This is a guest post by Andy Otto
One of the most common questions I get in spiritual direction is, “How do I hear God’s voice?” In other words, How do I know what God wants me to do? This is the biggest Godsend of Ignatian spirituality. In the Spiritual Exercises St Ignatius gives us the “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits” and various prayer methods to discern the will of God in our lives. He believed that the Creator dealt directly with the creature. We don’t require a guru or a priest or wisdom figure to tell us what God is saying. We can discern that ourselves because God speaks directly to us. But Ignatius knew God’s voice didn’t come from the clouds; it came from within. Through the movements of our interior, our feelings, emotions, and reactions to various life experiences, God spoke. By paying attention to these ordinary things that are always going on within us, we can begin to notice God inviting us into new places.
While the “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits” are helpful, they’re hard to explain in one spiritual direction session or one blog post. What I believe is most helpful, however, is the daily Examen prayer. We will have a hard time making sense of God’s movements in our feelings unless we examine them and learn from them every day. The guilt I feel working long hours to support my family and not spending enough time with them may come from God (or the “good spirit” as Ignatius calls it), but it may also be coming from the evil spirit. Spending time with my family is important and good, but so is working to support them. I need to bring this feeling of guilt to daily prayer, examine it with God, weigh it against the other ways I care for my family, and then make sense of it.
The Examen, which is simply a prayerful review of your day (an example can be found here), is just one method to help us better come to understand how the good and bad spirits use our feelings and experiences to draw us closer to or away from God. Another important tool is spiritual direction. Sometimes I need an objective outsider to help me sift through my feelings, to help uncover the movement of God I may not initially see. A good director will ask questions which will help me examine my life’s experiences in the light of my relationship with God. He or she can help me explore that feeling of guilt and put it in a spiritual context. I want to be able to ask myself, Is God using this feeling of guilt to communicate something to me? Perhaps, after my own daily reflection on it (in the Examen) and conversations with my spiritual director, I come to an awareness that the guilt I feel about working long hours is actually God inviting me to be creative in ways I can spend more time with my family.
The ordinary moments of life may not seem like something worth bringing to prayer or spiritual direction. They may not seem “religious”, but Ignatius knew that God speaks through those ordinary things in life. Discerning the subtle ways my feelings and life experiences indicate God’s desire for my life is not easy, but patiently taking the time to pray and examine on my own and with a spiritual director, can uncover the movement of God in these plain and ordinary things.