Several years ago, I was blessed with a chance to walk part of the Camino de Santiago. Each day, we awoke early, put on our heavy backpacks, and started to walk. Yellow arrows on signposts showed us the way. An arrow might point the way ahead, or it might instruct us to turn to the left or right, but the path was generally clearly marked.
A fellow pilgrim in my group one day remarked, “Wouldn’t it be good if every day we always knew exactly where we were going and didn’t have to make so many decisions?” I imagine that we might eventually get bored if life were always following the path of arrows, but indeed there was a lot of freedom within the structure of routine. Not having to decide which way to walk opened up a space for other kinds of focus: focusing on conversations with the various people we paired up with for different segments of the road, tending to a fellow traveler’s sore feet by offering ointment, or digging into an end-of-the-day meal with our group. Not thinking about where we had to go opened up space for considering how we wanted to be as we got there.
St. Ignatius offered much good advice about discernment, and some of his advice is about making momentous decisions, such as vocational or other major life choices. However, his words on discernment can also be helpful to us in everyday life when our path is already, more or less, laid out for us. I am married, a mom, and teaching at the same place that I have been teaching for 25 years. I have lived in the same city for my entire adult life. These structured elements of my life are not aspects that I feel called to change, and they are not likely to change in a major way any time soon. And yet, the question of discerning how I relate to others or how I undertake my teaching and writing is still ever-present.
Ignatius treats discernment as a matter of choosing between multiple goods. He assumes that when we are trying to discern, the problem is not which option is good, while the other is bad. (If that is the case, then we just need to choose the good option.) Rather, the more common issue is that there are many good ways that we could spend our time. For example, as a teacher, I have a full schedule and can only teach a limited number of topics. I tend to stay more energized if I can continue to grow into new intellectual interests, so that my work does not feel stale. However, I can’t overextend myself by trying to learn too much all at once. And so, each year I have to go through the matter of discerning what university courses I will teach the following year.
For Ignatius, the “yellow arrow” that shows us the way is Jesus, in the way that he modeled a life of love and compassion.
Here, I follow Ignatius’s advice and try to pay attention to what energizes me and what I will feel excited to teach to others. My interior, affective movements are part of what guides me. Sometimes in the classroom I feel a sense of flow, and the time flies by. Likewise, when a topic of writing matters to me, the words stream seamlessly onto the page.
But how I feel is only part of the process of discernment. There is also the question of what I feel skilled enough to do and what kinds of courses students need to take for their own development or to fulfill their interests. Ignatius advises that along with paying attention to our feelings, it also helps to have good partners in conversation and to take into account the needs of the community as well as my own skill set.
But there is also another layer to discerning how we live, and that is the discernment of making the little choices in the larger path that is already set before us. For example, every day I have to make decisions about the way that I want to be with others as I relate to them. How, today, can I best show my family members and friends love? That depends a lot on their changing needs and requires discernment. I might have to discern how to encourage an anxious friend or how to help a student who suddenly needs assistance and changes the flow of my day.
As I have grown older, I increasingly think that these smaller choices about how I walk the path that I am already on matter just as much as the larger choices of what my vocational path might be—and maybe even more. For Ignatius, the “yellow arrow” that shows us the way is Jesus, in the way that he modeled a life of love and compassion. Each of us needs to learn to discern how we follow Jesus, in our own distinctive and unrepeatable ways.