By Ricardo Marquez
It’s inevitable. Life constantly puts us in situations where we have to choose, from what time we want to get up to the most transcendental decisions, such as whom to marry, what job to take, what to get close to or to move away from.
All of us, from the time we can reason, have felt certain inclinations and tendencies, some that invite us to do good, to service, to fraternity, to love, and others that pull us instinctively toward aggression, envy, resentment and division.
It’s the mystery of good and evil inside of us, between the universal yearning to be loved and respected and our human nature to compete and to survive. It’s the struggle between our constructive and destructive capacities.
Our process for human and spiritual growth requires modeling, learning and practice in the area of “discernment,” the action of choosing, of distinguishing between what leads us to good or to evil.
Nowadays, discerning is a challenge, a necessity that can be overwhelming in the face of such volume of information, offers and messages we receive. Marketers know our tendencies and tastes; they attract us with images and values that promote well-being based on economic outcomes and material possessions: If you have a car, a watch, a house and can travel first-class, then you are valuable, important, admired. Our values — which guide our actions and behaviors – are defined by others who try to touch our hearts, to open our wallets and buy alluring products that promise the happiness we seek but end up being mirages that don’t quench our yearning for fulfillment.
What makes up our capacity to discern in light of the Gospel? St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), a master by experience in this art and grace, answers this question in the preparatory prayer of The Spiritual Exercises: “I will beg God, Our Lord, for grace that all my intentions, actions and operations may be directed purely to the praise and service of His Divine Majesty.”
That’s the key, the secret and the grace: That “all” actions and interior and external dimensions of our freedom be oriented and guided to service, intimacy and communion with the mystery of God the Creator, with His Redeemed Son and with the life-giving Spirit.
The intention that guides our decisions, the choosing between good and evil, between what brings us closer or pushes us away from the goal of why we were created, is cultivated from birth, in the family, through formation and life experiences.
If you don’t live this experience from the earliest years, how is a seed going to grow that was never planted? If we could write in our houses and continually remember at meals to pray together that the goal of our lives is “to love the Lord with all of your heart, with all of your mind and all of your strength … and love your neighbor as you would yourself,” we would be training our children to make good decisions when they grow up. They would have learned to recognize, sometimes by trial and error, what it is that draws us closer to what we are, the “image and likeness” of God, and what is it that leads us to experience the joy of recognizing the presence and revelation of that mystery in everything, in nature, in the faces of the people we serve and love.
Then, how do we know when we have made a good decision? By the resulting fruits. Feelings of consolation, joy and interior peace are signs of a good decision. If, on the contrary, there is devastation, anxiety and fear, those are signs of a bad one.
The art of discernment is not only the fruit of techniques or methods, but also the result of having profoundly experienced the love of God from which is graciously born the drive to choose whatever will lead us to a greater union with the Creator.
Ricardo Marquez is associate director of the Diocese of San Diego’s Office for Family Life and Spirituality.