Long post, people — in response to the requests to provide notes from my last talk on Ignatian discernment…
The Journal Itself
What you are doing in the journal is recording what the strongest affective movements of your heart are. You are not recording specific faults so much as those memories, events, words and emotions that most moved you in mind, heart, and spirit. Think about it – how can you discern God’s will in your life unless you know where to start? How can you make a journey with God if you do not have a path? Recording the strongest affective movements of your heart provides both a place to start and a path to walk on. This journal is VERY SIMPLE. But do not be fooled by its simplicity. Once you get into the rhythm of praying it every day, it is extremely powerful. You only record three things (at most):
- THE GREATEST CONSOLATION OF THE DAY
- THE GREATEST DESOLATION OF THE DAY
- THE MOST SIGNIFICANT OR MEANINGFUL EVENT OF THE DAY
That’s it. It’s that simple. Now I will explain exactly what these things mean, and why they are important. Do not assume that you know exactly what these terms mean. Even great saints like Theresa of Avila say that the secret spiritual weakness of even those who are very serious about their faith is pride. Don’t let your pride get the best of you. Keep reading so that you will have a solid idea of what the Church (and her greatest saints) think is most important for your discernment.
Consolation and Desolation
Consolations and desolations are, as mentioned above, the greatest affective movements of your heart in any given day. Do not confuse consolation with pleasure or happiness and do not confuse desolation with pain or sadness. There might be a similarity between them, but it isn’t that simple. Keep reading. This will become clearer as I offer examples. First, we will review consolations and desolations and then treat of the most significant event last.
Consolation is anything that makes your heart come alive – anything that makes it feel like it is blossoming. Here are some key words for identifying a consolation: UNSELFISH, PURE, HOLY, LOVING, HOPEFUL, FORGIVING, REMORSEFUL over sin. It is a feeling that brings you into closer RELATIONSHIP with God, making you able to hold your head high with INTEGRITY. Consolation fills you with an inner JOY and ENCOURAGEMENT despite any suffering that might be present. Consolation summons us into a greater DEPTH and CREATIVITY. It is the voice of the new dawn, the smile of the sky, the laughter of water rushing in a silver stream. It is the voice of peace – the voice that tells you that you are good enough and that everything will be o.k.
Here’s the catch – there may be great sadness and pain involved in a consolation. Think about the way we use the word, “consolation.” We usually mean that we were sad or in pain, and then someone helped to ease that pain. I will provide examples shortly, after explaining desolation.
Desolation is precisely the opposite. It is SELFISH, POISONED, UNFORGIVING, SELF-RIGHTEOUS, SELF-SERVING and DESPAIRING. It fills us with ANXIETY and OBSESSIVE THOUGHTS. It causes us to retreat further into ourselves AWAY FROM RELATIONSHIP. It fills us with DARKNESS, CONFUSION, and DISCOURAGEMENT. It is ultimately SHALLOW and SUPERFICIAL, ruining true creativity. It is the voice of the world. It is the voice of the wilting flower and of everlasting loneliness. One of the greatest causes for desolation is sloth – the failure to use your God-given talents and energy to be who you are supposed to be.
Desolation makes us want to quit, while consolation inspires us to move forward.
Consolation ultimately leads us to peace, despite sorrow and pain.
SOME EXAMPLES. You see a little girl smile at you in the grocery store. For some reason, this warms your heart. You rejoice in her innocence, her beauty, and her boldness at just beaming at you. The world has not yet taught her to hide her feelings. Check the list of key words. It was something unselfish, pure, holy, encouraging, etc. You record it as the greatest consolation of your day. Yes, it sounds small – even trivial. It is very important not to psyche yourself out by recording what you think should be the greatest consolation or desolation of the day. It is what it is. Brutal honesty is absolutely vital when it comes to this journal. I will repeat this several times because it is one of the most important points.
This can get a little trickier. For example, say that my greatest consolation is seeing a little girl smile at me at the grocery store. Fine. But what if I am not in the state of grace and not seeking God’s will? The same smile can actually torment me and become a desolation because, for example, she reminds me that I am lonely and cannot have a girl like her as my own daughter. But if I am doing God’s will, then I am content with who I am and able to smile right back at her, pleased that God can make a child so innocent and beautiful.
I mentioned above that consolation cannot be confused with happiness. Let me offer an example. Some years ago, I was presented with the picture of the engagement announcement of an ex-girlfriend. She was standing with her fiancé’, smiling happily. I felt a lance of pain in my heart and a small swell of jealousy. Then I paused and prayed about it for a moment. In a few minutes, I felt my heart begin to bloom. The jealousy took flight, and I was able to experience letting her go. I truly wished happiness to her and her soon-to-be husband. I recorded this as the greatest consolation of the day. Check the inventory list. It was unselfish, hopeful, pure, holy, and fostered a closer relationship between myself and God. Describing this as a happy feeling doesn’t really do it justice. As a matter of fact, the consolation came with a great amount of pain. But it was consoling nonetheless.
But say that I was not able to experience the feeling of letting her go. I remained in my jealousy or perhaps it just reminded me how lonely and discontented I am. That would be a desolation.
As mentioned above, don’t be afraid to write down things that you consider petty or vicious. For example, something bad happens to your sister and you are actually quite happy about it – you don’t like your sister very much. You should record that as a desolation. Though it made you happy (for a moment), it was selfish, uncreative, and harmful to relationship.
Consolation does not mean happy feelings, but could be accompanied by them.
Desolation does not mean sad feelings, but could be accompanied by them.
Both consolations and desolations can be events, emotions, words someone said, or some other sign from God. The greatest affective movement of your heart, whatever it is, should be what is recorded.
The Most Meaningful or Significant Event. Explaining the third question of the journal should help clarify what consolation and desolation mean as well. Say, for example, that a group of family and friends throws you a surprise birthday party. You are overwhelmed with gratitude over their kindness. But for some reason, the smile of that little girl that I wrote about above somehow affected you more deeply that day. You saw God more in her then in the event of the birthday. Don’t feel guilty that you record the girl’s smile as your consolation rather than the party. It is what it is. Don’t argue with the movements of your heart. Just write them down. But you do record the birthday party as the most significant event of the day.
Or say you went to the doctor and he tells you that your cholesterol is dangerously high. Of course it upset you, but you are actually more desolate over someone in the office who didn’t respond when you said “hello” to them. Going to the doctor might be your most significant event, but you should record your co-worker’s silent treatment as your desolation (keep in mind that the visit to the doctor’s office might be your desolation for the day. I’m just giving you examples of how to navigate these questions).
Finally, for those who are just beginning this journal, I often recommend that what they should record as the most meaningful event of the day is either their consolation or desolation. In other words, which one of them “won out” in your heart that day? Which one was more powerful? Keep in mind that the answer to this question is often a choice between either your consolation or desolation. Don’t feel bad about this. You’re not doing anything wrong if this is the case.
Hopefully you understand the nature of how to answer these questions. I will now offer some more practical advice of how to go about this new activity in your spiritual life.
Some Practical Warnings and Suggestions
There are some things to remember about the discernment journal. I have outlined the most important ones as follows:
- WRITE A SPIRITUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY. Everything mentioned in this paper can be enhanced by the practice of first writing a spiritual autobiography. This has been done by saints such as St. Augustine, Sister Faustina, Theresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, and Ignatius of Loyola. And no, you don’t have to write a book. Take an uninterrupted block of several hours where you record the major events of your life – the consolations & desolations, the triumphs & tragedies, and those events or conversations that meant the most in your spiritual life. This isn’t an exercise in recording your achievements or whining. It’s an exercise of how you have become who you are today, and especially what role God and other people have played in that struggle. Shoot for about ten pages. What this does is put your life in some perspective, thus enabling you to more accurately identify your consolations and desolations, and how they relate to your past. If you don’t remember your past, then how will your future make any sense?
- DON’T REVIEW YOUR JOURNAL EVERY DAY. When you are dieting, it is usually counter-productive to weight yourself every day. Similarly, do not look at your discernment journal every day attempting to find the master-patterns that define your soul. This is especially true for those who tend towards obsessive or compulsive behaviors. On the other hand, do not fail to look for those patterns. This is especially true for those who are so easy-going (or lazy) that they often neglect to do what is good for themselves. It is also counter-productive to engage in a fitness program without some way to track your progress. The discernment journal does exactly that.
- DO REVIEW YOUR JOURNAL EVERY SUNDAY AND ON RETREATS. I would suggest that Sunday is a wonderful day to sit and pray with the journal entries for the week with a view toward asking God what story the journal has to tell; indeed, what story God is trying to tell. An annual or quarterly retreat is the perfect time to sit and pray with your journal, attempting to find those patterns that God is trying to reveal to you. Ask yourself questions like, “Are there any patterns to my desolations or consolations? Do they all have to do with similar events, feelings or persons? Was there a point where my journal took a definite turn, i.e. changed in a significant way? Why? Are there certain passages that upset or comfort me more than others? Why? If I could pick what the greatest consolation or desolation of the week or month was, what would it be?
- SHARE YOUR JOURNAL WITH A “SPIRITUAL FRIEND” OR DIRECTOR. There is a saying among priests and seminarians – “He who consults only himself has a fool for a director.” St. Dorotheos, a 6th century monk, wrote, “There is nothing more harmful than trying to direct oneself. That is why I never allowed myself to follow my own desires without seeking counsel.” There is also a saying that is very common in addiction recovery – “More light comes through two windows than one.” The point should be self-evident. Choose someone who is notable for their discretion, insight and honesty. They should be encouraging. But you should also give them permission to kick your spiritual butt when you need it. No, this isn’t pleasant. But do you want real insights or just superficial ones? Even if your director or friend is wrong, it will give you the opportunity to wrestle with their insights. Moreover, our faith tells us that if you asking them spiritual questions in good faith, then God should give them an inspiration to tell you what you need to hear.
What Can Completely Screw This Up
- DISHONESTY = If you are not brutally honest with your answers to these simple questions, you will not experience the fruits of your efforts. Period. I cannot stress this enough. The discernment journal is not the place to justify or explain yourself. Don’t do the following:
Don’t be embarrassed to record the same desolation or consolation for a whole week or two. Say that you are angry with an unkind word that someone said at work. You just can’t get it out of your mind for a whole week. Be honest and record that as your greatest desolation for the whole week. It is o.k. to write two desolations or consolations if you want, but I would limit it to that. In short, don’t write down what you think you should, but only God’s truth. Honesty dispels our fantasies and excuses – two of the greatest blocks to spiritual advancement.
- COMPLEXITY = Don’t include your other reflections in the discernment journal. Its simplicity is its strength. Use an entirely different journal for deeper reflections. Keep them shortened to a few sentences on a single page – even one sentence per question is quite acceptable. Don’t doodle in it, don’t write class notes in it, and don’t write prayers or poems in it. That only confuses the pure and simple, powerful words that God was trying to speak to you on that day.
- SINFULNESS = If you are not in the state of grace, your ability to be honest will be crippled, your inspirations will be confused, and you may make mistakes about discerning which events God considers important. All of us sin, but if we have sinned grievously or have been away from prayer and the sacraments for a long time, the fruits of the journal will be sickly ones. St. Thomas Aquinas calls this the darkening of the intellect. Sounds bad, right? That’s because it is. St. Ignatius makes it clear that if we are not truly seeking God’s will then we will confuse our consolations with our desolations. Remember the example about the little girl? Seeing her smile can be the occasion for a consolation or a desolation, depending upon the state of your soul. Make no mistake about it: If you are not truly seeking God’s will and attempting to live a life of virtue, this journal will not work.
- STUBBORNESS = If God has been asking you to do something for quite some time and you are failing to do it, you may begin to experience a certain kind of desolation that makes it difficult for you to accurately record where God is revealing his presence in your life. He has already told you where he is present – it’s in that nagging whisper (or shout) that he’s been hounding you with for a long time. God may have been trying to direct your steps for awhile and bring you to a new spiritual level, but you are not accepting the direction. Your journal might not work very well unless you simply surrender and obey.
- INCONSISTENCY = With nearly everything we do, human activities are clumsy until they achieve a certain naturalness and rhythm. Going to a health club sporadically bears little fruit. The stops and starts of exercise confuse body. It doesn’t have a chance to adjust itself to your new regimen by producing more vitamins and muscle cells. Similarly, if you are inconsistent with the journal, your inspirations will also be confused. So don’t do that.
Why You Should Write This Journal
For the most part, we simply will not take part in an activity without good reasons to do so. Therefore, I will offer some thoughts on why working in this journal can be so fruitful for your spiritual life.
In the Gospel of John, the Beloved Disciple, there is a passage that has often haunted me: “During his stay in Jerusalem for the Passover many believed in is name when they saw the signs that he gave, but Jesus knew them all and did not trust himself to them; he never needed any evidence about any man; he could tell what a man had in him.” The journal is about recording those signs that Jesus is giving us, and what has most moved our hearts. I think that the reason why Jesus “did not trust himself to them” is because we believe in the signs without actually giving our hearts to the One who is giving the signs. The journal is a way that we can open our hearts to the One Who Gave His Life for Us. If we give ourselves completely to God, then He will give Himself completely to us. What better reason is there to engage in this struggle?
It is certainly good to have a record of what are the best, worst and most meaningful events of your spiritual life. That is one way to look at the journal – but it is not the best way. Consider this: perhaps the journal is not so much about you telling God what these significant events are as much as he is telling you where he was present in your day? God is our Eternal Lover. As our Lover, he wants to be present with us in the most meaningful and intimate way possible. The journal is not our monologue to God about what matters most to us, it is God’s dialogue with us concerning what matters most in our relationship with Him.
We have all read the little parable about the “Footprints in the Sand.” The story can be a bit trite and overused, but the point is a good one. What I am suggesting is similar to that parable. The footprints in the journal are not so much our footprints of where we’ve been, but the footprints of Jesus Christ in our lives indicating where he is taking us. All of us want to know that God is living and active in our daily lives. Keeping the journal helps us to see the very path of God traced on our hearts.
Moreover, this journal gives you a directed opportunity to have a very important conversation with Jesus Christ. Many of us sit in silence, desperately desiring to talk to the Lord but at a loss regarding what to say. The three questions asked by the journal give you a starting point to talk to God. “Lord, what was my greatest consolation of the day? Why is it this one rather than that other one?” Not a bad place to begin.
Last but not least, when you have kept this journal for several months or years, you have literally created a map of your soul – the peaks and valleys, the rivers you crossed, the wars you’ve fought and the gardens you played in. There is no better tool to review on a retreat or day of recollection. There are few tools better to assist you on the road to self-knowledge. St. Theresa of Avila greatly stressed the need for self-knowledge. The lack of self-knowledge is one of the greatest spiritual problems that I have experienced on a daily basis as a spiritual director and priest. Jesus said, “Anyone who finds his life will lose it; anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.” But here’s the question: How can you lose your life for Christ’s sake if you don’t even know who you are? You can’t give yourself away as a gift unless you know what you are giving.
But don’t let me tell you why this is a good idea. By all means, talk to the Lord, and come up with your own reasons. Those are always better. That concludes my advice on the discernment journal. The remaining reflections will concern other discernment suggestions, as well as some other creative and helpful ways to pray.
What God’s Voice Sounds Like
It is often difficult to discern the different “voices” in your heart. Here are some suggestions about discerning which voice is from God. St. Paul wrote, “Discern the spirits to see if they are from God.” Here are the different spirits that can suggest themselves to you:
- God’s spirit
- Your own spirit (along with the various different “voices” in your spirit)
- A demonic spirit
- The spirit of the world
Please don’t be fooled. Even great saints have been misled (for a time) by the voices of evil spirits or the desires of their own hearts drowning out the whispers of God. Take discernment seriously, and always ask for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
- GOD’S VOICE IS CONSOLING AND ACTIVE. Everything I said above about consolation should be consulted when you are trying to discern God’s voice. God’s voice is consoling while other voices often lead to desolation. Remember that God inspires us to keep going (hope). He encourages creativity, unselfish sacrifice (love) and relationship (faith). Those actions and thoughts that lead to this are likely from God.
- IS THE VOICE CONSISTENT? Think about this: Satan is completely evil. Therefore he has no virtue. Patience is a virtue. Therefore Satan has no patience. So what does this mean? It means that if Satan is whispering for you to feel something, do something or think about something, he can’t do it for too long. His voice will be burned away in the radiance of God’s Word. So NEVER, NEVER act impulsively when discerning God’s Word. It might be a momentary geyser of demonic suggestion. Wait it out.
- IS THE VOICE SIMPLE? God doesn’t need many words to speak. Often, he speaks wordlessly through images or feelings. God does not require offering us a series of complicated directives to get his point across. Many saints have built their entire lives on a single phrase that they have heard from God. Think of Saint Francis – Jesus asked him, “Build my church.” He spent his whole life building his spiritual life on that phrase. If you are hearing a spiral of obsessive thoughts and complexities, chances are it isn’t God. Listen for the voice that is simple, direct and powerful. Don’t be fooled by thinking something like, “That’s too simple. That can’t be the answer. It still leaves me with many questions.” Guess what? That’s probably God’s voice.
- DOES IT INSPIRE CONVERSION? Consider what you are trying to do – the fork in the road on your pilgrimage to God at this point in your life. Which path do you think honestly brings you closer to God? Which inspires you to convert your life closer to him? Which one invites you into a greater gift of yourself to God and others? At the last supper, the beloved disciple reclined against the Lord’s chest and asked him who his betrayer would be. Which road makes you feel more like John, and which one more like the Lord’s betrayer?
- LOOK FOR CONFIRMATIONS. Our God is not a God who speaks in the dark. When he gives us a word, he tries to make sure that we’ve heard it. If it is true that he speaks to us that we might know his will, it follows that he will speak again in order to confirm His will. In the Old Testament, prophet after prophet was sent to Israel to turn her back to the Lord. God will do the same for us. Think of confirmations as little prophets sent to you by God. For example, many people asked me to write this discernment guide. When I was discerning whether or not to follow through with it (because it takes time and energy from my other duties), the same day a priest-friend of mine asked me some advice on how to teach his parishioners about discernment! He knew nothing about what I was considering. I took that as a confirmation from God to follow this inspiration. Confirmations may be hard, especially if we’re being told to do something we don’t want to do, but they should ultimately bring peace rather than anxiety. But here is a warning – God tends to send kindly prophets at first to inform us of our marching orders, but then sometimes can get progressively more “insistent” and even painful. Listen to the kindly prophets while you have the time. Obey your confirmations.
- JUST MOVE. As the athletic company, Nike, says: “Just do it.” I call this “the lost rule of discernment.” Think about it this way: is it easier for God to move a stone that is already rolling or one that is at a stand-still? This is simple physics. There is such a thing as spiritual physics as well. If a stone is already rolling, then all he has to do is give it a good shove to get it to roll where he wants. SO MOVE. Remember that Holy Scripture records that even Jesus at the beginning of his ministry appeared not to be quite ready to begin it. At the wedding at Cana, it required a bit of coaxing by his mother to make him reveal his power.
- No one is called to a life of discernment. We are called into discernment precisely because God’s wants it to end with action, thereby ceasing the discernment. As a very wise nun once told me, “Discernment is not a vocation.” So get off your butt and move.
- God honors actions done in good faith. Say a good father wants his child to do certain things. The child misinterprets what the father wants and performs the wrong activities. But the father sees that the child is really trying to do what the father wants. Does he get angry? No. He corrects the child lovingly, and redirects his steps. God will do the same for us.
- DO WHAT ONLY YOU CAN DO. When you are discerning God’s will, it is certainly legitimate to follow your desires. God works through our desires to work out His desires for us. But another “lost rule of discernment” is agere quod agis – “Do what you can do.” But I would add a word – do what only you can do. What I mean is that when you are discerning whether or not to engage in a particular activity, do that activity that it seems no one else around you can do as well as you can. For example, I think I am a pretty good teacher. Say I am at a retreat. There are many things that need to be taught. I would like to fill this need, but there is a problem – I’m the only priest there and the only one who can hear confessions. There are other educated people around who can teach. Guess what God is probably asking me to do? Many people have many different talents. Try to fit yourself into the life of the church by discerning the “gaps” around you that no one else seems to be able to fill . . . but you. Even if you don’t want to do it at first, there is often a great blessing there when you rise to the occasion.
 There are some fathers of the church who do not think that pride is the greatest sin, but sloth. The greatest evil is often committed because we simply fail to act.
 But say that you have had a nagging desire to diet for six months but have failed to do so, and the doctor tells you that now you HAVE to go on a diet now. You actually feel relieved about this incentive and it makes you want to fast and pray about this new condition in your life. The doctor’s visit could be a consolation!
 I realize that there is a tragic lack of qualified spiritual directors. What I am attempting to provide is a reliable way to allow God to direct your steps for as long as you lack a good source of advice. Nothing can replace a reliable and holy spiritual director.
 Keep in mind that we certainly have very consistent bad habits. But these bad habits are not from Satan, they are from our own spirit. He might have originally helped us get them started, but once a harmful habit is engrained in the soul, you’ve made it easy for Satan and his cronies. They don’t have to suggest wicked things to you anymore. You’re doing them pretty well on your own!