Not everyone wants or needs a step-by-step process for spiritual discernment. But for those who do, you can do no better than a process based on St. Ignatius’ principles for the discernment of spirits. Many books on discernment will give you outlines that look something like this:
Stage One: The Preparation
- Begin in silent prayer.
- When you think from your deepest, truest self, what is your burning desire in life right now? (Keep it concrete, and be as specific as you can be.)
- Write this desire somewhere.
- Reflect on this desire.
- What do you notice?
- Does a question for discernment emerge for you? Is there a choice facing you that needs to be made?
- Develop a discernment QUESTION. It needs to be relatively concrete and specific. Keep the focus on what GOD is inviting you to be or do. Even if you feel that knowing that is hard to determine. Examples of specific and concrete questions:
Is it time to leave this job for another one?
Is it God’s desire that I get more education?
Is God leading me to deepen a current relationship? And if so, in what way?
Stage Two: Holy Indifference to Outcome
Can you be at peace with whatever God shows you in this discernment, regardless of the outcome? If not, ask God to help with that?
- Do you desire to know what God wants in this situation? If there is a fear or a block, acknowledge it and ask God for help.
Stage Three: Practical Considerations
- What are the facts surrounding the question?
- What are the practical considerations?
- What are the options for answering the question?
- Pros and cons for each option?
- What beliefs and values affect this question?
Stage Four: Considering Intuition and Felt Senses
- In silent prayer (allow at least 20 minutes), listen to your intuition as individuals around the options you face in answering the question. If you need to walk around or stretch or go outside, please do so.
- In silence, listen to your body’s “felt senses.”
- Make a note of how your body is leaning on this question. Write about your “gut feelings.”
Stage Five: Using Your Imagination
- Imagine standing before God (or Jesus) to explain the decision you made on the question. Imagine explaining each option to God. What do you imagine God’s reaction to be? (Allow at least 20 minutes for the imagination prayer)
- Imagine your best friend is facing this same question. What advice do you give him or her?
- Imagine you are very old and looking back on this discernment. What choice do you imagine you would have wanted to make?
Stage Six: Make the Choice
- You have considered the facts, the intuition, the imagination, and have prayed. Now it’s time to make the choice. Search for which way you feel God is leading. What choice feels like the one that God desires?
- As you make the choice, contemplatively sit with and reflect upon the following questions:
- Where do I feel consolation around this choice?
- Where do I feel desolation around this choice?
Stage Seven: Take the Action & Evaluate
- Reflect on this choice for an appropriate amount of time and see you feel consolation or desolation around the choice. What is the fruit of the Spirit? Continue to keep the choice in prayer.
- At some point, discernment always leads to action. So you have to take the leap of faith. Set a time frame for doing that.
- After taking the leap and making the action, notice the early outcome. Does the discernment need revisiting? (It’s not a sign of failure if it does—discernment is spiritual art and mystery, not science!)
- Keep praying and listening to your deepest greatest desires.
- Keep using principles of discernment for making faithful choices. Tweak the process if need be—make it yours.
In our next session, discernment in community—Quaker style.
For more about spiritual direction as I practice it, check out my website. If you have questions or comments about the content of Spiritual Direction 101, please let me hear from you in the reply section below.