The ancient wisdom of the Tao Te Ching tells us:
"Tao leaders live close to nature.
Their actions flow from the heart."
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8
During the Renaissance, Ignacio Lopez, a young Spanish knight, discovered the wisdom of the heart. He had been defending the fortress of Pamplona from a French invasion. Struck in the leg by a cannonball, he was taken home to his family castle of Loyola, where he suffered repeated settings of his shattered leg.
Lying in bed for the long, painful months of recovery, he asked for books of chivalry but there were none in the house, only a life of Christ and a book of saints' lives. He read them, drifting off in his imagination, recalling his life at court—the duels, adventures, and deeds to impress the fair ladies. But these thoughts brought him only fleeting pleasure, then a sense of emptiness.
Practicing what he later called discernment, he listened to his heart for guidance. He continued reading about the saints, and when he imagined living like St. Francis or St. Dominic, he felt an enduring sense of joy.
Ignacio recovered, becoming a changed man. He gave up all the glory of his life at court to go on a spiritual pilgrimage. Leaving his sword and armor by the altar of the chapel at Montserrat, he gave his rich clothing to a poor beggar, put on sandals and a sackcloth tunic, and journeyed to Manresa, where he spent long hours in meditation. He traveled to Jerusalem and Paris, where he studied theology and shared his discernment practice with other men and women in what became the Ignatian Spiritual exercises.
Ignacio became St. Ignatius Loyola. Using discernment to guide his life, he founded the Jesuit order. The Spiritual Exercises are still used by men and women today to help them make important life decisions.
Setting Your Compass.
In discernment, your heart is your inner compass. The two settings on the compass are love and fear, joy and pain, what St. Ignatius called "consolation" and "desolation."
Consolation is a deep sense of communion with life, bringing feelings of love, joy, peace, inspiration, insight, authenticity, gratitude, altruism, trust, oneness with others, openness, creativity, spirituality, and expansive growth.
Desolation cuts us off from others, closing us in on ourselves, bringing dark feelings of fear, isolation, anxiety, defensiveness, despair, hopelessness, worry, hate, hostility, self-pity, turmoil, failure, guilt, self-hate, selfishness, compulsiveness, depression, and lack of meaning.
Discernment means looking not only at your feelings but also the direction in which they lead.
As Ignatius would say, "Do your feelings lead you toward or away from God," from grace, from fulfillment in life? Pleasant feelings can be shallow and fleeting, like the nostalgia he felt for his old life. Restlessness and dissatisfaction can be signals that you're going in the wrong direction, telling you to get back on the path.
Do you have an important decision to make? Are you standing at a crossroads in your career or relationship? Looking for a new direction in life?
Think of an area in your life where you could benefit from greater discernment and take some time to reflect.
Close your eyes, slow down, take a deep mindful breath, and release it. Take another deep breath, feeling your body relax. Then imagine yourself approaching your crossroads, reflecting on your choices.
Listen to your heart, noting how you feel.
- Where do you find consolation?
- Where do you find desolation?
- What are your feelings telling you?
- What direction do they point to?
If you get a clear sense of direction, open your eyes and prepare to take the next step. If the path is still unclear, keep listening to your heart for new insights in the days ahead.
An earlier version of this meditation appears in Dreher, D. (2008). Your Personal Renaissance: 12 steps to finding your life's true calling. New York, NY: Da Capo.