“The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” Discerning God’s Voice in Our Lives Today

After they are baptized at Easter, the men and women who were received into the Church at the Easter Vigil through the Sacraments of Christian Initiation, are not finished with their formation. Following Easter, they continue to meet and learn about the significance of their baptisms through a period called the “Mystagogy.” The Mystagogy is a time when the baptized are invited to think about what it means to live with the gift of the Holy Spirit that they received when they were baptized and confirmed. Since these are gifts which all Christians receive when they are initiated into the Church, this theme is also one that we hear repeated in the Easter readings through the Easter Season. In fact, last week, as I met with our own parish’s RCIA, I could not help but think how one of the handouts that we were dealing with provided important insights for the readings that we hear proclaimed this Sunday. The fact is, that this period called the “Mystagogy” is not one that applies just to those who were baptized this past Easter. All of us should understand our own lives as a constant period of the Mystagogy. We should all be striving to understand the significance of our baptism throughout our life. Each Sunday throughout the year we should be attempting to understand how to live through the Holy Spirit a life closer to God and His Church. For this reason, I have decided to share with you the contents of one of the handouts that we used in the RCIA regarding the subject of discernment.

The handout that I would like to speak about today is from a series called “The Journey of Faith.” It is published by Ligouri Press and we use it here in the parish for the RCIA. I have taken everything that I am saying in this homily today from the sixth handout from the Mystagogy group of this series. The handout begins by asking the question that is dealt with in today’s readings: “How do we Christians make decisions today, now that Jesus is with the Father in Heaven?” The simple answer that is given, is that we do so by listening to the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus has sent from the Father into our hearts. We hear of an example of how this is done in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, as the early Church deals with questions that Jesus did not answer directly during His life and ministry on earth. Jesus himself anticipates that He is not answering all of His disciples’ questions as He tells them that He will send the Holy Spirit to them from His Father once He is with Him. The first question that the early Church had to deal with is: what to do with the Gentiles when they convert? Was it necessary for the Gentiles to become Jews and be circumcised and eat Kosher food? Jesus did not answer that question directly. Through discernment and listening to the Holy Spirit, the Church was able discern God’s will in this matter. There are so many other issues that Jesus did not speak about, like: nuclear weapons, free trade, immigration, over population, and so many of the issues that we deal with each day. Had he spoken to the first disciples about all matters concerning future generations, their heads would have exploded and they would not have understood him. However, while he did not speak about all matters to be faced by future individuals, Jesus did promise the Holy Spirit to help us understand and discern God’s will for us. The challenge for all of us is to learn to listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit and to learn to listen to that voice and not the voice of our own desires and temptations. How we do this listening is called discernment. It is such an important aspect of the Christian life that it is a theme dealt with for those who have been baptized at Easter during the Mystagogy. However, it is also a theme that those of us who have been baptized for many years would do well to re-visit so that we might be reminded of how important it is to follow Christ and listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

A great master of discernment in the life of the Church was St. Ignatius Loyola, who gave rules for discernment in his Spiritual Exercises. In the Journey of Faith handout that deals with discernment, a very simple presentation is given of St. Ignatius rules of discernment and it is this seven-stage process of discernment that I would like to share with you today. Because I am going to share a lot of information in these seven quick steps, I have also made this homily available on the parish website and there are copies of the Journey of Faith handout from which I am taking this material available at the doors of the Church. The seven steps to this discernment process are:

  1. Formulate a proposition:
    “We start by making a clear statement or question of what we are trying to decide.”
    “From the beginning and right through the process, we ought to ask God to reveal God’s truth to us and give us the inner freedom to carry it out.”
  2. Gather the relevant data:
    “Reflect on the various alternatives and the advantages of each. As we do this, we should be as creative as possible. As we write down the pros and cons of each alternative, we need to take into consideration the effect each alternative would have on our relationship with God, our family, or any other individual(s) or group(s).”
    “Identify potential obstacles. What excessive needs, attachments, and compulsions might be preventing our hearing God’s will? Being willing to name and admit obstacles to our inner freedom demands honesty, courage and patience.”
    “Seek out a good counselor. Saint Ignatius tells us the devil loves secrecy, whereas God blesses openness….In light of all this, it would seem that somewhere in the decision making process we would do well to seek the input of a wise spiritual director or friend, preferably one who knows us well.”
  3. Bring the gathered data to prayer:
    “The heart of Christian discernment is not the intellectual activity of weighing the pros and cons of available options, but rather it is the act of bringing the available options to prayer and seeing which option gives us the greatest sense of God’s presence, peace and joy.”
    “Often we are so attached to a particular direction that we are not free to move in another direction—hence the vital importance of praying for the grace of inner freedom.”
    “We are at the point of inner freedom when we are detached enough from every available option to be free to walk down any path that God may call us to walk.”
    “Having attained through the grace of God, a good degree of inner freedom, we now begin to pray about the various options available to us.”
    “As we pray, we might want to imagine ourselves living out a particular alternative in its details. The option that consistently fills us with the presence of God’s peace and joy over a period of time is most likely God’s will for us.”
    “As we pray about the various options available, we need to distinguish between what we think and feel when we are in prayer and most open to God’s will and what we think and feel outside of prayer when we might be anxious and attached to a particular option. The former is more likely to be God’s will for us.”
  4. Make a decision:
    At some point we must make a decision. We must go with the option that gives us the most peace when we are in prayer. But what if we experience no real peace about the options available to us? In that case we can postpone the decision or choose the one least troublesome to us. We should not decide when in doubt; and if time permits, we should continue to pray until we experience peace about a particular option.”
    “Last, we need to be aware that the option chosen may not always be the most attractive one or the one we most desired. Sometimes we may feel led to choose an option with tears….Such initial tears of sadness, however, often give way to tears of joy (See Corinthians 7:8-13).”
  5. Live with the decision:
    “Once we come to a decision, it is good to live with it for a while before we actually act on what we have decided. This is particularly important if we are impulsive…. We should ask the Holy Spirit to give us the power and courage to act on what we believe to be God’s will for our lives.”
  6. Act on the decision:
    “This may seem obvious, but this step can be the most difficult because it may involve giving up something to which we are still quite attached. We should ask the Holy Spirit to give us courage to act on what we believe to be God’s will for our lives.”
  7. Seek confirmation of the decision:
    “The final test for hearing God’s will is whether living it out brings life to us and others. If the choice we make bears good fruit, we can be quite sure we acted in accord with God’s will. This is not to say that there won’t be struggles connected with our choice nor days when we wonder, ‘Did I really make the right choice?’ Such struggles and wandering are normal and do not necessarily prove that we made a wrong decision.”
    “What if we discover later that we did make the wrong decision? Knowing we made a sincere effort to seek God’s will should console us. Discernment is not just a gift but an art learned through trial and error. God doesn’t ask that we always be right; God asks only that we always try to be honest and act out of our best understanding of a particular situation. Finally, we can be consoled by remembering God’s ability to use our mistakes to God’s—and our—advantage.”

As those who were baptized this past Easter try to understand how they are to follow God’s will for them in the years to come, these seven rules of discernment provide excellent guidelines for them to listen to the Holy Spirit and to discover the path of peace which God wishes to lead them upon. God wishes that all of us know this peace. This is the peace that Jesus speaks of as He leaves His disciples and promises to send them the Holy Spirit. We are all to listen to the Holy Spirit and to strive to know His peace in our lives. I hope that these rules for discernment will help all of us to do this. I thank Ligouri Press and the Journey of Faith series from which I have taken this summary.  Let us all continue to live the Mystagogy of our baptisms by discerning each day God’s will for us.

Fr. Michael McGourty
Pastor—St. Peter’s Parish—Toronto.