The following reflection is part of our “Jesuit 101” series, celebrating the Ignatian Year. This piece helps us to dive deeper into Ignatian Discernment. To learn more about this discernment, check out our explainer article: “Jesuit 101: Finding Our Way Through Ignatian Discernment.”
It was a bitterly cold winter night in New England. The hours passed by as I tossed and turned in my bed, unable to sleep. My thoughts were fixed on a simple question that never before felt so frightening: “What do I actually want?”
I was a second-year Jesuit novice halfway through a four-month assignment ministering at a high school. Before that night I presumed that once I finished the assignment, I would request permission to profess my vows and declare my intention to spend the rest of my life in the Society of Jesus. But earlier that evening, the many struggles over the past two years all came to mind and suddenly I was panic-stricken. For the first time since applying to the Jesuits, I seriously considered the possibility that God was not calling me to this life. Or even if He was, I was not sure I wanted to accept the invitation. But if not this, then what?
Discernment is not easy. It requires patience with God and with ourselves. It requires identifying our disordered attachments and having our proper end in mind. It requires that we be open to new information and new movements. The variety of spirits that work on us, combined with our propensity for self-deception, mean we should have spiritual directors to guide us through our discernments. Discernment is not easy, but it’s worth the struggle.
When I visited the novitiate as an applicant, I felt such immediate excitement and joy when I first walked in the door, and the desire to apply was so strong that I never doubted my calling through the application process. The problem, though, was that I took these experiences as definitive for my vocation. After becoming a novice, I didn’t honestly engage with the struggles I had in religious life. I could have reframed the difficulties as sincere questions about myself and my vocation, but instead, I viewed the difficulties as threats to be resisted or as trials to be endured. I wasn’t open to how God could be trying to show me something about myself or my vocation through these challenges. I wasn’t discerning—I was being stubborn.
I didn’t seriously question my calling and my desire to be a Jesuit until that restless winter evening. But whatever my vocation or desires were, that night I realized I had confused two separate decisions for one. The election to enter the novitiate was distinct from the discernment to profess vows. It’s like a relationship. A person may feel a strong desire, even a call to date and be in a relationship with someone, but that is very different from the discernment of whether or not to marry that person. I was grateful for my time in the novitiate and how it helped me grow, mature, and know God more intimately. But was I called to make a lifelong commitment to the Society of Jesus? Or was I to move on?
St. Ignatius tells us that when making an election, we need to have our proper end in sight, which is to praise, reverence, and serve God, and by this means to save our soul. And we shouldn’t confuse the means, such as a particular state of life, for that end. During much of my time in the novitiate, I had confused religious life to be an end in itself and had become too attached to being a Jesuit for its own sake. I had to become indifferent to my own desires in order to discern how God wanted me to praise and love Him.
Making this discernment meant I had to pay attention to the activity of both the Holy Spirit and the evil spirit within me. What brought consolation, and what left me in desolation? Consolation is whatever increases faith, hope, and love in us. While the end result of this increase is peace, the process by which that increase occurs, i.e., the process of reorienting our desires solely to God, can be quite tumultuous, as I was experiencing that restless night.
After four hours of tossing in bed, I finally received an answer to that frightful question that had occupied my mind that night. I wanted joy. But not just any joy. I wanted the joy of Christ that would make my joy complete.1 With this answer came a deep calmness and peace. The storm had passed over, the waters were now smooth as glass, and I drifted off to sleep. The Good Spirit was at work.
The task ahead of me was to discern what state of life would best enable me to love God most and bear this fruit of joy. I would only know if God was calling me to be a Jesuit if in the next two months of my high school ministry, the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience effected in me an increase of faith, hope, and love. So in my last two months of my high school assignment, I gave myself to my ministry with a newfound zeal and a greater freedom. Greater zeal because I could only make this discernment if I gave myself fully over to the vows and my ministry. Greater freedom because the vows were just one possible means by which God could be asking me to praise, serve, and love Him.
After my high school ministry ended, I went on an 8-day silent retreat in order to make sense of the different movements and to discern how God sought to guide me to my proper end. I spent some parts of each day imagining my future as a married man, and other parts of the day imagining my future as a Jesuit, paying careful attention to what each imagined scenario elicited in me.
The meditations of married life brought some happiness and joy in the moment, but after the meditation I would feel agitated, frustrated, and short-tempered. Furthermore, in these meditations, my life felt compartmentalized, fragmented by competing demands on my attention, love, and service. But after imagining my future as a Jesuit, the joy and happiness would be long lasting, often remaining for the rest of the day. In these meditations, my life felt integrated and complete. I could give myself freely and whole-heartedly to my ministry, community, friends, and family. I felt love and joy growing in me. This pattern repeated itself over the course of the retreat, which gave me all the confirmation I needed. God was inviting me to be a Jesuit, and it was an invitation I gratefully accepted.
Discernment may not be easy, but through it we discover a God who is always meeting us where we are and laboring to draw us closer to Himself. To discern is to move with the Holy Spirit’s promptings, and in that movement we experience nothing short of the thrill of living and the joy of loving.
- Jn 15:11 ↩