Deciding whether to make a change can be agonizing. Often you stand to lose something: Security, time, relationships, or money. You wonder, Will the thing I gain be better than what I’m giving up?
When it comes to discernment, St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises offer excellent practical strategies for gaining clarity. Before you make a change, ask yourself these questions.
- Am I in Consolation or Desolation?
Consolation and desolation are two natural states in the spiritual life that ebb and flow, one following the other. Consolation is the state where you find it easy to pray and motivated to do good. You could say you feel “on fire” for your faith. Desolation is the opposite: Dryness and lack of motivation in prayer. In his Rules for Discernment, St. Ignatius’s famous fifth rule reads: “In time of desolation never to make a change; but to be firm and constant in the resolutions and determination in which one was the day preceding such desolation, or in the determination in which he was in the preceding consolation.”
Does this mean we can never make a decision when we feel low, sad, or unmotivated to pray? Not necessarily. In the following paragraph, St. Ignatius goes on to say that we should never make a change to our prayer life in a time of desolation. He urges us to double down on whatever prayer routine or habit we held when we were in consolation and it was easy to pray. Just as the Exercises are meant to be performed under the guidance of a spiritual director, so we should be sure to seek wise counsel to ensure we are seeing our situation correctly.
There may be times when you are in desolation and can’t avoid making a change. If that is so, be sure you are committing fully to your prayer life. It doesn’t matter if your prayer is devoid of emotion. It just matters that you do your best and give God the same amount of time in prayer that you would in consolation. It gives God the opportunity to speak to you, and the devil cannot destroy a soul who persistently turns to God.
Ask yourself: Am I in desolation, and if so, is my prayer life as strong as when I’m in consolation? What do I need to do to strengthen it?
2. What Will My Future Self Wish I Had Chosen?
I’ll never forget my grandparents’ wakes. Their children, including my father, stood up next to the caskets to eulogize their parents’ characters and contributions. One of my grandfathers was a Marine Corps veteran of three wars. Hearing the stories of his courage in saying goodbye to his wife and young children to defend our Country touched a part of my heart deeply. It made me want to imitate his courage in my own struggles.
Considering the end of life can shine immense clarity on our current situation. St. Ignatius writes, “I want to consider, as if I were at the point of death, the form and measure which then I should want to have kept in the office of my administration, and regulating myself by that, to keep it in the acts of my distribution.” In other words, imagine yourself on your death bed when your life is nearly spent. How, in that moment, will you wish you had acted in this situation? Which choice would a person of the best character have made?
Ask yourself: At the end of my life, what will I wish I had chosen?
3. What Would I Choose If I Could Do Anything?
Have you ever written down what your day would look like if you had all the time, money, and freedom in the world? I tried it for an exercise in a business class and I was completely amazed at how difficult it was. I’m simply not used to thinking as if I had no obligations. It actually scared me a bit to envision my life without my current limits.
I often think about that exercise, and I’ve realized it was one of the best discernment exercises I’ve ever done. Not because we should seek to shed our responsibilities, but because it can help elevate us closer to God’s view of our lives and our purpose. It taught me I habitually dream too small, boxed in by should’s and don’ts. God likely wants to give you a bigger dream than you can imagine, and likely a far riskier and more glorious dream than you may even want to accept.
In hosting over 80 episodes of the Called and Caffeinated Podcast, my discernment theory has been corroborated by every one of my guests: At the very deepest level, our desires align with God’s desires for us. Our desires and God’s desires for us are not opposed, as it can seem to be when we’re afraid to trust God. Rather, our truest purpose is exactly what we most want. The problem is often that I often let more surface level motivations cloud my reasoning and distract me from my truest, most noble self. When I start to discern my deepest desires and have a well-formed conscience, I can trust they will lead me to the noblest version of myself.
St. Ignatius’s rules may once again come to the rescue here. He writes, “I want to set before me a man whom I have never seen or known, and desiring all his perfection in the ministry and condition which he has, as I would want him to keep the mean in his manner of distributing, for the greater glory of God our Lord and the greater perfection of his soul; I, doing so, neither more nor less, will keep the rule and measure which I should want and judge to be right for the other.” If you have trouble dreaming about what you most want, try to take a step outside yourself and examine from the outside what would be best.
Ask yourself: What would a typical day look like if had all the time and resources in the world?
4. What’s My Real Motivation?
When I considered ending a long-term relationship, the voice in my head said, Better stay in it. You may never find anyone better. When I felt a lack of peace in my Broadway acting career, the voice in my head said Don’t leave now! All the years it took getting here will be wasted and you’ll look like a failure! When I had applied to enter religious life but my excitement about entering later evaporated, the voice in my head said You should still go! You’ll look like a total flake to all your friends and family if you change your mind now.
For years I didn’t realize my mind was enslaved by worries about others’ opinions. It can take years of deep work to understand our true underlying motivations. Self-knowledge is key to freeing ourselves from pressures that shape our decisions in powerful ways. St. Ignatius calls them “disordered inclinations.” He writes, “that love which moves me…should descend from above, from the love of God our Lord, so that I feel first in me that the love, more or less, which I have to such persons is for God; and that in the reason why I love them more, God appears.”
To be good, a decision must be made in freedom. Acquiring deep self-knowledge is a lifelong process, but there’s no better time than now to begin.
Ask yourself: What am I afraid of? Don’t judge your reasons; just write them down honestly. Put the paper down for a few days and when you come back to it, pay attention to what stands out about your fears.