Do you have any Christian acquaintances who, when telling you something about themselves, have started with the words, 'The Lord told me...'? I don't know about you, but there is something in my heart that sinks a little when I hear those words. And I have to admit that, in my younger days, I have used exactly that phrase on occasion. Ah, the impetuousness of youth!!
With a few more years (well, decades) under my belt, I have a more moderated and informed view of discerning God's will. And the first thing I would say is that, more often than not, it is not easy! In discussing this, I want to introduce the concepts of 'consolation' and 'desolation'. These are terms used particularly in Ignatian spirituality and within that context have a specific definition which it is useful to understand.
In Ignatian spirituality 'consolation' can be thought of as a sense of being at peace with God and with oneself. Have you heard someone speaking - perhaps in a meeting or on television - and you see that this person is at peace with themself and with their life at that moment? Things may not even be going particularly well for them, but you recognise instinctively an inner serenity and yes, even joy, despite what might be happening. This is what Ignatius of Loyola would call a state of 'consolation'.
Equally, you may know someone - or may be yourself - in a situation where you (or they) feel restless, unsure, even perhaps (but not necessarily) despondent. You know that at some deep level, things aren't 'quite right.' At these moments it is likely that your spiritual life is taking a bit of nose-dive, or you are disinterested in the things of the Spirit. This, Ignatius would refer to as a state of 'desolation'.
It is important if you use these terms in a spiritual sense - and particularly relating to discernment - that you realise that the everyday meaning of these words can be somewhat different to the Ignatian definition.
Now, having defined some terms, how do we interpret these two states and how do we use them in a process of discernment. Well, let me talk a little here about my current situation to try to shed some light on this.
The year 2010 has been an eventful one for me. Some of those events have involved loss - of people, work and mobility - and most of the events have involved change and transition. I have a sense of being on the threshold of a new phase of life. In that situation, I have started to re-evaluate some things and consider where I would like to be in five or ten years time - and knowing that it will be very different from where I am today. In this situation, I need to be able to discern what is right for me, hopefully to discern what God may me moving me towards, and to make decisions which relate to my future.
So how do I go about doing this?
Well, I have acquired a set of principles through the years which I use as my base. Let me share them with you.
- If its not blindingly obvious, don't rush!
- Talk, talk talk - particularly with those whose opinions I respect
- Stay soaked in the scriptures and in prayer (consider a retreat)
- Try not to demand 'bolts of lightning' from God
You notice that on the last point, I say 'try not to...' I am a realist, and I know that I, just as much as other people, have a tendency to say to God, 'Please give me a sign!'
Now having followed my basic principles, I have to then come to a decision/decisions on the way forward. And it is then that the concepts of consolation and desolation come into their own. What course gives me a sense of peace, of right-ness? Which decision enhances my relationship with God and deepens my prayer life?
Even then, it is sometimes hard to answer these questions, so then what I tend to do is ask myself, 'Now, if I made this decision, how would I feel one year down the line? And how would I feel if it turned out badly?'
There will be some Christians out there who, if they read this, will be saying - too much about feelings in all this. All I would reply is that God made me in God's image - with feeling, intuition and imagination. These are God-given attributes, and provided we use them embedded in scripture, reason and the opinion of others in the church, then I believe that we are on safe territory.
Any thoughts to share?