Discernment: it’s complicated

The Feast Day of St. Ignatius of Loyola

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ – Luke 9:57-62

“Let the dead bury their own dead.” “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” These are harsh statements. They seem to suggest that under no circumstances ought we to compromise. We ought to choose the most important thing, even if it means cutting our ties with friends and family. We ought to live a life dedicated to God, go where Jesus is and proclaim the kingdom.

What would that mean for you? For me, it gets complicated really quickly. If I were to leave everything behind, where would I go? Would I enter a monastery? Join a group like Doctors without Borders? Go to seminary? Go to Guatemala? Do I cast my lot with the poor and help the impoverished in my own country? Become a street evangelist? Is leaving my children and grandchildren behind the right thing to do? How about my life-long partner? All these are perhaps valid responses to the call of God in one’s heart. But they aren’t mine.

Perhaps I am just making excuses, but I really do feel that the unrelenting perspective that puts God first in my life is both less dramatic and more elusive than that. It is not a once and for all decision that gets me there, but rather an ongoing process of dialogue and discernment. There is never an end to it. The thing that was right a few years ago is wrong now. New opportunities, the closing off of certain pathways, the need to develop some neglected aspect of my person, all these things and more factor in. It’s always a bit of a crap shoot, always an approximation, always “getting there” rather than “being there”.

128px-Ignatius_Loyola_by_Francisco_Zurbaran.jpgIn this process the spiritual feelings of consolation and desolation described by Ignatius of Loyola play a part. When I am on fire with God, moved to praise and to love, I know I am on the right track. Decisions that bring me a solid peace, joy, tears of understanding or relief are the ones that lead me to God’s dream for me.

By contrast, restlessness and anxiety or uncertainty indicate that what I am choosing is not quite right. My soul is not inspired by it. It does not guide me into greater fulfillment in relationship with my Creator.

Discernment is a time-consuming activity. It involves plunging into our confusion and working with it, clarifying nebulous thoughts and feelings and learning what spirits move us, when and how. It is an art rather than a science, and it works best when we know ourselves well in all our complexity – our particular brand of pettiness and grandeur, arrogance and selflessness, wisdom and stupidity.

It also works best with a spiritual director, someone who can challenge us, point out where we are fooling ourselves, and ask the questions that lead to true insight. Having the perspective of the other helps us find the perspective of God.

Today I will light a candle in thanks to St. Ignatius of Loyola whose Spiritual Exercises have given us such wise and practical ways of learning what following the Way of Jesus really does mean in our lives at any given moment. I will also light a candle to each of the spiritual guides and companions who have listened in and helped me discern my own path forward in my ongoing journey to live a life dedicated to God.

Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries.

“Ignatius Loyola by Francisco Zurbaran” by Francisco Zurbaran (1598-1664) – Art.co.uk. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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