Sunday, April 18, 2010

Jesuit Advice in a Franciscan's Life

Discerning the Will of God
An Ignatian Guide to Christian Discernment
Timothy M. Gallagher, OMV
Crossroad Publishing: New York, c. 2009.
ISBN: 987-0-8245-2489-0
$16.95, 160 pp.

Personally, I struggle a lot with decision-making. It doesn't come easily or naturally to me. It never has. Recently, though, I needed to make a decision—a really good decision—about an important matter in my life. And I wanted to get the best help and advice available. My spiritual director (a Jesuit, by the way) suggested this text, which I took along on a recent trip to read, study, and reflect (upon). I was looking for a practical, step-by-step guide which would lead the reader through the discernment process-- hopefully without too much stress or discomfort (!).

Timothy Gallagher’s guide to discernment in the Jesuit tradition clear, rational, user-friendly, and methodical. But it was not Gallagher's methodology which I found most helpful. Rather, it was his basic insight that the foundation for any and all good decision-making is an “awareness that God has created us out of love and ceaselessly offers that love to us.” The recognition and acceptance of that Love leads to a “consequent thirst for communion of wills with the One who so deeply loves us.” Peter, one of Gallagher’s spiritual directees, states things succinctly. Peter reports that at the age of eight, he approached his father saying, “Dad, everything we learn in church and everything in the Bible comes down to just one thing, doesn’t it? …. That all God wants us to do—all the time—is to ask him what he wants us to do, and then do it…. Instead of asking ourselves, ask God.”

Imagine. Good decision-making, for the Christian, has its foundation in our relationship with a loving God. For the adult, it is “the experience of ourselves as loved sinners, loved in our failures, faults, woundedness, and pain—loved in a way that frees us to seek moral newness and so creates a heart ready to discern.” (p.41)

The necessity of basing one’s discernment upon a foundation of love—God’s love (intimate, personal, and abiding)—transforms one’s experience of the ensuing process.Gallagher goes on to speak of the “disposition,” “means”, and “fruit” of discernment. And he provides a clear and accessible road map of the distinct and discrete “modes” of discernment provided in the writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

I was surprised by a couple of other aspects of the book as well. For one thing, Gallagher quotes extensively from the reported experiences of his spiritual directees over a thirty-year period. A fair number of these anecdotes are from women and men contemplating priesthood or religious life. This is particularly helpful and accessible to those on the path of vocational discernment.

The other surprise I experienced was Gallagher’s reference to several Franciscan sources. He refers for example, to an account of a Secular Franciscan, Blessed Peter Pettenaio, who reports his vision of Christ walking into the cathedral of Siena, surrounded by a throng of saints, each of whom tried (unsuccessfully) to place her/his foot into the footprint of the Lord. At last, the only one to succeed in the task was Francis of Assisi (Atta boy! That’s our guy! Whadda way to go, Francis!)

A more revealing and relevant reference, however, is the experience of Francis’s own clarity in eventually discerning his call: “Immediately, exulting in the Holy Spirit, he cried out: ‘This is what I want, this is what I seek, this is what I long to do with all my hear!’” (I Celano). Isn’t that the kind of clarity, focus, and determination most of would really like to have in our own lives?

This is a very good, practical, and user-friendly guide to spiritual discernment. It is not enough in and of itself, however, as the author wisely cautions. To be complete the process requires a disciplined commitment to spiritual practices (prayer, spiritual reading, reception of the Eucharist, silence) and the help and assistance of a skilled spiritual director. By the way, it was a great help to me in my own recent decision-making.//

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