Tilling the soil: Discerning choices in life is a constant process.
Choosing is a constant process: when to rise, what to wear, what to eat, what route to travel to work. Thankfully, some choices are easy.
But then there are also life-changing decisions that require discernment. A new graduate has more than one job offer. Which one should he take? Is living near family important or is it good to hold the illusion of complete independence and live far from familiar people and places? A young alumna falls in love. How should she decide if this is the right person to share the rest of her life? A young couple wonders when to take the plunge to parenting. A mid-career professional struggles with choosing to stay in a comfortable job or move on. His internal debate weighs income differential but also his chemistry with co-workers and supervisors and the corporate culture. People approaching retirement have to make choices about when to leave the jobs they love — and may have committed themselves to for decades — contemplating financial security, flexibility to travel or spend time with grandchildren, possibly downsizing to a smaller, less demanding home. And then there are choices about schools or vacations or the next car purchase or voting. Hard choices, important choices.
Ignatius of Loyola offered the Spiritual Exercises to help people move through the discernment process, to provide spiritual guidance in times when life-changing and lasting decisions have to be made. In his own life he recognized inner movements, which he called consolation and desolation, that gave him clues and led him to a greater sense of personal freedom. He believed the inner movements reflected God’s will in his life.
In the Spiritual Exercises Ignatius lists elaborate rules, some of which focus specifically on life choices and the spiritual freedom to give your life in service of God. He offered the Spiritual Exercises to help young men discern their vocations in the Society of Jesus.
But the Spiritual Exercises also provide a certain wisdom to help lay women and men find their own meaning, vocation and path forward. The underlying principles are attractive: Live life practicing the virtues of faith, hope and love; be attentive and aware of the inner feelings and movements within your heart as well as your head; learn to name within yourself what draws you deeper into relationship with God, with the good; and be aware of darker impulses, attitudes and behaviors that lead you away from the good or God.
Ignatius fully acknowledged that the world — even in his day — was filled with pain and sorrow, with people hurting other people, with evil, crime, thoughtlessness, jealousy and avarice and that each negative impulse can influence women and men. The Spiritual Exercises provide guidance to help us check out, take moments of silence to breathe freshly, think more deeply, turn away from bad and turn toward the light in ourselves, and make choices that build a just world with concern for the least among us.
Spiritual discernment is not a once-and-done proposition. It’s a commitment. It’s ongoing. Ignatius encouraged his followers to practice leading lives of discernment by acknowledging the internal movements that would lead them closer or farther from God’s desires for a world filled with love. It’s a good practice for all of us.
By Dr. Susan Mountin, director of Manresa for Faculty in the Office of Mission and Ministry