In college, I majored in Mathematics. Even though I engage less with Mathematics these days, some of the essence of being a mathematician has stayed rooted in me. I love a concrete answer. Even if the path towards it is winding, I love being able to get to an end point and say: “There it is! I found it!” I like that things make sense in math. You are often able to balance both sides of the equation. Most of the time you can solve for x. When you can’t, you often can see fairly clearly that the problem itself was wrong. It was set up to fail.
I have discovered, however, that life is not a lot like Math. There are many times when you can’t balance the equation or solve for x or clearly see that the problem was wrong to begin with. The endpoints are a lot more… variable. Despite knowing this, part of me wants to apply practical math skills to discernment as often as I can. So, when I discovered Ignatian Spirituality, I was so excited that Ignatius himself agreed that gathering the facts and weighing the data were as important a step as feeling the feelings. I think one of the greatest connections I feel to Ignatian Spirituality is that it lets me bring all sides of me to discernment and prayer.
Quite often, mode 2 (the mode where I’m invited to look at the consolation and desolation I feel regarding a decision I am about to make) doesn’t lead me all the way to actually making the decision. I often need more. I need more time. I need more data. I need more analysis, I need to go back to the drawing board.
So I’m grateful there’s a mode 3. What is mode 3? It’s the mode you enter when there is no clear choice after praying with the movements of consolation and desolation. It’s when you return to some basic tools of discernment, using one at a time in prayer to see where God leads you. It gives you an opportunity to go back and see where all the points are leading.
The tools are:
- Make a Pro/Con List: Oh, man. I love this one. This is my mathematical brain’s happy place. I love putting things out on a chart and seeing how the lists play out. It’s often how I can see my feelings at play in more concrete ways. Recently, I made a pro/con list about where my twins should go to second grade. Even seeing it all laid out for me, I still needed someone to confirm what I was seeing. So, I imagined God sitting next to me saying “Come on, Gretchen. It’s so obvious! Can’t see it? Ok. Would you like to color code the list now?”
- Act as if You Made a Decision and Ponder the Outcomes: A Jesuit friend of mine always suggests this when I’m bent out of shape trying to make a decision. When I express to him my uncertainty, he usually says: “Choose something right now, and for the next 24 hours that is what you are doing. No more debating. It’s decided.” I usually only last a walk to Starbucks and back, but I still try it. It’s amazing how living in one reality can help me process what might be the right way forward.
- Act as if a friend came to you seeking advice for your similar situation. What advice would you give them? I should use this one more often. I love giving advice. I’ve got a good suggestion for everything. I think it’s because I’m an outloud processor. If this is the tool I decide to use in this mode, I go for a drive and pretend a friend is on the phone with me laying out their anxiety about an upcoming decision. Then, I give them (myself) all my sagest wisdom. By the end of the drive, I often have a whole lot to bring to prayer.
- Pondering the situation at your death This one is not my favorite tools. However, I will say it can be quite helpful. I’ve never benefited from people who have told me “you are going to regret doing this or not doing this later”. But I have benefited more often than not by imagining what my 102 year old self (because that’s totally how long I’ll live) will say to me instead.
If you left mode 2 with a lot of uncertainty, I feel you. That happens to me a lot. But don’t lose heart! Move onto mode 3 and try one of the tools out for size. It might just give you the clarity you seek!
- Check out our resources on discernment here.
- The next time you are in a discernment process, consider using the Four Steps of Discernment handout.
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