Everyone faces decisions in life. For the Christian the process of decision making must be framed within the broader question ‘What does God will for me?’ It is times of making complex and life-changing judgements that individuals will look for spiritual counsel. There is an irony here: a spiritual director may not point out an answer to those who are seeking it (even if it is very plain to him what the course should be). It is vital in all cases that the seeker discovers for him or herself which path to take; it is an instance of ‘working out one’s own salvation in fear and trembling’.
The spiritual director can be of great help in other ways. First and foremost, ‘it’s good to talk’ – the simple action of self-expression to someone else who is listening attentively and prayerfully can help break a cycle of confusion and bring clarity. The director may also help set up processes and lay down perimeters within which a decision may be made. St Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises lays down rules for ‘Making a choice in life’ which a full of common and evangelical sense.
A first question is – ‘is the person actually free to make the choice?’ For example, if someone is married they are not free to become a monk or nun! Are they under a legal contract? Have they financial obligations that are unfulfilled in their present position? To use a Pauline expression – there are some relationships within which we are ‘subject in Christ’ and not free to reject. It is unlikely that the Lord leads married parents to abandon their families.
Secondly, Ignatius advises that an individual should never make a decision at a time of ‘desolation’ – that is to say a time of spiritual and emotional turmoil. Rather, it is important that in decision-making the Christian should do all that is necessary to clear any obstacles that stand in the way of a straightforward relationship with God. It may be necessary to go through a time of penitence to enable a time of seeking.
Thirdly, there is the ‘cheap’ advice – ‘pray about it.’ Some good advice is to suggest how this prayer might be framed. Scripture can provide graceful words, phrases, images and narratives that can help move the prayer forward. Here a spiritual director may be a practical help. Ignatius (in his practical soldierly way) suggests dividing a paper into half; one half for ‘yes’, one half for ‘no’, each half is divided in two – to list the pros and cons of each choice. All this to be worked out in the context of prayerful reflection, alone or with others.
Ignatius suggests two further ruses that demand a little imagination. First, ‘if you were your own best friend, what would you advise yourself to do?’ Secondly, ‘if you were in your last moments in life, how would you look on the question set before you; which course would lead you to regret your decision?’
It is one thing to make a choice in life, it is another to live with the consequences of it. One last word of Ignatian wisdom: if one makes a decision after prayerful reflection and the best advice, never go back on it. A decision made in faith must be faithfully lived by.
Andy Hawes exercises a ministry of spiritual direction at Edenham Regional House.