Choosing Life:

The Journey Towards Discernment

by Philip Carter

Web-Exclusive Video - "Presence" with Philip Carter

Decision making is an intrinsic part of being human, ranging from those that are every day, spontaneous, and even unreflective decisions to those decisions that are the result of much reflection and, for many of us, prayer. We cannot in fact exist without making decisions, and all of them have consequences. The decisions we make determine whether we live authentically, in keeping with our own sense of who we are as persons, or not, and whether we can become more, or less, fully human and fully alive. Choosing life is both a simple and profound choice facing us all, and the process that enables us to do so is one of discernment, through careful attention, not only to the way we make our decisions but also to the fruit of the decisions we make. This process of discernment is done within the context of our everyday lived experiences, our joys and sorrows, our hopes and losses, our relationships, our work, and our personal interests. For many, committed to living both deeply and authentically, one of the ways to facilitate this process of faithful discernment, is to commit to an ongoing relationship with a spiritual director or companion. This article looks at five paths each of us can follow to make life-enhancing and life-changing decisions. Each section ends by looking at the way the spiritual director needs to be committed to her own discernment process and vocation, living and practicing the ministry of spiritual direction in order to be an authentic and effective means of grace for those who come to see her.

Discernment is a gift at the heart of Christian discipleship. It is the practical and practiced way of living as congruently as possible in the way of Jesus. It is learning to respond in love to God, to others and to our world, and to our circumstances. It is a habit of faith, where all is grace, yet, in the economy of God’s grace, there is always the responsive and crucial role of human action. It is neither an accomplishment nor an achievement, nor an end in itself, but is rather a never-ending journey, pointing to and growing into the transformative love of God.

It is fundamentally about paying attention to and becoming more aware of the movement and action of the Spirit of God. It is not problem solving or having an opinion. It is neither about “discovering” some unknown part of God’s plan nor about getting everything “right” so much as it is being “in tune” with the music and the dance of God. Discernment is often defined as “discerning the will of God” and the consequent desire to live congruently with that will. So it will be helpful to think about that in the context of God’s hope and desires for us, realizing with Julian of Norwich that “Love is our Lord’s meaning” (Julian, 86) and that God wants us to participate in and cooperate with God’s vision for the whole of creation. So discernment is something worked out in the actuality of everyday life, and in the changes and chances of our worldly experience, we discover the activity and invitation of the Spirit of God. It is not theoretical knowledge. It is not necessarily “fail-safe”: it is “wisdom won at the risk of error,” where nothing is wasted.

Discernment shapes and forms us, where we gradually grow into the “likeness of Christ” and where we “put on the mind of Christ” (Phil 2:5, 1 Cor 2:16). Discernment is about allowing our deepest values and aspirations to come to the surface as we sift what is genuine or true from what is false. It is about discriminating or distinguishing between two paths, as in the book of Dt (30:15, 19), where God says: “I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity…. Choose life.”

As we pay attention to the raw material of our everyday life, we begin to notice “movements” within us—movements of peace or turmoil, of attractions or revulsions. Discernment is about noticing these two ways and learning to make choices in freedom so that we are no longer hijacked by any disordered love or attachment, and begin to accept, welcome, and desire whatever God wants.

Disposition: The Way I Am

Friedrich von Hugel, the eminent nineteenth-century spiritual director, wrote to his niece that “Dispositions are the means to acquiring reality” (Hugel, 14). By dispositions, he meant our capacity to be open, aware, and truthful. Prayer, then, which has at its heart discernment, is not only a matter of attention but also intention, where we dispose ourselves to recognize what God is offering us and, in Ignatius of Loyola’s words, placing “myself before God in reverence… [begging] him to direct everything in my day more and more to his service and praise” (Fleming, 91). What matters, as the Christian tradition has always maintained, is that our spiritual and emotional health rests not on what actually happens to us or the circumstances we find ourselves in, but rather on how we respond to what happens to us.

Ronald Rolheiser writes that “Long before we do anything explicitly religious at all, we have to do something about the fire that burns within us. What we do with that fire, how we channel it, is our spirituality. …And how we do channel it, the disciplines and habits we choose to live by, will either lead to a greater integration or disintegration within our bodies, minds, and souls…” (Rolheiser 6, 11).

As Ignatius of Loyola saw, “The discernment which is called for is an entrance into understanding a language of God spoken within our very being” (Fleming, 176). Made in the image of God, it is in the very fabric of our being, in our attitudes towards the very circumstances of our lives, where we can both notice and respond to God. But as many writers have said, discernment isn’t principally about the morality of good or bad actions, nor is it a kind of blueprint that bears no relation to who we really are, and neither is it about finding the “right” solution to a puzzle. It is more like being given a set of building blocks and engaging with them with commitment, intelligence, and care.

As human beings, we are not isolated individuals but rather persons-in-relation, so we are not alone in our task of sifting through the “given-ness” of our personal and communal lives. The disposition of openness that helps us acquire reality suggests that not only the Divine Other but all the others in our lives can throw light on our quest for both the truth and the courage to choose and live out of that truth. As the tradition has always maintained, self-knowledge is intimately linked to the knowledge of God. This call to our inner truth is our vocation: “The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” The gift of discernment confronts us: our choices matter, both for ourselves, in that not all our choices bear the fruit of “deep gladness,” and for the wider community, and in fact the whole of creation, where our choices can meet “the world’s deep hunger” (Buechner, 95).

So the question I need to ask myself is: Where am I? And what is going on for me at present? This suggests that I must try (without judgment) to be in touch with the things I cannot change: my natural family, genetic makeup, place and culture of birth, upbringing, education, circumstances, giftedness, shortcomings, health, disabilities, and the like. And then I need to ask: How am I at present? How am I living with the mystery, with the fire? What is the attitude (reflected in my choices) that I bring to life? And can I get in touch with times in my life when I have been tempted simply to change the where in my life (in other words, to change my circumstances) instead of changing my attitude? Have I sometimes simply moved or shifted the circumstances of my life, hoping that that will make a difference?

Initially, one of the tasks of the spiritual director is to assess the readiness of the one coming for direction, or at least his desire to proceed. The spiritual director will listen respectfully, and with encouragement, by affirming in her directee his own sense of personal worth, and through these attitudes of approach help clarify his sense of what is going on in his life, what is significant in terms of natural giftedness and the invitation of grace, and what is helpful or unhelpful in his basic attitude to life. The manner in which the spiritual director is available to the other is of paramount importance, reflecting in many ways the transformative power in the way Jesus was available to others.

Detachment: The Way of Freedom

Our disciplines of attending are about noticing both what our hearts run after and our disordered longings that move us away from God and lock us into self-defeating and destructive ways of living. It is always helpful to ask ourselves where a particular mood, feeling, behaviour, or action leads. However important the root cause of such moods, feelings, and behaviours are, it is vital that we focus on the direction our desires and longings are moving.

Ignatius said: “I must be so poised (detached/indifferent) that I do not cling to anything as though it were my ultimate good, but remain open to the possibility that love may demand of me poverty rather than riches, sickness rather than health, dishonour rather than honour, a short life rather than a long life, because God alone is my refuge, security and strength?” (Hughes, 23). Ignatian “indifference” must not be confused with our everyday understanding of indifference as uncaring, lacking any attachments, and impartial. The Ignatian understanding of “indifference” means that we are as free as possible to follow the will of God. As such, it requires passion to overcome addictions, compulsions, and inordinate desires of all kinds, and such indifference actually channels such passion towards that which ultimately satisfies and fulfills us more. As Ignatius says: We grow into spiritual freedom “by gradually bringing an order of values into our lives so that we make no choice or decision because we have been influenced by some disordered attachment or love” (Fleming, 21).

Monica Furlong says of God in an arresting poem (Furlong, 72):

Fatally attracting
Our waywardness
Into new tracks
Of faithfulness.

Furlong, 72

In other words: Do I dare to be fatally attracted? Do I know, and can I count, the cost? Am I willing to let go in favour of God, “in whose service is perfect freedom”? This is the freedom that detachment can bring, or what Ignatius called indifference. “We can be so detached from any created thing only if we have a greater attachment” and this can happen only if our “one dominating desire and fundamental choice must be to live in love in [God’s] presence” (Hughes, 23). We have already seen that attention, or attentiveness, is crucial, but we have also seen that intention is too, and with Ignatius’ help, we can see that purity of intention is vital.

While the natural and learned skills the spiritual director brings to the encounter are very important, what is critical is her own sense of personal freedom, not the least of which are her awareness and desire for freedom from her illusions, prejudices, projections, and fears. It is her own senses of personal freedom and being beloved that allow her to pay attention to the one coming for direction with the utmost respect and empathy. Her willingness to put aside her own opinions, ideas, and expectations, so as to provide the best possible environment and space where the other not only begins to hear himself, perhaps for the first time, and get in touch with his own history of freedoms and un-freedoms but also begins to see the fruit of the decisions he has made in the past, is her unique gift to him.

Dream: The Way I Imagine

One of our besetting problems is that we too often devalue the imagination. Yet imagination is crucial for the life God calls us to. For too long we have devalued the imagination and relegated it to the merely imaginary, to fantasy, and to make-believe. Our imaginations reveal an unseen level of inner reality. When our imaginations are blocked—when we have forgotten the power of story, image, symbol, and poetry—we can so easily become vulnerable to despair.

The imagination is crucial for the life God calls us to. It makes connections for us—between our experience and the texts and stories of our tradition. We are image makers and image bearers—made as we are in the image of God. We have a remarkable ability to form and be formed by images. We can grasp and deal with reality through our imaginations—through story, poetry, pictures, and symbols—and, as a result, are able to grasp the true and the real far more effectively than intellect or reason could ever do.

Thomas Merton says that the imagination “is a discovering faculty, a faculty for seeing relationships, for seeing meanings that are special and even quite new” (de Waal, 23). As Shakespeare put it in Midsummer’s Night Dream, “imagination bodies forth the form of things unknown.” It enlarges our hearts and our vision, enabling us to see things more clearly and find alternative and attractive possibilities that we could scarcely dream of. Jesus, of course, was a highly imaginative person, and his vision of the Kingdom or Reign of God—the centerpiece of his teaching—is an imaginative, alternative, and attractive vision of reality.

Jesus told parables to open us up to a new way of seeing things and to jolt us into seeing what our hearts so often run after. So the Kingdom parable of the treasure hidden in a field (Mt 13:44) asks of us: Where is my treasure? And what is it? Where am I investing my time, thoughts, resources? What excites me, gives me energy for life? “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Lk 12:34).

And in Matthew’s story of the Kingdom, which he says is “like a merchant looking for fine pearls” (Mt 13:45), he confronts us with several questions: What does it feel like to be found, and to be discovered and named as “pearls?” How hard has it been/is it for us to live out of the extraordinarily gifted place where we are the pearls, found by the kingdom of God? And are we allowing our imaginations to stimulate or encourage us to be in touch with and live out of our deepest desires?

In many respects, because we have undervalued the importance of the imagination, one of the spiritual director’s principal gifts to bring to this relationship is to help nurture the imaginative faculty in the one coming for direction. This can only happen, of course, if the spiritual director’s own life is sustained by a lived experience of the power of story and images, of metaphor and parable, and of the wonder at the heart of her own sacramental appreciation of our world. And one of the best ways to encourage her spiritual directee’s appreciation of his imaginative life is by way of indirection, of gently asking what it is that fills him with wonder, or a sense of relaxed enjoyment, be it walking, gardening, music, art, reading, silence, dance, or making connections.

As we begin to identify our desires, we realize that God is not so much “out there” but rather “in here.” Our vocation, seen in the Word made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, is to become fully alive, fully human. Jesus is the very truth of our existence. In this way, we become aware, as Ignatius did, that the Divine Spirit is the true subject of our being, that God desires us as God desires God, in the Community or Trinity of Love. So prayer is literally “owning up” to our innate poverty of Spirit, our inability to pray, and a recognition and acceptance that God is the one who lives and prays in us! “Prayer is the place where we sort out our desires and where we are ourselves sorted out by the desires we choose to follow” (Ulanov and Ulanov, 20).

Desire: The Way I Want

In The God of Surprises, Gerald Hughes (62) says that “the saint is the person who has discovered his/her deepest desire.” He suggests an interesting and helpful exercise. He invites us to spend some time writing our own obituary notice, not the obituary you are afraid you might have but rather the kind of obituary that, in your wildest dreams, you would love to have. We do not try to analyze it, or try to think it out too clearly, but allow our fancy to run free. As we write this, we become aware of those things in our life that are destructive, lead nowhere, are negative and deadening, block, inhibit, rob, or starve us of life—movements that are often characterized by fear or anxiety. Now we can listen for another movement within—often unnoticed and drowned out by stronger, more insistent negative voices. This is the movement towards life and, if given room, is full of life, promise, hope, energy, and purpose (9).

Helping a person get in touch with his desires often results in simultaneous feelings of both vulnerability and excitement. The Christian spiritual director, being present to the other and recognizing her own lived history of desire, including the wrong routes that have sometimes been involved, has the opportunity of opening up for the one coming to spiritual direction a more expansive and deeper appreciation of God—a God made known to us through the Paschal Mystery of Jesus, a God made known to us preeminently through vulnerability, weakness, and self-emptying love. This expanding appreciation of who God really is and who we really are—which we flourish only when we give ourselves away in love—requires both patience and sensitivity on the part of the spiritual director.

"Icarus Mandala"

— Amy Gaffney

Decision: The Way I Choose

The gospel is both gift and task, offering us a vision where everything has already been done. The Kingdom is among us: Jesus has been raised and “we’ve got a job to do.” But without that initial impetus of the “given”—that astonishing moment of realization that all is grace, undeserved yet true—the best will in the world is merely all effort. As we get in touch with the desire of our hearts, we begin to realize that change, in ourselves and in our world, is what we want and need. The touch of grace, together with the opening up of a vision of an alternative, imaginative, and attractive possibility, leads us to realize that we can, as Gandhi said, become the change we want.

It is here that we realize that discernment, and the fruit of that discernment, lies in the decisions and choices we make, and that such choices and decisions are not simply “things to do” but are rather a way of being that is inextricably part of our very being and have to do with our vocation and our identity. Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, has astutely observed that vocation is “what’s left when all the games have stopped.” For the crucial question we must ask ourselves is: “Am I true?” So, deliberately and intentionally paying attention to the movements of our hearts is fundamental: movements that either lead us to a greater integration or disintegration in our lives—to life or to death.

David Ford‘s comment that discernment is about “the long term shaping of our lives by desires that we own” (Ford, 96) further encourages us to shift our attention from “out there”—though that is a necessary first move—to “in here.” Now we realize that we are both incomplete and unfinished as human beings, and that properly speaking we are “human becomings.” All is grace, but there is work to do, and it begins with us. Our responses matter: are we able to say with Ignatius, “I ask of our Lord that I might be able to hear his call, and that I might be ready and willing to do what he wants?” (Fleming, 91).

What are the key temptations in my life and what happens within me when I allow myself to be controlled by them and therefore robbed of choice? Can I look at the choices I have made in the past and see how they have shaped or formed me? What choices present themselves to me now? And where will they lead? How prepared am I to be more and more shaped into the likeness of Christ? How willing am I to be vulnerable and unprotected before God? Or to consider poverty, weakness, or unpopularity? Do I welcome or avoid these attitudes and states Jesus calls blessed? As I grow in awareness of the struggle within me between two sets of values and two types of wisdom, can I hear an invitation towards a radical conversion of outlook and a growing freedom to desire the grace to live as Christ lived?

Here the spiritual director begins to realize, often quite profoundly, that her role has been that of the midwife, where someone is birthed into new life. The midwife accompanies a woman giving birth, encouraging and reassuring her. The midwife brings her particular skills and compassion to the great mystery of birth. She has not created this situation, but she attends and listens, ever vigilant and poised, offering a safe space and a very human face for the miracle of birth. She is free to help the new mother see both the gift and the opportunity of new life, which is hers to embrace and nurture. Faced with a growing sense of wonder—not only at the natural world but also at his own being—the one coming for spiritual direction can begin to feel a certain personal empowerment, which is nothing less than the responsibility of growing up, and a sense of wholeness, which is a growing realization of the coming to fulfillment of his personal vocation and the importance of choice in the call to be both fully alive and fully human.

Simone Weil says that “Attention animated by desire is the whole foundation of religious practices” (Weil, 150). Crucial to discernment is, as we have seen, our disposition or attitude. As we pay attention, we notice inner and often hidden movements within us, movements toward both peace and turmoil. Through attending to these movements, we can learn to seek liberation from what is harmful, and in this newfound freedom, we can discover, through detachment, an even greater attachment. Then, through our imagination, we wake up to what might be, to what is not yet, and envision an alternative, imaginative, and attractive way of being and living. Here we begin to tap into our deepest desires and find the courage to make life-affirming, life-enhancing, and life-transforming choices.


Web-Exclusive Video - Interview with Philip Carter


Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

de Waal, Esther. Lost in Wonder: Rediscovering the Spiritual Art of Attentiveness. Mulgrave, Victoria, Australia: John Garratt Publishing, 2003.

Fleming, David L. Draw Me into your Friendship: A Literal Translation and a Contemporary Reading of the Spiritual Exercises. Saint Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996.

Ford, David. The Shape of Living: Spiritual Directions for Modern Everyday Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997.

Furlong, Monica. “Attraction.” In God’s a Good Man and Other Poems, London: Mowbrays, 1974.

Gallagher, Timothy M. The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living. New York: Crossroad, 2005.

Hugel, Friedrich von. Letters to a Niece. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1928.

Hughes, Gerard. God of Surprises. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985.

Julian of Norwich. Showings. Edited by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. New York: Paulist Press, 1978.

Liebert, Elizabeth. The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

Lonsdale, David. Dance to the Music of the Spirit: The Art of Discernment. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1992.

Rolheiser, Ronald. Seeking Spirituality: Guidelines for a Christian Spirituality for the Twenty-First Century. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1998.

Sheldrake, Philip. Befriending Our Desires. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994.

Ulanov, Ann, and Barry Ulanov. Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer. London: SCM Press, 1985.

Weil, Simone. Waiting on God. London: Collins Fontana, 1959.

Williams, Rowan. Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994, 2014.

This Article Appears In


Vol. 28 | No. 1 | MARCH – 2022


Philip Carter

is a retired Anglican priest. He was the inaugural president of the Australian Ecumenical Council for Spiritual Direction (AECSD) from 2006 to 2009. He ran the Julian Centre in Adelaide, an independent and ecumenical centre for spirituality and spiritual direction, from 1997 to 2009.


Amy Gaffney

is a writer, artist, contemplative and spiritual companion living in California. She attended the Earlham School of Religion and graduated from San Francisco Theological Seminary with a MATS and courses in spiritual direction.

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