Spiritual Practice: Ignatian Discernment

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Looking back over my blogs I’ve noticed that many of them have to do with discernment about big changes in my life. We all have to face these kinds of questions. Is it time to end a relationship, change a job, retire, switch majors in college?

How do we go about making a thoughtful decision? In this two-part series, I’m going to share two ways that are very different but equally effective in helping guide your future: Ignatian Discernment and a Quaker Discernment Circle. I have used them both to good effect.

Ignatian Discernment: In a previous blog, we tried the spiritual practice of the Examen. Take a quick read if you need a refresher. Basically, it is about reflecting back at the end of the day and asking yourself two questions: “Where did I see God, or experience my truest self,” and “Where did I miss God or act from my false self?”

This is a small part of the wisdom St. Ignatius left regarding spiritual growth (seriously, you should google the guy, he’s amazing!). And, he taught you can use the Examen in discernment. It’s easy. For three weeks do the Examen six days a week and quickly write down your findings. On the Seventh day, read over what you have written and look for themes that stand out for you. You can circle repeated words or phrases. At the end of three weeks make a list of things that came up when you were being your truest self and a list of the things you did not enjoy.

I believe that God wants us, and has created us, to be our truest selves. The things that come up on the daily Examen can become our guideposts for our decision making. We need to be living into our true selves and moving away from the false. This may lead to some stark revelations that are hard to face. People have realized their need to end a job or a relationship when realizing that it was not supporting the joy of who they were created to be.

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When I did this recently, the words “new,” “learning,” and “teaching” came up over and over. It confirmed that I value learning new things and teaching them to others. It also showed that I have less energy for the mundane things that I’ve spent a lifetime doing, like cooking, cleaning, and caregiving. This led to an unexpected amount of guilt on my part because I felt like I was asking my husband to pick up the slack. But when I shared the results of the exercise with my husband, he said men never feel guilty about wanting to grow or learn new things, and he affirmed my desire to transfer much of this household work over to him.

This idea, that men never feel guilty about wanting to grow and expand, brought home in new ways one reality of white male privilege. It was eye-opening for both of us.

Of course, there will be times when some things are revealed which can only be held as a hope for the future and not lived into the present. A single mother may realize that her true self longs to be a writer, but writing may have to be a hope deferred until she is in a more secure situation. However, it is good to know what really gives us joy and to plan and make a way for it in the future.

Next time we will talk about “Quaker Discernment” which is a form of discernment that you do with friends. In the meantime, give this method a try and let me know how it goes.

If you’re interested in a fun way to learn more about Spiritual Practices, check out my new book, The Retreat: A Tale of Spiritual Awakening. It’s fiction but you will learn many new formation techniques along the way, and you will get to know some quirky new characters as well.

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Spiritual Practices: Gratitude

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I’ve always been a pretty happy person. I like my life, like my eggs, sunny side up. But I was stopped in my tracks by a line I read in the fantastic book, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” by Henri J.M. Nouwen.

“Resentment and gratitude cannot co-exist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy.”

Now I have to admit that I am occasionally resentful. When I don’t get noticed for a job well done when my sibling seems to get more of my parent’s attention, when someone else gets a promotion…

So, how do we live a life of gratitude when failure and disappointment are bound to come our way?

The book by Nouwen is about the famous Biblical story of the Prodigal son found in Luke 15:11-32. But, the book is also based on the above painting by Rembrandt that Nouwen spent years contemplating. In the story a younger son asks his father for his share of the family money, takes it and goes off, losing it all to wild living. He comes home broke and broken. The father’s love for this son is beautifully overwhelming; he welcomes him home and throws a lavish party.

But, the older son (standing to the right in the painting) is bitter and envious — feeling that his good and faithful ways have gone unnoticed by his father who has welcomed his no-good brother home with such fanfare. And that is where the gratitude quote comes in. When he complains, the father tells him “You are with me always, all I have is yours.” The father encouraged him to come to the party.

I have much experience being the resentful sibling. It is easy to feel overlooked and resentful when you’re “the easy one, the good one, the perfect one,” and your siblings are literally punching holes in walls or having mental breakdowns. But, this kind of attitude poisons the well and I’ve spent a lifetime trying to untangle myself from it. I need to see that the father’s prodigal love is just as great for my errant siblings and just as genuine and available for me. One does not negate the other.

So, how do we move from resentment to gratitude? We have to look through and beyond our resentment to see that the father’s love is available to us every day. Nouwen says, “Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice…There is always a choice between resentment and gratitude because God has appeared in my darkness, urged me to come home, and declared in a voice filled with affection, ‘You are with me always, all I have is yours.’”

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Today I will choose gratitude. I mean, really, there is so much to be thankful for. I’m sitting at a retreat center, looking out the window at leafy green trees moving in a gentle breeze. I have a loving spouse, meaningful work, a full and beautiful life. Today, and for the next two weeks, I will focus on choosing gratitude and letting go of resentment. Want to try it with me? Let me know how it goes.

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To learn more about spiritual practices, check out my book: The Retreat: A Tale of Spiritual Awakening