Given my long affiliation with Jesuit institutions I've read quite a bit on Ignatian spirituality, much of it quite good, but I thought these excerpts from an essay by David Lonsdale (included in An Ignatian Spirituality Reader, edited by George W. Traub, S.J.) captures the essence of discernment as well as anything I've ever read. At the end of another academic year, I find this to be refreshingly reanimating:
Discernment of spirits is often associated with "finding the will of God" and there are difficulties about how we understand this. Sometimes people talk about the will of God or the plan of God as if it were a large, immensely complex, ever-changing, living blueprint of what God "wants" to happen in the world. According to this model, finding the will of God means something like getting in touch with that small corner of the immense celestial blueprint that concerns us, and getting to know "what God wants us to do," so that we can comply and thus "do the will of God." Of course that short description is a caricature to some extent, but it contains enough truth about the model that many people seem to use in thinking and talking about "the will of God." And unfortunately it is a powerful cause of anxiety to many good Christians who spend much time and effort trying to "find out" God's will according to this model, and who become very distressed and anxious when, not surprisingly, they do not succeed. There are many reasons why this "management blueprint" model is unsatisfactory, but the principal one I would like to mention here is the fact that it constricts our freedom so much. The scope of our freedom is reduced to choosing to fit in, whether we like it or not, with what God has "planned" for us, once we think we know what that is. And that is very little freedom indeed.Advertisement
A more satisfactory understanding of the will of God in connection with the discernment of spirits gives greater value to our precious gift of freedom. God's will for us is that we should learn to respond in freedom to God's love for us, and to give shape to our individual and common lives in freedom by the choices that we make. In scripture, tradition, the Church, our own consciences and powers of judgment, and in many other gifts, God has given us aids to the responsible exercise of our freedom. God's will is that we should exercise our freedom responsibly and well by choosing what honestly seems the best course of action in a given set of circumstances, using all the relevant aids that we have been given for that purpose. There is a sense in which we create, in terms of concrete action in given circumstances, the will of God in this exercise of freedom. There is no blueprint in God's mind with which we have to comply. Discernment of spirits, within a living relationship with God, is one of the gifts that we have been given to help us to exercise our freedom in the choices that we make and so come to "find the will of God" for us.