by Anthony Siow
The pandemic has thrown our lives into a tailspin – livelihoods are threatened, work and home boundaries blend uncomfortably, and our sense of self is brought into question. Our kneejerk reaction is to respond furiously and frantically to wrestle control back into our lives through action. Hard as it seems, perhaps we need to sit in the compost of our disruption for a while, a return to being before doing.
Disposition in a time of chaos
In the cacophony of disruption, we struggle to hear the voice of God. If we are to move forward in a manner that gives life, we can start by being still and open. Being still allows the noise to quieten, and the debris to settle. Being open frees us from being stuck with the familiar and allows us to see opportunity in the new normal.
Spiritual freedom and Holy indifference: The foundations of discernment
Our stillness and openness dispose us to discernment, a process that takes us towards more centred decision-making. This disposition allows us to embrace and process our emotional upheavals in order to make sense of them and hear God’s prompting.
Spiritual freedom is an interior freedom of the mind and heart. Being spiritually free, we are secure in our identity as God’s beloved, with all our gifts and limitations. We discern God’s presence, find meaning in our lives, and make choices that flow from who we are, whatever the circumstances.
Another way to describe spiritual freedom is indifference. This does not mean an unfeeling lack of concern. Rather, indifference means that we hold all of God’s gifts reverently, gratefully, but also lightly, embracing them or letting them go, depending on how they help us fulfil our vocation to follow Christ.
Indifference is a stance of openness to God, trusting that God is working in all circumstances. We remain impartial, undetermined to one option over another, suspending all decisions until the reasons for a wise choice are learned.
Consolation & Desolation: The cornerstone of Ignatian discernment
Ignatian discernment invites us to be attentive to the affective movements in our life. Consolation is any felt increase in faith, hope or love and all interior joy that leads to holy peace. Desolation is any felt decrease, the opposite of consolation. Consolation draws us towards God while desolation pulls us away from God.
In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola spells out “rules” for discernment for different stages of our spiritual journey. In this time of unprecedented change and challenge, understanding some aspects of these rules can help us navigate with greater faith and courage.
Discernment in a time of desolation
1. Perhaps the most important rule is not to make any major decision in a time of desolation. Desolation is the Time of the Lie and in our disheartened state, we are more likely to be deceived.
2. Of course, not making a decision does not mean not doing anything at all.
We can look for ways of praying and acting that work against the direction in which desolation tends to lead. Since we cannot change our moods, we can change the way we think, such as recalling moments of consolation. Do not worry if our prayer seems dry. Just show up – the very act of praying or crying out to God works to undo desolation.
3. During a time of crisis, we remind ourselves that God is always with us and try to see some meaning in the crisis. The Chinese word for “crisis” consists of two characters, one meaning “danger” and the other, “opportunity.” Being still helps us to find opportunity in difficult moments.
4. We should cultivate patience in order to undermine the power of desolation. By refusing to respond rashly, we live in the hope that consolation will soon return.
Dealing with consolation
5. Like a squirrel hoarding nuts for winter, we should store up consolation so that we can turn to it for comfort and assurance during times of desolation.
6. We must keep an even keel in our spiritual life by being humble and grateful. We acknowledge that it is not through our own efforts but God’s grace that helps us through a crisis and remain grateful always for God’s gifts and favour.
The False Angel of Light
7. Ignatius places much emphasis on the subtle work of Lucifer, a name meaning “bearer of light”. The devil masquerades as this false angel of light, tempting us with good but manipulating us into coveting good things and eventually moving us to believe that we do not need God. It is therefore vital to examine our deeper motivations, or, in Ignatian language, spot the serpent’s tail and recognize that we have been duped.
Learn from past mistakes
8. How often do we repeat the same mistakes, choosing what is familiar even though we know how that will end? Learning from past mistakes gives us courage to choose the unfamiliar and frees us to find new life.
Dealing with consolation
9. We should never assume that all feelings of consolation are from God. Genuine consolation should feel like a drop of water falling gently on a sponge, and not creating a ruckus as if hitting a stone.
Reviewing the consolation from beginning, through its middle and playing out where it will end will help us get a better handle on its true nature.
Signs of a good decision
10. A good decision …
• leads to movement – it should never leave us stuck, but inspire us towards positive action;
• is made in freedom – being completely open to where God may be calling us towards;
• is balanced and involves the whole person – good decisions represent a right relationship with God, with oneself, and with others. They are not self-centred and are in response to the greater need;
• deepens our spiritual life – it draws us closer to God.
What discernment is not
11. It is just as important to recognize what discernment is not. Contrary to what many think, discernment is not about getting things right. It is about following Christ, even and especially if we have no idea where this may lead.
Our God is a God of journeys, not of destinations. God is our ultimate destination. Discernment is rooted in our relationship with God, the choices we make being covenant moments that represent our intimacy with God.
As we navigate through stormy waters, pay attention to the journey as we keep our destination in sight – God. That will set us on the right path of discernment.
If you wish for some spiritual accompaniment during this time, contact BGST at firstname.lastname@example.org who will connect you with a trained spiritual director.
Anthony is a spiritual director trained in the Ignatian tradition. Like Peter, Anthony left behind a successful advertising career to follow God’s call to cast the net elsewhere. Anthony brings his creativity into his work as spiritual and retreat director, helping people to find God in all things, and to integrate their faith with the concrete realities of life. Anthony conducts retreats regularly for BGST and serves as a mentor for the school. He also leads silent retreats to Thailand and Australia.