Most people are not very well practiced in the art of “Know Thyself,” as the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi famously proclaimed. How do we really ever get to know the me that is inside? Those in the Western world who are interested usually seek outside help, from psychologists and psychiatrists to self-help gurus and New Age books. From Eastern spirituality, we have the method of retreating inward, meditation and yoga being a few of the techniques. The popularity of these methods shows how important the search for understanding is in our lives. But what about discerning God’s will? How are we to ever really know that the path we are going down is what is best for our lives? Can we ever truly know God’s will? I believe that we can. Here are some helpful tools to keep in mind on your own path of discernment:
1. Seek outside help. You would probably go to a doctor to help determine the source of an ailment, or a psychiatrist to help you in your mental health. Why should your spiritual health be any different? We often see ourselves and our own personal environment differently than those around us would. Outside advice can give you an entirely different perspective on a situation or a major choice. Those who are discerning religious life or other spiritual matters should find a good spiritual director. They can be religious or a qualified lay person. However, finding one who is trained in helping people see passed their own often muddled minds is very important during this process.
2. Understand what you are choosing. Make sure that the choices you deciding upon are both inherently good choices. Keep this rule in mind when discerning: Discernment can only occur between a set of good things. The choices you are choosing between must be equally good choices. Otherwise, discernment is not really involved. You are just deciding whether to do the right thing or not. So, in the case of religious life, you are probably trying to discern whether you should be a religious or a lay person. Recognize that both are equally good choices. Being a religious does not make you more heaven-bound or more holy than being a lay person, whether married or single. The discernment comes in figuring out where you would best be able to utilize your personal gifts. For some, that comes in marriage or the single life. For others, it comes as being a religious. However, it can take many years of seeking and searching, as well as dating (people and communities), before finally realizing your path.
3. Spend time in prayer. This cannot be emphasized enough. A strong personal prayer life is essential in times of discernment. Without a desire to communicate with God and to listen in return, you are not in a state of discernment. It would be like going into an exam without studying. You might do OK, but you certainly are not nearly as prepared as you could be, and the end result will probably not be very satisfactory.
4. Recognize that the very act of discerning is pleasing to God. So here is a big secret: As long as you are choosing a good, you are pleasing God. The very desire to please God pleases God. We are not perfect and we rarely act in a perfect way. So, as long as you are seeking the will of God, the choice you make in the end will be pleasing – again, as long as it is between two goods. How do you know if the path is a good path or not? It must fulfill two requirements: It must be a path that will show love for God and love for your neighbor. A path of self-interest or possible harm to another is not a good path and should be avoided as a follower of Christ.
5. Avoid making life-changing decisions during times of transition without careful discernment. It is often the case that discernment follows a major transition in life. This is a period where one chapter in our life is ending, followed by a void, and ending with a new beginning. We must be very careful during the void. The void is an emotion-charged place in our lives. Sometimes this involves a grieving process for what has ended and/or fear and trepidation for what is to come. During this time, it can be very easy to make rash decisions or even choose a path that we would normally not choose during other times of our lives. We must recognize where we are and that major life-changing decisions should be chosen carefully and with the help of other people in our lives during these tumultuous times.
6. Learn to recognize the peace of the Holy Spirit in your life. One way to truly recognize that the choice you made is the right one is a feeling of inner peace, a peace that comes only from the Holy Spirit. This peace can outlast emotional states and tends to be more long-term. It may or may not be present in the midst of transition, as you are settling into a new situation. However, if you find yourself in inner turmoil consistently after a new situation, definitely seek help in continual discernment, as this may be a sign from the Holy Spirit that this is not where you need to be.
7. Acknowledge your passions and desires. God tends to give us a passion and a desire for things that best involve our gifts. We also tend to be happiest when we are able to utilize those gifts most effectively. Don’t be afraid of happiness in your life. Some people feel that being miserable leads to sanctity. However, God does not desire our misery. God loves us more than we can ever imagine, and wants us to find joy in our service to God. Our love for God and for each other should be bursting forth in what we do. Being miserable tends to dampen that a bit.
8. Choices are rarely final. Recognize that life-long paths are rare, and that times for discernment can be as lengthy as we need. Sometimes discernment is life-long. This is why religious communities, that do have life-long commitments, have very long periods of discernment, ones that last for many years. Be patient in discernment and don’t feel rushed. Allow time for the Holy Spirit to speak, especially when you do come across a decision that is permanent, like marriage or a final vow.
9. Learn the art of contentment. Once you have made a choice, it can be very easy to see the grass as greener on the other side. Try to avoid that temptation. There are always going to be things that you could be doing that you perhaps are not now. Learn to find happiness in whatever situation you find yourself in. Happiness is a state of mind, a state that is possible to be willed. This doesn’t mean that you should not recognize your inner feelings. However, if you have a tendency to move around a lot or change paths in your life often, really seek to see if you are discerning or just allowing yourself to become bored and seek greater thrills.
10. Don’t look back. Once the hard choice is made, try to avoid second-guessing. Always remain open to the Spirit, but focus now on your new situation. A new beginning has begun, a new dawn is born. Look now to your future with hope and expectation, and a recognition that the choice you made is good in the eyes of God. Just by discerning, you have already pleased God. And that is all that really matters.
by Seminarian Jonathan Hill