Prerequisites for Discerning a Proposal
Often times when we are faced with two “goods” we find ourselves tossed to and fro. It is easy to make a decision between good and ill. As human beings, we will always be drawn to what we perceive as the “good” though our limited, sometimes sinful or distorted perception can lead to confusion as to what is truly good. When we are faced with two “goods” we seek to choose the “greater” good. If we are people of faith, we are aware of a desire that is greater than our own: God’s desire or will for us. Since God’s love and vision is perfect, we can know that God’s will is our “greatest” destiny. But God speaks through our human desires, no matter how small or shallow they seem to us. Our human desires are the entry point to knowing God’s desire living in us, sustained as we are by the Holy Spirit. The trick is to sift through the stuff that is not of God, that which blinds us from the truth. God purifies our desires as we bring them to light, and thus uncovers the deepest desire, that which makes us more human and more divine.
Conditions for Discerning God’s will include:
- Belief that God has a desire for me.
- Belief that God can and does reveal Godself to me, and that I am capable of perceiving this guidance through prayer and reflection.
- I desire to know God’s will.
- I am free enough to perceive God’s will in this matter even in the midst of my own compulsions and limitations. Much of discernment is a movement toward freedom. This requires God’s grace. As I perceive un-freedom, I must ask for the grace to surrender each component of that un-freedom, like the steady dismantling of a wall or barrier.
We are not looking for a “will” or a blueprint “out there,” separate and secret for which we must hunt as a hidden treasure. “It is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.” (Deut. 30.14, NAB)
Praying My Desire
Ignatius of Loyola taught that every prayer should begin with the desire of one’s heart. Sometimes we desire something lofty, but we are not ready to ask in earnest because we are simply not there yet. Perhaps we are burdened by fear or anger. These layers of resistance need the slow, patient work of grace. When we are honest about each layer, as we feel safe enough to confront it, we may ask for the next deepest desire. Conversion is a process. It is a grace to actually acknowledge what one wants, because it is the truth in that moment and where there is truth, there is God. From these desires, our life of prayer, and living in the world, there emerge choices among which we must choose.
Examples in Personal Prayer:
“I don’t know what I really want” may be a form of resistance to intuiting that I need to change: “I desire to be released from this addictive behavior” or “I desire a good grade in this course even though I haven’t studied.”
“Help me to want to forgive” may be a starting point to “My desire is to forgive…”
“I want to get good grade” may, on deeper reflection, be about security (a future stable job), or about a need to be noticed (because I had to fight for attention as a child): “I desire to know that I am safe loved.”
Deciding Among Good Options
When looking at a possible proposal that would move us forward in our lives, sometimes a clear desire, a movement toward or away from two goods does not seem to present itself. In this case, there are two responses. Choose one in faith, believing that there perhaps is no greater good to discern. Or, wait for a clear indication to move forward. Sometimes, the circumstances of life force our hand so we must choose whether we feel ready or not, but many times we have time that we do not take in order to get clarity in the spirit. We then continually ask for our desire: to be open to the guidance of the Spirit as we take a step, listening for confirmation in our hearts.
“I want to live in the city, but I also want to be close to my family in the country.”
“I can’t decide whether to enter the convent or continue my work as a social worker.”
“I could take this scholarship and continue my education or take this great job opening up that was tailor-made for me.”
Often there are two or more options. It is better to choose ONE as a time to explore for a designated time (a week or month, for instance). If there is not clarity, choose another to “live into” for a time.
Before making a proposal for discernment, the individual or the community needs to have done their “homework.” Homework includes:
- looking at pros and cons,
- listening without judgment to opinions that may be opposed to our initial inclinations,
- praying with others, listening to the wisdom they receive as they weigh the options in prayer – this may include the support the Church offers (liturgy, confession, worship together),
- researching relevant information (reasoning), and
- attending to one’s desires and responses to the options over time (often necessitating “unplugged” silence).
Based on all the information (data) we have before us, with prayer and reflection, we choose (“make an election”) and then we pray for and await confirmation in the Spirit.
Making an Election
To “make an election” is how Ignatius of Loyola described the act of choosing. A “discerned” choice is made after having done the homework of attending to the movements toward and away from God. But an “election” does not necessarily lock one in, unless it is a matter of vows such as marriage or ordination, which ought not easily be re-evaluated except in debilitating cases.
We “elect” the proposal that seems the most viable, and then await confirmation in the Spirit. We acknowledge our human limits but also our responsibility to choose because we are men and women of free will.
This dynamic is how God remains in conversation with us: we ask for what we desire, and God answers, thus our trust in the reality of God’s interest in us grows. When Jesus healed the lame, he invited each individual to “get up.” He did not physically pick him up. Jesus looked in the eyes of the paralytic and invited his trust, as if to say, “If you trust ME, and what I can do for you, then get up.” The healing is only accomplished when the one who asks meets Jesus’ invitation through his own action. So we must choose. To “sit on the fence” between two goods is to be less than human, even if we declare that we are awaiting God’s will to reveal itself. If we move, God will meet us. A mother holds out her arms out to the child taking his first steps, ready to catch him when he teeters on unsteady legs. God also knows that the first step gives confidence in both one’s own legs and in the awaiting arms.
Crafting the Proposal
A proposal is a positive, concrete choice, but it is more than this if there is a desire for spiritual confirmation. Spiritual discernment presupposes a heart oriented toward the will of God and an openness to the inclination that comes in the form of consolation (movement toward God) or desolation (movement away from God). A proposal is not an either/or statement, nor is it in the form of a question. The fact that an election is being proposed already means that the Spirit is nudging the individual; there would be no reason to bring the matter to “discernment” if one were not interested in God’s lead. A proposal is a choice to move in a particular direction. Commitment to “live with” as many of the details as possible indicates to oneself (and to God) that one is serious about the action to be undertaken. Determine what, when, where, for instance.
“I will enter the seminary in September with the intention of discerning priesthood.”
“I choose to give in my notice at my place of work in August.”
“I will propose marriage to ________ in July.”
There needs to be enough time to allow for the discernment to unfold. The Spirit will not be rushed. The human heart and spirit can be resistant, flip-flopping moment by moment or week by week even. Tracking one’s movements of the heart over time through review of prayer, journaling, meeting with a spiritual director or spiritual friends, can all help to clarify the strongest pull (movement) and the strongest resistances (countermovement).
If the proposal continues to be murky, it may be a clue as to the ambivalence of the individual to make choice, or the lack of preparatory reasoning and praying, or resistance to making a choice or taking responsibility at this time. All of these possibilities may be explored by the spiritual director and/or a communal spiritual direction or discernment group, if the individual is open to allowing God to speak through the others.
Next Step: Awaiting confirmation in the Spirit: Attending to Consolations and Desolations…
Practice naming your desire each time you pray, and then note how God responds. Ignatius kept a journal where he “reviewed” his prayer by identifying his desire, and noting the movements of that prayer time. Pay attention to the patterns. Try to be aware of the deeper desire, the deepest desire.
If you have a weightier decision to make, create a proposal and “live into” it with your imagination and other data (pros and cons), attending to the consolations and desolations as they arise. Note these over time. Ask others to pray for your intention. Do a group discernment.
Witness to a time that you asked for what you desired and God answered. How has this affected your faith?
Practice communal discernment with a presenter who has decided on a proposal. See Introduction to Communal Discernment.
This article is also available as a PDF handout:Preparing a Proposal