My husband and I were confirmed in the Faith together, just before the birth of our first child. We had the privilege of going through RCIA hand in hand, early in our married years, that fleeting time of burgeoning adulthood already devoted to wrestling with questions of who we are and why we are here.
During one of those sessions, we were given some of the most important advice of our lives — one of those fundamental truths that has shaped many pivotal moments since.
Our priest was explaining discernment, particularly as it applies to the tricky practice of following God’s will in your decisions. This wasn’t head-in-the-clouds theology. This was boots-to-the-ground living: how to make the judicious and prudent choices necessary to bring your daily life into closer alignment with God’s desire and plan for you.
The gem Father shared? Do the thing that brings you peace.
It turns out it’s slightly more complicated than that. But not much. I can share a story from just this past week, to show you how the practice of leaning towards peace can bear amazing fruit, very quickly.
For a number of important reasons, we decided to enroll our children in full-time school this coming year, after homeschooling nearly their entire lives. The obvious thing to do would have been to enroll them at the wonderful Catholic school attached to our beloved parish, where we have deep, deep roots and a strong community.
I made the call. Space was available. I filled out all the forms. And then … I couldn’t bring myself to turn them in.
Maybe I need more information, I surmised. I made more calls, talked to more friends, considered more angles. But — even though we knew full-time school was the right and necessary thing, and even though we love our parish very much — we could not make peace with the decision.
Another of Father’s sub-corollaries to “Do the things that brings you peace” was this: If you are having a hard time deciding between two choices, try one on for size. Behave for a few days as if you are living with this decision you have made.
If you don’t feel greater peace, try another one on.
So that’s what we did. And at the eleventh hour, no one was more surprised than we were to find ourselves enrolling our kids at an entirely different school across town. The one that didn’t have space but somehow made room for them all within days. The one where we hardly knew anyone but perfect strangers delivered spare uniforms to us.
The one where, even amid our surprise, we felt the peace of knowing this was the place to which God had called us, because every door was flung open and every breath came easier.
The notion that right decisions lead to more peace is one tiny facet of traditional Ignatian discernment. Peace is one of many possible spiritual consolations, one of the fruits of proper discernment for someone who is striving for right relationship with God.
Spiritual consolation is the experience of living inside God’s ocean of merciful love — and all the comfort, joy, and gratitude that comes along with it. Spiritual desolation, by contrast, is the discomfiting sense of doubt, dread, anxiety, or restlessness we experience that causes us to lose hope in our faith.
But remember when I said earlier it’s slightly more complicated than that? Your inner disposition is crucial. We all know how much the devil likes to gum up the works. St. Ignatius teaches that we must observe not just the movements of our souls, but also their likely source.
If you are trying to please God with your life, the rules of thumb above hold true. Peace is a sign you’re on the right track; dread might just be the devil trying to undermine your good intentions and decisions!
But for anyone whose relationship with God is apathetic, tepid, or closed off altogether, the movements of consolation and desolation are practically reversed. The evil one uses false consolation to soothe and distract us, keeping us from doing the hard work of repairing our souls or simply doing what we ought. And God may allow desolation — especially remorse, guilt, or shame — as a way of forcing us to confront our mistakes and amend our ways.
In the case of our school discernment, we had been praying a family novena for particular guidance on this very precise question. As a result, discerning which kind of peace we were (or were not!) experiencing was straightforward. Because we invited God into the center of the process, His voice was easier to perceive, and His consolations were strong and true.
The beginning of a new academic year can be a time of great upheaval and renewal for families. This year, as you pencil in the commitments that will shape your daily rhythm for months to come, I invite you to give this simple discernment practice a try. Pray for guidance, and then do the thing that brings you peace.
Copyright 2019 Christy Wilkens