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The Heart of Wise Discernment

Hands-Free Biking and Discernment

“Look Ma, no hands!” something inside me called as I finally found my balance, hands-free, on my bike. I’d been working on it for months when there were no other bikers on the trail. Finally, last week, it clicked.

The clue that I’d been overlooking for months? Going north or south, uphill or down, it was my right hand that had to touch the handlebar every few seconds to keep me upright. Never the left.

I’d kept playing, leaning a little more this way, a little more that. Finally, when I felt like I was leaning about twenty-five degrees to the left, I balanced. On the way back where the path tilted slightly the other way, I had to lean less far, but still to the left. What had felt correct to me, my sense of true uprightness, was shown to be tilted significantly off-center when held against the unarguable law of gravity.

It was a powerful lesson for me, extending far beyond life on my bike to discernment of life’s more important nuances. What feels normal to me isn’t always true to the laws God has wired into the universe and our souls and bodies.

Some of us tilt more towards overwork and feel lazy when we take time to play. Others may tilt more towards play, finding work harder.

Some spend and give money freely and may need to learn to save. Others may save easily but need to learn to enjoy without guilt God’s generous gifts of celebration and provision.

There are so many uphills and downhills in life, slight slants of the path to the left or the right, our own posture affected by an old injury, a dominant side or a slight curve of the spine. It can feel almost impossible to balance.

This is part of why discernment needs to be a multi-pronged process, asking God to guide, and then listening to the many ways he speaks to us, including through our own experience and wise others who can help us see the way we tend to tilt.

Ignatius of Loyola and Discernment

I’ve been learning, lately, from Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth century founder of the Jesuits and a wise guide in matters of discernment, who calls us to develop indifference. Importantly, when Ignatius uses the word “indifference,” he does not mean “not caring” but rather

“being detached enough from things, people, or experiences to be able either to take them up or to leave them aside, depending on whether they help us to “to praise, reverence, and serve God” (Spiritual Exercises 23). In other words, it’s the capacity to let go of what doesn’t help me to love God or love others—while staying engaged with what does.” (

I, for one, am such a lop-sided creature that it seems almost impossible not to tilt to one side or the other in my preferences. So how do we gain this healthy indifference?

We do it by falling more and more in love with Jesus, so that we want him more than we want these other things. And by asking Jesus, who came to bring freedom (Luke 4:18), to lead us into the inner freedom that can only be found in his love.

This, this is the heart of wise discernment: fall in love with Jesus.

And how do we fall more and more in love with Jesus? As with any relationship, the specifics will vary from couple to couple. But here, too, Ignatius offers advice that helps me greatly. We fall in love with Jesus by hanging out with him in gospel stories, putting ourselves into the stories as though we were there and letting Jesus meet us in exactly the way we need to be met as we hear him calling us to follow, healing our blindness and lameness, opening our ears to hear his voice.

We fall in love with Jesus by sitting in his loving gaze, asking for the freedom that only he can give, and also by taking a few minutes at the end of each day to notice how Jesus has been with us in the details of our days. There’s no way to fall in love but to hang out with the other person, get to know them, and begin to notice the ways they love us as we, too, are learning to love them.

A Little Reassurance

This week I’m finding comfort in this assurance too: we don’t have to be perfectly in love with Jesus, perfectly indifferent to other things, in order to choose well. (Phew!) We just need to be open to God, asking for his guidance, listening to the various ways he responds (including through an awareness of our tendency to tilt in a particular direction), and then choose as best we can with the grace God gives us.

“[The truly free person] is not sure whether or not God is asking her to give up the possession; she simply desires to be free to do what God wants her to do. So she begins by asking God what she should do. She is open to how God directs her through her prayer, her experience, her reasoning through different options, her discernment of consolations and desolations, and the wise counsel of others.

The truly free person checks her motivations, which are often mixed. She tries to choose from a desire to better serve God and others. [She] may feel some attachment to the possession and does not mind waiting to make a decision. But she does not procrastinate. She does make a timely decision (acknowledging that we rarely reach complete indifference).” (Kevin O’Brien, The Ignatian Adventure, p. 179)

Ignatius—and, more importantly, Jesus—know that our motivations will nearly always be mixed. This side of eternity, we will always be a mix of free and unfree. And Jesus loves us and welcomes us, walks with us and delights in us, right in the middle of this mix.

A Final Word

And when we listen as well as we can and have to choose, still not knowing exactly what is best? Then we can find comfort in the prayer of Thomas Merton:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that, if I do this,
You will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore I will trust you always
though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.


Photo by Tutz Dias on Unsplash

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Janice Cox

    Such a timely word to my heart!

  2. Bonita

    Love it!
    Thank you for these good reminders as I prepare to start teaching a course on Discernment tomorrow!

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