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



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.

Imaginative Prayer and “Sticky Faith” for Kids (Book Review)

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One of the main insights from the book Sticky Faith: Everyday ideas to build lasting faith in your kids, by Dr. Kara Powell and Dr. Chap Clark, is that how parents practice and talk about their faith with their kids is crucial to passing on authentic faith. If parents hope to cultivate a Christian identity in their children — one that survives the tumultuous teen and questioning young adult years when young people are “discovering who they are and making the commitments toward who they want to be” — they have to do more than just go to church, pay their tithes, and send their kids to youth group.

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The authors’ research, conducted under the auspices of the Fuller Youth Institute and Fuller Theological Seminary, concludes that “it’s never too early” to start building faith that sticks into your children. To do that, parents need to go beyond teaching Christianity primarily as a system of “do’s and don’t’s” and obedience, and instead help kids experience what it is to know and trust Christ. Practical ways to do this include: surrounding your child with a Christian community (mentors, peers, family) that will dialogue honestly about even difficult issues and doubts; using rituals and celebrations (like prayer at birthdays) to reinforce identity; focusing on character growth rather than behavior; and modeling a relationship with God.

As I read through Jared Patrick Boyd’s new book, Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide for Your Child’s Spiritual Formation, I immediately thought back to the lessons of Sticky Faith. In his introduction, Jared invites busy parents to slow down, to recognize and live out their importance as the most important influences in their children’s spiritual development. He writes:

As a father of four girls one of my greatest desires is to pass on to them a deep understanding and awareness of the experience of God. My hope is that they would feel connected to God and the story God is unfolding in their lives and in the world around them. Will they see themselves as part of God’s story? Will they feel close and connected to God as they navigate decisions that come their way and pursue risks on the horizon? Will they say yes to all that God is inviting them into?

Jared’s language and spiritual practices are steeped in the Ignatian tradition and borne of out his long experience as a contemplative practitioner, spiritual director, and teacher, as well as his pastoral ministry in the Vineyard, an association of evangelical churches explored at length in Tanya Lurhmann’s When God Talks Back. Lurhmann’s psychological and anthropological study of the Vineyard and its practices of listening and prayer leads her to conclude that connectedness to God, while full of mystery, is a learnable skill.

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Taken together, Sticky Faith and When God Talks Back (not to mention the larger backdrop of Western Christianity’s well-documented and ongoing failure to pass on faith to the younger generations) provide strong rationales for exactly the kind of imaginative prayer experience and sustained spiritual formation that Jared’s book is meant to guide parents and children through.

Over the course of a year, the book explores six theological themes: God’s Love, Loving Others, Forgiveness, Jesus is the King, The Good News of God, and The Mission of God. Each theme is divided into 7 weeks, with six weeks of imaginative prayer sessions followed by a week of review.

Each (non-review) week is further broken down into repeated sections. “Connection and Formation” introduces the theme for the week, through a theological reflection, poem, perhaps a story. Next, a “Q&A” provides a brief catechism to help children remember the theme. The “Imaginative Prayer” is the heart of each week: a guided prayer, rich with imagery, sensory information, and metaphor that invites children to enter into an experience with God that they can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. The “Q&A” is then repeated, to emphasize the theme that the child has now experienced in their own imagination. Each week concludes with reflection and devotional prompts for “For the Parent or Mentor” and a reminder for children to journal (write or draw) for twenty minutes, based on a question that will lead them to reflect on their life that week — not “just” the spiritual formation part — in light of the explored theme. The review week wraps everything up by bringing back all the creedal questions (catechism) from that section and through suggested activities and questions.

As a sometime homeschooling parent, a professional educator, and a writer of curriculum, one of the things I appreciate about Jared’s book is how thoroughly it’s planned. Each activity is nested within the credal theme for the week, which is nested within the theological theme for the section, and everything is meant to contribute to the larger goal of the intertwined spiritual development of children and parents. As an example of Jared’s attention to detail, each imaginative prayer script is timed down to a range of seconds! Jared has also created a Conversation Guide for teachers, for those churches that want to bring to book to a Sunday School classroom in partnership with parents. (It’s a supplement to, not a substitute for parental involvement.)

One of my favorite imaginative prayers in the book is Jared’s picture of Jesus coming to defeat the power of sin. He asks the child to imagine a deep cave filled with seven giant faucets, all spouting different-colored water, one faucet and color for each of the deadly sins. Together, the faucets fill a cave that is “dark and murky and smelly.” The child is asked to imagine a wheel that will turn all the faucets off. It’s too heavy – the child can’t turn it. But Jesus steps in and turns the wheel right off, and instantly the cave fills with clean air, with sweetness and light. In this and many other instances, Jared’s metaphors are concrete, vivid, and fresh, and I believe will help children — and their parents and other spiritual mentors — understand, experience, and remember abstract theological concepts in a new and “sticky” way. Jared’s focus on building a shared theological vocabulary to go with a shared experience of God also lays the groundwork for many years of faith-building conversations between parents and children, between siblings and Sunday School peers, and between each member of the family and God.

Raising Wild Things Without Becoming One: “How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen” (Book Review)


Day 14 of my 30-day writing challenge

Last week, I dusted off my flute and fumbled by way through a Poulenc Sonata whose second movement is my favorite piece to play. It’s a slow, haunting, minor melody with dramatic bursts of dissonance. I learned it as a young college student, and the thing I remember most about that process was my female teacher telling me, only half jokingly, that it was a passionate song and that I probably needed to be deflowered before I could do it justice.

The comment mystified me at the time, and looking back, I think I get it even less. I think there’s some fallacy that young people – children, teens, even young adults who are short on romantic experiences – don’t feel things deeply, and are unacquainted with the joys and sorrows that we bigger people have access to. As though there is some sort of sexual experience card that buys you admission to an elite club of emotions.

One of the few things that I took away from a graduate school class I had in Children’s Literature is that children feel things very deeply indeed, and the best children’s writers understand that and don’t condescend to them. To read Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” is to be invited into a world of primal love, rage, fear, attachment, rejection, joy, and hunger. It’s to see in vivid colors and sprawling crosshatchings that children can seem monstrous to adults, and to themselves, because they feel so much, not because they feel so little.

As I read How to Talk to Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life With Children Ages 2-7 by Joanna Faber and Julie King, what stands out is the authors’ respect for the inner lives of little ones, one that carries across from the preceding book in the series, the classic How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlisch.


The first principle for talking to your youngsters comes early in the book:

Children depend on us to name their feelings so that they can find out who they are. If we don’t, our unspoken message is: ‘You don’t mean what you say, you don’t know what you know, you don’t feel what you feel, you can’t trust your own senses.

Children need us to validate their feelings so they can become grown-ups who know who they are and what they feel. We are also laying the groundwork for a person who can respect and not dismiss the needs and feelings of other people.

John Berger famously wrote that women are always watching themselves being watched. Children, however, are always watching themselves be watched by their parents or other important adults in their lives — not, as women do, to make themselves objects of the male gaze — but instead to help them affirm and shape their own subjectivity and agency. Again and again, my kids say, “Mommy, watch me! Dad, did you see me do this?” If we don’t watch them, they are unsatisfied. It’s almost like the action didn’t happen. So it makes sense that the same is true for feelings as well.

I’ve long been the prototypical dismissive parent when it comes to feelings. My son is mad because his sister is mistreating a toy that he just threw on the floor in a fit of temper? Well, that makes no sense! My daughter is crying because she has to leave the park? Does she not appreciate that we spent two hours there already? This is, I’m afraid, a classic East Asian-influenced upbringing: Whatever you feel, you shouldn’t. Stop it!

Faber and King’s strategy for affirming feelings instead of yelling and berating — thus setting your children on their way to becoming adults with compassion for themselves and others, while also helping to direct them in a way that adults can live with  — is simple. The formula goes like this:

I understand / hear / know (your feelings about x). The problem is (explanation of parent’s perspective)

In my house, examples might be:

I understand that you’re angry that you can’t run around the house naked when you’re hot. The problem is we have guests over for dinner, and they don’t really want to see bare bottoms with their broccoli.

I hear that you’re sad that you didn’t get to eat ice cream for dessert. The problem is that you already had cake for breakfast and too many sweets aren’t good for your teeth or your tummy. (. . . Wait, what? You had a lollipop, too? When did that happen?)

I know you want to watch more Netflix. The problem is you’ve already watched seven episodes back-to-back of “Puss N’ Boots” and Mom has to at least pretend to be a responsible adult. 

There is much more to the book, which includes tools (and stories of parents implementing them) not just for handling emotions, but also for engaging cooperation, resolving conflict, expressing praise and appreciation, and for parenting kids who are on the autism spectrum or have sensory issues. There is also a chapter that will appreciated by skeptical parents: an acknowledgement that there are times when all these tools will fail you, including when your children are hungry, sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, or being asked to do something beyond their capacity. These caveats seem more than fair, considering that adults don’t do very well in those situations either. Listening and affirming skills are crucial, to be sure, but there are times when all of us just need a cookie and a nap.

Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (Book Review)

Day 12 of my 30-day writing challenge

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Many Christians undertake Bible reading, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines like fasting out of a desire to “work for Christ” or out of guilt for not doing more. Ultimately, these activities can drain and frustrate, drawing us further away from God, not closer. God invites us to something different: spiritual transformation and a deeper life with him. 

Ruth Haley Barton’s practical, introductory book, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, is for all of us who experience an “invitation” to a deeper life: a longing and searching for connection with God. Barton helps us to recognize and follow this invitation to deepened relationship through the practice of spiritual disciplines. Prompted by the desires of our truest selves, we enter into the mystery of God’s transforming presence. 

Sacred Rhythms leads us through step-by-step guides to a number of spiritual disciplines, with the goal of making these disciplines part of our regular practice. These disciplines include approaches to Scripture reading and prayer, but because they are focused on being with God, rather than doing for God, they lead us towards a new way of life in relationship with God instead of more task-oriented work. As we embrace these disciplines, we will discover openness to the “everyday beauty and fullness that comes from paying attention and finding God in the midst of it all.”

In each subsequent chapter, Barton introduces a new practice or grouping of practices: solitude (especially important in an age of technology), Lectio Divina, prayer (silent, breath, intercessory, community, and life-as-prayer), cultivating bodily wholeness (caring for and listening to your body through exercise, prayer, and meditation), the examen of conscience, Sabbath rest, and creating a personal rule of life. These practices do not necessarily have to be learned in the order the book gives, but they each build on and support each other. Together they all lead up to the logical end of creating the rule of life: a set of prayerfully determined, individualized commitments to “values, practices and relationships” that determine what one does daily, weekly, monthly, yearly in order to sustain openness to God.

The book is a valuable resource for any individual seeking a deepened journey with God, whether new to the spiritual disciplines, needing a reminder, or hoping to create a rule of life. It can also be used by a small group, a spiritual director and directee, or a couple.

Appendix A is a guide for taking a group through the book, with prompts for the leader and study questions for everyone. Barton emphasizes that anyone who wants to go through this book as a small community must commit to the journey together – to the prayer and practices outlined, as well to creating a safe environment of support for all, where God (not any person or persons within the group) is understood to be in charge of each person’s spiritual transformation. Appendix B offers a short list of disciplines that may help an individual counter particular sins and negative patterns; for example, the practice of Sabbath keeping as a way of transforming patterns of over-busyness.

Although Barton confesses at one point that it is only in solitude with God that she does not feel lonely, she also establishes the importance of entering into spiritual transformation within the context of Christian community and spiritual friendship. She names Christian community as a discipline in itself, and a vital element of the formation process. It was first modeled by Jesus and the disciples – both by the larger group of 12, and by the select few that he choose to be with him in more vulnerable moments.

Barton is a gentle and encouraging guide, modeling the kind of unhurried listening to self and to God that she is advocating. Without making the book about herself, she helps the reader identify with the physical and spiritual exhaustion that led her to seek transformation. Her simple confession at the end that she has slipped out of her own sacred rhythms while finishing this book also demonstrates the generous acceptance of self that comes from a fuller understanding of God’s love for each of us, and his patience for wherever we may be on our journeys.  

Sleeping With Bread: Adapting the Ignatian Examen for Children and Small Groups

Day 3 of my 30-day writing challenge.

Friday night is Bible study night at the Myers house, and has been for over a decade now. Tonight’s study featured friends of more than 10 years and a friend of less than 1. We’ve almost always started with dinner (Pre-made lasagna tonight, plus the transcendently crispy wings and buttery garlic knots from the small Italian place one block over) and informal conversation before moving to the study portion, but in the last few months, we’ve started by asking people to share their “highs” and “lows” for the week.

This routine is something we first learned about from friends. Their family would go around the dinner table every night, giving every person a chance to say the best and worst thing about their day. We loved the way it gave everyone, no matter their age, a chance to reflect, speak, listen, and connect, and we started doing the same thing with our family.

Recently, we revived this practice again, after I read about it in Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life. Its dreamy watercolors make it look like a children’s bedtime story, and one of its aims is in fact to make the Ignatian examen accessible to children, as well as to anyone looking for a basic, gentle approach to this practice.

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The examen is a way to review your day – how God was present, and how he might be inviting you to move forward – by asking yourself, “For what today was I most grateful? For what I was least grateful? Over time, paying attention to where in your days you find grace and life, and where you experience pain and resistance, points you towards how God might be moving and guiding you. It builds awareness and discernment, hope and faith.

For children, authors Dennis, Sheila Fabricant and Matthew Linn simplify the examen questions to precisely the ones we learned from our friends: “What was your high today? What was your low?” These are concepts children can easily understand – our five year old answers them quite vocally. We’ve also found them to be helpful in our small groups. They are non-threatening enough that most people don’t mind answering them, even visitors and new members. People can provide answers as detailed or as vague as they choose, sharing small ups and downs or deep joys and sorrows. Finally, the questions are easily explainable to English language learners; that’s an important criteria in our church, which was started specifically to welcome immigrants and internationals and to foster diversity.

Our group continues to gradually learn more and more about each other – what each person cares about, what they are going through, the unique ways they relate to God. And if we are good listeners, then each person has a chance to feel heard, valued, and loved.

Around the room tonight, the group’s highs and lows were predictably varied. My twelve-year old’s high was that there was no school on Monday; My kindergartener was excited that her graduation cap and gown were delivered today. There were a lot of lows pertaining to work – finding work, the wrong work, conflicts at work.

After completing our group examen – although we never actually use that term – we read Psalm 8 together. Psalm 8 juxtaposes God’s glory and the vast universe he’s made with his intimate care for all of his creatures, down to the very smallest. Verse two says “You have taught children and infants to tell of your strength.” Sleeping with Bread and the examen can help parents do just that – partner with God in teaching their children to be aware of both God’s majesty and his daily involvement in their lives. And it’s good for the adults too.

Awakening the Creative Spirit: Bringing the Arts to Spiritual Direction (Book Review)

Awakening the Creative Spirit: Bringing the Arts to Spiritual Direction

by Christine Valters Paintner and Betsy Beckman

The book’s premise is that “a primary way that we can experience God’s mystery is through the process of our own creative expression,” that the “arts are the language of the soul” and that “God has been inviting us into this sacred dialogue since the earliest awakenings of humanity.” Art is individual, but also collective, rooted in human memory (the authors are fans of Jungian dreamwork) as well as in the primal rhythms and movements of communication between mother and child. The authors link art with right-brain activity, and claim that art making can bring balance between the two hemispheres of the brain, with their different kinds of wisdom. They conclude that we all have divine creativity within us, meaning we are all in essence artists, and write from this same perspective of openness towards many religions and spiritual experiences.

The authors describe the expressive arts as similar to prayer in that the focus is the process, not the outcome. The art-making process is a kind of pilgrimage – a journey that risks the unknown as a way to encounter the sacred. It is also a way to create a tabernacle for the inner self – to create space and welcome for one of the many voices inside you clamoring for attention to emerge, and be heard.

In the context of spiritual direction, the spiritual director becomes an “artist for the soul,” and the artistic process is an invitation to listen to the self without judgment, and to be fully present in the moment.  The book includes guidelines for the direction experience – confidentiality, mindfulness, honoring limits, risk-taking, honoring wisdom, and expressing needs to the group – as well as initial guidelines for engaging the arts that are too many to list here, but would be useful for any practitioner.

The book is broken into three sections: Spiritual Direction and the Arts, Explorations of Different Art Modalities, and Working in Different Life Contexts. It’s a nice mix of background and underlying philosophy, examples of exercises, snippets of artistic products (poems, Psalms, photographs of artwork, descriptions of dances), and responses to exercises from a variety of people, both directors and workshop participants. Each exercise is keyed with a symbol so the reader can easily tell what modality is used, whether storytelling, imagination, movement, visual art, music, or poetry.

Paintner and Beckman have created a useful resource / toolkit for those interested in using art in spiritual direction, either with individual directees or with groups. I do think that experiential learning in addition to reading the book would be helpful, and perhaps necessary, for most people who wanted to use these modalities, especially if (like me in several of these areas) you lack expertise or comfort in the arts.