On Discernment

The Black Gate is Closed

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St. Ignatius of Loyola (Source)

We feel the burden and uncertainty of Frodo: the grim face, head bowed over the knees, eyes closed, and thought broken. How should one choose? Two paths lay before him: to confront directly the Black Gate or to trust in Gollum’s secret stair. Neither option is more obvious: both could lead to success or ruin. Into this moment of decision comes the wisdom of discernment, in particular as laid out by St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. Perhaps the hobbits have unknowingly taking some of his suggestions to heart, or perhaps we can see how their struggle of the head and the heart might be eased.

The Ignatian way of “discernment of spirits” – that is, how to respond with God to the challenging choices of life – begins first with the principle of always desire the good. In previous reflections we have considered the temptation to choose the easier way or fall into immoral activity, and no discernment can take place until one’s orientation is aimed as much as possible to the Good and to God. In some sense, the choice between a good and a bad option is the easiest act of discernment, provided our consciences are well-formed and our wills are obedient, for we know with little effort the path we must walk. Up until the very end, this is Frodo’s response to the burden of the Ring: to cast it into the fire, not to claim it as his own. Following the Council of Elrond, the destruction of the Ring is a clear good, while seeking to preserve it a clear evil, and therefore even amidst temptation Frodo can stay focused on his course.

The more complex and deeper craft of discernment arises when one is faced with two options that seem equally good or right. In our lives, these are common: to take the job or go back to school; to get married or enter into religious life; to spend time with the family or go out and serve; the possibilities continue. In these cases, St. Ignatius recommends first cultivating a spirit of openness, interior freedom, and detachment. One must severe any prior, historical, or emotional ties to certain options that might bias or mislead the person in discernment. If the paths appear equally good, then one should be indifferent to whether they end up walking down one road or another. The act of interior freedom can reveal a hidden darkness in a seemingly good option, but if not it provides a space in which discernment can take place in the head and the heart.

Ignatian discernment next calls for prayerful reflection on choice that lays ahead. Various techniques exist for this portion, dependent on the context of the discernment and the uniqueness of the discerner. One might, like Frodo, muse over past advice and counsel, placing positives and negatives side by side with each other. One might consider the long-term consequences of the choice, and posit looking back on the decision from a future time. One might enter into a Biblical passage or imaginative story and let the narrative run through one’s head. However one pursues it, the ultimately goal of such techniques is to encourage “the movement of spirits”: consolation and desolation. Now these spirits are not emotions, for emotions can be misleading. Instead, consolation appears as a sense of peace, gratitude, and energy towards an activity of good, while desolation contrasts with its weight of doubt, anxiety, and malaise. In Ignatian discernment, one uses the insights of consolation and desolation to understand the proper path to pursue. It can take patience and practice, but in time can reap great fruit.

At the end of the process of discernment, one must conclude as Frodo modeled: have the courage to follow through with a decision. Frodo exits his discernment in laughter (perhaps an outward symbol of his consolation), and though his cares and burdens have not been removed, he has found a way forward. In discernment, the least obvious of moments or memories can be the source of great revelation: God works through “speaking poetry” as through all things. And while the art of discernment is far more detailed and deliberate than can be expressed here, nevertheless in our hobbits we can surely see it in action: its courage and its counsel, its openness to the road and its orientation to the good.


2015’s Reflection: “On Oliphaunts

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