Discernment at Different Stages of Life

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A major gift from Ignatian spirituality is its wisdom about discernment. Discernment enables us to assess situations, pay attention to various clues, approach our decision making prayerfully, and ultimately choose well according to our faith and our life situation.

But discernment is not the same at every stage of life. Each season presents unique challenges that require yet another nuance of Spirit-helped discernment.

When we’re young—in late childhood and the teen years—much discernment has to do with recognizing right from wrong. We discern what it means to be honest, to treat others fairly, to admit when we’re wrong, and to calculate the outcome of potential actions. Discernment in these early stages helps us understand ourselves morally. As Christians, we learn, through discernment, to identify what is Christ-like behavior and what is not.

In the years of young adulthood, we face—sometimes quite suddenly—major decisions that can have great impact on the rest of life. Our discernment at this time has much to do with self-understanding. Am I a good fit to be in relationship with this person, or that one? Am I suited well to this kind of work/career or to something else? By this time, we should have right and wrong figured out for the most part. But what about our priorities? Do our daily choices and actions move us toward what we see as a life purpose?

Into middle adulthood—by this I mean late 30s into the 50s—the discernment gets even trickier, because by now we likely have multiple and appropriate attachments. Many of us are in serious relationships, are parents, have begun careers or at least have established a steady working life. Much of our discernment involves figuring out how all these aspects of life are interacting and where corrections need to be made. We are discerning how to discipline and guide children and how to work through marital difficulties; at the same time, we are moving outward, trying to help others, to be people for others. We probably were helping others years ago, but it’s more complicated now that we have multiple obligations.

And in our later years, we must discern how best to use the energies and resources we have. We are likely diminished in some respects—health and income—but may have become freer from unhealthy attachments thanks to a lifetime of learning and discerning. We must discern how involved to become in the problems and pressures of people in our families and our communities. We must discern how we will face our physical/mental decline and also our death.

At each stage of life, discernment may include:

  • Identifying patterns of thought or behavior that we need to face and change.
  • Identifying deep and lasting wounds and learning how to seek healing and restoration.
  • Choosing the best out of multiple good options.
  • Dealing with unhealthy attachments; praying and working toward spiritual freedom.
  • Discovering the best way to use our resources—gifts, money, time, and energy—to help the world.

Of course, this short article does not touch every area of discernment, only some of the highlights. May you embrace the discernment important to your spiritual journey this day.

About Vinita Hampton Wright 101 Articles
Vinita Hampton Wright has served as senior editor at Loyola Press for 16 years and recently became managing editor of the trade books department. She has written various fiction and non-fiction books, including the novel Dwelling Places with HarperOne, Days of Deepening Friendship and The Art of Spiritual Writing for Loyola Press, and most recently, The St. Teresa of Avila Prayer Book for Paraclete Press. Vinita is a student and practitioner of Ignatian spirituality, and from 2009 to 2015 she blogged at Days of Deepening Friendship. For the past few years, she has co-led small groups through the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises. She lives in Chicago with her husband, three cats, and a dog. In her “spare” time these days, she is working on her next novel.

9 Comments on Discernment at Different Stages of Life

  1. How do i tell the difference between discernment and thought when i get a vision while praying in church? Can someone explain to me please? Thank you and God bless.

    • I am not an expert on visions, but any image or vision or impression you receive during prayer should be considered along with other information, such as your reason, Scripture, your situation, wise advice from other people. A special message from the Holy Spirit will act in concert with other aspects of your life.

  2. As blessed John Henry Newman said To live is to have changed often.
    Approaching 60 I am facing more major life decisions, mostly imposed by circumstances…husbands ill health financial constraints and adult children with their own very demanding lifes . A 17 year old to hopefully get to the next stage in his life. I have found your thoughts on discerning useful. One can become overwhelmed by the at times strong emotions accompanying all these situations it is helpful to know ways of navigating stormy waters. Ultimately as the at times we can only cry out like the disciples save me Lord I am sinking.
    Many thanks for another usefull artical Vinita.
    Norah ❤

  3. Such a great article! I am in the last chapters of my life and still look for discernment. I prayed and prayed after the death of my husband, for the Lord to let me know what my next phase of life was supposed to be. I felt like I never got an answer to that. Then one day I realized maybe I was right where I was supposed to be. And maybe my gift now was simply prayer. Prayer for our church, prayer for our family’s prayer for our children, and prayer for our nations. I stopped asking our Father what my purpose was supposed to be because from what seemed like no answer, he was answering me. Sometimes the silence has answers .

  4. Thanks for sharing. This article is good about discernment, God does reveal in various ways which way to follow. Currently I am studying Theology out of interest but don’t know what to do after completion though with the help of the Holy Spirit I will be ready and prepared and the answer is just there waiting for me.

  5. this was all very interesting.. I really just wanted to know what discernment really meant… I am 81 y/o and at the end soon and I still ask the question… what is/was my purpose in being Here or to be alive…. I still wonder did I fulfill anyone or help someone in need… I could not have children and all my relationships ended poorly…so I stll wonder… what have done???

    • Dear Joy, I read your question with compassion for you. I’m glad you shared your age because I can reference the Baltimore Catechism that you & I were made to Know God, Love Him, Serve Him & Be Happy with Him forever. That is your/our purpose! I am 30 yrs younger than you so that is the only catechism quote i memorized… they used other teaching methods in my formative years. Do not feel you have to accomplish something Great in a material way. You ARE something great! You are a window through which people can look to see the love of God & fruits of the Holy Spirit. If you can bring/share a moment of peace or kindness to a person, that is a greater contribution than we can weigh. Only God knows what each human heart needs, so we just say “here I am, send me.” We may not be sent to a 3rd world country, but we can be sent to a bus stop or grocery store and be His light there – He is needed in the ordinariness of life. Meditate on St. Ignatius’ prayer: Take Lord & receive all my liberty – give me only Your Love & Grace, that’s enough for me. Be content to be a resting place for the Holy Spirit in your heart. Love to you –

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