by JOHN FONG
“When faced with making a significant decision in my life, is it possible to involve God — through careful prayer and reflection — in the process so that I end up making the best possible decision?”
Fr Richard Shortall, SJ, posed this question to participants at a series of talks organised by the Pastoral Team of the Hamilton Catholic diocese over three evenings from August 13-15.
The talks, in Hamilton, were titled: ”What is God asking of me? Making wise decisions in everyday life with the help of God.”
Fr Shortall gave examples of such questions: “Will I retire at the end of this year, or will I continue working for another year to ensure that I have sufficient funds to live on?” Or “Now that caring for the family home is becoming more an effort, is it time for me/us to downsize by moving to a smaller home?” Other possible questions may relate to work, marriage and any other major events in one’s life.
On the first evening, Fr Shortall explained the importance of recognising our image of God — how do we picture God: a loving spouse, or a taskmaster father, or a primary school teacher who is always checking up on us; or a demanding judge before whom we cringe? Is your image harsh and negative? Or is it positive — God is a generous shepherd in whom his thankful disciples rest? Recognising and knowing what our image of God is will influence how we allow God to help us to make a good decision.
It is also important to know what we desire, what is light and darkness. In his second talk, Fr Shortall clarified the attractions and voices in our lives and walked us through St Ignatius of Loyola’s rules for making a good decision.
St Ignatius, who lived in the 16th century, is recognised in the Church for his decision-making guidelines. He called these “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits”, which he explained are “Rules by which to perceive and understand to some extent the various movements produced in the soul: the good that they may be accepted, and the bad that they be rejected”.
Fr Shortall presented a selection of these rules. (They are given here using the explanations by Laurence L. Gooley, SJ, in his book To Walk with Christ: Praying with the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius from a translation by Michael Iven, SJ, of The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola.)
Rule #315: A bad spirit will present obstacles to what is good, leading to sadness and discouragement. A good spirit will do the opposite. Rule #316: Spiritual consolation . . . brings quiet and peace in God’s presence. (“Consolation” is the name St Ignatius gave to every increase of hope, faith and charity, to all interior happiness which calls and attracts to heavenly things … leaving the soul quiet and at peace in her Creator and Lord.)
Rule #317: Spiritual desolation is inner darkness, turmoil, and separation from self and from God. It is an experience of disturbance and temptation leading to fear, hopelessness, lack of self-respect, or feelings of laziness, luke-warmness, sadness.
Rule #318: When in desolation, do not change what you have decided in consolation. Doing so is the counsel of the bad spirit.
Rule #329: God’s spirit is at work when what is moving you gives real gladness and spiritual joy, taking away all sadness and disturbance. The bad spirit does the opposite. It takes away spiritual gladness and peace bringing up doubts, anxiety, and false ways of thinking. Rule #335: When going from good to better, the good spirit touches you in a delicate, gentle, light way — like a drop of water entering a sponge. The bad spirit, however, touches you in a harsh, noisy, disquieting way — like a drop of water falling on a stone.
Rule #331: Consolation from the good spirit moves you away from the good to the better. Consolation from the bad spirit draws you away from the good to what is less good. Rule #332: The evil spirit appears to be moving you toward good, but leads you away from good. It inspires good and holy intentions, but little by little it deceives in hidden ways. St Ignatius’ method: (1) Is to clarify the attractions — the voices in our lives. (2) Is a process of discerning by sifting the movements so that we end up with the information to enable us to make the right decision. This, however, must be done in an explicit attitude and atmosphere of faith. (3) Requires that prayer accompany the discernment before, during, and after for light and clarification. (4) Emphasises interior freedom — we must allow ourselves to be able to consider the issue for the decision freely and not be swayed this way and that way. Assemble all the necessary facts and obtain all the information in order for one to make a wise decision.
On the third evening, Fr Shortall applied St Ignatius’ method to examples, provided by the participants, of decisions to be made so that St Ignatius’ method could be understood and applied step by step. Fr Shortall is a clear communicator and his talks, illustrated by real-life examples, gave an intelligible exposition on how people can apply St Ignatius’ method to enable them to come to good decisions.