The story of the three magi (Matthew 2:1–12) illustrates how God’s guidance can come in a variety of forms. The three spiritual seekers experienced God’s presence in their hearts’ desire to set off from home in search, in their companionship and shared wisdom along the way, in a star that kept them on track, and in a dream that warned them not to return home by way of Herod’s territory. Like the magi, contemporary Christians are increasingly embracing an image of God who is present in every nook and cranny of creation. The whole world is the vocabulary of God, and all reality can communicate divine guidance. Holistic discernment reflects this growing faith in a God of surprises who speaks to us through Scripture, church teachings, other people, and external events, as well as in the silence of our hearts.
To discern holistically entails valuing both inner and outer authority. On the one hand, external authority consists in respecting time-honored traditions and the accumulated wisdom of the faith community. The teachings of tradition and the viewpoints of others in the community are important aspects of discernment because God’s guidance can often be embodied in them. Of course, even tradition must be examined critically, with what theologians call a “hermeneutic of suspicion” because the community, too, has made errors in the past from which much can be learned. Dialoguing with others faith and values provides a healthy check on our internal process and a chance for feedback and helps ensure that we do not slide off the slippery slope of self-deception.
Inner authority, on the other hand, entails trusting our experience of God as we monitor our thoughts and fantasies, emotions and desires. Discernment falters if we do not pay serious attention to our inner life and honor our inner authority. A holistic approach to discernment takes seriously the knowledge-bearing capacity not only of the mind, but also of the body, emotions, senses, and imagination. It calls for honoring the psychosomatic or body-spirit unity of the person and recognizes that bodily expressions and symptoms often reveal interior states that can indicate how God may be drawing us when making a choice. Thus, holistic discernment sees the significance of thoughts and fears, fantasies and feelings, dreams and drives, bodily sensations and intuitions and views them as possible sources of divine guidance. Like a personal compass, our inner life contains vital information essential for discerning the Spirit’s lead. Discernment requires cultivating a quiet inner center, a receptive space where we can tune in to our inner voices and the voice of God. Taking seriously our inner life as an important source of God’s guidance is a particular challenge for those of us who have been conditioned to distrust personal experience and inner wisdom and to believe that “the truth,” “the right answer” and “God’s will” are more likely found in some external source. This prejudice against the inner workings of the Spirit leads easily to a betrayal of the self, the intimate dwelling place of God.
As a practical way of deepening an awareness of God’s voice speaking within, it is helpful to imagine an inner wisdom circle in which a meeting of the various parts of the self is taking place. Within this inner dialogue or conversation among the various aspects of the self, it is important that each part of the plural self feels it has had its say and has been understood. It is also important that no one part monopolize the discussion and try to force its way on the self. In a culture that worships reason and the scientific, objective mind, for example, it is critical to remember that, in the words of psychologist Carl Rogers, people are wiser than their intellects. When we face a decision, we might ask ourselves, “Are all the legitimate representatives of the self given a fair say in the deliberations?” For example, are our feelings taken into account? Or do we say to ourselves, “Let’s be objective, stick to the facts, and keep feelings out of this”?
Happily, women’s liberation has also liberated men. When feelings and hunches were denigrated as merely women’s intuition and not a solid basis for making decisions, everyone lost a potentially important resource. Ignoring feelings simply pushes them underground to operate outside of reasonable control, undermining the decisions in which they were given no say. At the opposite extreme, we need to ask ourselves whether or not we allow our feelings to drown out the other voices in that inner wisdom circle. Either case—refusing to give feelings their say or letting feelings dominate—makes for poor discernment. The proper function of reflection is not the suppression of spontaneity, wants, and feelings but the liberation of wants and feelings from their fascination with fragments, to let them be reactions to more than the immediate.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth-century author of the classic The Spiritual Exercises, provides an example of heeding inner wisdom when he suggests imagining a person coming to us for help in making a choice, a choice similar to one we may face. According to Ignatius, we should listen carefully to what we counsel the person to do and then follow our own advice.Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Louis J. Puhl, trans. (Chicago: Loyola Press, 1951), no. 185. This Ignatian exercise contains a twofold value: it increases clarity through objectification (telling our own story in the third person), and it encourages us to honor our inner authority.
Ignatius’ approach to discerning life choices can be considered an early form of holistic decision making because his guidelines for what he terms “making an election” emphasize the integration of thought, affectivity, imagination, and sensation. He uses the term sentiror felt knowledge, to indicate a mode of knowing that combines reason and emotion. In the Spiritual Exercises, he describes three times or ways in which God can guide people faced with choice. These three ways integrate reason, affect, and religious experience.
The Way of Religious Experience
The first time occurs when God “so moves and attracts the will that a devout soul without hesitation, or the possibility of hesitation, follows what has been manifested to it.”Spiritual Exercises, no. 175. Ignatius cites the responses of Saint Paul and Saint Matthew to Christ’s call in order to illustrate this first time of election. Phenomenologically, this first time can be viewed as a moment of peak religious experience, a time when individuals feel overwhelmed by an inner sense of certainty about their decisions. At such moments, they may experience something deep within click into place, providing an intuitive sense of how they must proceed. Or they may perceive such a total congruence between the sense of internal requiredness (what they feel they must do) and God’s will (what they think God wants of them) that the course to be followed is unambiguously clear. Quite apart from any deliberation, this personal “moment of truth” can spring suddenly upon the person without any antecedent cause, like a forceful flash of insight, removing any further need for deciding.
The Way of Affectivity
The second time of decision making suggested by Ignatius emphasizes the knowledge-bearing capacity of feelings. It occurs when individuals must rely on their affective states of consolation or desolation to detect the influence of God regarding the decision to be made.Spiritual Exercises, no. 176. In the case of people progressing earnestly along the spiritual path, Ignatius understands consolation as a complexus of positive feelings that encourages, supports, and confirms a prospective decision as being “right.”