God’s Voice Within: Ignatian Discernment for Beginners (Book Review)

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God’s Voice Within, by Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ, is an extremely practical book on Ignatian discernment. Meant to both simplify and elucidate the process of decision making, it’s filled with helpful anecdotes about discernment done well (like responding to genuine vocational calling) and discernment gone off the deep end (like dropping out of college without consulting anyone because of a poorly understood emotional crisis).

Although the book is accessible to those unfamiliar with St. Ignatius and the Jesuits, Thibodeaux does rely on a few terms that are essential to Ignatian discernment, as well as to Ignatian spirituality generally, beginning with desolation and consolation. At its most basic, consolation is the movement of your spirit towards God, evidenced by an increase of faith, hope, love, peace, and a sense of God’s closeness, while desolation is the movement of your spirit away from God, evidenced by fear, secrecy, anxiety, boredom, or apathy. However, these are tricky concepts because not only do you have actual consolation and desolation, you can also experience false consolation (an apparent increase of faith, hope, love, and peace that is actually disguising desolation) as well as deep suffering and distress that feel like desolation, but, because they cause you to turn towards God, actually produce consolation. Also, depending on where you are in your spiritual journey, consolation and desolation can take on different forms.

Although whole books have been written about desolation and consolation, true and false, God’s Voice Within helpfully offers charts and checklists that help you determine which one you are feeling, and how to respond once you know. Simply put: When in consolation, store up in your memory what consolation feels like and the practices that are sustaining you. When in desolation, buckle down and do the same things that came naturally to you while in consolation, no matter how much more difficult they are now. In fact, do them with even more determination, deliberately turning towards God even though your emotions and experiences are telling you to do the opposite. Perhaps most importantly, desolation is not a time to make any major decisions, particularly if doing so would reverse a decision made while in consolation.

Once he’s explained desolation and consolation, also known as the movement of the spirits, Thibodeaux reminds us that the basis for all discernment is the Principle and Foundation, a “mission statement” that Ignatius formulated to remind us of the essential truth of who we are, why we are, and what we are doing: “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul . . . [Therefore,] Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.” Our purpose and goal are greater and truer love and service towards God, which, in Ignatian thought, goes hand in hand with more fully becoming the person God designed us to be.

From the Principle and Foundation, Thibodeaux derives a helpful question to answer at the start of a discernment process: “What are you looking for at this time of your life?” In other words, what are the goals and purposes that drive you? Thibodeaux recommends writing your own version of the Foundation and Principle, using a process that includes remembering what it was like to first answer the call of Jesus, naming your gifts and which you are most grateful for, and naming each of your vocational callings.

Once you’ve clarified your own Foundation and Principle, discernment can proceed through its four phases: Get Quiet (cultivating a habit of regular and concrete prayer), Gather Data (about yourself and about the choices before you), Dream the Dreams (get in touch with your deep desires), and Ponder the Dreams (test the response of your spirit to your choices, or what Thibodeaux calls “praydreaming”). These four phases are folllowed by tentative decision making, seeking confirmation, and final decision making, and Thibodeaux provides helpful guidelines for knowing when confirmation, or disconfirmation, has come.

But what about when confirmation doesn’t come, despite your best intentions and efforts? Almost as much as I valued the process outlined in God’s Voice Within, I appreciated its tips on making a decision when confirmation doesn’t come: the acknowledgement that in the end, sometimes we simply make our way through the twilight as best as we can, trusting God has been and will be with us no matter where we choose to go.