By Fr David Stewart SJ
In March we, the whole people of God in each hemisphere, continue with our Lenten observance then move into the most solemn week of the year, Holy Week. We are taken to Palm Sunday, when we first hear proclaimed the Passion of the Lord just moments after his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem then we begin the solemn Paschal Triduum on Maundy Thursday. Each of us hears an invitation to ponder these awesome events. We conclude these holy days on the evening of the last day of the month at the Easter Vigil when the new light of the Risen Christ will spread and shine gloriously among us, gathered, after nightfall to receive this light that we know we need and desire. Those desires, that we believe are answered most fully in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, are spiritual movements in our hearts, our souls, that we can discern, if we know how to. We can learn to distinguish between that which is creative and life-giving and that which is negative and destructive.
Pope Francis asks us all to pray with him, this month, about Formation in Spiritual Discernment. His intention is ‘that the Church may appreciate the urgency of formation in spiritual discernment, both on the personal and communitarian levels’. By ‘the Church’ we mean all of us, not just bishops, priests, hierarchies; this intention therefore is a prayer for all of us to appreciate what the Pope sees as an urgent need. We need both as individual Christians and as communities, be they parishes, groups or movements, to provide and seek formation in this art. This formation has to be provided.
Underlying this intention is the understanding that perhaps we don’t all appreciate as much as we could, that everyone can practice spiritual discernment. But most of us need some guidance, some accompaniment, for discernment is a much deeper reality, an art more than a science, a growing attitude of the heart rather than a technique to be taught. Rather like young Samuel, in the Old Testament story, who had the wise elder Eli to listen to him and interpret his experience of God’s call for him, we can be guided by an Eli figure and such a person is worth looking for. Not everyone can perform that role. It is a delicate matter; the person providing such accompaniment must be specially trained and qualified, and should never try to lead or coach the person seeking to discern. There is a world of difference between spiritual accompaniment and the currently-fashionable life-coaching! A good spiritual guide, or director as we sometimes call her or him, will do very little directing, will say very little indeed but will listen attentively and reverently to our experience, our story.
St Ignatius of Loyola discovered the possibility of spiritual discernment in his own mystical experiences so it is no surprise that this Jesuit Pope foregrounds it as his monthly intention. Ignatius’s great legacy, the Spiritual Exercises, contains much wise guidance about discernment but, again, it must not be read as a how-to or a self-help book. Discernment is rooted in prayer and cannot be otherwise. Such prayer will gradually open us to that ‘slow work of God’ (Teilhard de Chardin SJ) which we cannot appreciate unless we give time and space to prayer. Therefore the Ignatian Prayer of Daily Awareness (sometimes known as Examen), balancing our Daily Offering prayer each morning, is an absolute prerequisite for discernment, for it opens us up to the mystery of God’s presence and action in us and in our world. That is what we discern!
Spiritual discernment is sometimes presented as if it were a way of making decisions, and sometimes as the actual decision-making process. What has become known as Ignatian discernment of spirits is a tool for making good decisions, indeed the best there is for a Christian. A person may well set out to make a decision, the best they can. They will consider, prayerfully, what they are good at and how those gifts and skills can be applied to the greater common good. They will also ponder their dreams and desires, sifting what is creative from what is destructive, for God speaks there too. They will try to make an offering of themselves and their talents. They will slowly learn that a clearly worked-out decision, permanently valid, is unlikely and, probably unrealistic. But they will have developed a discerning heart which they will now link to the Heart of Christ itself, in all that they decide and do. What a wonderful outcome that would be, both for us personally and for our parishes and communities!
Prayer Moment: Ask the Spirit of God to lead you to a place of interior stillness; try to find a few moments and an exterior place where you can be peaceful and prayerful, even if only for a few minutes. Let God’s Spirit lead you there. Become conscious of God looking at you, now. Rest in God’s gaze for a few moments. Try to bring to mind a decision that you will have to make at some point. Begin to consider, in this prayerful space, different possible courses of action open to you. Notice what attracts and enlivens you about possible strategies; also notice when a possible outcome makes you feel uneasy or uncomfortable. Ask the Spirit of God for a pure heart and for the gift of discernment. Take careful note of what feelings arise in your heart as you do so; do not judge or analyse them, but ask the Good Spirit to show you, inwardly, the deeper meaning and call to you they present.
Prayer for discernment:
Father of all Goodness, send on each of us your Holy Spirit, a spirit of understanding and wisdom, which helps us to look at the present with gratitude and the future with hope. Help us to free ourselves from discouragement and from all kinds of resistance, opening us with courage and creativity to what the Church and the world need most. Grow in us the desire of discernment, so that our communities can be places of sharing and dialogue, witnesses of your charity and able to respond with generosity to what you ask us in each moment.
A helpful leaflet, Making Good Decisions: some Jesuit wisdom on decision-making is available free of charge (but a contribution of a postage-stamp would help us!). Just ask at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message, with your postal address, on 020 8442 5232. We have still a few copies of our popular Living Prayer 2018 booklets, giving each month’s intentions and suggestions for prayer, with a tear-off page for each month for your missal or diary; £1.70 + P&P. Offers are for dispatch to UK & ROI addresses only.