Choosing the right good
Trust in the Lord
I have a lot of advice on this page. Please don't approach it mechanically or as a checklist of things to do. Begin with confidence that your heart was shaped by God personally in your mother's womb with a special, God-given destiny both in this life and in the next. It is God who is working in the depths of your heart, stirring up the questions you have about how best to invest the precious treasure of your self. Keep praying the Infallible Prayer and God will surely lead you along right paths.
Grace builds on nature
- "Virtue is the mean between extremes."
- The Catechism discusses the virtuous life in detail:
- Theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. These are supernatural gifts that cause us to share in God's own life. They place us in a relationship that we could not have without God's personal, salvific action in our lives.
- Cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude (patience, endurance), moderation (temperance).
- Prudential judgments: applying general norms to particular situations.
- This is the Goldilocks world. In these kinds of decisions, we can err by doing too much or too little. "Moderation in all things" (except sin!): we don't want to eat too much or too little, rest too much or too little, spend too much or too little, etc.
- St. Ignatius Loyola, SJ: Two different kinds of "discernment of spirits" in the Spiritual Exercises:
First Principle and Foundation
- We are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this usans to save our souls. All other creatures on the face of the earth are created by God to help us attain the end for which we are created. Therefore, we should use created things so much as (tantum) they help us to attain our end and refrain from using them just as much as (quantum) they keep us from attaining our end. We must make ourselves indifferent to all created things as much as is left to our free choice and is not forbidden. When making such free choices, consequently, we ought not to seek health rather than sickness, wealth rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long life rather than a short one, and so on in all other matters. We ought to desire and choose only that which is more conducive to the end for which we are created.
The principle of "tantum quantum" is based on prudential judgments about what is and is not helpful in knowing, loving, and serving God. What is helpful and appropriate for one person may not be helpful or appropriate for another.
What we all need is detachment: the inner spiritual readiness and power to let go of good things that might get in the way of loving God.
Temptations of the First and Second Week
In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius gives various "rules for the discernment of spirits." The Exercises are divided into Four Weeks.
The primary focus in the First Week is to understand the nature of sin, original, angelic, and personal. Ignatius wants us to make a firm decision not to violate God's commandments.
The main issues in the Second Week are recognizing and choosing the right good. Most of the choices we face in life are of this kind. How should we pray? What is our vocation? Whom should we marry? Where should we live and work? How should we invest the wealth God has given us? When should we call or write The Station of the Cross with a question? These are matters to be decided by cultivating the virtue of prudence. The decisions we make here are not between good and evil but between good and good.
Some Ignatian prayers
Don't betray your vows
If you have already gotten married, then the only issue (as a general rule) is how to make the marriage work. There are rare and unusual circumstances when it is legitimate to separate from your spouse and investigate the possibility of an annulment.
If you have already gotten ordained, you have made life-long vows to God in the presence of the Church. There are rare and unusual circumstances when it is legitimate to ask to be released from those vows.
Find what is in your heart
The will of God for me is built into me, because God created me to be me. This is the deep foundation of the Infallible Prayer. I am designed to desire God's will, and God's will is always what is truly best for me.
We cannot find God's presence in our lives if we pay no attention to our feelings.
At the same time, we need to evaluate our feelings against the standards of right belief (orthodoxy) and right ethics (orthopraxis). Because of concupiscence, our feelings are not always rational and may lead us away from God rather than toward God.
Ignatius said that there are times when we must act against our feelings. In Latin, "to act against" is "agere contra."
God designed us to have emotions. The myth on Star Trek that we would be perfect logicians if we had no feelings is absurd; if we did not passionately desire the truth and long for integrity, we could never think rightly (Michael Polanyi). But we are wounded by sin and by circumstances; the world and the flesh and the devil fill our imaginations with vain images and arouse our passions to lead us astray. Sometimes we need to act on intuition and feelings that we can't explain; other times, we must act against them.
Figuring out when we should act with our feelings and when we should act against them is an art, not a science. Bringing the right principles to bear on particular circumstances requires the virtue of prudence--wisdom about practical matters.
"Get out of the boat"
When Peter thought he saw a ghost walking toward them on the water in the middle of a great storm, he said, "Master, if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water" (Mt 14:22-38).
This is absurd! What else would a demon do but say, "Get out of the boat and walk"?
And yet, this crazy method of recognizing Jesus worked. Peter walked on the water and knew for certain that it was Jesus.
The only drawback to using this method is that if it is not Jesus who is approaching on the water in the middle of a great storm, you are liable to drown. Such is life!
Do your duty
- Be faithful in small things (St. Therese of Lisieux).
- Advice given to St. Philip Neri, who wanted to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis Xavier, missionary to the East: "Find your India in Rome." For me, this becomes "Find your Rome in Buffalo."
- Pay your bills.
- Suit up and show up.
- Love necessity: "There is not a finer thing on earth than to make a virtue of necessity" (St. Philip Neri, "Maxims," August 11).
- Think. "God gave you that thing on top of your neck for more than just eating ice cream and making whiny noises about how hard life is."
- Obey the Commandments and the Precepts of the Church.
- St. Ignatius Loyola
- As far as possible, do not make or change a decision when in desolation.
- In passing from a bad state to a good one there is no need of counsel, but in passing from a good one to a better, time, counsel, and prayer must go into the decision.
Some other suggestions
- I do not recommend the use of "Gideon's Fleece" (Judges 6:34-40), but you may come across those who do. In my opinion, it is a "faithless generation" that demands that they be led by "miracles, signs, and wonders." While our God is alive and well, and can and does work miracles every day, He also speaks to us in the voice of our conscience and in "a still, small voice" (2 Kings 2:1-14). We should be docile to his most gentle promptings. Nevertheless, the example is there in the Scriptures, and God may well answer your prayer for a clear and unmistakeable sign of His will for you.
- Aids to developing a deeper awareness of God's presence and activity in one's life: retreats, spiritual direction, confession, spiritual reading.
- Practice. The more we obey, the better we get at obeying.
- "Be still and know that I am God" (Ps 46:10). Or, as the excellent and deceased atheist author, Douglas N. Adams, wrote so often: "Don't panic."
- Pay attention to your feelings, but don't be misled by them, no matter how strong they may seem: recognize them, reflect on them, and accept them; but act with wisdom and sound judgment (RRAA = recognize, reflect, accept, act).
- Pray the Infallible Prayer: "Thy will, not mine, be done." If you find yourself saying, "Yes, I prayed that, but I still didn't get what I wanted," then that might be a clue that you need to pray the Infallible Prayer some more.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a 'vocation'?
- "Vocation" means "calling." It is derived from the Latin verb, "voco, vocare," from which we get words like vocal, vocalize, vocative, invoke, invocation, convoke, convocation, avocation, evoke, evocation, revoke, revocation, etc.
- God created each one of personally in our mother's womb (Ps 139) and promises us a new name if we will stay faithful to him (cf. the Seven Letters, Rev 2-3). Each person who is baptized is called to holiness; "God wants us all to be great saints" (Mother Angelica).
Does every Christian have a vocation?
- Yes. We are all called to be "holy and righteous in His sight, all the days of our life" (Lk 1).
Does God have a "perfect will" for my life?
- Yes and no.
Is it possible to know God's will for my life with certitude?
- Yes and no.
How long should I put up with desolation and frustration before trying something else?
- It depends.
How can I know whether God's will is for me to marry?
- Find out whether there is a person willing to marry you. Marriages are made by free consent. God does not assign people under pain of sin to marry someone whom they do not want to marry!
Has God already picked my marriage partner for me?
So you do not believe that "marriages are made in Heaven"?
- No. They are made on earth.
How do I know whether I have a vocation to be a priest or religious?
- Find a diocese or religious order willing to accept you.
Why are your answers to these questions so short?
Don't you think you should treat these questions with more respect?
- Not today.
Will you write more later?
- Time will tell.
- Just because people have good questions, it does not follow that I have good answers.
Does God want me to be more generous in supporting The Station of the Cross?
Are you serious?
Can you recommend some aids to doing the Spiritual Exercises?
- Do It at Home Retreat
- Spiritual Exercises DVD series
- Ignatian Wiki, "Spiritual Exercises."
- A literal translation of the Spiritual Exercises is available on the Oregan Province website. Run your cursor over the menu item at the top of the page that says "Our Spirituality." That opens a sub-menu to sections of the Exercises.