Anyone who day dreams can understand Ignatian discernment. A junior in college is sitting by a lake and begins thinking about what she might do in Graduate School. She sees herself as a physician’s assistant working in a clinic for the poor in her home town San Antonio, Texas and begins thinking about reaching out to immigrants in a place similar to where she took a service trip after her sophomore year. Then her thoughts drift toward another dream of hers. She has always had an interest in high school teaching and has been attracted to getting a Master’s degree in English so she could go back to San Antonio and teach in Immaculate Heart of Mary High School from where she graduated. As she sits there with her day dreams she begins to notice subtle differences in her feelings when she considers each of the alternatives. When she ponders working at the clinic, she feels some heaviness come over her. So she looks for where this heaviness might come from. She traces it to two experiences: her dislike of the sciences which she struggled with in her junior year and a character trait in which the suffering of others causes her sleepless nights and outbursts of tears. When she considers high school teaching, there is a different feeling. She feels some energy about working with the young women in the same manner that Mr. James had worked with her when he taught her. He could be challenging and affirming at the same time and it was in his class she gained self-confidence in her ability to write fiction.
Pondering and noticing interior movements are at the heart of Ignatian discernment. And discernment is deciding which way God is leading as one looks at facts and feelings in decisions to be made.
In the traditional language of Christianity, a person who is trying to live the Gospel asks, “What is God’s will in the decision which is facing me?” Many people with that question look up and down for signs but when signs are not given, they make a decision and then ask God to bless the decision.
When St. Ignatius Loyola was convalescing after a canon ball injury, he began daydreaming about his future and noticed interior facts. Those facts which enlivened one’s heart and gave energy to take a certain path, he called consolation. Those interior facts which left one restless, hollow or out of sorts, he called desolation. And he came to understand that consolation usually was produced by the Spirit of God touching into one’s heart and thoughts. And he came to learn that the spirit of dis-ease, hollowness and restlessness came from the enemy of human nature which saw as the evil spirit.
With this illumination, Ignatius began to develop a set of guidelines for individuals wanting to make decisions about where God is calling them. He called these guidelines the Rules for the Discernment of Spirits. Use of these guidelines are for serious decisions an individual needs to make—what path of life to take, what occupation best suits one’s gifts and talents, switching companies for which one works, determining the number of children a couple chooses to bring into life, buying a house, choice of college for a son or daughter or determining a healthy environment for an aging parent. They are decisions in which there are competing goods and not a choice between good and bad.
As one faces important choices, St. Ignatius says there usually are three times when one can make a choice. His times are not chronological times but refer to one’s awareness level as he or she goes about choosing. Sometimes as one ponders a choice, there is great clarity about which way one should go. There is a sense of, “That’s it.” Another time is described as having alternating certainties and doubts, of consolation and desolation, of strength and weakness. The third time is when one feels nothing. There is no leaning one way or another but a calmness and feeling one is stuck in one’s head.
Ignatius counsels that the first two times are appropriate for weighting facts and feelings and coming to a decision. When one is in the third time, more work is involved. It can involve listing advantages and disadvantages, looking at the decision from a stranger’s perspective or imagining one’s self at the moment of death and looking back at the decision. Going about it this way often stirs up some consolation or desolation in one’s heart which can light the pathway to a decision.
When a decision is made, St. Ignatius invites an individual to bring the decision before God and offer it to God. As one offers it in prayer, Ignatius expects that God will fill the person with consolation which is confirmation of the choice. One might be knocked off his horse as was St. Paul, but one will feel a subtle drawing of heart in the direction the choice has been made.
Discernment is at the heart of one’s spirituality and especially of Ignatian Spirituality. But spirituality is lived out in everyday life. And life involves at many junctures important decisions that further one on the road to living a more authentic Gospel life. It is at these points which prayer and action come together and further one on the road to discipleship.
St. Ignatius talks about “Guidelines” or “Rules” for the discernment of spirits. They are not to be followed as one would follow a recipe for making bread. They presuppose that one is on a quest for a living intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. This intimacy is not a passive resting in the bosom of the Lord for a Christian, but an active journey in which a disciple chooses what better expresses the Spirit’s activity in one’s heart and Christian witness to one’s neighbors.