Spoilt for choice - St. Ignatius, discernment + modern living

I've been ordering equipment for our school's Music Dept., seeing as I am going to be Head of Music here next year. One such item is an Apple Mac music sequencing software package that upgrades the functionality of the Mac's built in GarageBand software. Such software nowadays allows you to create on your computer layered compositions using the sounds of hundreds of classic and modern synthesisers with their own seemingly limitless possibilities of creating different sounds, hundreds of electric guitar and guitar amp sounds, as well as all the standard orchestral instruments, all in immaculate quality.

Faced with such a multitude of digital and analogue sound possibilities, the problem is not one of lack of choice, rather the opposite. Where do you start???

Such abundance of choice seems to be a feature of modern living. , e.g. tv channels - with limited numbers of channels back in the '80s/'90s more people watched the same things and certain shows had a real "event" feel to them, such as Top Of The Pops, Doctor Who, etc... The latter seems to have maintained its success and hold over the public, but in these days of Freeview, Sky, etc... I think many people channel hop rather than sit and watch whole programmes.

Sometimes I feel life would be so much simpler and less stressful if we didn't have so many choices. Look at life in places like Senegal where I was with a group of young people 3 months ago. Could the lack of choice apparent in many aspects of their way of life be a reason why people in Africa seem less stressed, more joyful and seem to find it easier to live in the moment?

In this context I can understand perfectly the desire of the Danish "Dogme" film-making group back in the 1990s to strip away the multiple possibilities that come from Hollywood big budgets, CGI technology, etc... and return to a "truer" expression of human existence. Willingly accepting (or applying self-imposed) boundaries, limits , restrictions, etc... I believe (as did the Dogme group) can provoke creativity and ultimately greater freedom of expression and inner liberty.

One can see and understand the 3 vows of religion (poverty, chastity and obedience) taken by members of religious congregations such as my own in this context: the willing acceptance of limits to our actions encouraging inner freedom.

But what about vocational discernment? Does the same principle apply? Here we are taking about choices that can have a massive effect on our subsequent lives and can therefore seem incredibly daunting. How does one even start to answer a question such as "What am I going to do with my life? /What do I want to do? /What does God want me to do? "

I think the simple fact that someone is prepared to ask him or her self such a question and take the time to try and come to an informed answer/choice is in itself a very positive step.

But to go further and actually formulate some sort of answer to the question there are a number of practical things that one can do. St. Ignatius Loyola (founder of the Jesuits) explains what some of these are in his Spiritual Exercises. During our Invocation 2010 weekend, Fr. Matthew Power sj ran a workshop that looked at how the Exercies can aid a person in their journey of discernment. He summarised how one might come to a "good decision" using the wisdom of St. Ignatius as follows:

1) Find time in prayer to deepen your sense of God's love for you and pray for the grace to know that love.

2) Ask for the grace to be able to choose what will be for God's service and praise.

3) Continue to deepen your relationship with Jesus, through reading and praying with the Gospels, through receiving him in the Eucharist.

4) Identify any of the influences that might make you inclined to choose for other motives, and ask God to help you not to be influenced by them in your choice.

5) When faced with a choice, get clear in your own mind what the choice is about. It may help to write it down.

6) When faced with a choice:
a) pay attention to your desires over a period of time - what do you want to do?
b) draw up a list of reasons for doing something and reasons for not doing it

7) Talk through what you are thinking and feeling with someone else, especially someone who knows you and whose opinion you trust.

8) Don't think you have to be 100% certain before making a decision.

9) We are human and as such sometimes get things wrong despite the best intentions. God will always love us no matter what and will work through us for our good and the good of others.

10) Take comfort in the conviction of St. Ignatius (echoing St. Paul in Rm 8:28) that God turns all things to the good of those who love him.


I think many of us could bear witness to the last point, that things which have seemed to go "pear-shaped" in our lives have actually in the long run been the source of something good and this is very reassuring. If our hearts are in the right place, if we have good intentions at heart and if we make an informed decision in good faith, then there will surely be good that comes from it, even if in some ways it may be born out to be the "wrong" decision.

Some people may feel that priests and religious have "made it", have "been there, done that and got the t-shirt" when it comes to discernment, but in actual fact every morning I need to re-consecrate myself to God, asking that he guide me with his Spirit in the day ahead. I start each day afresh; each day is a gift from God that has its share of choices and decisions to make. The worst thing for a priest or religious would be to think that one no longer needs to work at discernment. Such an attitude could lead to complacency, an increasingly selfish mindset, but perhaps more crucially the feeling that one has nothing left to learn. The sense of childlike wonder that I so admire in some older people bears witness to the inner humility of someone who knows that they don't have all the answers, that they still have things to learn from life, from other people. I see this attitude most clearly and most wonderfully in a 94 year-old Jesuit priest with whom I had the honour of studying during my 4 years in Paris in the 1990s and with whom I am still in regular contact: Father Gustave Martelet sj. I think you can see this in his eyes (see below).

It is one of my ambitions to retain such an openness and sense of wonder as I get older.
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