And you should follow it wherever it may go
When it’s all said and done, you can walk instead of run
‘Cause no matter what, you’ll never be alone
On following your <3 with a Catholic compass
By: Mark E. Thibodeaux, S.J. - AmericanCatholic.org
We Christians don’t just decide things, we discern them. That is, we do our best to figure out what God is calling us to in every situation. We do our best to say yes to that divine invitation. But how do we discern God’s will for us? That’s the tricky part. There are a number of approaches to discernment in the Catholic tradition. The one I know the best comes from St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, who lived in Europe during the 16th century. His insights are so rich and abundant that hundreds of books have been written about his life and work.
It is impossible to set down very many of the insights in an Update. But in the area of discernment, one insight in particular seems to be the key for understanding his perspective. His insight was this: “Good discernment consists of prayerfully pondering the great desires that well up in my daydreams.”
Not only are desires not evil, but they are one of God’s primary instruments of communicating his will to his children. God enflames the heart with holy desires, and with attraction toward a life of greater divine praise and service. Ignatius did not seek to squash desires, but rather sought to tap into the deepest desires of the heart, trusting that it is God who has placed them there.
Desires, of course, play a role in my sinful choices, too. But Ignatius would define sin as disordered desire. The problem is not that I have desires, but that they are disordered within me. That is why I must begin this entire process by tapping into the greatest, most universal desire among humans: to praise, reverence and serve God.
A teenager may want badly to have sexual relations with a girlfriend or boyfriend. Spouses may become sexually attracted to people outside of their marriage. Are these evil desires? No, they are merely disordered desires. Why do any of these people want intimate sexual relations? Because each craves oneness with another—each is created by God, for the experience of unity.
We fall into sin when we are ignorant of the desires beneath the desires. Consider this way of understanding personal sin: We sin, not because we are in touch with our desires but precisely because we are not in touch with them! This is one of Ignatius’ most profound insights.
How, then, do I tap into these great desires? I daydream, that’s how! I fantasize about great and beautiful futures. I let God dream in me and I sit in silent awe and wonder as these holy dreams come to life before the eyes and ears of my soul. Now that’s a different approach to prayer than most of us know. But that’s what St. Ignatius taught.
Let’s look at an example. Say I’m a manager who has just been given an offer to relocate to a faraway city and join a more prestigious company. My immediate inclination might be to feel frightened of all the threatening unknowns: Will my family be happy in this new place? Will I like my new bosses? Will I find affordable housing? Will I be burning bridges with my current firm? All of these are reasonable concerns and will have to be considered later. St. Ignatius would argue that these negative considerations are not the proper starting point for discernment. Instead, he said, start with dreams and desires.
I might begin by asking the big questions: “What is my purpose in life?” Of course, the answer Catholics learned as children applies: To praise, revere and serve God.
I might then ask, “How am I uniquely called to do this?” First, as a spouse and parent. Second, as a manager. Then, “In my current roles, what are my dreams for my family?” First, that we be healthy and safe. Second, that we be a family bonded with love and care for one another. Third, that our children might be not merely well-educated, but also well-formed in Church and school.
Then I ponder, “What are my dreams for my career?” That I might serve God and society through my profession. That I be honest, professional and fair-minded. That I might seek justice above all.
Now, I begin to daydream—or better—to praydream! I ask myself, “How might I make these goals for my family and my job come to life, remaining here in my current job?” (Option A). I dream great dreams of all that could happen in the life of our family and work if I continue in my current job or place.
Then I dream Option B: How might I make these goals come to life moving to the new job and city? To prayerfully explore my options, I praydream all of the possibilities.
Note the difference between the way most people normally decide and this radical way of discerning that St. Ignatius is proposing. Most lead with the wrong foot: They allow the tools of the false spirit to drive the bus: fear and anxiety (“What will happen?”), ambition (“Here’s my chance to rise!”), pride (“It’s a more prestigious employer”), jealousy (“Finally, I’ll leave my co-workers in the dust!”) and so on. There will be time enough to deal with these negative realities. But for now, I allow my great desires to drive the bus. I imagine the greatest potentialities—the best-case scenarios—for each option.
As I allow myself to dream, I then begin to ponder their meaning. As I praydream the possibilities of living out my great desires in each option, I try to note the stirrings in my heart. I ask myself:
After the initial excitement of new possibilities, which dreams leave me in consolation? That is...
• Which of these dreams leave me filled with holy and wholesome desires?
• Which leave me with a sense of closeness to God?
• Which leave me filled with faith? With hope? With love?
• Which make me want to go out and share them with the people I love? With my mentors and friends?
• Which leave me with a deep-down tranquility? With a sense of rightness? With a fits-like-a-glove sort of feeling?
Then I discern, which dreams leave me in desolation? That is...
• Which leave me without faith? Without hope? Without love?
• Which leave me with a sense of distance from God?
• Which leave me disquiet and agitated?
• Which leave me with no passion and zeal? With a sense of boredom and tepidity? With no energy?
• Which fill me with deep-down anxiety and fear?
• Which are the dreams I’m not very excited to talk about with my friends? Which are the ones that I avoid?
Peace vs. disquiet
Ignatius says that when a well-intentioned, prayerful person is in sync with God, God’s will comes “sweetly, lightly, gently, as a drop of water that enters a sponge.” This inner peace—even for a tough decision—is one of the most important telltale signs of God’s will.
It may well be that God’s will lies in the most frightening option (for example, leaving a comfortable job in order to enter religious life, or firing an unfit employee instead of ignoring the problem or choosing some unpopular course of action). I may therefore feel fearful when I praydream this scenario, and yet deeper down, there is a sense in me that this is the proper way to go and that the Lord’s abiding presence will sustain me through the unpleasantness.
I am also looking out for its opposite—for deep-down agitation. Again, one particular option may look good on paper and make me feel comfortable on the surface of my emotions. This “easy option” may smooth things over, avoid conflict or avoid unpleasant or awkward situations (for example, upholding the status quo, remaining in current status, not making waves at the office, making only complimentary remarks). Despite the fact that this option is clearly the path of least resistance, deeper down there is agitation within me. There is something that isn’t quite settled in my spirit as I imagine myself moving forward in this direction.
Often, after many hours of prayerful deliberation, there will be a moment when you will just know. It will feel not as though you are making a decision but, rather, as though you are acknowledging a decision that has already been agreed upon by God and your heart. I’ll recognize this auspicious moment by the way one option over the others leads to praydreams. Maybe those praydreams aren’t idealistic, comfortable or beautiful. But somehow they are realistic and right, more peaceful and charged with energy. These dreams will fit like a glove.
All other options—though perhaps more beautiful, comfortable or safe—will drift farther from my soul’s watchful eye and will begin to fade into the horizon. Deciding is not an easy task. Discerning God’s will is even more challenging! But St. Ignatius assures God has placed his desire deep within the desires of my own heart. Praydreaming allows me to ponder those deep desires to discover and say yes to God’s grace-filled path.
Mark E. Thibodeaux, S.J., is a spiritual director, retreat director, high school teacher and Jesuit priest. He holds a Master of Divinity from Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of Armchair Mystic: Easing Into Contemplative Prayer and God, I Have Issues (St. Anthony Messenger Press).