By Carolyn Shields
Discernment. It's a word that makes so many of us cringe and shudder and coil because immediately images of convents, trials of patience, and unwanted answers come to mind. But there's more to it than bleak, big questions like "am I supposed to be single forever." I've just begun to scratch the surface of this word, but what I'm learning is that there are so many misconceptions about discernment that I've built up throughout the years.
First, discernment is simply prayer. Fr. Marko Rupnik writes, "discernment, therefore, is not a calculation, a deductive logic, or a mechanical technology in which one shrewdly weighs means and ends. It's not a discussion...discernment is prayer, the constant renouncing of my own will and thoughts, working as if everything depended entirely on me, but leaving everything free."
The following are some of the lessons I've learned the past few years that I think are worth sharing to you sweet readers.
It's not about agony
There's no need to agonize over half of the stuff we probably do. If job x will help you financially, make you happy, and allow fruits to grow, and if job y will do the same but it's a half hour further away, God really doesn't care which job you pick. (Okay, He cares, but He doesn't want you to agonize over it). If both options, whatever they may be, point toward good, then simply make a decision. (And honestly, probably something a spiritual director would never tell you, but I've been telling myself to think half as much about nearly everything. I've had anxiety for years, and making this decisions about how to spend my weekend or whatever would be agonizing. So I've begun thinking half as much, and once a decision is made, I simply move on and wow it's been helping!).
It's not even about perfection
So often we get paralyzed in discerning God's will for us. Does He want this? Does He want that? And this is such a lure that the devil uses: the devil makes us so concerned about making a mistake and worse, the consequences of making a mistake, that he prevents us from doing anything at all and thus, we never actually live! God knows we will make mistakes. He designed things this way! The attitude to strive for is humility because undoubtedly, after some discernment, we might be wrong. And that's totally okay. (Check out the prayer at the bottom of this page for moments when we've tripped up).
If it's His will, He'll make it happen
Similarly, if we're not sure if something is God's will, we'll find out soon enough because if it's outside of it, we literally can't do it. We'll fall short. But if it's God's will, He will give us what we need to accomplish/do/go for it.
We can't do it alone
Gag, I hate this. Something inside of me always repels this idea, but my God is it true. By cutting ourselves off from the world while prayerfully discerning, we run the risk of self-sufficiency, this false mirage again planted by the devil that tells us we can do it alone. We also run the greater risk of internalizing something that isn't even true or right. At one point, I began believing that God wants suffering more than good because all I was witnessing in my life was suffering, and I thought how effed up that was, and praise God it wasn't long before I learned that God doesn't want that at all! This is why having a spiritual director or a trusted friend is so necessary. Plus, Fr. Jacques Philippe writes, seeking out spiritual direction "shows a sincere desire to see clearly in order to do God's will because we are doing something about it."
Sometimes the pressure comes from ourselves
Discernment won't always ease the burden of not knowing everything. Our obsessive need to have control has to be let go in total surrender when it comes to discernment. That's hard. And that's another reason why we shouldn't isolate ourselves. In truth, so often we demand more of ourselves than what God is even asking. Jacques Philippe writes, "It can happen that we make superhuman efforts to improve on one point while God is asking us for something else."
Repetition is key
One way to recognize the Lord's will for us is through repetition. We should never act quickly or in haste because we need to see what sticks. If something has been on your heart for a while, that persistence is likely from the Holy Spirit because the devil acts in abrupt, sudden, and inconstant ways. Fr. Michael Gaitley writes how we must give it time and never be in a rush. This is especially true for us women because so often, our emotions compel us forward like a freaking rocket. A break up? My GOD let's text him a hundred times! But seriously, our emotions can be so controlling so let those waves hit us and see what remains unwashed afterwards.
Avoiding the exterior
Fr. Rupnik echoes St. Ignatius Loyola and writes, "The thought to avoid comes from without." Meaning, God speaks to us directly in our hearts. He dwells within us. We are a living tabernacle, right? So a simple example: how can we know if we are cultivating peace, or what fruits are there, from either a break up or a new relationship, if we are constantly hit with daily images from his Instagram?
The whisper & the roar
We wrote about this in our article The Holy Allure, how the Holy Spirit so often whispers to us while the devil roars. That's why fostering moments of silence and reflection and contemplation are crucial. But taking this a step further, if anything we may think or feel that sounds objectifying or moralistic are usually not from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit never says "you must do this" or "act now," etc, because He respects our free will. Also, peace can only ever come from the Holy Spirit. Peace and fruits are possibly the greatest indicators that we are walking in God's will.
And in addition to the above, happiness is another great indicator when it comes to discerning God's will for us. So many of us are terrified that if we "discern," we'll find out we're meant to be a missionary in Africa for ten years, that we're forever meant to be single, or that we're supposed to be nuns (and hey, those are all beautiful things!). But guys, we were made for happiness. God wants us to be happy. So ask yourself: are you happy?
The Hardest Thing
Lastly, for years I would think that the hardest thing to do was the right thing. And living that way was pretty miserable and built up this false sense of holy-art-thou. Josef Pieper echoes St. Thomas Aquinas by saying when we focus too much on "hard work," it takes our attention away from goodness. Pieper writes, "The essence of virtue is in goodness rather than the difficult." So being a good person isn't working on ourselves and beating ourselves up and working hard to get better like Kant would say, but virtue helps guide us to be better. To put it simply: God does not ask us to always do the hardest thing. This is another prime example of how the devil contorts our image of God; it's exactly the kind of thing he suggests to build up frustration and to discourage us. I have begun noticing, however, that what often doesn't make sense often seems to be God's will. But I have to put this before my spiritual director and get his take on it before I go around for the next several years of my life cradling this thought.
So. Discernment. God doesn't intend to make our lives these crazy complicated webs, but He sent us His son to help make getting to heaven easier. Obviously, life is hard. And it is complicated sometimes. But by practicing these simple tools and reminding ourselves of God's infinite mercy, I think we'll be just fine.