created. And then within that framework now he’s going to help guide us to what might be a good choice for us. So we move on to a section in the spiritual exercises that is entitled “Three Times for Making a Good and Sound Election”. In other words, three contexts for making a good choice. And the first time that he describes is a time of absolute clarity.
And this is, Ignatius says, “The first time is when God our Lord so moves and attracts the will, that without doubting or being able to doubt, such devout soul follows what is shown.” And here, God shows us something and makes it so clear to us that this is a path we must take, this is the option that we must choose. It feels right to us, and we just don’t have any doubts about it. And occasionally, we get that kind of clear revelation, that kind of clarity and simplicity and assurance that this is the right path, or this is the right person to marry, or this is the right vocation to pursue. We have a very strong feeling about it. Ignatius gives the example of St. Paul writing to Damascus persecuting the Christians. And he is stopped by a blinding light on the road and the voice of God literally turns him around and makes him a new creature and sends him off in an entirely different direction. It wasn’t a matter of discernment for Paul. God made it very clear what he was to do and how he was to change his life. So sometimes we benefit from that kind of clarity, and that’s always the easiest time to make a good choice is when it’s very clear to us what the best choice is. The second time for making a good choice, says Ignatius, is when enough light and knowledge is received by experience of consolations and desolations.
Now here with consolations, he’s talking about that feeling of peace, that feeling of rightness, a feeling of this really works, this fits, this is true and authentic, as opposed to desolation where I feel anxious and unsettled about this, it doesn’t seem right, it doesn’t seem to fit, it doesn’t leave me peaceful, I’m anxious about this choice. And he says, sometimes we come up to a decision and we have two options. And as we consider these options, we notice this movement of consolation and desolation within us and these interior feelings. And he says to identify those feelings and to see what they mean for us. And so he says, those feelings can be very helpful indicators of what God is showing us. And maybe you’ve had this experience where perhaps you’ve been searching to buy a home and you know exactly what you want and you want three bedrooms and you want it to be nearby a school, and you want it to be near a grocery store and you want it to be near a park and you want to have enough yard and you want these various things. You have said, this is the kind of home we’re looking to buy. And so you go to see a place. And the first place that you see has all of these criteria, it has three bathrooms and it’s a near school, you can check them all off, meets all the criteria. And yet, when you walk into that home, there’s something about it that doesn’t feel right. You say, no, this isn’t the place. This isn’t a place that I resonate with or that I feel like I want to live here. And so the feeling of desolation as you consider this option prevails, and you say this isn’t the right place, even though it meets all our criteria. Or conversely, you can walk into a home that someone is showing to you and say, this is it. This feels right. I know it. I feel tremendous consolation, that kind of affirmation and a certainty, a rightness about this place. This is the place that we want.
So those movements of consolation and desolation can be helpful indicators to us of what the best choice is for us. The third time for making a good choice that Ignatius describes is what he calls a quiet time. And this is a time where we don’t feel much movement of consolation and desolation at all. Maybe we’ve been looking at this choice with its various options for a long time, and we simply don’t know what to do. And Ignatius likens it to a sailboat that’s out on the lake without any wind. We don’t feel like we’re going anywhere with this decision. We don’t know what to do. And so then Ignatius recommends to us that we turn to our rational side of ourselves and to reason this out. And he says to go through an exercise, he suggests that we put these options down before us and list for each option the pros and the cons, the advantages and the disadvantages of that option.
So I take the first option and I explore what I think are the possible advantages of making this choice and the possible drawbacks or the disadvantages of choosing this particular item. And I do that for each of the options that I have, whether I have two options or more, I do it for each of those options. And I particularly look at those advantages and disadvantage, and maybe I put a star or an asterisk by the ones that are most important to me. I evaluate their weightiness, say, this is kind of a small one, it would be nice to have, but it’s not important, but this is a major advantage, something that I really want and need. And I think this is why this choice might be the right one for me. So some of those reasons will be more advantageous than others, and some will be more obstacles than others. Say this one in my disadvantage, that one is really serious. I’m not sure if I can live with that provision. So we assess these pros and cons for the choices, and then we make a tentative choice. I just said, just looking at this data that’s before me, which seems like the best way. And we make a choice, say, okay, I’m gonna go with option A just to make a choice and just to get the ball moving. And then we ask God in prayer to confirm that choice for us, by bringing us into the realm of the first time or the second time.
In other words, making it so clear that we have no doubt that this is the right choice for us, or secondly, giving us movement of consolation and desolations that seem to confirm this choice or seem to turn us away from it. So we ask God to bring us into one of the first or the second time about this choice that we have tentatively made. Now, if that election is not made, there are a couple of other things that he recommends that we can do. There are two ways that he suggests. The first way is this way of analyzing pros and cons that I’ve just described. He says, first of all, determine what it is that you wanna decide, then try being at like a balance, at equilibrium, seeking detachment and inner freedom about the choice. It’s no good to come to God and ask for God’s help in discerning when we’ve already made up our mind that we want this choice. If we are actually serious about discernment, we have to find a way to balance these choices and to consider that God might want this one or this one, and this might be best for us, or this might be best for us and come with that kind of indifference and freedom, like a balance, an equilibrium. And then we pray for God to show us, pray for enlightenment, pray for guidance. Ask God to speak to us and to show us which is the better way. Then we analyze, list the pros and cons and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each option.
We finally choose tentatively one alternative that seems the most reasonable. And then we seek confirmation by asking God to either give us a certainty, like the first time, or to give us movements of desolation and consolation like in the second time. That will help us to know that this is the best choice for us. He goes on to say, if you’re not able to arrive at a choice with that method, you might try this. And he offers three imaginative exercises that might help give us clarity and which is the better option. The first thing that he suggests is he asks us to imagine ourselves, imagine a person coming to us with the same dilemma that we are in with the same type of choice. And they are just as stuck as we are in this choice. And they come seeking a counsel, and he says, put yourself in the counselor’s seat, in the spiritual director’s seat, in the advisor’s seat, in the pastor’s seat or whatever, and listen to what you might say to them. And you might not immediately have an answer like, oh, you should definitely take option A, but you might say, well, if I was faced with someone that had this exact same conundrum, I might ask them about this, or I might ask them what are the implications about this decision for this particular area of your life or for these people in your life, or what might this lead to, or why would you choose this one, or what would I ask them? How would I help them to consider this choice? And sometimes simply that change of perspective where we’re the ones giving counsel gives us some insight into what might be the best way.
And a second way, he says, is to imagine ourselves on our death bed, looking back over our lives. And if this is a little bit too morbid for you, you might just say, I put myself at the end of my life and imagine myself looking back. So I imagine, for example, that I’m 80 years old and I’m looking back at this time when I was 32 and I faced this difficult choice. And from that perspective of the 80-year-old me, I reflect on this decision and I decide which of these would be the better choice. And what that does is it changes our perspective again by putting this decision in the context of our whole life. What do we want our lives to be about? What do we want our priorities to be about? What are our values that we’re trying to live? And how are those expressed in this particular decision? So sometimes the distance of looking back from old age on this will put some light on it in terms of how do I wanna live my whole life? What do I want my life to be about? And how does this decision reflect that? And then the final idea that Ignatius has, he says, “I imagine myself standing before Christ and giving an account of my life.” And this also might be a little bit intimidating for you to imagine a kind of judgment scene where you have to defend your choice to Christ.
I sometimes pray this way by just imagining Christ sitting next to me. And I try to explain to him why I think this choice might be the best and what my reasons for it. And what this does is it puts us in a perspective of how does this decision line up with what Christ wants, with Christ’s values, Christ’s priorities? How does it look in the light of Christ when I name my reasons for making this choice? Are my reasons in line with what Christ’s values and priorities are? So hopefully that outline of that method will be helpful to you as you’re facing choices. And if so, give thanks to Ignatius and the lower of 500 and almost 30 years ago wrote down this message for us. Thanks for being a part of this series of teachings. As you know, a second part of this course on spiritual discernment will be coming up, 11 podcasts that Brother Curtis and I will be recording. We’ll compose the second half of this course on spiritual discernment.
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