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.