Still agonizing over a life choice, dating situation, or career path? You’re in good company.
One of the greatest tools in your discernment toolbox will be a spiritual director. This mentor (usually a priest or religious, but not necessarily) is a person you can spill your guts to, and he or she will be able to guide you through the tumultuous waters of discernment. I’ve had five different spiritual directors in my short life—all quite different yet awesome priests—and they’ve walked with me (and kicked my butt) throughout the different stages of my formation and vocation. You may also know a youth minister, married couple, or other role model of spiritual maturity who is willing to listen and give you feedback.
In the absence of a formal spiritual director, I highly recommend getting to know St. Ignatius of Loyola a bit better, especially his methodology, the “discernment of spirits.” When I began to read his works in the seminary, my immediate thought was, “Where WAS this guy in college when I needed him the MOST?!” His writings helped me and I know that they can help you. I will feebly summarize his understanding of consolations and desolations and how this method of discernment can help you wherever you are.
Search Your Feelings
Emotions? Don’t necessarily trust them. Our emotions come and go like the wind. They are fickle and often get us into trouble. If I am discerning an important life decision—for this post, let’s use the example of being a summer missionary—my emotions can erratically pull me from one extreme to the next on a daily or even hourly basis. When it comes to affection or romance (especially summer lovin’), our emotions can create more chaos than clarity.
But our feelings can also be subtle signposts of what spirit is leading us. There’s truth in the Star Wars wisdom: “Search your feelings.”
St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556 AD) had plenty of time to think and search his feelings after a cannonball shattered his leg in the field of battle. During this time of recovery, he turned from the vainglory of the world to the ways of God and noticed that, “certain thoughts made him sad, others joyous. Little by little he realized the difference between the spirits that moved him, the spirit of the devil and the Spirit of God…he began to see with different eyes and to distinguish and experience good and evil spirits” (Discernment of Spirits, Fr. Jacques Guillet).
It is these “spiritual movements” produced in the soul that we need to become attentive to and discern. Ignatius distinguishes between consolation and desolation, so let’s take a look at those.
“I call it consolation when an interior movement is aroused in the soul, by which it is inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord…I call consolation every increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord.”
-The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius
Consolation can take many forms: a sudden and strong emotion of love; shedding tears upon hearing a beautiful piece of music or powerful moment of cinema; a deep peace and inner calm. Consolation is a sense that God is close to me; my desires are awakened and I long to be creative and to do great works that will bring life to others, and I feel like I can be transparent with my loved ones. The common denominator is of consolation is peace in the Lord as a movement of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s say I am in the midst of discerning the choice to be a summer missionary. As I gather information, talk to friends or those who have experience of missionary work, I am flooded with joy with the more information I gather. This decision just feels right, even if I can’t put it to words. I can see myself being effective and joyful as a missionary and I want to talk to my family about this decision. But deeper than emotional excitement (which passes), there is a peace that it is the right decision. Even if the work is far from family and what is known, I have a strange confidence that there is nothing to fear.
“Run while you have the light of life,” the Rule of St. Benedict states, and when in consolation you are on sure footing in the Lord to move towards a decision. Courage follows this peace and is an indicator that the Lord is confirming this decision. It doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily ready to pull the trigger yet, though.
How about the inverse of consolation? Desolation is the state of being under the “false spirit” (which can be any combination of the devil or demons, psychological wounds or personal baggage, or an external tragedy), which pulls us away from God’s plan of peace and love.
“I call desolation…darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to lack of faith, hope, and love. The soul is slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord.”
-The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius
Desolation isn’t a mere “feeling bad” but a deeper movement away from peace and love. Fear, apathy, and confusion are important markers of desolation.
“The Lord leads—the devil drives,” a priest told me once. It makes sense in light of the discernment of spirits. If I feel led by a movement of peace towards a creative well-prayed over decision, this is likely a movement of consolation. But if I feel driven by fear or secrecy, driven into making a rash decision, or driven into a relationship with a “pit in my stomach” reservation, that’s a strong indicator that I am not being led by the Lord. Even a good action may be poorly discerned or rashly executed (say, emptying the bank account intended for my family’s mortgage to offer aid to a homeless man I just met, or running off to missionary work without informing my family).
What contributes to desolation? It could be one thing or a combination of things. Perhaps it’s my own sin or lack of perseverance in prayer. If I have been resolute in prayer, it could be God permitting temptation or allowing a stage of spiritual dryness so that I can be purified and mature in faith. It’s important to trace back to when the desolation began and assess what changed (internally or externally).
Never make a decision while in a state of desolation. This was one of the most important lessons I learned from St. Ignatius. If you’re in a storm of fear, anxiety, or feeling discouraged, don’t change course…lay low and wait for the storm to pass. Only make a decision when the skies have cleared.
This post is in no way a substitution for a legit spiritual director or a comprehensive “discernment of spirits” manual, but hopefully it has whet your appetite for more.
Sometimes God calls us to things beyond our comfort zones or are genuinely frightening, but peace will always accompany where I need to go. Pay attention to your feelings, and look deeper to the spiritual movements that can help guide you in your decision-making.
PS: Here’s some books I’ve read and recommend if you’d like to learn more about Ignatian discernment:
- The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide to Everyday Living by Timothy Gallagher
- Weeds Among the Wheat by Thomas H. Green
- God’s Voice Within: The Ignatian Way to Discover God’s Will by Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ