Guest Writer Lowell Grisham
No one has done more work on the discipline of discernment than the Jesuits, the monastic descendants of Ignatius of Loyola. Although I can’t recall who taught it to me, for many years I’ve used an Ignatian discernment method from time to time when I’ve been faced with a choice between two options. Here’s the way it was given to me:
In a battle in the early 1500s, Ignatius was seriously wounded. (I believe his leg was shattered by an artillery shell.) He spent months of painful convalescence. He found that his pain was relieved sometimes when he would go into periods of active imagination. He imagined what his life would be like when he was healed and released from the hospital. He made up stories about his future life, using all of his senses to place himself into the future. He created scenes from his imagined future and experienced them vividly—with sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell—thinking and feeling what his new life might be.
Whenever Ignatius was actively imagining, his pain would decrease and the time seemed to pass more quickly. He discovered that his imagination gravitated toward two narratives. In one narrative, he would experience himself becoming a great, chivalrous knight, doing valiant deeds of courage and winning the hand of a noble maiden. In the other narrative, he would experience himself becoming a knight for Christ, boldly taking the gospel into the most remote or challenging or needed places.
While in active imagination, Ignatius experienced relief with either narrative. But he noticed a significant difference about where his spirit went afterwards, in the time when he was just taking care of business in a normal state of consciousness.
He noticed in the hours following his narratives about becoming a great warrior knight, that he experienced a sense of turbulence, discomfort, and even desolation. But he noticed in the hours following his imagining about becoming a knight for Christ, that he experienced a sense of consolation, harmony, and especially peace. Ignatius interpreted the sense of peace to be the presence of God, drawing him into God’s will for him, helping him to discern the direction of his future. He embraced the vision of that second narrative, and became a great knight for Christ, desiring to undertake the greatest service possible to the Church and the world.
The presence of peace is a sign of God’s will. In the chaos and storm of a decision, when there are two potential options or directions, I will sometimes use a form of Ignatian discernment practice. I’ll set before me the two options. One day I will spend some time actively imagining myself living into the first option, using all five senses to create scenes from that future possibility. Then I will go about my normal daily activity, but I’ll keep a bit of attention directed to notice where my spirit goes. Another day, I’ll spend time in active imagination living into the other option. Then I will pay attention to my spirit, mood, and intuition during ordinary business. What after-effect is there following each separate scenario?
If I sense some form of consolation and peace in the ordinary time following active imagination with one narrative, and if I sense some form of turbulence in the ordinary time following imagination with the other narrative, I’ll accept that as a sign of God’s will. The presence of peace is key.
Where does the peace of Christ lead us, especially when our boat seems tossed and we’ve lost control of our direction? A sense of peace can give direction toward God’s will for us and for the fullest exercise of our creativity, courage, freedom, and service. Sometimes a little active imagination can lead us toward discernment.
When someone comes for a visit for discernment, this is what I first offer. It was loaned to me by Lowell Grisham, retired Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas.