The Practice of Discernment

Ignatian Help During a Modern Pandemic Brandon Rickabaugh Part 6 of 13

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Stirrings of the Heart

COVID-19 is shaking us from the inside out. While quarantine restricts us on the outside, many of us are coming loose on the inside. Studies show that quarantine has a negative effect on our psychological health. Emotions such as anger, fear, irritability, insomnia, depression, emotional exhaustion, and trauma are very common, especially among parents.1

The increased awareness of our woundedness and brokenness is uncomfortable and unsettling, but it is here, in our humanity, that God meets us. These stirrings of the heart are a gentle invitation from the Lord to discern the sources of our unrest, and an opportunity to grow in our capacity for faith, hope, and love.

Our heart tells us about what we value, how we live, and where we seek comfort (Prov. 4:23; 27:19; Matt. 6:21). Getting in touch with our heart is of utmost importance. But this is easier said than done.

Studies indicate that many of us would rather fill this time with something mundane or unfulfilling than with 6 to 15 minutes alone with nothing to do but think.2 Rather than opening our heart, we might prefer to numb it by binge-watching Netflix, overconsuming alcohol, and pornography use, which we know have increased significantly since the quarantine began.3

If we limit access to our heart, we may fail to discern our feelings, emotions, and beliefs about God and self. In allowing the stirrings of the heart to bubble to the surface, I may discover frustration that I am not as holy as I want to be; fear that God might not like me; confusion about what God is doing in my life; disappointment that life isn’t going how I want; or loneliness because God seems distant.

Confronting these unsettling feelings, emotions, and beliefs is not always easy nor is it straightforward. This is why the practice of discernment is vital to life in the kingdom of God.

Discernment of the Heart

Where is the blessing in this uncomfortable discernment of the heart? Ignatius of Loyola summarizes the blessing quite wonderfully.

“God wishes to give us a true knowledge and understanding of ourselves, so that we may have an intimate perception of the fact that it is not within our power to acquire and attain great devotion, intense love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation; but that all this is the gift and grace of God our Lord.”4

This “intimate perception” is not a knowledge at a distance, where we only look at our heart from afar. Rather, this “intimate perception,” this discernment of the heart, provides transformative knowledge derived from experience.5

The gift of quarantine could very well be the “intimate perception” that we do not possess the power to become like Christ by effort alone. We discover that we cannot magically turn our fear into faith, our anger into love, our discouragement into hope by any means but divine grace.

By the empowering grace of God we have the courage to face and experience the stirrings in our heart. In this encounter with God we own our unsettling feelings, emotions, and beliefs. We don’t blame others for them. We admit that they come from within. We do not cover things up with quick promises to never act on our inordinate feelings, emotions, or beliefs again. We come honestly, face to face with the Lord. We cry out to the Lord, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Matt 9:24) and allow the Holy Spirit to work in us.

Here, we find that Christ is the savior of the angry, the fearful, and the desperate. If we allow him, God has promised to replace our heart of stone with a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), to give our heart new desires (Ps. 20:4; 37:4). We are saved, says Jesus, for life in the Kingdom of God; for a life of peace, a life of faith, hope, and love (Matt 5; Gal 5:22-23).\

In the throes of a global pandemic, these stirrings of our heart are an invitation from God to meet him in our weakness, in order to grow in greater dependence on Christ and his way of life. In opening our hearts to him, he heals, restores, and reorders us toward faith, hope, and love. Such discernment is a profound good that comes as a result of God’s transformative work in those whom he loves. Experiencing this dimension of our inner life is priceless. Attending to the stirrings in our heart—using our pain rather than numbing it—can lead us deeper into the heart of Christ.

How to Practice Discernment

  • Prayer. Thank the Lord that he is with you as you open your heart to him. Ask him what he thinks about certain feelings, emotions, and/or beliefs you’ve had that stand out to you. Take time to notice if you are in a spiritual state of gently being drawn to God and others (what Ignatius calls consolation) or a spiritual state of anxiety, discomfort and turning from God (what Ignatius calls desolation). Ask for his grace to transform your areas of weakness and encouragement in seeking Christ in very specific ways.
  • Journaling. Throughout the day and over the course of a week, write down specific negative feelings, emotions, and/or beliefs as they surface. Look for patterns and underlying themes. Use what you notice to write your own version of the Serenity Prayer to recite throughout the day.
  • Community. Invite others into conversations of the heart with questions like:
    • What do you feel stirring in your heart?
    • Have you found yourself becoming irritated, angry, fearful, hopeless the past few weeks?
    • Why do you suppose you feel or think this way? What do you think God saying to you through these feelings, emotions, and/or beliefs?
Footnotes
  1. Samantha K Brooks, et al, “The Psychological Impact of Quarantine and How to Reduce It: Rapid Review of the Evidence,” The Lancet 395 (2020): 912–20. Published Online February 26, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30460-8 One study shows that 28% of parents quarantined reported symptoms of trauma-related mental health disorders. Josephine V. Serrata, et al, Understanding the Impact of Hurricane Harvey on Family Violence Survivors in Texas and Those Who Serve Them, Texas Council on Family Violence (2019). Available online: https://tcfv.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Hurricane-Harvey-Report-FINAL-and-APPROVED-as-of-060619.pdf Sadly, the American Psychological Association predicts a rise in domestic violence and child abuse. Ashley Abramson, “How COVID-19 May Increase Domestic Violence and Child Abuse,” American Psychological Association (2020, April 8). http://www.apa.org/topics/covid-19/domestic-violence-child-abuse
  2. Timothy D. Wilson, et al, “Just think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind,” Science 345 (6192) (July 4, 2014): 75-77. DOI: 10.1126/science.1250830. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/345/6192/75
  3. See, for example, https://theconversation.com/america-is-drinking-its-way-through-the-coronavirus-crisis-that-means-more-health-woes-ahead-135532
  4. St. Ignatius, The Spiritual Exercises, “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits,” sec. 322.
  5. For a detailed study of knowledge by acquaintance and its impact of Christian discipleship, see, Brandon Rickabaugh, “Eternal Life as Knowledge of God: An Epistemology of Knowledge by Acquaintance and Spiritual Formation,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 6 (2) (2013): 204-228. Available online: https://www.brandonrickabaugh.com/knowledge-by-acquaintance-god
Brandon Rickabaugh holds an MA in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics, an MA in Philosophy, and is finishing a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Baylor University. Brandon is also a Fellow of the Martin Institute's Cultura Initiative.

Learn more about him and his work at www.brandonrickabaugh.com
Listen to all parts in this 12 Spiritual Practices for the Pandemic series