By Father John Bayer, O. Cist.
Special to The Texas Catholic
One of the most laudable questions I receive is about how to discern God’s will. A decision is easy to make when the choice is between something right and something wrong. But a decision can be difficult when the choice is between two goods and I have to discover the specific will God has for me. I recently read a great book on this topic, and I want to share its theses. The book is “Discerning the Will of God: An Ignatian Guide to Christian Decision Making” by Father Timothy Gallagher.
Following St. Ignatius, Father Gallagher identifies the “foundation” and “disposition” for discernment, the “means” for nourishing that disposition, and then finally three “ways” to discern God’s will. Let’s take a look at all this.
The “foundation” is an awareness of God’s love. Everything we do should be a response to his love: “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). If we want to know what God calls us to do, we must know why he calls us at all. I remember how this foundation helped my own discernment. As I discerned my vocation to the monastery, I realized that God does not need me. He does not call me for his own sake, and I do him no favors, so to speak, by accepting his call. He calls me out of his generous love for me and for all those he wants to touch through my life. To discern his will, we must first experience this generosity. Perhaps it will be in the contemplation of creation where the sheer gratuity of existence overwhelms us. Or perhaps it will be in the sacrament of reconciliation when the unconditional, free and personal nature of God’s mercy brings us to tears. Whenever it happens, we find wells of spiritual energy released when we discover the foundation of our life: God loves you. You are here because he loves you. Everything he asks of you is for love.
That insight leads us to the right disposition for discernment. When God’s goodness overwhelms us, we can embrace what Fr. Gallagher calls “the one absolute” in the life of faith: obedience to the will of God. Who could want to disobey our loving Creator? When we see how good God is, our only desire is to say “yes” like Mary (Lk 1:38). The stronger this disposition becomes, the freer we become to say yes. We become less attached to things and less afraid of trials, because we know everything comes through God’s loving Providence. We might even feel a bit invincible, because we know the Creator of every atom and star is our loving Father, and nothing can happen to us apart from his will. We’re ready for anything. All we want is to love in return.
Father Gallagher offers several means for nourishing this disposition and our foundational awareness of God’s love. These are spiritual “exercises” that strengthen us: receiving the Eucharist as real encounter with Jesus’ personal and sacrificial love for us; reading Scripture, and especially the gospels, to see ever more deeply how good God wants to be for us; cherishing silence as the way to know ourselves and to hear the “still small voice” of God (1 Kings 19:12); pursuing spiritual direction or sharing our journey with others in the Christian community to ensure we do not live in dangerous isolation or prideful autonomy; finally, reviewing our spiritual experience through frequent prayer, examinations of conscience, journaling and other disciplines that allow us to notice patterns in God’s dealings with us. All these means and others can nourish the right disposition for discernment.
Once we are ready, Father Gallagher identifies three ways to discern. In the first, God gives me a clear perception of his will beyond my ability to doubt. I am simply drawn in a compelling manner to one good over all others, and no discursive process is needed. In the second way, I experience an attraction toward a good, but it is not as compelling. Now I need a process to evaluate my attraction. Do I experience greater “consolation” when I consider this good or another? That is, which path leads me to greater delight in the Gospel and to a stronger rejection of sin? On which path do I experience “desolation” or spiritual sadness? That is, for which good does my attraction appear more motivated by guilt, fear or a lack of trust in God? When we pay attention to such movements and patterns in our spiritual experience, God’s desire can become clearer. However, sometimes an analysis of our attractions is insufficient. So, in the third way we rely more on discursive reasoning. After stating the alternatives to ourselves as precisely as possible, we ask God to move us toward the one that is for his greater glory. We consider the spiritual advantages and disadvantages of each choice (even writing them in parallel columns). We can ask ourselves how we would counsel someone else before such a decision, as well as what we would choose if we knew our life were soon to end (i.e., at a time when lesser motives lose their force). We can imagine ourselves in heaven and ask ourselves what we would rather have chosen for all eternity. After such exercises help us to settle on a direction, we ask God for confirmation. We should do all this when we are calm, and when we are firmly rooted in the right disposition.
Finally, it is important to know that we must sometimes make a decision without perfect certainty, even after making every effort to discern. This is okay, since God uses even our mistakes to reveal himself, and if we have the humility to shift course when his will becomes apparent, we will be just fine. It is true, God can sometimes seem frustratingly coy or indirect about his will. But I believe, after meditating on Scripture, that he reveals himself in the way he does because he does not want slaves but friends, and so he communicates his will in a way that draws us into a deepening relationship. Discernment is not simply about the mission orders we want; it’s about our spiritual growth and friendship with God. Even Abraham, for whom God appears to have parted the clouds to reveal his vocation (cf. Gn 12:1-3), still had to journey in confusion as the specific details of his vocation became clear to him over many years of purification and friendship (Gn 12-25). Sometimes God gives us a moral certainty about his will. When he doesn’t, we can be certain he has a benevolent reason.
Father John Bayer, O. Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving.