Most of us are in constant crossroads in life, faced with decisions to make, whether big or small. In fact, I believe that the whole of Christian life is in many ways a practice in discernment. This being it is not odd that questions of discernment often surface during spiritual direction conversations. There are many resources that help us navigate decision making and grow in the practice of discernment. The Ignatian spirituality offers some of the most helpful tools that I have come across. A while ago I wrote a book review on one of these resources. Enjoy.
Book Review of Discernment, the Art of Choosing Well. Based on Ignatian Spirituality by Pierre Wolff (2003)
P. Wolff’s book Discernment, the Art of Choosing Well explores basic criteria for making decisions methodically with God by employing our God-given capacity for discernment as we attend to the movements of "the head and the heart", which lead to a Christian’s ultimate vocation and destination, namely Love (Agape) and Life.
One of the main premises of the book is the use of the four criteria when facing a decision to make. These four criteria are found in the Gospel stories and come from the life of Jesus: 1. Incarnate 2. Giving and Being Given up 3. Universality and 4. Communion. The criteria can be used by asking ourselves (or those we are helping to discern with) certain questions covering these four areas when facing a choice. As Wolff puts it: "… When two alternatives are placed before me, my intellect will choose Life through the solution that best meets the four criteria of discernment thus offers the greatest possibility to follow the Spirit, to live Agape." (pg. 26).
Finally, it was noted that we can add a "fifth criterion" that is that we need to use all four criteria together in harmony, otherwise we end up missing an important aspect of decision making. Some helpful questions that we might want to ask ourselves in discerning process are:
1. Which solution will give me the opportunity to be incarnate:
- To be the one I am, and no one else
- To accept the ‘here and now’ of the situation I am dealing with
2. Which solution will give me the possibility of giving and being given up:
- To give what I have and who I am
- To be given up through openness, welcoming, and vulnerability
3. Which solution will open my person to universality, in space and time, to the point that I dare:
- To be open to all areas of my being and my life
- To be open to all the people around me
4. Which solution will best permit me:
- To be reconciled and in harmony with myself
- To weave bonds among the ones I meet, to build communion among and with them (pg. 26)
I found the model of working with the mind (or intellect) presented in the four criteria very
helpful because of its systematic approach. Also, I appreciate how Wolff challenges us both to be present to our individual selves, and to connect to the greater call to love and serve others. I tend to swing to extremes in decision making, either being overwhelmed with my own limits, desires and expectations, or being compelled and fully given over to the great mission I feel given to, and thus forget myself for the sake of the other. The four criteria work as a great reminder of holding the both ends in tension and seek solutions that lead to most life and love both in me and the world around me.
In combination with this work of the mind and the work of the heart (i.e. working with affectivity, in other words, being affected by someone or something), we will learn to choose more often life and love than death. Hence, ultimately this work of learning to discern with our head and heart will prove that the distance between what we want and what God wants disappears. "God’s will is my will in the core of my being. … At the same moment that I say ‘yes’ to what I really want, consolation, peace, and harmony occur. I experience myself as being well." (pg.117). This is a freeing, comforting and empowering truth.
One of the other main arguments that the author presents as central factors in successful
discernment process is the ability to be free or in other words indifferent to the outcome of the decision. Wolff argues that it is impossible to be open and fully free in our discernment process if we hold any preference of the possible outcome. Ignatius of Loyola describes this freedom or indifference in his six step method of discernment as one of the starting points of discernment: "I must remain indifferent and free of any inordinate attachments so that I am not more inclined or disposed to take the thing proposed or to reject it, nor to relinquish it rather than accept it." (pg. 58). Inner freedom or indifference, as Ignatius called it, means that we are no longer enslaved or led by any inner preference or attachment to any of the options available to us.
This sounds logical and an urgent task in discernment process but at the same time really hard to achieve. Most often I approach a choice with at least some level of personal preference to the end result. Whether it is formed by a personal interest, fear or ambition, it is there. Wolff reminds us that our greatest vocation and passion as Christians, Agape, has a power to overcome other passions and put our preferences to perspective and help us in the process of freeing ourselves.
Finally, we must remember that becoming free requires time. We need to be patient with ourselves and allow time and distance to slowly detach us from the first impulses and attachments.
When considering the discernment process with a group of people this aspect seems even more crucial. It is very difficult to discern for a common decision if not each member of the group is willing to relinquish their personal preference and enter the discernment process freely to find Agape as the preference. I am sure that most of us can recall countless situations when we have come to pray and seek God’s guidance with a group of friends, family or spiritual leaders, but all firmly attached to our own preferences.
Finally, Wolff's principle of "being unfinished is grace" felt very meaningful and fitting. Like all of Christian life, so is decision making, a constant process of growth. We feel as if we are constantly asking questions, seeking answers, finding a way forward, never arriving. As long as we live we are ever making decisions. To me, and I believe to many others, this feels at times tiring and disheartening. The closing words on being unfinished within ourselves, "our inner harmony never reaches perfection" (pg. 119) and we are on "a trip that is unfinished", "for now, everything and everybody is unfinished" (pg. 120) remind us of the normality of our state. It’s ok to be like this. Moreover, it is good news to us to be unfinished: "the unfinished quality of our lives is a blessing. It assures that, if nothing can be perfectly accomplished for and by us here and now, then nothing can be definitely lost and missed, and nothing is
totally irreparable. Unfinished means that no death is a dead end. Being unfinished is a grace. It is mercy for us when we fail in our choices. It is a challenge for us to make ‘one more step ahead’ through each decision." (pg. 120)
I trust that everyone who reads this book will gain new confidence and faith to learn to go through a prayerful process of discernment, either alone or with others. My personal relationship with God has been enriched by the deeper realization how God uses crossroads in our lives to deepen our trust, love and intimacy with him, as well as our understanding of who he is making us to be as part of his creation.