One day I watched a video on discernment by Fr Mike Schmitz. The main points that struck me were:
- Discernment requires action.
- Discern one vocation at a time, one step at a time.
- Take action to gather more data.
- Clarity follows action.
To me, discernment was just considering a vocation by thinking about it and hopefully coming up with an answer. When did I ever act by talking to a priest or visiting the seminary? It is easy to dismiss a vocation to the priesthood if you don’t take any further action.
Despite that, I’ve often thought if I was going to become a priest, I would join the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits. The Society of Jesus was founded by Ignatius of Loyola with his University roommates Francis Xavier and Peter Faber in 1540.
I’d heard a lot about the Jesuits. Some good things, some controversial. Here are the good things; Jesuits are known for their work in education, social justice and the media. They are “doers” – contemplatives in action.
Jesuits have a delightful sense of humour. There are many jokes about them. Most of which were written by Jesuits themselves. Pope Francis, a Jesuit himself, said that a smile and a sense of humour are examples of “simple everyday beauty.” He recites the St Thomas More’s Prayer for Good Humour each morning.
Like all religious orders, Jesuits take a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. Basically, you forgo marriage, relinquish all your worldly possessions and creature comforts. It’s not something you decide to do overnight, you need to take it one step at a time.
The misguided assumption of my naive teenage self – that I would somehow be married by 25 years of age – had lapsed due to inaction. In order to discern a vocation properly, I needed to take that first step and experience the religious life for myself. How else would I know if this is what God wants me to do?
In July last year, I took a leap of faith to find out what it was like to live in a Jesuit community. As there isn’t a community in Perth, it was necessary to travel to the eastern states. The Jesuits in Melbourne live together in a humble community called Faber house. Each person has a modest room with a comfortable bed.
Poverty was not quite what I had envisaged. I didn’t really know what to expect but you tend to think of the most extreme examples when you think of the word “poverty.” A mother of a Jesuit once said, “If this is poverty, I’d like to see chastity!”
The members of the community were coming and going from Australia and around the world. The brothers were at various stages of formation. There are five stages of Jesuit formation; Novitiate, Studies, Regency, Theology and Tertianship. This video below explains the process in more detail.
There is daily mass in the community. This serves as a reminder of why they do what they do. After spending time with the Jesuits, it is easy to forget that they are priests (well most of them are).
Mealtimes were my favourite part of the day. Not because of the food (the food was good though) but it was the time when I met others in the community and heard stories of missions they’d been on and people they encountered.
The Jesuits, particularly in the Faber community are an eclectic and diverse bunch of people with different personalities, ethnic backgrounds, skills, and expertise.
This journey led me to start something I rarely do – read books. Ignatian Spirituality is something that remained a mystery to me for most of my life. Through reading books such as, What Do You Really Want? and The Jesuit Guide to Everything – I learned that Ignatian Spirituality is about finding God in all things.
It doesn’t refer to pantheism – “that all things are divine” – but that God is omnipresent. Ignatian Spirituality teaches us that God is everywhere not only in Church but in our schools, workplaces, everyday life, we just need to know where to look.
Ignatian Spirituality is a tool that can assist us with discernment and decision making. An important part of this is prayer. St Ignatius introduced a method of prayerful reflection in his Spiritual Exercises known as the daily Examen.
The Examen is often prayed in the evening, before you go to sleep, as a peaceful way to review the day.
Here is an example of the simple 5-step prayer known as the Examen:
- Pray for light
Begin by asking God for the grace to pray, to see and to understand.
- Give Thanks
Look at your day in a spirit of gratitude. Everything is a gift from God.
- Review the day
Guided by the Holy Spirit, look back on your day. Pay attention to your experience. Look for God in it.
- Look at what’s wrong
Face up to failures and shortcomings. Ask forgiveness for your faults. Ask God to show you ways to improve.
- Resolution for the day to come
What will you do tomorrow? Where do you need God tomorrow?
At times, it can be difficult to discern God’s will. Through this prayer, we can become more aware of the movements of the Spirit. The Examen is also helpful in relieving stress and achieving clarity especially during times of uncertainty or indecision.
As Jim Manney writes, “The Examen cultivates a constant discerning awareness of God’s presence at all times – even the busiest, most stressful, tedious times.”
Whilst I ultimately decided not to join the Jesuits, by taking action I learned so much about myself and the religious life, clarity followed. In recounting this story, I hope that others may find these points on discernment useful.