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Decision Making in the Spiritual Life
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
If there is anything characteristic about Saint Ignatius, it is his maxim that people make up their minds and decide with their wills. Perhaps a one word description of Ignatian spirituality would be "decisiveness". However, quite apart from this being characteristic of Ignatius, it is also essential to a life of Christian perfection. Indeed, without making both long and short range decisions, holiness is a dream. It will never be achieved.
My intention is to cover this large ascetical subject by first asking, "Why is decision making in the spiritual life so important?" Then, "What do we mean when we speak of making decisions?" and very practically, How do we make not only effective, but more effective decisions in the life that God has given us?"
First, why is it so important? Making decisions involves the human will which is the necessary counterpart to divine grace. Grace alone will not even save us let alone sanctify us. It must be grace from God and also our free cooperation with grace. Moreover we believe, and it has been clarified as never before in the Second Vatican Council, that all Christians are called to holiness. It is equally obvious, if not more so, that not all Christians are holy. So, second, if all are called to holiness and not all are holy, then the reason must be that people have not been making those free-will decisions which are necessary if we are going to use this grace. Our decisions, made with our free wills, determine not only how holy we are but whether we shall be holy. If there is one article of our faith that should be blazoned across the portals of every religious house, it is that divine grace is resistible. If we can resist grace, the same free will can cooperate with it, either weakly or strongly.
Moreover, life whether physical or spiritual involves a struggle. These struggles are part, not only of life but are even necessary for survival in life. And while there would have to be many qualifications for applying the statement of Darwin literally, there is such a thing as the "survival of the fittest" spiritually. Those survive in the spiritual life who have cultivated the habit of making clear, strong decisions. Like what? Like coping with the trials and difficulties that are part of the struggle of life and not giving in. No struggle, no progress. But if we want to not merely survive in our struggles but by mastering them become holy, we must use our God-given free wills and decide that we are going to cope with these trials and with grace, overcome them. A large part of growth in holiness is decisiveness in struggling with the problem of life.
God is unpredictable. We must be ready to constantly readjust ourselves to His will. In a word, we must decide not only once and for all, but every time He tests our loyalty, to decide to be loyal. Leave it to God to do the unexpected. Decision making, therefore, is important even to remain super-naturally alive. It is decisively important if we are going to grow in sanctity.
We ask ourselves, "What does this decision making mean?" We can distinguish for the sake of convenience three levels of making decisions and give each of these three levels a name: decision as commitment, decision as resolution, and decision as choice. What do we mean by each? All are part of our lives.
First, decision as commitment. This involves the decision that I am confident we have all made, to choose our state of life. All should make such a decision. One weekend in Chicago I ran a seminar for single women. There were forty professional women in their late twenties to their early forties who had all reached the upper ladder in their business or profession. They were doctors, sociologists, teachers, nurses, a personnel director for TWA, and the editor of the AMA Journal. All, seemingly, were successful women, but most of them had never made a decision regarding their state of life. They had not realized that a state of life is not a job nor an employment. A state of life is what I decide God wants me to do with my life: whether I am to marry or remain single, and if I am to marry, to whom. If you wish to remain single, which is a state of life, in what state will you be single? Will it be in the world? That is a genuine state of life. Is it in the religious life or a secular institute? If it is the religious life, in which community?
This is no easy task. Decision making is hard work and requires effort. We shall all assume that on this first level of decision making as commitment we have decided for the religious life. There are many synonyms for commitment. I like these two: dedication and consecration. Decision making as commitment is a long range, indeed, a life-long decision. We make it now, but the assumption is that we are going to keep it until we die. That's the essence of commitment. There are two features to decision making as commitment which I want to bring out because they are likely to be missed. The first is that when we make a commitment we really make a promise to God. Its remarkable how many people, even after years in the religious life, don't see clearly that entering the religious life and making that kind of commitment is a promise they have made to God. It's a covenant and when we make a promise to God, it is a solemn covenant. When we take our vows, we call God to witness to, the sincerity of our decision and to the earnest plea and confidence we have that He will give us the grace to remain faithful to our decision.
Secondly, commitment as this kind of decision, is a promise also made to others whom we join and who have made the same kind of commitment. So we assume two kinds of responsibility. One before God, one before the people towards whom and with whom we are to live out our commitment. Both place obligations on us. Before God, the obligation to live up to the expectations that He tells us He expects of us according to the teachings of His Church and with respect to the religious family to whom we make our commitment by covenant, in a relationship which gives them a right to expect of us loyalty to the community, the evidence of good example, and the assurance of our assistance. They depend on us and how seldom religious think of that! We can be so wrapped up in self as to overlook the fact that our fellow religious need us to live up to their respective commitment to God. Of course, we need them too, but I am stressing our obligation to them. They need us. So much for decision as commitment.
Now decision as resolution. This is somewhat different and not precisely the long-range decision in terms of a lifetime commitment. It is rather, as in times of retreat or in times of crisis when we are called upon to make certain decision as resolutions. A critical situation develops and although we have made our long-range commitment, we need soon to make a few more decisions. Now in essence decision as resolution serves the purpose of keeping alive and sustaining decision as commitment. We must periodically expect (and once a year is about as long as we should wait) to reassess how well we have been doing, where we have failed, and to resolve to improve our lives so that our long-range commitment will be faithfully kept.
Decision as choice. We are going to go over each of these three in the next part of this conference. I just want to explain here what each kind of decision making means. Decisions as choice are those multitudinous acts of the will that we are called upon to make every day and depending on our lives, even many times a day. They are every opportunity we see for cooperating with God's actual grace. Consequently, we should pause for a moment and ask, "What does God want me to do?" And then we decide to do it.
Now the third part of our conference: how to make good decisions. Clearly these three levels of decision making are different, but they have much in common, especially the need for clear and ready motivation. If we are going to make good decisions, whether it is commitment, resolutions or choices, our minds must be clear and we must have all kinds of ready motives upon which the will is to decide. One of the main purposes of meditation, which is another word for prayerful reflection, is to have a stockpile of motives ready for instant picking, to use when we need to make a decision, because the will is a blind faculty. It will never act, in this case, never decide, unless it has a reason for doing so. The better the reasons, the deeper, the more generous, the more sacred and more easily available for instant use, the more decisive we shall be in our spiritual lives. A lot of people are indecisive, not because they don't have a strong will but because they don't have a clear mind. They know they should act but they don't know why.
But now, speaking of what I sometimes call "supernatural methodology", let us consider in sequence each of the three types of decision.
First, how can we strengthen our decision making as commitment? If we want to take one suggestion on this level, we should decide that we have made our commitment, and that is no mean decision to make! Consequently, do not look back or reexamine, "Do I or don't I have a vocation?" That's dangerous. That is like walking along a state highway on a Sunday afternoon without looking, or trying to cross Park Avenue in New York City without looking in all directions at once. To strengthen a commitment, I recommend favoring those thoughts that confirm our commitment; avoid all the others. Meditate on the beauty, the value, the benefits of religious life. Consider every contrary thought a temptation. Read the lives of the saints, especially those saints who were religious. Be faithful to your commitment. One of the graces that God gives faithful religious, those who live up to the demands of their state of life, is to make them more and more sure of themselves. Insecurity about one's vocation is the consequence of a lack of fidelity. You might ask yourselves during a retreat, "How total is my commitment? Am I perhaps cheating on poverty; on chastity; on obedience?" Commitment means total self-sacrifice.
Secondly, we ask ourselves how to make our resolutions more effective. For example, during retreat time we are wise first to isolate what we find is most fundamental in our lives. What is it that most calls for correction, removal, change, improvement, or acceptance. For no two of us will it be the same. What one person may have to remove, another may have to insert. That is why each one makes the retreat for him or herself. That is not a platitude. We make our own resolutions. Be specific. Is it my suffering? Or is it other persons or some other one person? Then decide. The more we reflect on our failings the more conscious we become on how many we have - but take one at a time.
Nevertheless, it is not enough to decide on what virtue we should practice. We must also decide on what means we have to take in order to practice that virtue. Is it humility? There is no humility without humiliations, so if you don't have humiliations, then find some. I am not joking! However, most of us with a little insight can find enough humiliations if we are willing to accept them. Someone might ask, "Is it my prayer life? I am so empty when I am in chapel." No wonder! You've never taken the trouble to put enough sacred thoughts on your mind to think about! Spiritual reading is absolutely necessary for a life of prayer. "Is it my lack of charity, or unkindness in my speech?"
I often tell women that by non-verbal communication they can insult another, in simply casting their eyes down. The merest purse of the lips and one might just as well have stabbed you. Those whom the Lord has made so sensitive in emotion and such geniuses in expressing their feelings, must remember that their sensitivity is also present in other people. We shall never grow in genuine charity unless we realize, often with difficulty, that we hurt people. Because "this is the way I am" does not mean that this is the way we are supposed to remain. It would be a good idea once in a while to find out from one of your fellow religious just how we affect others. Fraternal correction, even solicited, was one of the things the saints did.
Decide on appropriate means, which will differ with each one of us, on how to practice the virtues that each one needs. I recommend writing down on a little 3 x 5 card a summary of resolutions and placing it in your prayer book or Office book for a periodic reminder.
Finally how are we to develop the habit of making wise decisions as wise choices in our daily spiritual lives? The basic secret is to cultivate good habits. Why? Because a good habit insures making wise decisions with minimum deliberation. If we have to go into a big huddle with ourselves on every least decision during the day, we would be emotionally exhausted. The odds are that we would not make a decision, and we are likely to make a lot of wrong decisions.
How do we cultivate good habits which will spare us the impossible task of going into a major deliberation every time we are supposed to make a simple choice? We do so by making ourselves (and I emphatically use the word "Making") do and repeat doing what faith tells us we should do. All we have to know is that faith tells us God wants us to do it. That's enough. Then we must make ourselves do it and make ourselves repeat doing it. Is it getting up promptly? Then get up promptly. Is it accepting a humiliation? Then take it. Is it keeping my lips closed when I am tempted to say something unkind? Then I seal my lips.
Now the sequence. Repetition produces spontaneity. Because we make ourselves repeat a given action we induce spontaneity. How do we get to be spontaneous in doing something? Do it often. In time it will be spontaneous. Spontaneity produces ease, ease produces readiness, and readiness produces satisfaction in what we are doing. And once we are satisfied in what we are doing, we won't have to go into a big decision making process. Do you know why? We all do easily what we like to do.
The problem with these many daily choices is that they are often things we don't like to do. So what I am telling you is a tried and proven method of getting ourselves to like to do what we are supposed to do. Then the number of these choices during a day will be minimized and the few that we have to make, we will make easily.
But what about those unexpected situations that come up any time during the day? Same thing. God will insure that we will make wise on-the-spot decisions provided our habitual desire is to do His will no matter how hard it is. We are to decide that we shall do God's will no matter what it costs us. Make that decision and all other decisions will follow. Hence the need for a daily rededication of ourselves wholeheartedly to the will of God. It may be in the morning; it may be during the day, or at night. If in the morning, which I particularly recommend, and if it is made in the Morning Offering, we must be sure to be aware of what we are doing. We are making for the rest of the day that major decision where we offer up to the Heart of Christ through the hands of His Mother everything He sends us and we will do everything He asks of us especially when it costs dearly.
The beautiful thing is that even if we make the offering once a day or better, more than once, then when the hard choices come during the day, we shall be graced for the occasion, by which I mean we shall have the supernatural light and strength from the previous decision we have made of consecrating ourselves totally to the service of God. Remember this, decision making is not all, nor even mainly our doing. Even the very cooperation with grace requires grace for which we ask the Lord to be ready when we need it.
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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