by Mark Thibodeaux
Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
One of the issues that drew me to this book is a desire to make God’s voice within stronger. My background is somewhat correlational to discernment as I am considered an expert in assessment for educational programs. As I read the book, I could hear the questions in both education and spirituality making sense to me. The author of this book is wise enough to draw Jesuit James Martin into introducing his book. Martin asks a plethora of questions: What are our heartfelt wishes? What are our deepest desires? What are our holy longings? Really, they become part of our essential questions.
Martin then turns to Ignatius for the answers and to our God. Martin believes this book is important to answer those essential questions and to help us realize that life is not that complicated if lived in the spirit of Ignatius and his love for Christ and His Church. The next section is one that is true to all Jesuit work: outlining the purpose of His work. Thibodeaux calls us to a wiser discernment in all facets of our own life. In reading this book for the second time I would say that he truly owns these thoughts and lives them with clarity and good judgment. He expresses the thoughts with prayer and fluidity. In the section on ordinary daily decisions, the questions: How will you fill up your day? How might you serve Christ? How might you take care of yourself today? How will you relate to other people? What sort of attitude will you have? The questions have the constant and consistent directions to Christ.
He divides the book into three major areas: an introduction to St. Ignatius and his process of discernment; how to respond to whom you are on any given day and the author “teaches the methods of determining God’s will through recognizing the source of the voice pulling you toward or away from any given option”.
In Part 1 Chapter 1 Thibodeaux describes the true and false spirits. He begins by giving us some background on Ignatius and his early life. What became the foundation of Ignatian spirituality was Ignatius’ decision to follow the longing of his heart toward thinking about Christ and his saints and found that the preoccupation with world matters made him tired and restless. “He noticed that the pull toward the good (the true spirit) has distinctive characteristics that reveal God, its ultimate source. The pull away from God (false spirit), too has distinctive characteristics. The more a person can detect these characteristics, the easier it is to recognize and follow the true spirit toward life in God.” P.11
Chapter 2 gives us characteristics of desolation and of the false Spirit. The author explains the examen in which a quick daily reflection on the spirits that have affected my thoughts, emotions, and actions that day come to mind. These things could be ordinary daily things doing my homework, working in the garden, getting my oil changed in my car. The movements below the thoughts, feelings or actions will reveal the true spirit moving in the soul today. As a person who is devoted to the liturgy of the hours, I finally see that the Liturgy of the Hours provides us with constant discernment of our daily interactions. Near the end of the chapter, Thibodeaux describes the soul that has spent time on prayer, Mass attendance, and spiritual works, is not tempted by blatant sin, and does not participate in ‘unloving acts’ and holy distractions that would keep the soul from particular callings from God. The author gives us some examples of what false consolation looks like. It could be the wrong mission for this particular person, it could be the right mission but the wrong timing, it could be the right mission but with the wrong method, emphasis or degree of involvement.
In chapter 3 the characteristics of consolation and of the true spirit are spelled out for the reader. Thibodeaux states that the soul is in consolation when there are faith, hope, and love; when I sense God’s closeness when there are peace and tranquility; when there are great desires and when there is transparency. The author provides a diagram of consolation and desolation side by side. It is evident that they are opposites. He then gives us prayer exercises to identify the true spirit of my life.
The next part of the book is a wonderful explanation of how to respond to desolation and consolation. Again Thibodeaux is generous to give us the purpose for doing so, he states: “Our purpose for studying the Ignatian Rules for Discernment is to have at our disposal a means of putting out the fires of desolation. As anyone who has experienced desolation already knows it is often impossible to eliminate it entirely or immediately.” The author then gives us eight vivid and powerful responses in which he gives concrete examples of everyday life. In his diagram on p.103, Thibodeaux, states those ways to deal with desolation: name it; make no unnecessary changes; rely on your support network; consider logistical or moral causes; be aware of the false angel of light; be firm with the false spirit; be gentle with yourself; and have faith that God is at work in your desolation.
In the next section, Thibodeaux deals with consolation. His first full sense gives the reason: ”Asking what to do when in consolation is like going to my doctor to ask if there is anything I should do about all this good health I’ve been having lately!” He continues to use the analogy of the doctor’s office for specialization. He gives the example of the teen who might be in a depression but doesn’t come to see him until it is in a tempest! So they hold on but never return after the tempest is over. During times of consolation, we need to work on aspects of desolation. We seem to always have desolation from time to time. It is a given. We use the time when we are close to God and from increased faith, hope and love to face the future with eyes wide open.
In dealing with the psychological defense mechanisms we deal with how we basically think and feel and rid ourselves of such behavior as passive-aggressive moments. Thibodaux encourages us to build fortifications and how to do so. (p. 117). As the author continues he calls the reader to patterns of behavior that we want to hold onto or work out of our system. When we are ready for discernment we ask: “What are my vocations in life? What am I called to do with my life? Of course, as Thibodaux has stated the foundation is of utmost importance. He directs us to get quiet, gather data, dream dreams and ponder the dreams. I need a consistent and meaningful prayer life. The author again gives us a succinct and thorough understanding of decision making made in times of desolation or false consolation in the diagram on p. 164.
In the section on dreaming the dreams, I have always been a dreamer which is wonderful in regard to our future Church in light of what we will leave the next generation. How do we tap into deep desires? We lock onto magis, the dreaming of the greater glory of God. The desire to choose that which gives God more glory. “The soul is the place where my desires and His desires intersect”. Ignatius says that when a well-intentioned prayerful person is in consolation, God’s will comes”sweetly, lightly, gently as a drop of water that enters a sponge.”(p.173) Thibodeaux puts the next part of discernment at a time when I might not have strong stirrings. It might be best for me to write out the pros and cons and make a determination. I need to often pray dream over the various options. The mental deliberations that take place might include: I work from my mission statement, I weigh the pros and cons, I consider the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, I consider mentoring, I meditate over Scripture passages, I do stream of consciousness journaling. (p. 182) In the last section, the author tells how he ended up a Jesuit and puts himself through all the steps we read about discernment in the book.
This is a magnificent book on discernment and how to make the best discernment we can. I can only imagine the joyful novice master he is and the spiritual direction he affords. I had the book on Kindle and then bought the book so I could ‘touch’ his words. I will pass on this book to others who want to lead a life with the loving discernment Father Thibodeaux describes. He also gives us excellent resources.