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Tilling the soil

“He had a discerning heart.”

When I heard these words spoken about a Marquette alumnus who died after a long and full life of caring for others as a physician, I pondered their meaning. His years of being influenced by Jesuit education and the spirituality of St. Ignatius suggest something rich and important about the way this intelligent, gentle and kind man lived and how he made choices affecting not only himself, but also those with whom he worked and lived. He faced scores of medical ethical decisions in his career and found the strength to make them because he drew from a deep prayer life that was grounded in Ignatian spirituality and supported by regular spiritual direction and annual retreats at the Jesuit Retreat Center in Oshkosh, Wis.

What does it mean to have a discerning heart? And how do you get one of those? Jesuit Robert Purcell wrote this lovely poem:

God, my God, I believe
In the joy of those who delight
In Your way.

I want to know this joy,
Hold the joy of You
In the depth of me.

Plant me in Your strength,
Yield fruit from me,
Truly prosper me.

Oh, dear God, deliver me
From hither-thither chaff-like life
All blown in the wind,
Unfirm.

The “discerning heart” is one formed and shaped by decision-making in light of one’s desires to live a life that is in tune with God’s “hope in you,” suggested Rev. Joseph Tetlow, S.J. When we are faced with a choice between something that is good and something that is bad or evil, the choice for the good is easy and obvious. Discernment becomes important when choosing between and among good options for jobs, places to live, relationships, and how to spend one’s time, energy or resources. For Ignatius, discernment was about choosing between and among goods.

Ignatius provides guidance with his “rules for discernment of spirits.” He taught us that discernment often comes down to this: How do we come to understand the movements of desolation and consolation (feelings and affective emotions) that crop up in our lives? And how do we know whether the “spirits” of those movements are of God or not?

The discerning person seeks good guides, good readings and good advice and listens to the heart to discern what choice will be for the greater good. Ignatius suggests that feelings of fear, anxiety, disgust, doubt and confusion unsettle us and indicate movement away from God. But the “good spirit” of a good decision is marked by joy, contentment and peace, and it leads us closer to a life connected with God’s life.

Dr. Susan Mountin, Jour ’71, Grad ’94, director of Manresa for Faculty, helps us till the soil of faith in a quarterly column on Ignatian values.

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