The whole spiritual life can be reduced in practice to one simple formula: doing the will of God.It’s interesting to consider, though, if this is the case, how important must be the discernment of God’s will.
Thomas Merton, Ascent to Truth
St Francis, of course, listened keenly to God’s voice—and yet even he, at least when young, got it wrong. He interpreted God’s word about the armour marked with the Cross as predicting his knightly success, and later he took Christ’s words from the San Damiano crucifix, “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin…” as referring to the building, and not to Holy Church herself.
St Ignatius of Loyola considered discernment impossible without a spiritual director.
No one who is trying to make spiritual progress should attempt to do so alone - a spiritual director is required. A director assists a Christian in examining the motives, desires, consolations, and desolations in one's life. Objectively, one can know what is right from looking at the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins in a thorough examination of conscience. But the broader picture of one's life is often not so clear. A Christian should, according to St. Ignatius, share everything with a director who can see things objectively, without being swayed by the emotions or passion. Discerning whether the good spirit (the influence of God, the Church, one's soul) or the bad spirit (the influence of Satan, the world, the flesh) is at work requires calm, rational reflection. The good spirit brings us to peaceful, joyful decisions. The bad spirit often brings us to make quick, emotional, conflicted decisions. A spiritual director can assist both by personal experience, listening with care, and giving an objective analysis.St Paul (1 Corinthians 12.10) placed great emphasis on prayerful intuition, and seems to have lived by it himself (e.g. Acts 16.6-10), while John (1 John 4.1-3) seems to have proposed a creedal formula. The writer to the Hebrews, perhaps more helpfully, suggests measuring everything against Scripture (Hebrews 4.12-13).
For myself, regular readers of The Mercy Blog won’t be surprised that I most often simply give up attempting to “work it out”, and resort to the Jesus Prayer, holding my own ignorance of God’s will up, as it were, to his Son’s own merciful discernment:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…