Five years ago, I took part in a group undergoing the Ignatian Exercises. (These Exercises – created by St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit order of Catholic priests – are utilized during a month-long retreat to help priests and deacons strengthen their connection to the Lord. The Exercises can be modified and utilized by lay people on their own schedule.) My group was led by a salty old Irish deacon who spoke his mind and gave me new insight into biblical events, Catholic traditions, and the life of Jesus. A major goal of the Exercises was discernment, the determination and/or confirmation of the path that God wants you to follow. Using prayer, Bible reading, scripture analysis, reflection, and discussion, everyone was to gain a clearer idea of how to find and follow the path that the Lord wants us to pursue. We could use our God-given talents to live productive lives once we knew our path. Discernment was to help us make practical decisions with divine guidance.
Everyone in my group was doing their own bit of discernment. One man was weighing his next career move, another man (a recent Catholic convert) was considering marriage, one woman was deciding whether to further her education, another woman was contemplating relocation. My life at that time was stale and I was chronically dissatisfied, salty, and out of sorts. (This might explain why the deacon favored me.) I looked forward to gaining some clarity as to what I should be doing to develop a fuller life and stop being a grouch all the time.
Everyone (including me) prayed and reflected and read the Bible daily. One man used a decision-making matrix from a Jesuit website. (I tried it.) Someone else prayed a novena. (I tried that also.) The man with the matrix moved to Detroit, the other man proposed, one woman decided to pursue a Masters, the other woman decided to stay in L.A. Almost everyone had some breakthrough, a specific moment that made them realize that discernment had been achieved. I say almost everyone because one person remained clueless and fumbling. That one person was me.
While everyone else got some clarity as to what choices and changes to make to get in line with what the Lord wanted them to do, I stumbled along in the dark. I did not decide on a new job, a new home, hell I did not even decide on a new haircut. I kept everything the same yet I still questioned if I was doing anything right. It seemed that discernment was simply not in the cards for me.
That said, I found that I enjoyed reading the Bible daily and particularly liked viewing its events from a modern perspective. I improved my prayer life and gained a deeper understanding of my religion. I discovered that my faith did indeed make the days a bit easier to navigate. I still wondered if I was following God’s will and using my talents wisely, and was ready to pack up everything and make a change when the moment of clarity came. That moment did not come, but I was better able to focus on ordinary tasks and found a new sense of satisfaction in overcoming everyday trials.
Years passed and then I accidentally tripped over a definition of discernment I had not seen before. It emphasized that learning about yourself – what makes you happy, what ticks you off, what you need, what you can do without – is a part of discernment. Discernment need not necessarily be focused on the future and change. It can help you enjoy the days the Lord has given you in your life at this moment. Discernment can lead you to make alterations and seek new endeavors in your life, but it might also lead you to accept your current situation and live well in the present. Years after I completed the Exercises, my ability to gain strength through prayer was particularly helpful during an unexpected long period of unemployment. I dealt with reduced income, a less prestigious job, a loss of daily routine, and a cutting of connections with dignity. Keeping my cool while everything fell apart and I felt my spirit being crushed was what the Lord wanted me to experience. That’s what I discerned.
So in the end, while I had no grand epiphany, no game-changing decisions, no makeover of my life, I did experience the Lord’s will. I learned to use my faith to overcome adversity and maintain stability. There is an art to getting by gracefully when you are just barely getting by. Rather than fall apart (and I sometimes felt that might be a nice change of pace), I had discerned how to carry on with dignity. The Exercises did indeed make me stronger and more resilient. I did indeed experience discernment.