Friday 13 August 2021

Insights into Discernment

The recent virtual global colloquium on Jesuit education held last month considered four different, yet interrelated aspects of our approach to education; educating for faith, depth, reconciliation, and global citizenship. In her keynote address on Educating for Depth, Margaret Silf, a Scottish spiritual director, began by sharing her experience of some of the big, searching questions that her seven year old granddaughter asks her such as “Grandma, is heaven real?” and “Grandma, why are some people rich and others poor?”. Margaret then went on to make the point that children can and do go deep in their questioning, however, they have not yet developed the ability to reflect on what they are asking.

In inviting each of us to consider how we can deepen our reflective efforts, Margaret asked in her keynote address “Where is my life really centred?” She went further, making the point that our experience of the last 18 months has reminded us humans that we are not as much in control as we sometimes like to think we are as “a tiny virus has brought the entire human system to a standstill”. Drawing upon the insights of Ignatius, Margaret said, “We need, urgently, to reset the compass to a deeper centre – we would call it the God-centre – putting Kingdom values and the greater good of all life first”.

Many, if not all of us, have been reflecting on our lives throughout the pandemic. This current time of lockdown has highlighted for us how important some of our day-to-day relationships and personal interactions are for our sense of belonging and well-being. There are also likely to be some aspects of our pre-COVID lives that we are not missing and perhaps we are pondering, how we might be able to live and do things differently, in the weeks and months that we hope to enjoy in spring and summer when this lockdown finishes.

One of the greatest gifts that Ignatius offers to us is his insights into discernment and the making of good decisions. Two crucial elements of an Ignatian approach to discernment are the daily practice of the examen and the ongoing discernment of spirits within us. To be able to make the most life-giving choices for ourselves, our community, and indeed the world, we need to go deep within ourselves as well as reflecting with depth about the challenges of our community, our city, and the world. This takes time, effort, and energy.

When Ignatius was recovering in his family castle following the shattering of his leg in the Battle of Pamplona, he began to notice different desires percolating in his heart and ruminating in his soul. In his autobiography, he recalls the following:

“When he was thinking of the things of the world he was filled with delight, but when afterward he dismissed them from weariness, he was dry and dissatisfied. And when he thought of going barefoot to Jerusalem and of eating nothing but herbs and performing the other rigours he saw that the saints had performed, he was consoled, not only when he entertained these thoughts, but even after dismissing them, he remained cheerful and satisfied.”

In the years that followed, he further refined his insights into the human spirit and our experience of the competing forces and/or voices that we experience in our heads and hearts daily. When the good spirit is at work we experience a sense of hope, energy, a renewed confidence and are drawn more deeply into relationships. In contrast, the movement of the bad spirit leads to a negative self-narrative, a heaviness, and a loss of the sense of our worth. When we are more aware of the signs of the good and the bad spirits, we can more readily reflect on our experience of each day through the examen as when we stop and look back we can see more clearly the dynamics operative in our lives and come to appreciate more readily the movements of the Spirits within ourselves and within different relationships and circumstances. You can explore these concepts more fully here.

This Sunday we celebrate the great Marian Feast of the Assumption. As Christians, we have a devotion to Mary precisely because she is the mother of Jesus, the mother of God. Because of this fact, we believe that God afforded Mary a privilege that has been given to no other human other than her son Jesus and that is that at the end of her earthly life she was assumed or raised to heaven, body and soul, to be reunited with her son.

Ignatius, Francis Xavier and Peter Faber had a deep devotion to Mary, they specifically chose the Feast of the Assumption in 1534 to consecrate their lives to God on a day in which we as a Church honour the mother of God.

Throughout the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius encourages us repeatedly to ask Mary to pray for and with us, to ask her son Jesus to intercede for us. As the mother of Jesus, she continues to nourish, love and support us as the mother of the Church. Mary’s importance is that she leads us to Jesus because sometimes we may not be ready to approach Jesus directly.

All of us know what it is like to have a mother or a grandmother, and all of us know the extraordinary love that is so freely given to us by our mothers throughout our lives. This too was Jesus’ human experience of his mother Mary. It is important that as a Christian community, we spend some time this weekend to pay respect to Mary and acknowledge her extraordinary life of generosity and service not just to Jesus but to the entire human race and to give thanks to God for the gift of Mary.

We must continue to nurture our devotion to Mary and to value her presence in our lives, because this enables us to come to a deeper appreciation of the gift that all women are to our lives, as mothers, grandmothers, sisters, partners, aunts, cousins, friends and colleagues. We give thanks to God for the ways in which each of our lives are immeasurably blessed by the presence of so many gifted women in our community. The example of Mary invites us to deepen our respect, love and appreciation of all women so let’s honour her as we pray:

Hail, Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.

Fr Tom Renshaw