You’ve reached the proverbial end of the rope and something must change. “Get out!” you screech at your teenage son. “I’m leaving!” you say to your husband. “I quit” you say as you pack up your desk.
This sometimes happens when we reach our emotional limits. Even the calmest of us might make one of these rash statements in a moment of panic, fear, anger, or resentment. But these are not decisions; they are emotional outbursts. Decisions require time and careful analysis. A decision might accompany an emotional outburst, but if so, it will probably need to be re-evaluated later.
How can we avoid making rash decisions? Better yet, how do we make good decisions? As we pray on this month’s theme of the fork in the road, it is likely that we recall difficult times when the path ahead was shrouded in uncertainty.
This is where we can lean into the wisdom of St. Ignatius. St. Ignatius provides us with discernment techniques. We begin by framing our decision in our thoughts, then praying that we will stay neutral as we present our choices to God. We follow this by asking God to reveal to us what God most desires for us. Another step is to imagine ourselves giving advice to a person whom we’ve never met presenting us with this decision. What would we advise him? Or we could consider ourselves on our deathbed. Looking back over our life, are we happy that we made this decision? Another technique is to make a list of pros and cons. Which decision gives us peace? Finally, after our discernment is done, we bring our decision to God, asking God to confirm our decision. We will know it is the right path if we can move forward without feelings of anxiety, fear, or sadness.
These spiritual practices can be very useful, but what about the times when we erred on the side of expediency, succumbed to anger, or took the path of least resistance? We look back on how we made our decision and we know that it was not our best decision. We remember, painfully, the feeling of anxiety, fear, or sadness that accompanied us when we made our choice. It happens to all of us at some point in our lives.
My own faith journey began in earnest after my first marriage ended. It was my decision to leave, and it was not an easy one. On the surface our marriage was fine. We were married for twenty-five years and we looked like any other couple. Our life wasn’t perfect but it was okay, two of our children were grown and the third was in her last year of high school. We both worked hard at our respective jobs and often worked long hours. We had interests outside our marriage that kept both of us busy. We had a typical marriage (I think), but I had a problem. I married him (at age 19) for all the wrong reasons – I wanted babies and a house and someone to love me. I was in love with being in love, and (does this sound familiar?) I figured whatever I didn’t like about him would get better; in fact, I would fix him. So there I was, twenty-five years later, and I had reached the fork in the road. I had finally let go of trying to fix him. My faith had grown stronger; I was spending a lot of time in ministry. I was learning to pray and learning to trust God. I knew that it was time for a different path, a new journey. I admitted to myself, and to God, that the marriage vocation that I had committed to was made in error,and I made the difficult decision to leave.
I am grateful to the parish priest who counseled me and mentored me through the annulment process, but I do wish that I had known about Ignatian discernment. Without the tools to bring the decision to God and to let God guide me through it, I carried a burden of guilt that lasted for a long time and even now, in times of weakness, feelings of guilt might surface. Praying the daily examen helps me to see God with me and also to know when the spirit that is not of God has led me to feelings of desolation.
The path I took when I left my first marriage brought me closer to God and to the sure knowledge of God’s love for me. The journey led me to a faith-filled happy second marriage. Most importantly, it led me to total trust in God. I try to live my life by the advice of William Barry, SJ in Paying Attention to God, “no matter what way of life I have chosen, and indeed, no matter whether it was a well-discerned choice or not – I am presented each day with a myriad of choices about how to live my life….we need to practice…prayerful attention to the movements of our hearts, prayerful reflection on them and honest appraisal of what seems more in tune with God” (81-82).
I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him. Dt 30:19-20
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