“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
(Luke 1:28)

We know God desires to shine a light into our world and into our hearts. There’s hope, somewhere. Through the darkness a light begins to shine. Thomas Merton describes this glimmer of hope:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Discernment begins with this kind of trust. We trust that God will communicate to us those “deep-down things” in some way. Give me a sign! we may cry out. Signs are indeed ways God communicates with us, though they may not be angels or lightning bolts. Saint Paul makes the prayer “that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value…” (Philippians 1:9-10) For Mary, God’s sign is actually an angel. She is told that she will be an instrument in bringing this light of hope into the world. This is the good news we find in decision-making, that there is a choice in which God’s will is done. Her answer: Yes. She could have said no, but this one’s clear for her.

Good and Free
For the average God-follower who wishes to make a decision, they must first ensure the choices before them are for good. Saint Ignatius makes this clear to his followers. We have no point in deciding between good and evil choices because, obviously, we should choose what is good for God’s kingdom. Choices for good may be deciding between jobs, marriage and religious life, staying in this city or moving across country for school, pursuing a master’s degree or staying with your current job.

These choices ought to be placed before us in freedom. We should be at a sort of equilibrium when going into a discernment. For Ignatian spirituality this is key. I should be able to say, “I will be okay with either of these choices if God leads me to it.” We shouldn’t go into discernment with our mind made up. This is an un-freedom. Ignatius gives several exercises for making decisions. Here’s a sample:

  • Logical: Draw up a list of pros and cons for each choice and see which one seems to make more sense logically.
  • Imagine: Place yourself before God or Jesus and tell him you’ve made one decision over the other. How does he react? What does he say? Separately, do the same with the other choice.
  • Gut: Picture yourself committing to one decision. What feelings arise? Make a note of these and then do the same with the other choice.
  • Pretend: Try living with one of the choices for a few days, as if you’ve really committed to it mentally. Note in a journal how it was. Then go another few days as if you’ve committed to the other choice.

This is data that will lead you to a decision: your head, your heart, your feelings, your experiences. With patience and prayer, clarity will slowly form. Mary’s story doesn’t end at the Annunciation. No, she, like any good discerner and pray-er, ponders what just happened… Ignatius recommends you take all the things you experienced in your prayer and discernment time, even any kinds of decisions you’ve made (like Mary’s yes) and ponder them, relish them, reflect on them. Again, no rush. Mary had some months to ponder what her future would be like, about her pending marriage, and giving birth to and raising the God-child. Mary had more choices ahead of her. But she pondered all these things with freedom. Paul Coutinho, SJ says,

When good things happen in Mary’s life, she accepts the good and celebrates it without clinging to it. And during the painful times in life, she flows with the pain without clinging to either the good or the painful.

Mary’s kind of freedom, that is, not clinging, is a surrendering to God’s will. It exemplifies a true cooperation with the divine which leads to the incarnation of Jesus. By discovering this freedom within us, we can better cooperate with the divine through discernment. Putting aside our own expectations—though not dismissing our deep desires—will lead to a new incarnation in the form of a decision.

For more resources on Ignatian discernment visit the Discernment Resources page.

Music: Mother of God, The Brilliance

Podcast music by Kevin MacLeod