Inevitably, the time will come when you will have to decide between two or more options within the context of God's general will. Perhaps it will be regarding the weightiest of issues -- state of life -- as in the example I gave from my own life in our opening session. More often than not, one comes to clarity about state of life issues through many small steps, but it is not unusual to have to choose, at some point, to travel the road of marriage, religious life, or the single life. For most of us, however, discerning between options happens within the context of one's state of life, and entails consideration of future directions that are somewhat equally good and attractive. E.g.,
- to go back to school to learn new skills or to keep plodding ahead;
- to accept the new job or stay in the one you have now;
- to move to another city or stay put;
These are all huge decisions to make, and we generally know very well what our own leanings are, even if they are mixed. What discernment seeks to discover is not what option we would like to pursue, but which one God might have a preference that we follow. If there is no clarity concerning this matter, it's time to enter the process of formal discernment.
Context for Formal Discernment
Those who are seriously committed to living the Christian life always have an "ear to the ground" to try to discern God's leadings. We do not need to enter into formal discernment on small matters, however. To go to the store in the morning or the afternoon? Doesn't matter; just go whenever it suits your schedule. To take the car to work or ride your bike today? Just make a choice. If God has a strong preference in these small matters, you will know it through the leanings of your own will, and the peace you feel when considering the options. But if you don't sense any particular leaning in a small matter, just do as you wish. To do otherwise is to open the door to scrupulosity and disquietude.
The ideal situation for formal discernment is one in which you don't have to hurry your decision . . . you can walk with the options for awhile. Also, it is best that you be in spiritual direction, or dialogue with other Christians or caring people who know you and have your best interests at heart. Finally, you should take extra time for prayer and reflection during a period of formal discernment; this enables deeper openness to God's leadings, if any.
As I noted in my book, Pathways to Serenity, discernment is based on the following assumptions:
* God is a good God. He wants to give you much more than you want for yourself.
* God knows who you are better than you know yourself. God also knows what you need in order to become the person he created you to be better than you know what you need for this.
* When you are faced with a number of options, it is entirely possible that some of these options are better for you in terms of your overall human growth than others.
* When you surrender your preferences for different options to God, you become free to discern God's preference (if any) among these options.
Principles of Discernment
What follows is a section on formal discernment from, Pathways to Serenity. These are brief sketches, but they do indicate the kinds of movements and considerations we are to undertake. Let's use the discussion forum to reflect on them more deeply.
The truly great master of the art of discernment was Saint Ignatius of Loyola. His writings on making choices and discerning God's call have stood the test of time and continue to provide a helpful structure for choosing among options. For this reason the guidelines presented here rely heavily upon the genius of Ignatius.
1. ""When you are making a decision or choice, you are not deliberating about choices which involve sin [wrongdoing] but rather you are considering alternatives which are lawful and good. . ."
2 . In areas where you have binding commitments (marriage vows, parenting, religious vows, and so forth), "your basic attitude should be that the only choice still called for is the full-hearted gift of self to this state of life" In other words, every effort must be made to live out the implications of your binding commitments, even if those commitments were made poorly.
3. In areas of life where you have already made decisions (which can be changed) on the basis of God's call, "your one desire should be to find your continued growth in the way of life you have chosen".
4. "If you have come to a poor decision in matters that are changeable, you should try to make a choice in the proper way whether it would be maintaining the same pattern of life or it would demand a change" .
5. If possible, you should avoid making important life decisions during times when you are emotionally upset, for it is likely that you shall then be running away from a problem rather than responding to God's call.
6. When attempting to discern among a number of options regarding significant lifestyle choices, you should proceed as Saint Ignatius suggests below.
A. First Pattern:
* Clearly place before your mind what it is you want to decide about. What are your options?
* Attempt to view each option with equal detachment, surrendering personal preferences to God.
* Sincerely pray that God will enlighten and draw you in the direction leading to his praise and glory.
* List and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the various dimensions of your proposed decision.
* Consider now which alternative seems more reasonable. Then decide according to the more weighty motives and not from any selfish or sensual inclination."
* Having come to the decision, now turn to God again and ask him to accept and confirm it--if it is for his greater service and glory--by giving you a sense of serenity and holy conviction about this decision
B. Second Pattern: (This is an excellent follow-up on the First Pattern to "objectively" evaluate your decision.)
* Since the love of God should motivate your life, you should check yourself to see whether your attachment for the object of choice is solely because of your Creator and Lord.
* Imagine yourself in the presence of a person whom you have never met before, but who has sought your help in an attempt to respond better to God's call. Review what you would tell that person and then observe the advice which you would so readily give to another for whom you want the best.
* Ask yourself if at the moment of death you would make the same decision you are making now. Guide yourself by this insight and make your present decision in conformity with it.
* See yourself standing before Christ your Judge when this life has ended and talking with him about the decision which you have made at this moment in your life. Choose now the course of action which you feel will give you happiness and joy in the presence of Christ on the Day of Judgment.
In the spring of 1989, I preached a retreat at Villa Christi Retreat House in Wichita, KS. I had been self-employed for about five years, doing this kind of ministry, along with writing and substance abuse counseling. It was a lot of work keeping up with all of this, not to mention raising three small children, but I enjoyed being self-employed and found the work fulfilling. During the course of the Wichita retreat, I mentioned to Fr. Tom Santa, who was director of the retreat house, that about the only kind of job I could envision taking me out of my present course was to join the staff at a retreat center. He kept this in mind, and a few months later asked me to join the team at the Spiritual Life Center in Wichita, which was a new diocesan center replacing Villa Christi. The Center would be opening in August 1990, so I had a few months to consider his request and, if necessary, tie up loose ends in Baton Rouge, LA where we were living at the time.
My first reaction within myself was to close my mind and heart to Fr. Tom's invitation. This would mean closing my business, moving our family, leaving our many Louisiana relatives behind, and going to a state where we knew no one and which, in addition, seemed to be a very different culture than what we enjoyed in south Louisiana. I didn't say no, but I didn't say yes, either. I said we needed time to think and pray about it, and that we did. My wife, Lisa, was open to the idea, but her extended family was discouraging. My extended family was neither encouraging nor discouraging, but they wondered why I'd consider doing such a thing when I was already decently happy with my work. A support group Lisa and I belonged to asked lots of good questions to help us think through things, as did my spiritual director. In addition, I took more time for prayer to seek God's will in this matter, and journaled frequently to honestly acknowledge to myself how I was thinking and feeling. Finally, Lisa and I decided to take a couple of trips to Wichita to see the new center and inquire about schools, housing, etc.
In January 1990, I still didn't know what to do. The children didn't want to move, the extended family preferred we didn't, my business was doing well, etc. Why move? Yet I couldn't shake the idea from my mind. It seemed there was always an inner stream of consideration going on, with the theme, "If we move . . . " (I'll have to sell this, inquire about that, close this account, etc.). If we move . . . If we move . . . Always If we move . . . How to get out of the If. . .?
Sometime in mid February 1990, I noticed a change in my thought processes. At first, I couldn't believe it, but there it was, clear as day, with a deepening peace to attend it. The general theme was When we move . . . How and when this happened, I do not know, but Lisa reported it around the same time as well. A preference for moving had developed, and there was a peace about it. To test it further, however, we decided to send Lisa to Wichita with her father, who was adamantly opposed to us moving. They visited Fr. Tom and saw the new Spiritual Life Center building, surveyed housing in the area, met with people about schools, and had a really positive experience. Lisa's Dad saw the wisdom in the move, and came to support us in whatever we would decide. Our support group concurred in the wisdom of moving as well, as did my spiritual director. The pieces had fallen into place, and we were at peace about moving -- even excited about our new life in Kansas. This seemed to be God's will, and if that was the case, we would be cared for.
Through the years, I've never regretted this decision to move, even though we've been through difficult times and often missed our families dearly. Deep down inside, I still feel like I'm more of a Louisianian than a Kansan, but I do believe that God called me here to do retreat work, which I still love.
Question for Reflection and Discussion
1. What questions or comments do you have about this conference?
2. What decisions (if any) are you discerning at this time in your life?
3. Share an experience of a time in your life when you went through a process of discernment. What were your considerations? How did you come to clarity regarding God's will?
Grace and peace to all,
This is my first post in this series of conferences. Even though I signed up for the conferences from the beginning, I must confess I have just begun active participation. Hence, I have just read all the notices and posts in one go. Thank you to all who have been posting from the beginning. I will post a brief introduction next for any who are interested.
The assumption, principles and patterns Phil has outlined in this conference resonate with my personal experiences with discernment, the most recent and personal being the initial process that has led me to seminary in prepartion for ordained ministry in the United Church of Canada ... and I might add, with the ongoing discernment it turns out is entailed in that preparation
In relations to this conference, I am reminded of two foundational notions that have come to guide my faith journey. First is that God gifts, calls and sends, sometimes even before we think we are ready to embark in the doing. Second is that the Christian life is lived in community.
God has set me down in the midst of two different worshiping communities, both of which are struggling through intentional discernment of God's will on specific, but different, issues. In both groups, it seems to me that at this stage, we are particularly vulnerable to the snare of confusing "decision-making" with "discernment" Hence, this particular topic speaks to me particularly strongly.
In one community, we are 'waiting' Discernment seems to be more about immobility than about listening. In the other, we are 'deciding' Discernment seems to be more about hurrying to action than about listening.
Personally, I share the assumptions Phil summarizes from his book. The principles drawn from St. Ignatius are so helpful in orienting discernment and decision-making as the synchronistic processes I believe them to be.
The patterns are so helpful in locating "where we are" and thus providing guidance for what might come immediately next. Both communal processes I am involved with at the moment are within the First Pattern.
One community seems hesitant about articulating possible answers to the first point "What are the options?" Individuals are no doubt formulating answers, but thus far are in retreat from sharing within the community. The danger I pray on is that answers not become hardened into intractable positions such that listening, for divine possibilities from each other and for divine promptings from the Holy Spirit, becomes jeopardized.
The other community is struggling with the second point, feeling prompted perhaps prematurely to point of decision and action. We have agreed as a community to be still with the last point for a specified period of time before taking any particular action.
I look forward to the wisdom others have to share on the very rich material Phil has given us for reflection and discussion.
Me, too. And me, too.
This has been a perfect blend of the sharing of ideas with a personal sharing of experiences. And this is true both for Phil's conferences as well as for the forum participants. This reminds me of something said about Cardinal Newman by David J. DeLaura:
Few historical figures evoke images of serious struggles with conscience and discernment as Newman, who wrote:
I very much resonate with the Merton quote about not knowing if I am following God's will. The Newman quote, to me, speaks to an emerging dynamic in my life regarding discerment. If earlier on my journey I "loved to choose and see my path," later on my journey, as I advance down life's road with most major vocational decisions behind me --- spouse, children, extended family, career, place to live, church denomination, philosophical bent, political leanings, with Newman I'm moreso inclined to ask: "But now lead me Thou on!"
Newman's refrain reminds me of Benedict Groeschel's reminder that we are most often discerning "our next good step." And it also reminds me of his book entitled: Stumbling Blocks & Stepping Stones. As I've gotten older, life has revealed that What gets in the way IS the way and that stumbling blocks, transformatively, are our stepping stones ... if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Fr. Benedict also says that, early on our journey, our faith is clear but tentative, while later, it is obscure but certain. One day, I may write of that part of my journey that was obscure and tentative, because I feel like I've spent much time there!
I agree that Merton's false self and true self matter greatly in how discernment processes will go. Earlier on our journey, our descisions are understandably coming from our merely socialized self. Later, usually through crisis, we are invited to discern from a more authentic self. The crisis is typically one of continuity (or discontinuity, which involves, in a word, death) or of creativity (which involves our need to make a difference, to somehow matter). When it comes to making a difference which honors one's temperament and talents, I am so thankful for those who've gone before me in the faith, for the manifold spiritualities in our tradition. I thus get much consolation from knowing that my aspiring to be a contemplative is okay, that I do not have to be ... well ... all sorts of other things that other well-intended folks would have me be!
Hey, that looks like Kansas!
Thank you for your sharing, Elaine and JB. I also like Newman's poem very much, JB. It's probably my all-time favorite. I just love: Lead Thou me on!
Elaine, I think you put your finger on some of the problems that can arise in group discernment. We've been focusing on discernment as a personal issue so far, but it's good that you remind us that communities need to be in ongoing discernment as well. This is a little more complicated, but the steps are pretty much the same. Maybe we can say more about it if there are questions.
I think this is certainly a tough one to chew on. I've spent my life struggling to live and love as God would want me to and gotten in His way a good part of the time. I'm one of those emotional Irishman. I've finally learned to balance the emotions w/ some logic and wisdom by much pain and mistakes and struggle. Discernment is probably the most precious gift God has given us if we chose to use it carefully and w/ wisdom and grace. Letting God lead me ainstead of me trying to control the shots has been the hardest lesson for me to learn and also the most humbling. I'm a rather independent SOB and like to control the situation so when it isn't as I like it I let God know He should fix it and mak it my way as it would certainly work out alot better. don't you know....Letting go and letting God have the reins is probably the hardest task for any human being for they fear what they will see in themselves and how they will have to correct it.Change is so hard and scary and risk is the unknown. The leap of faith and holding out the hand to God or being ready to Jump into HIs arms is no easy task. That's discernment. The ability to take that leap of faith and trust that your knowledge and faith dimension in Christ and your personal growth will enable you to discern with a critical eye and ear what God is asking of you. Knowing full well it is not for power or money but for our spiritual benefit and the benefit of our families. It is a big burden but a great gift....
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