Discerning the Will of God
An Ignatian Guide to Christian Decision Making
By Timothy M. Gallagher
The Crossroad Publishing Company Copyright © 2009 Timothy M. Gallagher, O.M.V.
All rights reserved.
Which Choice Does God Want?
Here where we walk the fire-strafed road and thirst for the great face of love, the blinding vision, our wills grow steadfast in the heart's decision to keep the first commandment always first.
— Jessica Powers
ROBERT knew that he faced a decision. He had finished his degree and was teaching in college. "That year," he says, "I realized that I needed to make a decision about my vocation."
My family always had a love and reverence for the priesthood. My uncle was a priest. He was a great guy, a kind of wisdom figure for me. It was a privilege to serve Mass for him when I was growing up. I remember watching priests when I was in grade school and thinking, "That would be great to do." But I didn't really think much about it.
When I went to college, I started going to daily Mass. That was where the idea of a vocation started to be stirred. I went to daily Mass all year. I was also making visits to the Blessed Sacrament. That was where I first felt deep, deep stirrings in my heart; I really started feeling the pull. I would spend an hour before the Blessed Sacrament in the evening, absorbed in peace and serenity. I said to myself, "Whatever this is, I want it. If it means being a priest, I'll do it."
But there was a struggle in my heart because since high school I also did a lot of partying — too much drinking and some drugs. It got better, but it was still a struggle sometimes. I also wondered if I could live celibately.
Then matters took a new turn for Robert:
In my sophomore year in college, I started dating Helen. I really learned from her what it means to love. I was in love with her and she with me. She blew my horizons into eternity. I could see endless possibilities in life with Helen. All that stuff about being in love and self-sacrifice — I would have given my life for her. Sometimes she would be in the chapel too when I was praying in the evening, and I would say, "Lord, the love I have for you and for Helen are the same thing."
There was intense intimacy, but it was a very chaste love. In my junior year we talked about marriage. Then I started to get scared. The intimacy was intense, and I thought that if she really found out about me — the partying, the drinking, all of that — she wouldn't want me.
At the same time, when I was dating Helen, the idea of priesthood became solid for me, real and consistent. Several persons asked me if I'd ever thought of being a priest.
One day I had lunch with the priest who was the chaplain. I really liked him. He was real, and he seemed happy. He told me that he thought I would make a good priest and that I should consider the priesthood. For the first time this became real, and I started to get scared. So I told Helen that we needed just to be friends. It was very hard. She knew I was thinking of the priesthood.
Robert's hesitation continued:
I finished my degree and started teaching. Once I was talking with a friend who told me that I needed to do something, that I'd been on this marriage-priesthood seesaw for two or three years. I said to myself, "Yes, he's right. It's time for me to face this question."
What should Robert do? Are the "deep, deep stirrings" and the "pull" his heart experiences toward priesthood indications that God is calling him to be a priest? Does the deep and chaste love he experiences for Helen, the "endless possibilities" in life he senses in her company, signify that God is calling him to marriage? What is God's will for Robert? How may Robert discern in this choice?
MONICA has been growing in her life of faith. After six years of emptiness, far from God, she returned to the Church. She lives a faithful life of the sacraments, has a spiritual director, and prays daily. She describes a moment of decision in her family:
I got a call that my father was terminally ill. I went to see him. The day I arrived he was in the hospital; I realized that I had come at the right moment. For two weeks I visited him regularly. A lot of the family was there. My sisters and I began to discuss what we should do: should we bring him home or find a good nursing home for him? I didn't know what God wanted me to do.
In a very different setting, similar questions arise. Monica, like Robert, loves God and wants to do God's will. What is God's will in this situation? How will Monica find clarity?
BRIAN describes yet another situation of decision. Early in his marriage, his wife Lisa's deep faith brought him close to the Lord. He recalls:
We had been married for several years, and our third child had just been born. I had worked in finance for a number of years, but found myself increasingly interested in serving in a more direct way. The thought of becoming a doctor continued to arise in my mind, all the more as my life of faith deepened. I spoke with Lisa about this. We both thought that I could do it, but it would mean some real sacrifices for Lisa while I was in medical school. For several months we talked and prayed about this.
Again, the same questions arise. Again, people who love the Lord and seek the Lord's will search for a way to discern that will.
When the choice is between a good and an evil option — to be honest or dishonest in my business dealings; to be faithful to my marriage vow or priestly ordination or religious consecration, or not; to speak the truth or a lie — God's will is evident: God never wills us to choose what is evil or would signify infidelity to definitive vocational commitments. Something similar may be said of choices concerning responsibilities inherent in a state of life already chosen: parents who must choose between proper care of their children or additional voluntary activities, no matter how good; a pastor who must choose between the needs of his parish or other ministries that require prolonged absences, and so forth. God, who calls us to a state of life, also calls us to the tasks inherent in that state.
Robert, Monica, and Brian, however, face a different kind of choice. Robert must discern between two options, both of which are good: marriage or priesthood. And his choice regards precisely his state of life: he is free to choose either. Monica and Brian also face choices which the criteria just named do not resolve: Does God will that Monica care for her father at home or with the aid of a well-equipped institution? Does God will that Brian remain in finance or enter medicine?
This is the question Ignatius addresses in his Spiritual Exercises, the question that is the focus of this book: When people who love God and want to do God's will face choices between options all of which are good and that they are free to choose, how can they discern God's will? Ignatius's first step is to lay the foundation for a reply. In our next chapter, we will explore that foundation.
God's Infinite Love and Our Response
I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created; I have a place in God's counsels, in God's world, which no one else has. ... God knows me and calls me by my name.
— John Henry Newman
"We Love Because He First Loved Us"
"We love because he first loved us." This biblical verse (1 John 4:19) lays the foundation for every search for God's will: when the human heart discovers that this world is not empty, that its life is not meaningless, that it has been loved from all time, that its very existence is a gift of love, then that heart rejoices and a yearning to respond awakens. Then the human will thirsts for that communion with the divine will, which is mutual love — the love for which we are made, and which, as Augustine says, alone gives rest to our restless hearts.
MICHAEL describes the moment when he discovered this foundational truth for himself:
I can actually point to a moment when the pieces of my fragmented life came together for the first time. I was a sophomore in college, going in several directions at once, trying to keep my options open, plagued, in particular, with questions about God. On the day of my nineteenth birthday I went into the woods on the outskirts of town and grandly announced to God, "I'm staying here in the woods until you do it."
What was "it"? To let me know for sure that he existed. To reveal how I could know him. To speak to me.
I stayed in the woods all day and into the evening. I was hungry and thirsty, and it was getting cold. I was a little scared, but I was stubborn. I was determined to stay in the woods until I got an answer.
The answer came at around 8:30 in the evening. The puzzle of God suddenly cleared up in my mind. A conviction grew in me that he did indeed exist and that the Church was indeed an institution that told the truth about him. I could have confidence in it. The Lord spoke to my heart too. He loved me. He would forgive my sins and heal my wounds. I was home. All this was a free gift of God. I was a desperate case, so he had pity on me and gave me everything at once.
This was the foundation. The vocation I discerned later flowed from this relationship with the Lord that began that evening in the woods. That was the key. The relationship has been there ever since.
Yes, this is the foundation: he loves me, he will forgive my sins, he will heal my wounds; I am home. This "free gift of God" awakens the heart's longing to respond: a heart that knows itself so loved longs to live in relationship with God. And, as Michael says, all discernment flows from this relationship with the Lord.
JACK had abandoned his practice of faith for seventeen years. He recounts his experience:
One evening ... while working late, I went to his [a colleague's] engineering library to find the address of the Tennessee Valley Authority, U.S.A. I had ideas of acquiring American civil engineering experience. Instead I found a book of Catholic sociology on his shelf ... entitled The Framework of a Christian State. In it were three lines which changed my life and still affect it profoundly. They said, in effect, that man has within himself a certain nature which he must discover. From that nature spring certain rights he can enjoy (right to a good name, to private property, to an education, to marriage, etc.) and certain duties which he must carry out (duties to respect those same rights in others, who are cast in the same mold). The word "discover" rocked me. It implied the opposite of being a "self-made man." It revealed to me that there were many "givens" that I did not have to struggle for — identity, dignity, origin, gifts, destiny — all given me already by something or someONE else — but not me. I could also see that my task was to seek and discover these "givens" within; unwrap them, appropriate their richness ... and share them with others. ... WHAT a discovery!
Jack too has discovered the foundation, the God-given truth of our identity, dignity, origin, personal gifts, and destiny. His heart stirs with enthusiasm, and a search begins: "I could ... see that my task was to seek and discover these "givens" within; unwrap them, appropriate their richness ... and share them with others." At the heart of his search is the thrill of discovery of Someone whose love has bestowed this dignity and destiny upon him.
CATHERINE had finished college and had begun working. She was dating a young man and was also considering religious life. Months passed, and her search for God's will continued. One day she was driving home from work. Catherine describes what occurred that evening:
The presence of Jesus palpably filled that white '93 Ford Escort LX. I hesitate to describe the experience for fear of making it sound more or less than it was. It was like being in a room with someone you love but cannot see; yet, you can feel his eyes on you. He didn't say anything. He just looked at me. ... And his look: it was like when a guy looks at you, not with lust, but with a desire that you be his girl. ... It's astounding to have God look at you like that, both exhilarating and humbling because you know it's totally unmerited. To my surprise, I felt very much like when I had first fallen in love, except it was magnified a hundred times.
A very direct dialogue ensued.
I kept saying, "What do you want? What do you want?" The gist of his reply was, "You can do whatever you please. You can get married; you can have the job of your choice; but it would please me if you have me."
He had asked a question and waited for an answer. He wouldn't force me. It was powerful, but gentle persuasion. Never have I felt so free yet, at the same time, it seemed impossible that I should say no. I pulled into the parking lot and sat in my car, finally saying, "Whatever. Whatever you want, Lord." Then the presence that had surrounded me seemed to pierce through me and close around my heart.
We stand on holy ground. Catherine's narrative again expresses foundational truths: once again, awareness of the gift of love, and of relationship with God; once again, the desire to respond to this sensitive, gentle, and infinite love that fills the human heart: "What do you want? What do you want?" Catherine senses God's profound reverence for her human freedom: "I have never felt so free." And her heart opens in love to the Love she experiences: "Whatever you want, Lord." The profound truths of the foundation are all contained in this grace-filled narrative. Those who build their lives upon this foundation long for communion of wills with God — they long to do God's will.
In yet another setting, CHRISTOPHER too makes this foundational discovery:
I grew up without any knowledge of Christianity and without any real faith. When I was nineteen, I joined the military. I was very confused about many things, certainly about God and religion. When I was in the military, I kept meeting a priest who was there, and he impressed me. I saw how he lived and how he prayed, and it had a big effect on me. Whatever he had, I wanted. For the first time I began to realize that religion is serious. This priest gave me a rosary and said that I should pray it. I resisted; that was passé, something my grandmother did. Then one of the others said to me: When you're on duty all night and have nothing else to do, why not pray? So I started to pray the rosary. A priest explained to me how to pray it, and so I just did it, day after day.
Then one time I had a powerful experience while praying the rosary. It was like waves coming over me — I knew that I felt the presence of God. Now I knew that God existed, because he had touched me. And I thought: if God exists, then I want to be a priest. This was my vision at the time — it reflects how little I started out with when I began to turn to God. I spoke with a priest I knew, and he said: "Easy, easy. Calm down. Discernment takes time."
About a year later, a group of us spent an evening with a group of women students who were visiting in the area. When I walked in, I saw only one. I was immediately smitten by this one girl. I made it clear that I would sit next to her in the restaurant. On the way back, I told the others that I had just met my wife.
Now a struggle begins for Christopher:
Then I became confused. I thought that I was betraying my decision to follow God in the priesthood, that maybe I was just following my body's wishes. I talked to the priest, and he said to bring this into prayer. I was afraid to do it. I thought God would say: "I want you alone. I don't want you to have this woman." So I didn't want to pray about this.
Finally, I became so distraught that I had to do something about it, and I did pray about it. To my surprise, from my prayer I got a feeling — an emotion, not words — of being a child in his mother's arms. I got this feeling of security. I would get this strongly when I started to pray. I got a feeling of peace, that it's okay, go ahead with this relationship. I had the sense that God was pleased with this.
In spite of the distance, she and I were able to meet again. My heart was overflowing with love and happiness about this. The more I prayed, the happier I became.
Christopher reflects on what had changed:
My experience of God in my prayer contradicted my image of God. I had thought of God as demanding and jealous. I thought that a vocation was like my commander in the military: he doesn't take your wants into consideration, but just says, "You do this!" I saw that God was not like my commander, that God made me, that he made me to be happy, that this was what he had made me for. I learned this from what I experienced in my prayer.
Once more, the foundation is here: the discovery of faith, joyfilled encounter with God, continuing relationship with God, and desire to respond to God. As Christopher grows in knowledge of God, he, like Catherine, experiences the joy of freely responding to God — the joy of doing God's will. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Discerning the Will of God by Timothy M. Gallagher. Copyright © 2009 Timothy M. Gallagher, O.M.V.. Excerpted by permission of The Crossroad Publishing Company.
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