By: Carla McKenzie


I wish I was one of those people who made a decision and then put the question to rest. Case closed. Instead, I often find myself revisiting again and again what I had thought was already decided. After weighing multiple considerations and attempting to make a well-rounded decision, it sometimes feels as if there is a chorus of obnoxious inner voices – each with their own special interest, ready to chime up at an inconvenient time to plead why their consideration is the most important and why I should change my mind accordingly!

Rather than feeling like one person, trying to make wise decisions, I feel like many, each with conflicting desires and interests, perspectives and hopes for the future.

Recently I have had to discern some important things about the next steps of my work and life path. I want to share two useful lessons about discernment that I have learned from Ignatian spirituality. I have found myself returning to them when I feel like I am weathering the storms of doubt about decisions I have made:

Lesson 1: Consolation is different from pleasure

It is an often told story about St Ignatius of Loyola that whilst recovering from a war time injury, he lay bored in bed, daydreaming of life outside and the possibilities for the future. He was given a copy of “The Lives of the Saints” and found himself engrossed in the adventures and great doings of these special people who were in love with God.  Picturing himself doing similar inspired things left him with a lasting feeling of peace, hope and joy.

In contrast he also imagined himself as the brave, nobleman he was known as, doing great worldly deeds and catching the attention of many beautiful young women. However, he noticed that unlike his previous imaginings, these daydreams (whilst pleasant at the time), left him feeling empty, hopeless and lacking in joy afterwards.

These two types of responses have become known in Ignatian spirituality as ‘consolation’ (the lasting hope, joy and contentment) and ‘desolation’ (emptiness, despair, dissatisfaction).

Fast forward approximately 500 years to me. When weighing up my options that all on first glance seemed like good choices, I came back to this basic insight of St Ignatius. When I considered the one situation, it filled me with a sense of hopeful joy, possibility, contentment and a sense of God’s presence even despite the difficulties and challenges it might present. When I imagined the other, I knew I would initially enjoy myself and derive pleasure and comfort out of it, but that these feelings would be transient and would leave me with a lingering emptiness, and a restless desire to keep searching for the next ‘high’.

Perhaps this is an important difference between consolation and pleasure? Consolation is lasting and leads to contentment, pleasure is fleeting and unsatisfying – begging always for us to seek it out again and again.

Lesson 2: When you make a decision in a time of consolation, stick to it during times of desolation

Discernment comes from a deep relationship with God rooted in regular prayer. For how can we ask for guidance if we are unwilling to listen? And how can we separate the true inner voice from the chorus of others if we cannot be silent in prayer?  

In my case: I found that I had discerned well whilst on retreat, spending time in prayer and with the guidance of a spiritual director and feeling at peace about my choice. Months later, amidst the busyness and distraction of daily life, my prayer life had faded into the background, and doubts about my decision began to surface. I was in spiritual desolation and I was questioning my choices.

This is of course, a common experience. Amidst these doubts, I heard the echo of advice from St Ignatius’ ‘Rules for Discernment’ – if you discerned wisely during a time of consolation, do not change your decision during a phase of desolation.

I am trying to take this advice to heart, and in times of spiritual drought, to rely on the memory of times of spiritual plenty. When tossed many ways in the stormy seas of the conflicting desires of life, I want to hang on to the life raft of what God has shown me and done in the past. This has been a test of my capacity to trust, especially to trust that if I faithfully hang on, God will come for me again. God does not forsake us, even if that is what it sometimes seems like in the moment.

The new year is here. For some it may bring new things – new commitments, projects, life decisions, paths opening or closing. For others it may mean faithfully continuing along paths God has lead us to, even when those paths aren’t always easy or clear. Whichever it is, I pray that we might all stay so very close to God, to discern the way and have the courage to stick with it even when we can’t always see where that is leading.

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Jeremiah 6:16a (NIV)


About author: Carla McKenzie

Profile-CarlaI’m a final year medical student, living in George on the beautiful Garden Route. I love my work though it often take a lot out of me. To recuperate, I enjoy being in nature, reading and knitting, (I am currently knitting my first jersey!) I’m an adult convert to Catholicism and what I love most about the faith are the mystics and saints, Ignatian spirituality and the potential for the church to be truly catholic, or universal – for all and for any.