Saint Ignatius’ life and personal reflection opened the Catholic Church to a rich approach to discerning both life’s smallest and most daunting choices. I find Advent offers a great parallel to Ignatian discernment and decision-making. It’s a time of preparation and pondering, ending with the glorious incarnation. As we prepare to celebrate the incarnation—the coming of God to earth through Christ—we can imagine our decisions as being miniature incarnations of God in the world. Making choices in the light of God’s promptings, we bring the love and grace of God into the world.
The Second Week of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises offers a meditation on the incarnation seen through the eyes of the Trinity. There is chaos, people rich and poor, the starving and fed, joy and mourning, living and dying, violence and peace-making, laughter and sorrow. Sometimes we’re in a place of chaos regarding our decisions. What do I do with my life? Which school should I apply to? What job do I take? Who do I date? Thomas Merton once wrote,
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me.
Ignatius says that when we feel varying emotions and pulls in different directions it’s good. This is the raw place of God’s language. It’s time to listen.
We may not receive a clear angelic sign from God like Mary did in the Annunciation story, but God does offer us signs through our interior feelings and desires. Ignatius notes that there are good and bad forces (or “spirits”) at work, pushing us toward God or pulling us away from God. I think when Mary was asked to make a decision about bearing the Son of God, she was in a place of freedom. Regarding our choices, we should be able to say, “I will be okay with either of these choices if God leads me to it.” This is freedom. Even after saying yes, Mary had the chance to ponder her future choices. But she pondered all these things with freedom. Paul Coutinho, SJ says:
When good things happen in Mary’s life, she accepts the good and celebrates it without clinging to it. And during the painful times in life, she flows with the pain without clinging to either the good or the painful.
Ignatius says that in addition to noticing the “pulls” and feelings within us about a particular decision, we can be logical and make a list of pros and cons. We can also bring it to prayer and ask what God thinks about us making a certain choice.
Over time our discernment gains clarity and the signs in our prayer, feelings, and experiences begin to point toward a choice. The Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Advent talks about John the Baptist fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy of making straight paths for the Lord. The path we’re walking on begins to straighten out when we continue in discernment. But Ignatius warns us to test the good and bad spirits that may be nudging us one way or another. If you’re moving away from God, the good spirit will raise doubts and try to change your course. On the other hand, if you’re moving closer to God, this spirit will give you peace and reassurance. 1 John 4 says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”
Advent leads to Christmas Day. As Mary gave birth, Jesus took his first breath. We do this in a way when we commit to a decision. The incarnation means that all things are good, including the process and fruits of discernment. Choosing to live one way or another or to do one thing or another is an incarnation of God. God’s will becomes present in a new way in our lives. This means our very choices are made sacred. But even after we’ve taken that first breath of a commitment, there are plenty more life choices yet to come where the process of incarnation happens over again.
This post is based on the four-week Discerning Advent series from GodInAllThings.com.