Discernment with and for adolescents

Discernment with and for adolescents

By Leonard Altilia S.J.

With high school students increasingly interested in the possibility of a church vocation (especially priesthood and religious life), more than ever we need useful strategies to teach the skills of discernment to this group. This statement is premised on two basic assumptions: 1) that discernment is not a naturally intuited process but is a set of learned skills, and 2) that high school students are both able and willing to learn these skills.

This essay on promoting discernment skills among adolescents is not the result of a serious study, nor of an exploration of the literature. Rather it is a distillation of my more than 30 years of experience in ministry among high-school and undergraduate students. The impetus to put my reflections into some coherent form came when NRVC invited me to present a Summer Institute workshop entitled, “Connecting and Discerning with Millennials.” What follows, then, is the substance of what I shared with the participants in that workshop held in July, 2001. I’ll first review the principles of discernment, then consider briefly the prerequisites for discernment, and finally propose a pedagogy of discernment. All of this flows from the spiritual tradition of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits and author of the Spiritual Exercises.

Principles of discernment

Freedom of the individual

The first and perhaps most important point is that proper discernment respects the freedom of the individual. Ignatius, in his instructions to those directing the Spiritual Exercises, insisted that the director must not get in the way of the Holy Spirit, nor should he or she try to steer the retreatant in a particular direction, but rather should help the retreatant to understand the experience of prayer and what the Spirit is teaching through that experience.

In vocation discernment, the same principle applies. “Obviously,” you say. Well, perhaps not so obviously. It’s very easy for those accompanying someone in discernment to subtly or not so subtly allow their own desires to get in the way. This is especially true in the present circumstance when vocations are at a premium and we would all like to welcome lots of new novices into our congregations. And young novices especially! So the first principle is actually a caution to the vocation directors. Stay out of the way, and let the Spirit guide the discerner. And be prepared to celebrate with equal enthusiasm whatever conclusion the discernment leads to. If it is a genuine discernment we have to believe that the final result is God’s will.

Reflection on experience

The essential dynamic of discernment is reflection on our experience. All experience, whether it be the ordinary experience of our daily life or the deeply spiritual experience of prayer, is suitable matter for the discernment process. At its core discernment seeks to discover the presence of God in our experience and to follow the lead that God gives us through grace. It is not the experience itself that is crucial, but rather the affective and spiritual movements that accompany the experience. In Ignatian terms, we are speaking about “consolation” and “desolation,” those movements of our heart and spirit that lead us closer to or further away from God. It is precisely these affective movements that reveal to us the work of God, and our own resistance to that work.

By more clearly identifying these affective movements and being able to name them, we become more acutely aware of what motivates our choices. We can become more attuned and responsive to the action of grace and less controlled by the sinful energies of our life.

Discovering the action of God in our life

Our vocation is nothing more and nothing less than the faithful and honest living out of our relationship with God as it has developed within our life experience. Therefore, being aware of what God has done in our life experience is the most fundamental element of discernment. If we want to discover our vocation, we need to read the Gospel of our life. That is, we need to be able to trace the work of God within our experience from the first moments of our religious consciousness up to the present.

Moving toward choice and action (the election)

Genuine discernment must always move toward making a choice and carrying it out. This is precisely the point of the election as a key element of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius. Out of their experience of God’s love, expressed in the mercy they encounter in response to their sinfulness (the first week) and most especially in the incarnation of God’s Word (the second week), retreatants are challenged to make a commitment to dedicate their lives to the service of Christ, in whatever form that might take.

It is essential, then, in vocation discernment that the individual move toward a definite decision. Endless reflection on options in the misguided hope that somehow there will be a bolt of divine inspiration to seal the deal is generally wasted time. Every vocation director has had the experience of people whose discernment lasts for years, and continually seems to cover the same ground, as the discerner spins his/her spiritual wheels without ever moving forward. This is not discernment. It may give the individual a false sense of satisfaction about being completely open to the movements of the Spirit, but in fact it absolves the individual of any responsibility to make a choice. It becomes nothing more than spiritual self-gratification and is really a serious trap.

Real discernment leads to choice as the individual actively seeks to follow the guidance of the Spirit by responding ever more deeply to the work of God.

Discernment versus decision-making

It is important to distinguish between discernment and decision-making. The latter is an intellectual process of weighing alternatives and assessing the relative strengths and weaknesses of various options. While discernment includes this, it goes well beyond it. The process of discernment is a spiritual process that is built upon and utterly dependent on a regular and well developed prayer life. The skills of decision-making can help in the discernment process, but without prayer, genuine spiritual discernment is impossible.

Levels of discernment

I am inclined to speak of various levels of discernment. Or perhaps more accurately, there are different areas of our life experience that can be the focus of discernment.

A) Moral/ethical choices

In this area we ask ourselves, “How will I act?” This is the on-going daily pattern of discernment that attempts to understand and purify our motives so that our behaviors and choices more faithfully embody the values of the Gospel.

B) Career/vocation choices

In this area we ask, “What will I do with my life?” Although I consider it misplaced, I have included “vocation” in this level because that’s where popular wisdom would tend to put it. However, there is a very big difference between “career” and “vocation.” Just as an example, I will cite my own case. My vocation is to be a religious priest, my career was primarily to be a high school educator and more recently a vocation director. Careers often change; vocations generally don’t.

C) Life choices

Here we ask, “Who will I be?” This is where true vocation choice resides. Who will I be in relation to God? How will I express this relationship in my life? What will be the fundamental focus of my being, my life?

I have arranged these three areas in this order because in some sense they are sequential, or at least they are placed in order of importance and depth. To be fully capable of vocation discernment people first have to be capable of moral discernment, understanding what motivates their choices, the way they interact with others, the way they deal with the world around them. Also, vocation discernment is a much deeper process than career choice and involves the shaping of one’s life well beyond the mere application of one’s skills and learning.

Discernment and adolescents

With these principles as our base, let us now look at the process of discernment among adolescents and young adults. I will divide this section into two parts: a) the prerequisites for discernment, and b) the pedagogy of discernment.

Prerequisites for discernment

A) The capacity for reflection

Sensitivity to one’s interior experience is essential in discernment. The capacity for reflection, then, is a prerequisite. We know that the movements of God’s Spirit within the human person can be very subtle. In order to identify and appreciate these movements we have to be able to quiet ourselves both exteriorly and interiorly. We need to find quiet spaces and then to calm our body, our mind and our spirit so that we can focus our attention on the things of the Spirit.

However, we live in a culture of noise; we are constantly surrounded by it. Some of it is the random noise of our industrial and post-industrial society; some of it is the deliberate “noise” of the entertainment industry and the market society, which hopes to distract us from the deeper questions of life in order to keep us focused on our desire to buy and consume. In the life of an adolescent, so little time is left without “input” of one sort or another that few have the habit of focusing their attention inward. The attention of most adolescents is drawn outward during most of their waking moments, away from their inner life. And during those moments when they might have the opportunity for introspection, the tendency is to shy away from it and to have recourse instead to music, video, computers, etc. to fill the space.

Anyone who has ever had to run a high school retreat that intended to include periods of quiet reflection will easily recall how so many students find it hard to remain quiet during those periods, to avoid idle conversation, to settle quietly into a comfortable posture and hold it there for a while without fidgeting, to enter into an exploration of their own interior experience and derive benefit from the exercise. One of the greatest gifts we can give young people is to help them develop the skills to use quiet and solitude to their spiritual advantage. It is a skill that should never be taken for granted, nor one that comes easily, especially in this era of high-tech entertainment that is readily accessible and portable.

B) The ability to name affective experience

The next step in developing the skill of discernment is to acquire the capacity to name one’s interior experience. It is important to get beyond the simplistic levels of self-awareness (It was okay/lousy; it feels good/bad; I like/don’t like it) and to distinguish the various feelings that we encounter in our ordinary experience of life. We need a vocabulary that is sufficiently sophisticated to identify the subtle differences in our experience. This is important on a purely human level just for affective health and balance.

But it becomes even more important when we talk about discernment because, as we said before, the essence of discernment is the ability to distinguish between consolations (those movements of our spirit that lead us closer to God; e.g., love, hope, humility, joy, tenderness, affirmation, peace, etc.) and desolations (those movements of our spirit that lead us further away from God; e.g., pride, fear, lust, loneliness, despair, etc.).

It’s worth noting here that not all consolations feel good. It doesn’t feel good to experience guilt for one’s sins, but if it opens us to the mercy and love of God, it is a consolation. It doesn’t feel good to enter into the sufferings of Jesus on the cross, but if the experience helps us to appreciate the depth of God’s love for us, it is a consolation. Similarly, not all desolations feel bad. We may experience a lot of pleasure considering certain courses of action, but if that draws us more deeply into our self-centeredness and away from the love of God, then it is a desolation.

This, then, is the heart of discernment: to name our affective, our interior experience and to identify its source. Is it from God or is it from our own sinfulness? Once we can identify our interior experiences in terms of consolation and desolation, then we are in a position to make choices. We can decide to follow the consolations of our life because we know that God’s Spirit is at work in these movements and that they lead us in the direction that makes the best sense of our experience of God.

C) The habit of personal prayer

Earlier I noted that discernment is a spiritual process that depends upon a regular practice of prayer. This may seem to some to be self-evident. But there is a significant point here that requires further development.

When we speak about prayer, the common experience of the average Catholic translates that into “saying prayers.” Traditionally this meant reciting memorized prayers; but recently that has shifted to a more personalized form. And so most young people, when they speak of prayer, talk about speaking to God in their own words, telling God about their life, sharing their problems with God, speaking on behalf of people they love, and so on, all of which amounts to a one-way conversation. But prayer is dialogue; it’s supposed to be a two-way conversation. So, I ask young people if they ever allow God to get a word in edgewise in this conversation. And inevitably they ask me, “What do you mean?” So I ask them, “Do you ever let God speak to you, or do you always do all the talking?” And of course that leads to the claim, “But I never hear God speak to me,” which gives me the opening I prayer. My usual response is, “Then shut up and listen!”

To pray is to encounter God in a deeply personal and intimate way that engages both God and myself in an on-going conversation. Sometimes that encounter occurs in the context of an imaginative entry into a Gospel story where I can converse directly with Jesus or Mary or Peter. Other times it will be the freeing of my spirit, by the use of mantric prayer, to engage God in a wordless encounter. Other times it will be a meditative exploration of some aspect of our faith seeking a deeper understanding by the gift of God’s wisdom. Sometimes it is simply being present to God and allowing God to be present to me. The purest form of prayer is to be found in that beautiful statement: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

It is in this encounter, this on-going conversation that we experience the movements of our spirit in which God speaks to us and which form the substance of discernment. The process is long-term. One prayer period does not provide all the answers for our life. So we need to have a regular, consistent habit of prayer to develop, deepen and sustain our relationship with God.

Pedagogy of discernment

In view of these prerequisites, it is clear that teaching young people to discern involves three primary elements.

A) Methods of prayer

The spiritual formation of young people has to include the development of a variety of styles of prayer. People who are directing youth in discernment should ensure that they first understand what prayer is and how they can use different methods of prayer in their spiritual development. Of particular importance is the capacity for contemplative prayer, the use of the imagination as a way of engaging Jesus in a personal and direct conversation. For young people (and not so young people) this might require the use of prayer guides and/or structured periods of guided contemplation until they can develop the skills on their own.

B) Journaling

This has become a very popular activity in current educational practice. Everyone journals in every class: math, physics, literature, history, etc. Those who work helps to develop the skills needed to make effective use of silence and solitude, but it can also be a way for them to learn how to talk about their inner experience in more sophisticated terms.

For this to happen, the journaling of prayer has to get beyond a mere recounting of the experience of prayer and enter into a reflection on the affective movements that accompany the experience. Therefore, the person will have to develop a more sophisticated vocabulary to express the subtleties and nuances of those movements. Most likely this will require some coaching from a spiritual director or prayer guide.

C) Linking experience and faith

In the process of spiritual formation of young people it is essential that faith be linked directly to their daily personal experience. Many people, young and old, perceive faith and religion as something that you take off the shelf once a week or once a year, dust off and carry around for a short time while you attend Mass, on the spiritual formation of youth can exploit this fact and invite the youth to extend the practice to their prayer experience, later broadening the reflection to include other areas of their experience within which they can find the hand of God at work. This journaling need to introduce them to a more developed sense of then put back on the shelf until the next time. They see no connection between that exercise and the ordinary activities of their life.

Teaching young people about discernment requires that we first provide a way of understanding their ordinary experience in the context of faith. Second we must provide a way of bringing faith to bear on their ordinary experience. The former is a matter of acknowledging, usually through prayer, that God is part of all they do and all they experience. The latter involves learning how to apply the values and principles of the Gospel to daily life. This is often a simple matter of asking the right questions so people begin to make the connections. But it is also a matter of making space in the ordinary patterns of life for prayer and spiritual reflection. It can be as mundane as saying a prayer before an activity, like a soccer game or a class, that simply recognizes that God is with us in that activity and that we can use that activity to learn more about God and to give praise. This sanctification of the ordinary is an important step in developing a sense of God in our life, which provides the context for a deeper prayer encounter with God. A deeper prayer experience consequently leads to a fuller understanding of where our relationship with God leads us: discernment.

A final word

The remainder of my presentation at the workshop involved materials, both computerized and print, that I have used in various discernment retreats with high school students at different levels. In these retreats I have tried to incorporate the principles and practices laid out here in a way that is appropriate to the age level. So, for example, a retreat for 16-year-old juniors would focus more on the level of moral discernment (I call it “The Art of Making Good Decisions”). A retreat for seniors, age 17 and nearing graduation, will focus more on the second and third levels of discernment, career and life choices (it’s titled “Who do I Want to Be?”).

If readers would like a copy of these materials, I’m happy to forward them by e-mail or by regular mail. Simply send me a request at vocation@jesuits.ca. May God bless our efforts to provide guidance to young people in discernment.

Leonard Altilia, SJ is the assistant to the provincial of the Jesuit Province of Upper Canada for Vocations and Formation. He has more than 35 years of experience in youth ministry.

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