The following essays by Fr. Randy Roche, SJ contain practical applications to daily life of St. Ignatius of Loyola's "Guidelines for Discernment of Spirits" contained in his book, The Spiritual Exercises.
Click on each heading below to expand and read the essays.
Sometimes we might say that we feel disturbed when, for example, we think about the suffering of children in war-torn situations. Someone might say that he or she thinks that it is terrible how children suffer in time of war. And someone else might talk about feeling that they should do something about children orphaned by war. We are somewhat free in our use of the words thinking and feeling, using them interchangeably when describing both thoughts and feelings. Sometimes this serves our purposes adequately, at other times not, especially when we need clarity about our interior state of being.
Not only in communicating with others, but also in our own inner expressions, we are at our best when we attend to the distinction between thinking and feeling as well as their complementarity. When we want to understand and perhaps share with others one or other of our experiences, we can do so with more facility when we are able to distinguish a thought from a feeling, while also noting which feeling accompanies or follows a particular thought. For example, if we had an experience of being treated unjustly, we want to deal with it in the best way possible. If we have thoughts about how to respond that are accompanied with increasing feelings of anger, this is likely not an internal process worth following. If we have thoughts about a way of proceeding that appear reasonable while our anger diminishes, we have found a way forward that satisfies us. The different feelings that accompany each of the different lines of thinking reveal which is the better option for us.
Observing the intimate direct connection between thinking and feeling is an application of spiritual discernment. We exercise courage and honesty, leading to both integrity and true interior freedom when we consciously reflect on the specific feeling that follows or is attached to an individual thought. We not only have the freedom to choose, but also the capacity to use discernment in making use of the information we receive when, for example, the thought of doing a random act of kindness is accompanied with a feeling of peace. Or the thought of mocking someone because of or her physical appearance causes feelings of unease. When we give attention to our thoughts and feelings we receive immediate, accurate knowledge for making decisions that are in keeping with our values.
The gift and grace of discernment grows, like any “spiritual muscle,” by exercising it. No warm-ups are necessary, but we cannot arrange an exercise schedule for practicing decision-making based on our observations of how we feel about what we think. Rather, when a particular event arises that catches our attention and requires of us that we make a decision before we act, that is the opportune moment to consider whether we have a sense of unity or of dissonance between our thoughts and feelings. Also, we always have the option of reflecting later on in the day, and at that time, unhurried by circumstances, notice whether or not we had chosen what was better as opposed to less good, in view of how the feeling that followed the thought was either truly complementary, or actually disturbing.
Discernment and decision-making depend upon taking note of what we are thinking and feeling.
Our decision-making and our spirituality depend in large part upon the connection between what we think and what we feel. We could think, for example, that the path we are traveling in life is too difficult for us, which elicits feelings of discouragement. Or, we might think that all will be well, and we then have positive feelings about what we intend to do. Some people find that they can only with difficulty turn towards God while their minds are filled with thoughts of their own weakness. At another time the same persons notice how easy it is to pray as their thoughts are focused on the goodness of God. The connection between thinking and feeling is far from accidental.
We do not create the weather, but we can notice the conditions outdoors, and choose the appropriate clothing. We do not make up our own feelings, but when we pay attention to what is going on in our minds in conjunction with the associated feelings, we gain valuable information. When facing a challenging situation, we might have some feelings of anxiety, with accompanying thoughts about failing or quitting. Is it the challenge that causes the anxiety, or is it the thoughts about failing and quitting that disturb us? Thinking about our desire to face and overcome the challenge usually evokes positive energy.
When our thoughts are mainly about superficial events or possibilities, we might experience feelings of confusion and of distance from God. When we are occupied with thoughts about moving ahead we often feel energized and have a sense that God is present with us. In making decisions, we help ourselves by attending to the “spiritual weather” we are experiencing. When our minds are cloudy and our feelings correspond, it does not mean that we have become a less good person than we were before or a less responsive and responsible child of God. But the confused set of thoughts and concomitant discomfort do not come to us from God. When our thoughts flow easily on how to act in accord with our values and feel confidence and a sense of rightness, we can count on those as coming from the source of goodness.
God is good, so our encounters with God are accompanied by thoughts and feelings that are appropriately positive. Most of us also have some other kinds of occurrences which are not necessarily destructive, but they do not come to us directly from the gracious love of God. To attend to this basic difference is to gain a great freedom. We can make decisions based on recognizing which lines of thinking and feeling are gifts of God and which are not. We get better at saying “yes” to whatever is closer to our experience of God and “no” to whatever does not match with our experience of Goodness.
In a world of mixed messages and subtle invitations, what can we expect to help us in making good decisions?
Anyone who is living according to standards that transcend merely meeting their own wants and needs will experience spontaneous joy and happiness which are reliable signs of support and encouragement. With reason, we come to expect positive feelings to accompany good decisions. Likewise, those who are following constructive paths in life will usually have an abiding sense of peace, even in the midst of some pain and suffering. We can also reasonably expect that sometimes thoughts will come to us that will disrupt our joy and diminish our sense of well- being. All kinds of thoughts can appear in our minds about how hard or useless it is to keep to our principles. Good people experience disturbances like this even though they have done nothing wrong. The experience is close to that of having a mean-spirited person make disparaging remarks to us. These latter thoughts and accompanying feelings do not have their origin or cause in God.
People whose basic orientation is to help rather than to control or harm others, those who are responsive to their impulses to act rightly, will notice that they receive further gentle inspirations; they frequently have thoughts and ideas come to mind that are so in keeping with their direction in life that they seem natural and rather easy to carry out. As creator and as welcome guest, God enters freely, without knocking or causing the least disturbance. God’s interactions with us are similar to those of the people in our lives whose love for us we have come to trust. These friends and family members can make suggestions and we listen to them. Their values are so close to ours that we expect whatever they bring to our attention will be of value to us. To an infinitely higher degree, God has our best interests at heart, as well as those of everyone whose lives we touch.
We can also expect some negative thoughts and ideas to enter our minds. These will also come without being asked, but they will cause some disturbance as they come to us, since they are outsiders and do not belong. The suggestions will be out of synch with our basic orientation. The thoughts come with a sense of being pushed at us, as though by someone trying to have their own way rather than to help us achieve our own fulfillment. The entry of ideas that are out of keeping with the positive flow of our lives can be described as strident, sharp and pushy. When we notice these kinds of qualities accompanying our thoughts, we are in a privileged position to simply reject them. No need to weigh their relative merits. Who would waste time by listening to an enemy telling us to hurt ourselves? We do not seriously consider the proposals of disgusting ads on the Internet. Nor do we need to waste our energy by trying to argue with unreasonable suggestions.
If we are careful to observe the positive or negative direction of the thoughts that enter our minds, we can “have it both ways.” When the thoughts are flowing in keeping with our direction, they are worth our consideration. They confirm the route we are taking. When they are contrary and disruptive, they can safely and wisely be dismissed as simply irrelevant on our journey of life. By pointing in the opposite direction they actually give us an indication of the correct path upon which we want to continue.
When it comes to spirituality, it is very important that we each discover for ourselves what happens when we encounter transcendence in any form. People may help us by suggesting a specific practice, but it does us no real good to tell us what it will be like if we try it ourselves. All of us have had friends say something like: “You’ve got to see this movie or TV program!” They had such a good experience that they want us to have it too. If they describe how they felt or what they thought, perhaps we will become interested in viewing it for ourselves. However, if someone not only suggests a particular event, but then proceeds to describe it in great detail, we may be much less inclined to go. If we are reading an interesting story, we don’t want anyone to tell us how we will feel when we get to a certain part. We prefer not to be told what our thoughts and feelings should be, but to have our own experience.
There is no joy quite like that of coming into awareness of how some bit of reality from outside fits perfectly with who we are. If someone suggests reading a particular Psalm and making it personal by exchanging our own name for “Jacob” and “Israel,” we might want to try it for ourselves: imagining God speaking the words to us. By way of contrast, if some well-intentioned persons urge us pray in exactly the way they do, meaning that it is something that they want, the moment becomes uncomfortable, and is not likely to interest us.
If something is good for us, then of course we want the same for others. But only when we freely engage in some spiritual activity can we spontaneously receive a sense of joy or gladness, increased love or trust. Even though something wonderful happened for us, we cannot make it happen for anyone else. We can encourage or suggest that another person try the same activity as we found helpful, and we can inquire as to their interest, but we do not give to others that which uniquely takes place within us.
We do not control our own experiences in the sense of creating our felt response to whatever we do. We may learn that taking some quiet time each day is quite helpful to our sense of well-being. But we do not create the good feelings. We do things that are appropriate for who we are at this time in our lives, and the consequences are often a sense of peace and harmony within. We might recognize and be glad about someone else’s good experience, but the one that is best for us takes place in accord with our own decisions to seek and to receive.
At least once or twice in our lives most of us have had the experience of becoming suddenly and with great clarity aware of a major direction that we should take in our lives. We did not have to consider reasons or motives on one side or the other. Often, we also sensed that God was directly involved in the experience. Who else could enter our thoughts and feelings with something that is was so "right" for us that there could be no room for doubt?
Later on, we might have had doubts. After the moment of illumination had passed, we might then have had some contrary impulses, such as to consider the experience as of little significance. Yet, whenever we recalled the event itself, our certainty usually returned.
Extraordinary things happen to ordinary people. God, who is creating us continuously, knows the best time to reveal something that is wholly suitable for us. The long-term consequences may include difficulties and challenges, but we will have all that we need to follow through. We cannot know ahead of time how things will turn out, but we can experience surety about how appropriate the path is for us and have a strong desire to follow wherever it leads. Making a decision that is strongly influenced by God does not mean that it will be accompanied by ease or by fame. But we do find the capacity to pour our energies in a particular direction rather than to reserve ourselves and keep all our options open.
It is helpful to recall our special graces or inspirations from time to time, so that we might be refreshed in the original impulse that has much to do with the direction we are taking in life at this moment. Confidence in our earlier decisions enables us to see that whatever difficulties we might be dealing with in the present are part of a challenge that we are equipped to handle. Though we are fallible and weak, the impulses were given by One who knows us wholly and entirely, and who supplies us with what we need to live our graced decisions. Gratitude is the most likely feeling to arise when we bring to mind a particular time when we received certainty in decision-making.
The word "discernment," as used in Ignatian spirituality, suggests trust in God, seeking help for choosing the better option. Trust implies that we have decided to act on the help that we will receive. It would be counter-productive to ask God to show us the better option and then to treat it as merely advice or someone's opinion.
Our trust is supported by previous experiences in which we have learned that God completely understands us with our present real issues needing resolution and wants to help us make free personal choices that enable us to better fulfill our purpose in life. We are purposefully created in an on-going process that reflects our dignity and value as persons.
In decision-making, clarity is necessary about the subject under consideration, one issue at a time. It is much more difficult to make a decision while looking at several options at once. For example, it would be quite complicated to try to choose among whether to seek a new job from within, look for a new position some place else or try to make changes in the present position. Rather, deciding whether or not to seek a modification of one's present circumstances would make it clear that still another decision would or would not be required.
For major issues, it is very helpful to make a two-part listing of all the applicable factors into pros and cons prayerfully, and without pre-judging the relevance of any that come to mind. Write down your thoughts and feelings relative to only one side at a time. One might, for example, ask God for light and grace to see every possible reason or motive in favor of the matter under consideration, without sorting, evaluating or considering any of the opposites at this stage. When no additional reason comes to mind, ask God for grace to help and inspire the search for whatever applies to the other side. The key is not to go back and forth between the two, but to think only of reasons on one side completely separate from the other.
When the list is complete, there might be such a strong weight of reasoning on one side that the decision seems peacefully evident. Often the listing has more on one side than the other numerically, but the significance or value attached to some of them may vary greatly. At this stage it helps to go through the list calmly, and with awareness of each one's value as it seems to you. This is highly personal, and wholly appropriate. Some items on the list can be crossed off as irrelevant to the process, as having no real significance worthy of further consideration. On the other hand, one item that seemed minor to our way of thinking could evoke strong feelings. Any like this latter require enough attention to determine whether they support of hinder our freedom to make a decision.
If there is some reason that we notice, one so strong that we can hardly imagine being able to choose the other side, we need to know whether this is an obstacle to our freedom or a brilliant light that gives us our "answer." Fear and disturbance accompany an obstacle; peace and clarity reveal God's hand. One way to gain freedom is to push in the opposite direction of the fear. For example, when I had a decision to make that might have required me to risk losing a close friend, I tried to imagine what it would be like if I did make that hard decision. I went through in my mind what steps I would take to implement the decision, including what I would say to my close friend. Once I had seen in imagination that I could actually speak my truth, if it were clear to me that it was the right thing to do, the fear diminished considerably. I became free to simply weigh all the factors on their real merits and make the decision from a place of true interior freedom.
When we can calmly look at all the reasons we have on both sides of an issue, it will usually become rather clear which side really is in accord with our values, and therefore the better thing to do.
If we are satisfied with our decision, we may wish to thank God, and move to action. If the consequences of our decision will be significant, we can take time to look for confirmation. One way to do that is to take a day or more in which we go through our normal activities with the supposition that we will go through with our decision. Notice what happens during the day. Reflect upon the experiences to see if there is a sense of everything fitting together or not. Then, for a day or longer go through the period of time with the opposite assumption, and notice how things fit together or not. At times there will be a distinct contrast in how the day is experienced as going along more peacefully or with more discontinuities. In terms of faith, this is a way of allowing God to act not just through our conscious acts of listing and considering reasons, but in the world of persons and events where God also works for us and for our good.
In a process that involves our faith we do well to ask God for help and inspiration any and every time it occurs to us to do so. It is God's desire, as well as ours, that decision- making by discernment will not only be a good process but will provide us with the best conclusions we can make at the time.
There are times to trust one’s directions, to pay attention to the spirit of the law rather than the rule, and to make decisions with minimal reflection and consideration. There are also times when our best advisor and guide is one simple rule: Do not make a decision when you are not at peace.
When we are off our center, cannot find God in our thoughts or prayers, and are pressured by our feelings and thoughts, conditions are lacking for good decision-making. Not making a decision except when we are peace with ourselves may seem a difficult rule to follow. But making a decision at a time when our thoughts and feelings are in conflict or confusion can cause great harm to ourselves and to others.
There is an illusion when we are in distress, that making a decision, any decision, will give us relief. To do so is equivalent to reaching blindly into a bag of good and bad apples and just taking one. Even if we happen to get a good one, we would consider ourselves lucky, not smart or wise.
We cannot always take time to achieve a level of comfort before making important decisions, but that is not the same is being in inner turmoil. When a crisis occurs, we have to move quickly. Most often, if we are open to inspiration, we will have a moment of clarity about what is the “right thing” for us to do. If we reflect back on the decisions we made when we had to decide with immediacy, we will probably recognize that most were the proper choices. There is no time when God is not present with us, though we are not always consciously aware of the support we are receiving.
Direct experiences of God occur in our lives. The more we acknowledge these experiences, the more frequently we will receive and notice additional events like them in the future.
We are not overly shy in talking with people about our ordinary experiences, both positive and negative. But many of us are quite reluctant to say anything about our experiences of God. We are usually much more reserved about them.
Very many people have had at least one interior event which they knew with much clarity at the time, had to have been from God. Often, what happened shortly thereafter led the person to doubt that it really took place, which the led further to the person losing touch with the experience. Finally it was perhaps even forgotten, and certainly not shared with anyone else. Too bad! It was a personal contact with God which deserved a place in one's memory of good things that really happened.
When people do recall and talk about such experiences, they will notice the difference between what actually happened to them, and then what happened afterward that led them to let the special events go out of consciousness. For example: with complete spontaneity someone received an insight of great clarity that resolved a major concern, accompanied by an equally clear sense of God’s presence and care. The experience may have been so powerful that the recipient was moved to tears of joy and feelings of a warmth throughout his or her body. It came unexpectedly and was not a consequence of any action or decision. Something really took place. The experience passed; the feelings and clarity diminished. Then came the thoughts that chipped away at the experience: “It couldn’t have happened to me; it was just my imagination.” Or, “I’m just an ordinary person, it couldn’t have been God.” And so what started out as a personal moment to treasure was effectively denied as a reality. However, if such an experience is shared with an understanding person, it is usually affirmed, clarified and appreciated on a deeper level.
We all have the capacity to either reflect or to rationalize. We can try to understand what has happened, or we can explain away something that is unfamiliar. Our integrity requires of us that we honor all our experiences, the good ones as well as the bad, and especially that we recall those experiences that might have been from God. If we recall the difference between the experience at the time of the event and what followed later, our own sense of honesty will guide us in naming rightly what was from God and how we doubted it afterward. Finally, talking to someone trustworthy about such matters may give us the additional reassurance that comes from another’s acceptance, plus the recovery of some of the original light and joy we had received.
The Weakest Point
Many of us have a particular kind of vulnerability where we often seem to get caught off guard; a particular weak spot where we tend to fail in living up to our expectations. Or we have a "button" that gets pushed and we react rather than respond. The experience is as if an unseen enemy had found the weakest point in our personality and kept working on us at precisely that point. Our strongest characteristics do not seem to be challenged nearly as much as those that are tender and underdeveloped. We need most to build up and strengthen what is weakest.
Whether or not an enemy uses our weakness to get at us, we can help ourselves by noticing just how and in what particulars we experience confrontation with our values. We may wish that every conflict concerning our standards would be in the areas of our competence, but some honesty about our condition will serve us much better. Of course we will be attacked where are defenses are weakest! In even friendly competitions, individuals and teams are trained to look for the weaknesses of others and to exploit them if possible. What we need is to directly face our own weaknesses and do something that is both simple and wise.
Those who build or repair a brick wall do so carefully, one brick at a time. They want it to last. We need to build up the wall of our integrity at the point of our weakness. No need to think about every aspect of our lives. If we can recall where the action took place recently, even if it was a small failure or a slight attack, that is the place where we might want to put in some new bricks. When we know the spot, we can focus our attention there. We can rightly expect someone or something to push us at our weakest point. If we are ready, we can use the occasion to put together a response that is appropriate. Each little victory we achieve strengthens the weak part of our wall; over time, our weakness becomes one of our strengths.
Some people might complain that God should defend us where we are weakest and not let us be attacked where we are at risk of failing. Another option is to call upon God to give us exactly what we need each time our weakness is tested. This has two distinct advantages: We get help when and where we need it, and we learn through each experience how better to deal with a particular kind of difficulty. In a long-range view, it is far better for us to confront the reality of our limitations than to go about with a naïve sense of perfection. Parents are sometime surprised and chagrined when they find how quickly their weaknesses are perceived and manipulated by their children. What we ignore or hide from ourselves is usually visible to others. God, as dearest of friends, may let the attacks on our weakest point draw us to a very healthy sense of our humanity and to a more personal relationship with both the Inventor and the Savior of that humanity.
What Must Be Said
A handy rule of life: be sure to talk about the one line of thinking that we would prefer to keep hidden. That thought which we might prefer to ignore, yet the one that unsettles us as it nudges our consciousness, is precisely the one thing that must be said to another person whose confidentiality we trust. The way we are made, our own thinking can become circular and ever more convoluted when our values and feelings are conflicted. When we choose to open that one difficult subject with another person, we have implicitly made the decision to deal with it. The commitment is to ourselves, though we need the help of another to hear us as we engage our deepest level of honesty. Though it may be a struggle to discover the words that best match the discord within, the freedom that comes from this openness often comes as quickly as a cork out of a bottle. It is not magic, but it is definitely spiritual.
Sometimes we come to a point of enacting a significant decision in our lives. We are pretty sure of our conclusion; we feel strongly that we have chosen well a particular direction. With all that, there is still the need for confirmation, not approval, through our honest communication with at least one other person. In searching for and finding the words to convey our truth to another, we will gain conviction regarding any choice that is in keeping with our deepest values. Though we might think that we have resolved on a change of job, residence or significant relationship, we become more certain of our decisions when we put them into words and seek to achieve that special resonance between our internal, private world and the larger world of other persons among whom we will live out our decisions.
We are created as unique individuals, but always in context of community. Although we are each responsible for our own decisions, we often do not have all the information we need in order to choose well until we enter into real communication with another person. What seems to affect only us, because we are the ones with the particular set of thoughts and feelings, actually impacts the lives of many people. Life and spirit are bound together in many more ways than we can recognize at any given moment, especially a moment of personal stress.
As we go through life, we often experience internal opposition when we try to follow our inspirations or our basic orientation. We need rules to help us win against the opposition. A good rule is: "When pushed, push back, harder!"
All of us have had those moments when we were intent on carrying out a responsibility that we knew was ours, but after beginning, we had some second thoughts. If we insisted more strongly with ourselves on the course we had set, the fear usually had little chance to get into our consciousness and we succeeded in doing what we started out to do. The experience is that of winning a contest in the very private and intensely personal struggle where we overcome our fears and do what we have to do in order to maintain our integrity.
If we reflect on the experience of what happens when we quickly and forcefully go ahead with our good intentions, our confidence will be confirmed. No matter what ways we experience it, whatever pushes us away from living according to our God-given humanity is a real enemy. Though the thoughts, doubts and fears may be within us, they are more of a threat to our well-being than any opposing player could ever be. If it is painful to lose a game, our feelings are more painful when we give in to discouraging or negative thoughts.
In a game, none of us would ever think of letting the opposition have their way in hopes that they would stop competing against us. Backing off usually invites even stronger opposition. Matters of heart and spirit follow the same rules. When we let fear and negative thoughts occupy our full attention, they swiftly multiply and get worse. We literally lose heart and suffer spiritual loss. Most of us have had the experience of first having some doubts, then a few more gloomy thoughts, then some real disturbance of spirit, especially fear, until finally we just did nothing or quit. The best way to stop a downward-spiraling process is to go directly against the first doubts, rather than to let the full weight of many more contrary thoughts oppress us. Push back firmly and freedom follows. The enemy was in our thoughts, not in the realities surrounding us.
Thinking Ahead with Balance
Planning what we will do requires a certain level of thinking ahead to what will be needed to achieve our purposes and sustain a balance in life. Even when we cannot really plan, we do need to think ahead.
Thinking ahead entails reflection on the ups and downs in our lives, the good times and the bad. When we hit a difficulty, it helps to recall a time when we have felt better and to reassure ourselves that those positive feelings will come again. We have all experienced some really good times when things went very well. While we cannot simply hold on to those feelings, it is also true that difficulties will not last forever. We experience challenges that are difficult to deal with and successes that are fulfilling.
Balance in life is not about equal time for pleasure and pain. We are in a state of balance when we keep moving without falling. Uphill is harder than downhill, but both take us somewhere. A crash is more likely to happen if we think that there should be no obstacles or pain in our lives. That kind of thinking puts us at risk of not even noticing a small rock or hole. We can get knocked off our path if we come to believe that everything is supposed to go the way we want. Going downhill may be easier, but the faster we go, the more important it is to stay conscious and aware of our vulnerability. When we are working hard in the face of a headwind or going uphill, the risk of an accident diminishes. At those times, we are usually focused and very conscious of our surroundings and of our effort. When life seems difficult, the danger comes from discouragement that leads to quitting. The harder it gets, the more we need to consider where we are going and to recall that it will be easy again when the wind is not in our faces or when we reach the top and head downhill.
At our deepest levels, integrity, justice and compassion in dealing with others challenge us to maintain a balance. The most intense experiences may well be invisible to everyone but us. Here too, even in our relationship with God, there are enlightened times when we know with immediacy what to do, and get on with it. When we feel the Presence, praying is easy. Deciding and doing are almost the same act when all is clear in the mind and heart. Those are gracious times for which to be thankful. We cannot keep them in a box. When darkness prevails, that is the time to remember what it was like in the light, which we believe will return. That is also when we learn again that we are created. We are loved, but we did not choose ourselves into being. We can wisely acknowledge the cooperative venture of life between ourselves and inspiration. When we become least capable of following our own aspirations by our own strength that is when we lean harder on God who may be unseen and unfelt, but always there.
The "Blahs": A Fall From Grace?
For most of us, there are times when we wonder what we are doing with our lives, whether the effort at retaining our values is worthwhile and what purpose is being served by trying to do what is right. We might wonder whether we have somehow become persons who do not count for anything even in the eyes of God. Our own good intentions don’t seem to support us. What is happening?
It is possible to slip and slide, to push out of mind a commitment we have made to a positive way of living. If we do that, it makes sense that we would experience the “blahs” no matter what outer signs we may give of being on top of things. If we deviate from what we have known to be right for us in relation to people or to God, there will be a kind of dis-ease inside us. We know how to deal with this: We return to the practice of getting some exercise as we had promised ourselves; we stop talking badly about others as we had decided; we take up a practice of quiet time or work less compulsively or drive without the radio so we can pray or whatever it might be. When we get back on track we feel more whole. We do know when the cause of feeling out-of-sorts with ourselves is a consequence of our own choices.
There are other reasons for feeling disconnected inside us that are less familiar, yet very important to understand. Good as we are, and good as we want to be, we really are not independent agents all on our own. We did not create or invent ourselves. Our life is a gift from God, and we have received much from other people along the way enabling us to live as we do now. When we experience a lessening of our feelings, interests and capacities for thinking and acting for the better, it does not mean that we have inadvertently become less valuing and valuable persons. We have a new opportunity to recognize and acknowledge who we really are: weak human beings, recipients of grace and inspiration directly from God as well as through the many people who care for us. When we pay attention to our roots we do not need to focus on changing our behavior. Rather, in acknowledging that we have ups and downs, we avoid that worst of human illnesses of heart: false pride. The day when we think that we have done it all by ourselves is a time of darkness and ignorance. Our healing comes from admitting the limitations of our humanity.
Another way to understand an interior state of near powerlessness is to consider how parents teach children to walk. They back away, once the children have learned to stand and to take some tentative steps. They don’t let them fall, but they do let them experience both the joy and the effort involved in taking steps on their own as best they can. Let the children walk when they become able. There is a lot more to learn! When we have learned how to walk what we talk we have still not yet completed our life’s education. God backs away at times, and we feel how hard it is when it seems as though we are totally on our own. We never are alone, and we cannot fall from grace by some accident. We experience our limitations and the efforts involved in living according to our beliefs and values. We become conscious of how hard it can be to build our own character and to act and to interact well with others. This is one of the ways that we come to appreciate the reality of how we are part of a community, in a communion, and always beneficiaries of Goodness.
We are not born with a spirit of patience. Most of us do not seek patience as a a personal habit, because we want to accomplish as much as we can in as short a time as possible. We learn patience through experiences that require us to be patient lest we suffer even more by not being patient. Patience does not not come to us simply by knowing what it is. Neither has it come through one heroic decision to finally become a patient person. For most of us, patience is a gift that we do not look for, but which arrives almost unconsciously, one experience at a time. We can cooperate with and accept the gift, or insist on pushing our way forward with futility, ending in frustration and anger.
Dealing with the many disturbances that upset our desires to move quickly and surely is a spiritual process. When we have found it relatively easy to handle some of the unpleasant and unexpected things that happen, we might say that we were at our best, or were somehow inspired and blessed. When things really irritate us and we do not find within us an immediate positive response, this is the opportune occasion for reminding ourselves of our previous good experiences. Relying on how we have managed to get through difficulties in the past is a manifestation of patience. When we are pressed and uninspired, we can still make appropriate decisions based on the same principles we used in those times when we could see our way clearly. This too is an exercise of patience. One further common experience of patience is when we tell ourselves during periods when life seems more than ordinarily burdensome that we will again experience times when it will be easier for us to deal with whatever comes our way in life.
If we do not value patience, we might be under the delusion that everything should be the way we want it. Or, we might not have a word to describe a more mature, less shallow and self-centered perspective we have developed in realizing that we want to take others into consideration even while maintaining our own self-respect. We become more patient every time we hold back a critical word that will not help anyone, or we set aside an impulsive and angry response to a real or imagined hurt. Rather than becoming and remaining angry at a perceived injustice we can "push back," but not against another person, rather, against the impulse to lash out. It is also an act of patience, when things are not going very well, and we turn to God for healing and help rather than to take out our frustrations on anyone who is within range. Patience is strong, not weak, active, not only passive. Those who are patient are able to insist on their freedom and their right to choose a positive response to irritation and disagreement rather than to allow inner and outer turmoil to rule them. Rather than “swallowing one’s anger” patience is shown in a strong and quiet determination to deal with our feelings rather than let them dominate us.
The grace of a patient response comes on a one-at-a-time basis. We learn it, and partially earn it, every time we choose not to merely react to whatever bothers us.
In making an important decision, we would like to get it over with as soon as possible. Good discernment does not necessarily take much time, but it cannot be forced. If we are still in the turmoil of weighing various considerations, we have not completed our discernment. Everything depends upon our honest trust relationship with God. If we have an immediate deadline, God will help us decide within the limited time we have; if we have more time before we have to reach a decision, we might use it to advantage. When we are able to bring a discernment process to a natural completion, there is an accompanying sense of peacefulness.
When one of our deeper desires becomes conscious enough so that we recognize the need to make a decision, we might want to begin a process of discernment. Often, the matter itself is so significant for us that we experience physical distress until we can make the decision and move on. Though we might be under considerable pressure from within to reach a conclusion, we might at the same time know that we are not yet ready. The very place within us from which the issue arose is still waiting to the right moment which is yet to come. It is not so much that we need more facts as it is a matter of waiting for the issue to become more clearly defined within us, the pros and cons to become more distinct, and for God to work in and through the people, circumstances and environment in which we live.
God also has a way of providing very helpful information to us if we look for signs in the ordinary events of the day. For those who are open to the experience, as we go about our normal tasks, we might suddenly receive a very helpful insight for the decision we wish to make. For example, an unexpected phone call may be the occasion for a new way of thinking about our present concern. Or we might find in reading something unrelated to our decision that we discover a powerful motive welling up within us. It is like looking for a piece of paper in a drawer, and finding something else there that exactly matches another and more vital need. God does this. It is very helpful in making important decisions to be looking for the kinds of surprises that bring us clarity and joy – signs of God’s activity.
The act of writing down some thoughts, feelings and reflections often enables us to determine their relative importance. Writing is also a means of sorting wishful fantasy from deep desire.
The adventure of engaging in a process like this always brings us closer to God.
We Discern but They Decide
We might spend a long time in consideration and prayer, and discern carefully what seems to us clearly to be the better choice, only to have a person in authority decide otherwise. In many situations, we do not have the final say. We might reach a conclusion that we should make a very reasonable change in a procedure, but someone with more authority can forbid or overturn the change. These experiences do not represent failures to discern properly, but they do serve to remind us that the process of discernment requires deep trust in God.
When we use a process of discernment, we can make decisions that are within our capacity to implement. Very often those decisions are about asking or proposing, not necessarily putting into action, a particular course of action. It is important that we be clear with ourselves what we are deciding, lest we set ourselves up for an apparent conflict of faith.
At a deeper level, all decision-making into which we consciously invite the inspiration of God includes our desire for whatever is really better. We believe that God has our best interests at heart, and will bring us to the place that fulfills our purpose for existing. This happens even when other human beings do not agree with our most prayerful and heartfelt decisions. Many of us have found by experience that a disappointing “no” at one time was a door closing one option so that we could find another door opening to a better possibility.
When final decisions are in accord with our discernment, it is not because God told us one thing and the decision-make something else. Our freedom and good will, our trust and high-minded intentions are all respected. God can use the decisions of others to lead us to the next step in our lives, always towards what is better, never to what is less good. A process of discernment is really about what we have the power to do or to say, not about the effects of what we choose. Not one moment of time that we spend considering the reasons, and not any least prayer we make in going through a process of discernment, is ever wasted. It is all part of our relationship with God. When we discern but they decide, God draws us safely and securely towards the purpose for which we are created.
"Are you at peace with your decision?" We experience a kind of satisfaction or a sense of peace that goes when any of us chooses what is better rather than what is only more immediately attractive.
Peace as a sign comes freely into our awareness when the practical matters we have been struggling to decide are resolved in keeping with who we are. We experience a sense of agreement between the kind of person we want to be and the particular choice that honestly matches our deepest values. Peace such as this is not an emotion, though we can readily identify the feeling when we experience it. When we have made up our minds on an issue from a perspective of integrity, our decision appears to us as not only reasonable, but also resonates peacefully with our spirit.
When we decide matters in a way that involves our hearts as well as our minds, we engage our spirituality. We operate from a kind of "holy selfishness" when we make decisions that are right for us. We live in a world of relationships, where a truly good choice we make is not just for our benefit, but for all those who will be affected by what we do or say. From this perspective, we can recognize the experience of peace as confirmation from God about what we, with all our limitations, determine in our present circumstances to be the better decision.
We cannot directly cause the experience of peace; peace is a true sign of an inner reality that cannot be faked or forced. When we have successfully concluded the sometimes painful process of seeking the better way to proceed, we can hope to experience in our humanity that peace which is a sign of God’s blessing.
We are all subject to the possibility of self-delusion. When we want something, we can, especially if we are in a hurry, imagine that we are experiencing peace as a sign when we are only relieved at having ended the period of considering various options. We might be so attracted by a particular alternative that our freedom is diminished; we can mistake a temporary cessation of anxious thinking for the gracious confirmation that is given to those who stay with the process of discernment to its real conclusion.
Real peace is more than a momentary approval of a decision. It is an indicator about our relationship with God, others and with us. Rules and regulations, commandments, promises, and other external criteria remain important. But when peace is experienced as a sign of confirmation, it is more than the result of matching our behavior with criteria we have used for making a selecting among options. When we make good use of our freedom to choose, the Spirit of God affirms us with peace as a sign of “well done.”
Whose Decision Is It?
Sometimes, the hardest thing about making our own decisions is getting to a position where we are relatively free from undue influences. We can obtain this freedom to choose by first noticing who and what affects us. When we listen to others, we need to know just how we are hearing – whether to gather good information, or to learn how to please them. If we need to make a decision, we do not want to try to meet some half-conscious expectations about what others might want.
Difficulties arise, from without and from within, that challenge us to be accountable for our own priorities, principles and values. Usually we have some information about whatever option we might be considering, but we also need to know whether the facts we are considering are relevant to our particular situation or are only one-sided opinions that serve someone else’s desires. For example, advertisers want us to choose their products, so they try to maneuver our thinking and feeling to the point where something that we might find mildly interesting or attractive is made to appear as though it meet a significant need. Those who seek power will use wording and language that resonate with basic human feelings, but which do not accurately convey their intentions. Those who want to sway us for their own purposes will use words and images that appeal to sensitivities that are below the level of our consciousness.
The more reflective we are about the influences upon us, the less we can be manipulated by others and by our own appetites. Who of us would want to be forced by our own feelings to act in a way contrary to what we believe is right? Principles and deep desires for integrity and authenticity are hidden from us when we think primarily about how we might look in the eyes of others. Likewise, it is of no real help to ask ourselves only: “What will be the easiest thing to do?” We make good decisions when we ask questions of ourselves that are not just about facts but about our basis for deciding: “What do we really want? What will better match who we are and what kind of person we want to become?”
Whatever keeps us in a state of confusion is a great obstacle to good decision-making; a multiplicity of thoughts can keep us tied up inside our minds. We can take just one thought – any of those that are pushing and tugging at us – and judge it as helpful or not. In so doing, we begin to unravel the vague, amorphous knot of thoughts and feelings. Once a start is made, we might be surprised at how quickly we gain perspective. When we seek first a state of basic peacefulness we will soon become able to answer our own questions about the choice we are making. In this way, we take personal responsibility for our lives.
The word "discernment" as a term of spirituality implies trust: asking God for help in choosing the better option, with the understanding that we will act on the help that we will receive. It would be counter-productive to ask God to "show me the better option" and then to treat it as merely "advice."
Trust is founded upon our experiences. For example: We can recall no incident throughout our lives when God has harmed us, tricked us, acted contrary to our well-being. We have not always received what we wanted when we wanted it, but have never been told in any way that we are unacceptable or our concerns of no importance. We have reason to believe that God wants to help us make the free personal choice that will bring us towards the fulfillment of our purpose in life. We are not “accidents” but purposefully created in an on-going process. We “count.”
One practical manner of making a discernment about a major concern involves listing the pros and cons as completely as we can at the time.
Becoming clear as to what is to be decided is necessary: "either this or that," one issue at a time. It is much more difficult to make a decision while looking at several options at once. For example, it would be quite complicated to try to choose among these: "Shall I seek a new job from within, or look for a new position someplace else, or try to make changes in the present position?" Better to come to an either/or proposition such as: "Shall I seek to make a change in my present position or not?" If that question is decided, then a further decision may be needed. The sharper the focus of the question to be decided, the better it is.
For major issues, list the individual factors into "pro" and "con," one side at a time, prayerfully, without “censoring.” Write down your thoughts and feelings relative to only one side at a time. A simple procedure is, for example, to ask God for light and grace to see every possible reason or motive "for" the question to be decided. Do no sorting or evaluating, or considering any of the opposites at this stage. When no additional reason comes to mind, ask God for grace to help and inspire the search for whatever applies to the other side.
When the list is complete, there may be such a strong weight of reasoning on one side that the decision seems peacefully evident. Often the listing has more on one side than the other numerically, but the significance or value attached to some of them may vary greatly. What helps at this stage is to go through the list quietly, and with awareness of each one's "weight" or value. This is highly personal, and wholly appropriate. Some items on the list can be crossed off as truly irrelevant to the process. For example, an "un-censored" reason might have been: "Some of my friends might not like it if I do this." At the point of making a really significant decision, this might not seem worth considering. On the other hand, one item that seemed very minor to our way of thinking may evoke strong feelings. We need to pay attention to such things or they might influence us unduly.
If there is some reason that we notice, one so strong that we can hardly imagine being able to choose the other side, we need to know whether this is an obstacle to our freedom or a brilliant light that gives us our "answer." Fear and disturbance accompany an obstacle; peace and clarity reveal God's hand. One way to gain freedom is to push in the opposite direction of the fear. For example, when I had a decision to make that might require me to risk losing a close friend, I tried to imagine what it would be like if I did make that hard decision. I went through in my mind what steps I would take to implement the decision, including what I would say to my close friend. Once I had seen in imagination that I could actually speak my truth, the fear diminished considerably. I became free to simply weigh all the factors on their real merits and make the real decision from a place of true interior freedom.
When we can calmly look at all the reasons we have on both sides of an issue, it will usually become rather clear which side really is in accord with our values, what will be the better thing to do.
If we are satisfied with our decision, we may wish to thank God, and move to action. If the decision is serious enough we might want to look for some confirmation. One way to do that is to take a day or more in which we go through our normal activities with the supposition that we will go with our decision. Notice what happens during the day. Reflect upon the experiences to see if there is a sense of everything fitting together or not. Then, for a day or longer go through the period of time with the opposite assumption, and notice how things fit together or not. At times there will be a distinct contrast in how the day is experienced as going along more peacefully or with more discontinuities. In terms of faith, this is a way of allowing God to act not just through our conscious acts of listing and considering reasons, but in the world of persons and events where God also works for us and for our good.
In a process that involves our faith we do well to ask God for help and inspiration any and every time it occurs to us to do so. It is God's desire, as well as ours, that decision - making by discernment will not only be a good process but will provide us with the best conclusions we can make at this time.
Even the most well-balanced people have days when nothing seems to go well, and some deeply painful thoughts occur. One very troubling question that arises at one time or another is this: "Am I really going the right way in my life?" That question can run deeply, including concern about one's relationship with God. In such a frame of mind, we might wonder whether we are wandering rootless with no ultimate direction to our lives. Such thinking is not pleasant, but it needs a definitive answer if it occurs. Because such a question directly touches upon our personal faith, it cannot be resolved simply by someone else telling us that we are heading in the right or the wrong direction. We need personal experience that leaves us clear about the positive or negative direction we are taking.
We can look to some signs that serve us as well do traffic signals when we are driving, although we are not forced to obey the signals we receive. Just as we might trust a kindly person on the street who warns us not to step into a hidden hole in the ground, we can believe that God who created us will not simply watch us heading for a deep pit, but will do the equivalent of pointing out to us the imminent danger. God is more motherly and fatherly toward us than any parent or most trusted friend. If a child were just about to eat something poisonous, we would not calmly encourage them to better eating habits. We would be very sharp and direct as an emergency requires, even if the forcefulness of our words and behavior might cause some tears. When any of us, as children of God, are about to engage in behavior that is ultimately destructive of ourselves or others, we are likely to experience a strong feeling that something is wrong. Call it "true guilt" or a God-given "Watch out!" We can accept such signs as trustworthy, or we can ignore the feelings, and continue the direction we are taking, likely to our harm.
Children need to be warned when they are putting themselves at risk. They also need affirmation when their behavior is appropriate. A smile or a gentle word of encouragement is a common means of giving approval to one another. Our experiences of God might be similar: we we can talk to God as with a trusted friend, because we are basically on good terms. When we take a look at choices we have made, even major decisions involving commitments, we might have a sense of peace. Or, we might find helpful meaning in words of Scripture or another inspirational book; we might take gentle delight in the beauties of creation. These are simple and recognizable ways that God affirms us in the general direction of our life.
Which way are we going? We can take an honest look at ourselves, and notice whether we are aware of being where we belong at this time or whether we are confused and disturbed in our depths. The former is an affirmation of a good direction in life, though it is not an approval of everything we do. The latter is a warning, inviting us to make some change in a part of our lives, but it is not a criticism of us as a person.