Book notes: Book offers discernment help in a user-friendly way

Book notes: Book offers discernment help in a user-friendly way

By Sr. Linda Bechen R.S.M., c

Decisions are a constant in our lives. Each day is an arena for many choices and options. Some are critical and paramount; others seem insignificant and ordinary. Often they are time sensitive and immediate; infrequently, they can be mused and pondered. All, however, shape who we are and reveal our values, priorities and preferences. Nothing in life prepares or teaches one “how” to make decisions. It is our life experience that is the teacher.

Young adults are bombarded with a multiplicity of choices and options. This multiplicity, coupled with the need to make choices in a timely fashion, at times overwhelms and complicates. Often the best outcome is compromised because a clear decision making process is lacking. Young adults may not have developed sifting and sorting skills or a capacity to assess the choices they have already made.

Into this muddled situation comes What’s Your Decision? by J. Michael Sparough, SJ, Jim Manney and Tim Hipskind, SJ as a welcome and much needed resource. Its clear, concise and user-friendly chapters offer rich and useful insights. This is a gem of a text, for it weds a practical and pragmatic approach with a spiritual methodology that has been tried and true for over 500 years.

The process it presents is underpinned by the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius as its core and foundation. Many who have not experienced the wisdom and knowledge of Saint Ignatius may shy away from the text. The authors in the preface assure its reader that “you don’t have to be a spiritual giant to make use of this book” (preface, p. ix). I agree one doesn’t have to be a giant to read this book. It, however, does have the potential to impress and imprint itself profoundly over one’s lifetime.

The author introduces the text by presenting two basic Ignatian principles as the core in approaching decision-making. The first is, “God cares about our decisions” (p. 3) and the second is, “We can know God’s will” (p. 6). Understanding and seeking God’s will can be an enigma. The authors clarify that God’s will is not puppetry. Rather it is the union of our will and our desire with God’s desire for us. Simply stated, they find “doing God’s will is more a matter of growing into the person we’re meant to be”(p. 7). It is a relational process that invites and involves the whole person with God to consider choices with a spirit of openness rooted in freedom, while being attentive to our feelings and responses.

Paramount to Ignatius is that the goal of decision-making is not simply to get to a choice. Rather, how does our decision making strengthen, enhance and deepen our relationship with God? The litmus test for the decision does not become fixated on an outcome. The barometer of good decision-making is how well our choice leads us to a deeper relationship with God and brings us to a deeper understanding of who we are as one of God’s own.

With this as their horizon, the authors articulate a working definition of discernment that is clear and purposeful: discernment of God’s will is the act of distinguishing between options while consciously calling on God for assistance (p. 51). Attentiveness to one’s emotions and feelings is paramount during discernment. Ignatius refers to consolation and desolation as this response. The authors note that consolation is anything that moves us toward God, and desolation is anything that moves us or keeps us from God. They recommend praying the Saint Ignatius’ Examen with regularity (e.g. daily) in examining one’s life. They highlight this practice as a way to hone one’s skills in being attentive to the on-going movement of God in one’s life.

With this understanding, they name five pillars of decision making: discernment of spirit, a reflective mind-set, importance of an emotional calm, getting help from others and the use of imagination (p. 97). Each of these carefully and systematically utilize the Ignatian principles and tools which have been discussed previously.

Their last chapter, “Signs of a Good Decision” is one I especially applaud. In my days as a vocation minister when I spent time discerning with young adults, I would often ask them—what is a good decision you have made, and how do you know it was a good decision? Their responses naturally varied, but the common thread was the measurable personal gain (physical, emotional or material) that they attained. This chapter notes a good decision (1) leads to movement; (2) is made in freedom; (3) is balanced and involves the whole person; and (4) is a spiral into deeper knowledge. Each of these could be framed into a question to invite reflection and offer the needed assessment in reviewing a decision. They serve as a reminder that our decision-making is not about “me.” Rather it is about deepening our relationship with God.

I received this book as I was making a personal ministry decision. Even though I have engaged in discernment often in my life, I found myself using the “Handy Reference: How the Rules of Discernment Help Us Make Good Decisions” as a personal guide in my own discernment. These references should not be overlooked.

Simply put…I like this book! I highly recommend it to people who are making life decisions, as well as those who journey with them. The importance of having someone (e.g. a spiritual director or companion) with whom you can share this process was understated in the book and is a point that needs to be underscored. I have found articulating my experience with another can clarify and affirm it, and I see this process as critical for serious discerners.

This book is a “must have,” especially for those who work with young adults in a parish or campus setting. I would endorse having multiple copies available, as it is a book to give to others to use and reuse, time and again. To not to use this book would indeed be a missed opportunity.

Sister Linda Bechen, RSM is a Sister of Mercy of the Americas in the West/Midwest community She served as a vocation minister for her community from 1996 to 2002 and has served in various parishes in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, IA as a pastoral associate. She now ministers at St. Jude Church in Cedar Rapids, IA. Working with persons who are discerning professional, vocational, and personal choices has been a part of her ministry for the past 15 years.


Catholics on Call: Discerning a Life of Service in the Church,

edited by Father Robin Ryan, CP.

This collection of nine essays on topics related to vocation discernment (including an excellent one by NRVC’s own Sister Charlene Diorka, SSJ) is aimed at both pastoral ministers and young adults themselves. The sophistication of some essays may be daunting for a portion of the latter readers, but this work presents serious reflection on many foundational aspects of vocation ministry, making it a book vocation ministers might read for their own enrichment or mine for conversation starters with discerners.
—Carol Schuck Scheiber


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