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Many of us do not trust our own thoughts, feelings, and desires when it comes to discerning God’s will. Instead we look outside ourselves to determine what God wants from and for us. In God’s Voice Within , spiritual director Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ, shows us how to use Ignatian discernment to access our own spiritual intuition and understand that the most trustworthy wisdom of all comes not from outside sources, but from God working through us.
God’s Voice Within is intended for people who know that there is more to the spiritual life than they are currently experiencing and are ready to take the next step in their walk of faith by making effective discernment—specifically Ignatian discernment—a daily practice.
Ultimately, God’s Voice Within teaches us to discern what is at the root of our actions and emotions, which in turn allows us to respond to God’s promptings inside us rather than unconsciously reacting to life around us.
Foreword: Decision Making by Heart
James Martin, SJ
What should I do?
How many times have you asked yourself that question today? How about during this week? this month? this year? over the course of your life?
In a sense, it is th e question we ask ourselves, again and again. It applies to major decisions: Where should I go to college? What should I study? What career path should I take? What job should I take? It applies to decisions about our personal, and most intimate, relationships: How should I treat my parents? How should I respond to a friend in crisis? What should I do about the problems in my marriage? And it applies to more common, but no less stressful, situations: When should I confront my annoying boss? How should I approach that soured relationship in my family? What should I do about my crazy neighbor?
But decision making is not only about “shoulds.” It also concerns our heartfelt wants, our deepest desires, our holy longings. If we are self-reflective people, we ask ourselves other questions as well: Who do I want to become? What do I most want to do with my life? Who is God calling me to be?
Most of us would agree that these are essential questions. But if we’re honest, most of us would also admit that these questions can be difficult, stress inducing, even terrifying. Sometimes we get paralyzed by such questions, and fearing the need to make important decisions, we postpone them, avoid answering them fully, or simply ignore them. Decisions can overwhelm us.
If only , we think, there were an easy-to-use guide to help us make these big, overwhelming, life-changing decisions—and the small ones, too.
Fortunately, there is.
St. Ignatius of Loyola was a sixteenth-century soldier-turned-mystic who founded the Catholic religious order known as the Jesuits. As you’ll soon read, Ignatius was a keen student of human nature, a beloved spiritual master, and a superb decision maker. Through his own experiences (both in his daily life and in his prayer), he came to understand an important truth: God desires for us to make good decisions and will help us do so. All we need to do, besides having a good intention, is not only rely on our (literally) God-given reason but also pay attention to the movements of our heart, which was also given to us by God. St. Ignatius poured his considerable insights on decision into his great spiritual classic, The Spiritual Exercises .
The sum total of these insights on making a good decision is known as Ignatian discernment. Ignatius’s way includes well-ordered series of practices, techniques, and skills that understand that good decision making is a combination of faith and reason. You trust your heart, as one Jesuit once said, but use your head, too.
In the past, however, Ignatian discernment was too often presented as overly complex, full of complicated strategies and arcane techniques, cloaked in high-flown language, almost as if you needed to have a PhD and a flowchart just to begin to understand it. And that’s too bad, because Ignatian discernment isn’t that complicated. An authentic spirituality is a simple spirituality. After all, when asked about the kingdom of God, Jesus gave his disciples stories about weeds and wheat, not a six-hundred-page theological treatise! His were profound, mysterious answers but were still able to be understood by his listeners.
That’s why this book is so welcome. As you will soon discover, Mark Thibodeaux, SJ, is one of the friendliest, most welcoming, and most accessible guides to decision making you could imagine. Using abundant examples from his own life (and his own considerable experience helping others in spiritual direction) as well as from the life of Ignatius, he opens up the riches of Ignatian discernment to help you to decide what you should (and shouldn’t) do. Or where you want (and don’t want) to go.
Mark’s facility with Ignatian spirituality is evident to anyone who has ever met him. One of the liveliest and most lighthearted Jesuits I know (and a good friend), Mark is the perfect example of how holiness leads to joy. His full life—as a teacher, a spiritual director, a novice master, and a priest—shows that by making good decisions, we can bring ourselves closer to God. And moving closer to God means moving closer to a life of peace—and joy. It’s almost impossible to feel downhearted or downcast when you’re with Mark, and some of the times in my life when I’ve laughed the loudest have been with him.
But Mark would no doubt be embarrassed to have the focus placed on him. He would probably move our attention to St. Ignatius, who would shift the focus where it belongs: God. Ultimately, this book is centered on God: how God can help us make important decisions, how God can move our hearts to “discern” well, how God can be found in all the different “spirits” that move our lives. How God’s voice can be found within.
God wants us to make life-giving decisions, and so God will help us to that end. That’s one of the underlying themes of this useful, accessible, and entirely enjoyable new book.
So the next time you say to yourself, with some distress, What should I do? don’t despair. Take a deep breath, pick up this book, use your head, and trust your heart. James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America magazine, and author of the best-selling books The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and My Life with the Saints . 1
Why Read This Book?
You are probably reading this book because you have recognized a need in your own life for wiser discernment. We tend to think of discernment as decision making, but discernment goes much deeper and broader than simply making choices. True discernment teaches us to make honest assessments of our situations and problems. True discernment teaches us to be self-aware; otherwise, we will get in the way of our own wise choice making. True discernment is not only a matter of reason but also a matter of spirituality. It involves every aspect of our person, from emotion to analysis, from desire to resistance, from personal will to personal prayer.
Discernment would be simple if we could identify the five, or twelve, or twenty-five fail-proof steps to making good choices. But choices are not the result of mere rational exercise; choices come out of who we are as well as out of what we think. That is why discernment is not a system but a process, and it’s a process we must learn, and apply, and then learn some more. The Ordinary, Daily Decisions
You make hundreds of decisions on a daily basis—ordinary choices about ordinary things.
You are well aware of the consequences of these seemingly insignificant choices. If you say the wrong thing at the wrong moment to the wrong person—which you often do—you might well set off all-out war. You know that if you ease up on your work, those who demand more of you will be angry or disappointed. You know that your elderly aunt will not be around forever and that your children will grow up too fast. You know that you’re good to no one when you let yourself burn out and never allow yourself to relax. You know that God wants you to be good to yourself, to treat yourself occasionally, but you are also aware of your own temptations to overindulge.
More crucial than those consequences are the extent to which these seemingly small and insignificant daily choices define who you are as a person. Are you lazy, hardworking, or a workaholic? Are you a pushover, lovingly firm, or downright bossy? Are you passive, prudent, or overaggressive? Are you self-loathing, realistic about yourself, or self-serving? Are you kind, cold, or a flatterer? You know well that all of these important questions about your character—about who you are as a person—are defined at least as much by the small daily decisions as by the big momentous ones.
Also, you are aware that the accumulation of these small decisions, added to the totality of others’ decisions, may eventually yield disastrous or glorious results. We pollute the earth one bag of trash or one corporate-waste policy at a time. A Hitler rises to power, not all at once and by force, but over time and with the support of ordinary citizens.
African-Americans in the 1960s did not suddenly gain full rights through one momentous decision but rather through a serious of small decisions made by ordinary people—people such as Rosa Parks, who, one ordinary day, decided to have a seat in the front of the bus, and by ordinary white people who gradually chose to resist prejudice within themselves when the likes of a Rosa Parks sat beside them on the bus.
When an earthquake devastated the nation of Haiti in 2010, a person could contribute to relief efforts simply by cell-phone texting the word Haiti to a certain number. This method of donation was promoted everywhere on TV, radio, and the Internet. Ordinary people, while surfing the Web, flipping channels on TV, or sitting at a stoplight, each pledged a mere ten dollars to relief efforts. In a matter of days, millions of dollars were raised.
You know that ordinary people’s choices—of which leaders to support and oppose, of how to feel about the person sitting on the bus beside them, of how to spend ten measly dollars—literally changed the course of world history. As a Christian, you feel compelled to make the right choices no matter how small those choices might seem on any given day. You are confronted with scores of such choices every single day of your life, and yet you have spent little time considering how to go about making these decisions. You have no method for making such decisions. Instead, you simply take a stab in the dark—or worse, you let life dictate to you how you will act. You have a sense that you should be proactive in the way you decide to behave in one moment or another, but you have no idea of how to go about consciously, prayerfully deciding such things.
The Big Decisions You look back on your life and see that there were momentous choices that propelled your life in irrevocable directions:
Empty of the Sense of God’s Closeness
I call desolation . . . [a sense of the soul’s being] separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord.
—SE , Rules for Discernment of Spirits, First Week, #4
The word desolation has its roots in the Middle English de sole,
which translates as “to be made alone, to be forsaken or abandoned.” Part of the experience of desolation is the sense that God is distant from me. I can’t feel a strong sense of God’s presence. I feel spiritually abandoned and alone. I say the “sense” of God’s absence or the “feeling” of being abandoned by God because faith assures me that God never abandons me. If God did so, I would cease to exist. God is always near, always watching and loving me—always acting for the good in my life. But I don’t always feel that divine love. I can’t always sense God’s presence in my heart.
A young seminarian going through a bit of desolation described a prayer time during which he meditated on Christ as the Good Shepherd. “I found myself doubting,” he said, “if I really am one of those sheep in Christ’s arms.” It was a strange thing for such a prayerful seminarian to say, but that’s how it felt at the moment. For long periods of his life, prayer came with ease and gave him a sense of God’s nearness, but at this moment of desolation he felt only an abandoned emptiness in his prayer. His words to God felt like dry bones; his petitions seemed to be unheard and unanswered. He was alone in the room, seemingly with no God to comfort him.
This unhappy sense of dryness in prayer is not unusual among people of faith. Jesus himself cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The psalmist speaks of his soul as “a dry and weary land” (Psalm 63:1) and asks: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
—Psalm 22 St. Thérèse of Lisieux once referred to herself as an abandoned toy of the child Jesus. Mother Teresa of Calcutta endured very long stretches of prayer with no sense of the Father’s presence. Frustrated by God’s frequent “absences,” the mystical writer Thomas à Kempis once exclaimed to God (and I paraphrase), “If you absent yourself one more time, I’ll break every commandment in the book!” These examples reveal that such an experience is normal in a life of prayer.
I am truly in the depths of desolation not simply when I experience dryness in prayer but also when I have lost the sense of hope and faith that this will ever change. In desolation, I am drawn to question not just this moment but my entire relationship with God. I will begin to wonder if my whole experience of God is just a sham, something I made up in my head. I will question the existence of God, or at least the existence of my friendship with God. I remember once, during a particularly dry retreat I was going through, telling my retreat director, “I’m not sure that I really know how to pray.” I could tell that the director was laughing inwardly at this comment; from his more objective point of view, he knew how silly this doubt was. But in my heart the false spirit had me convinced that my years and years of prayer were nothing but an imaginative exercise—an intellectual fantasy. Full of Disquietude and Agitation I call desolation . . . darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit . . . restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations.
—SE , Rules for Discernment of Spirits, First Week, #4 Ignatius noticed an unsettled quality to desolation and to the movements that came from the false spirit. He said that if a person is going “from good to better”—that is, praying and truly seeking the will of God—then the movements of the false spirit will leave her feeling uneasy, unsettled, and agitated. There will be a noticeable lack of peace in her heart. The negative feelings of fear, anger, laziness, and so on, will bother her and will seem larger than they really are. She will falsely believe that her negative emotions have got the best of her—and believing this will make it true.
Inner disturbance or restlessness—what Ignatius called disquiet—may well be the most revealing characteristic of the false spirit because it is the disquietude about the other characteristics that reveals its source. Note in the quotation above that Ignatius does not worry so much about “many disturbances and temptations” but rather about “disquiet from various agitations and temptations.” There will always be agitations, negative feelings, temptations, and upsetting thoughts. What the discerner needs to pay attention to is the extent to which these negative movements within him disturb his peace of mind.
If I set out to have no negative moods, thoughts, or feelings, I’m setting myself up for failure. These experiences are simply part of what it means to be human. But I can pray about and work on my perceptions of and attitudes toward those negative moods, thoughts, and feelings. Often, I cannot control the way I feel about something. For example, if you say something hurtful to me, I’m going to feel hurt. Denying it will simply make it worse. But I can control my attitude about those feelings. If the hurt feelings become the driving force of my attitudes and actions—if they lead me to pessimistic conclusions about my life, and if they ultimately dictate how I act—then I am operating under the influence of the false spirit and am in desolation.
A Native American legend tells of an elder explaining to his grandson that there are two wolves within him struggling for control of his actions. One wolf is the true spirit, and the other is the false spirit. The young grandson asks, “And which will win, Grandfather?” The old man answers, “The one I feed.” This is precisely the point. I do not have a choice about having the two wolves within me. This side of heaven, I must deal with inner negativity. But I do have some choice in my attitude toward that negativity.
A couple of examples might help to illustrate the point. An Unwelcome PassengerRecently, I took a twenty-six-hour bus trip from New Orleans to St. Joseph, Missouri. I was on my own and decided to use this trip as a time of prayer and reflection. Not long into the trip, in the midst of my prayer, I noticed the presence of a bit of anger about a past incident. The incident that elicited the anger was not very significant, and I knew, looking at it objectively, that it was not of great consequence. I therefore set out to dismiss these petty feelings of anger. But as the bus trip went on, despite my best efforts, the anger inside me grew and grew. In fact, it seemed that the more I tried to get rid of the anger, the angrier I felt.
Time went by, and the anger remained. Meanwhile, as my bus traveled from one city to another, I noticed that as I sat by the window with an empty isle seat beside me, one person would get on the bus and sit there for a while and then would get off at the next stop; then another would sit in that seat, then another, and so on. With one person I might have a lengthy and friendly conversation, and with another there might be silence the entire time. With some amusement I thought, I feel like I’m having fifty first dates, each of them lasting about three hundred miles!
Meanwhile, I began to realize that my anger just wasn’t going away. I prayed some more about this and suddenly found myself speaking directly to my anger: “OK, anger, it seems as though I can’t get you off the bus. I suppose that you insist on being one of my dates. So, I consent to your staying around a while. You can stay and sit beside me quietly while I pray, as long as you don’t make too much noise and as long as you don’t try to sit in the driver’s seat.” True to form, like my other dates, anger sat beside me for about three hundred miles and then, on its own, got off the bus. “Agitations” will come and go in life. I can’t stop them from coming. And often, when I make great efforts to kick them off the bus, they simply become more obstinate. Because I focus all my attention on them, they have now moved into the driver’s seat. But if I allow the good spirit of Peace and Quiet to drive the bus, it isn’t so distressing that Anger is a fellow passenger.
Here is another example of how the false spirit sometimes attempts to let the “agitations and temptations” rule a person’s life and bring about disquietude. A Case of Righteous AngerI once counseled a troubled young man named Frank, who seldom smiled and who had few friends. Early in my pastoral counseling sessions with him, he began to let loose pent-up feelings about his being victimized years before. In these early sessions, Frank had the liberating experience of finally acknowledging what had happened to him and how it made him feel. He was filled with righteous anger—that is, anger that he had a right to—and expressing this anger out loud for the first time (as opposed to repressing it as he’d always done before) brought him some peace and satisfaction. I was pleased and knew that these “controlled explosions” in the safety of my office were from the true spirit.
But as the weeks went on, I noticed that Frank was not letting go of that anger. Instead, he was feeding and being fed by his anger. It was anger that got him out of bed in the morning and anger that led to his brooding silences among his peers at school.
I began to recognize two opposing movements within Frank. Acknowledging and expressing his anger in a spiritual context was coming from the true spirit. Disquiet about that same anger was coming from the false spirit. In order for Frank to follow the path of the true spirit, he would have to find ways of accepting the past event and his present feelings about the event. But he would also have to come to peace within himself about his present emotions. He would have to consent to having anger as a passenger on the bus without allowing the anger to drive the bus.
Confusion: A Subcategory
Confusion is such a common experience within desolation that we might be tempted to think of it as a distinct characteristic of desolation. But confusion in and of itself is not the problem. God never promises us certainty; omniscience belongs to God alone. Most of the time, a healthy discernment process will go through one or more periods of ambiguity and uncertainty. In fact, this is often a necessary stage in the course of good discernment. The problem, then, is with our reaction to this lack of clarity. Confusion becomes a desolating experience when we allow ourselves to be upset about not knowing—when our uncertainty or lack of knowledge leads to disturbance within us.
Nonetheless, unsettling confusion is indeed a common telltale sign of desolation. A person in this state is missing the forest for the trees. He loses his perspective of the ultimate goal of life, which is defined by St. Ignatius as “praise, reverence, and service of God our Lord.” The confusion of desolation causes a person to get bogged down in the details of the journey while forgetting the ultimate destination. It’s a failure to “keep your eyes on the prize.” Otherwise, the state of not knowing would not be unsettling and therefore not desolating.
Consider the story of Peter walking on the water to meet Jesus. As long as Peter was focused on Jesus, he walked with ease. If he were asked at that moment, “How is it that you are walking on water?” he would not know the answer. But his lack of understanding about water walking did not keep him from doing so, as long as he focused on Jesus. It was upon “seeing the wind” that Peter grew afraid and began to sink. The moment he took his eyes off Jesus, he was lost.
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter answered, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come!” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:22–31)
Foreword: Decision Making by Heart James Martin, SJ xiii
1 Why Read This Book? 1
Part 1 The True and False Spirits 9
2 Characteristics of Desolation and of the False Spirit 15
Empty of Faith, Hope, and Love 17
Empty of the Sense of God's Closeness 19
Full of Disquietude and Agitation 21
Confusion: A Subcategory 25
Full of Boredom and Tepidity 27
Full of Fear and Worry 29
Full of Secrecy 34
False Consolation: An Advanced Form of Desolation 36
The Combination of Characteristics 42
3 Characteristics of Consolation and of the True Spirit 43
Faith, Hope, and Love 45
The Sense of God's Closeness 48
Peace and Tranquility 51
True Perspective: A Subcategory 54
Great Desires 55
Part 2 Responding to Desolation and Consolation 59
4 When in Desolation 61
Response 1 Name the Desolation 63
Response 2 Avoid Making Changes or Important Decisions 69
Response 3 Rely on Your Support Network 73
Response 4 Consider Potential Logistical, Moral, or Psychological Problems 81
Response 5 Be Aware of the False "Angel of Light" 89
Response 6 Be Firm with the False Spirit and Work Diligently 93
Response 7 Be Gentle, Patient, and Encouraging to Yourself 97
Response 8 Have Faith That God Will Make God Use of This Desolation 100
In Case of Fire 102
5 When in Consolation 105
Preparation 1 Observe the "Course of the Thoughts" 111
Preparation 2 Attend to Vulnerabilities 114
Preparation 3 Look Out for False Consolation 118
Preparation 4 Seek God's Presence in the Painful Moments of Your Past 121
Two Helpful Practices 124
Ready for Discernment 128
Part 3 From Discerning Spirits to Making Decisions 131
6 Before Making a Decision: Laying a Foundation 133
What Do You Seek? 136
A Grateful Heart 140
Two Stories of Gratitude 143
For God's Greater Glory 146
Ignatian Indifference 147
Indifference of the Heart, Indifference of the Will 148
7 Deciding: Four Phases to Good Discernment 151
Phase 1 Get Quiet 153
Phase 2 Gather Data 158
Phase 3 Dream the Dreams-Tapping into Deep Desires 166
Phase 4 Ponder the Dreams-Weighing Desolations and Consolations 171
A Special Case: "When the Soul is Not Acted on by Various Spirits" 177
Another Special Case: "Without Being Able to Doubt" 183
8 After Deciding: Tentative Decisions, Confirmation, and Final Decisions 189
Offering My Tentative Decision 191
Seeking Confirmation 195
What If There Is No Confirmation? 201
Making the Final Decision and Acting on It 205
9 Five Things to Remember 209
Index of Figures, Prayer Exercises, and Stories 215
Glossary of Ignatian Terms 217
Related Bible Passages 219
Suggestions for Further Reading 221
Primary Text of Ignatius's Rules for the Discernment of Spirits 223