A Father’s Rules for Discernment

Happy Father’s Day! Here’s a post my husband wrote for the Dads:

Do you ever wonder how God intends for us to cope with, or better yet master, the daily demands of life?  I do.  If you’ve read any of Mary’s blog posts, I imagine that you’ve found her to be inspiring – as do I.  How does she do it all?  Our house is always impeccable, the children are excelling in their studies, the bills get paid on time, she has a large and growing number of friends, she’s written three (or is it four now) books, and she seems to always have time for the essentials. Then, there’s me… So, I couldn’t help but wonder, how does she do it? 

The first clue came last Christmas when she gave me Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism, a favorite of another blogger she follows (Sarah Mackenzie).  I read this book in a weekend.  Now I’m not Mary; I’ve been reading one of Peter’s Kreeft’s books for the past three years.  So, this book obviously got my attention.  McKeown’s key message is to invest our time in only those things that are essential.  But, as my brother-n-law points out, how do we know what’s essential?

Hmmm. I stammered through this answer, and arrived on what I thought was the perfect response.  God’s will is essential.  But, how do we know God’s will?  Hmmm, again stumbling for the right answer.  Realizing that there needed to be more, I recalled another favorite book of mine, Father Gallagher’s Discernment of Spirits, which expounds upon St. Ignatius’ Rules for Discernment. 

Clearly, combining the two of these will make life simpler, easier to navigate, and help me to master the daily demands of life.  To some extent, it helped, but why was my To Do list still so long?  I yearned to rid myself of this “debt” since, after all, Mary rarely keeps a To Do list.  She doesn’t need to.  She’s consistently on top of everything.  So, after some reflection, I thought of some traps that prevent me (and probably some of you) from freeing myself of this debt. 

Before divulging rules for discernment, however, I thought it worth distinguishing “big decisions” from “little decisions.”   Big decisions are questions like: Should I look for a new job or Should I buy a new house?  When it comes to big decisions, St. Ignatius provides guidance on this, such as: (1) weighing the pros and contras (with the guidance of the Holy Spirit) in terms of what brings glory to God; (2) visualizing yourself on your deathbed looking back at this moment; (3) imagining what advice you would give a stranger in the same situation; and (4) referring the matter to a spiritual director.

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Little decisions seem inconsequential but need to be made throughout the day; should I cut the grass or play ball with my son? I find that when making little decisions we are presented with God’s will and what I call a “detractor”.  A detractor is an idea or thought that deters us from the will of God, and it often manifests as an “apparent good.”  You know what I mean; you find yourself in a long non-edifying conversation, going nowhere, and that To Do list is waiting for you, but out of an act of “charity” you stay and listen.  Certainly, sometimes being engaged in the conversation can be the right thing to do, but often these circumstances pull us from the will of God and from ridding ourselves of our “debt.”

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Here is a list of some detractors:

  • Perfectionism: we need the paint on the wall to match perfectly, so we make ten trips to the hardware store, and still the day ends, and the job is not done.  Meanwhile those looking on say it looks fine.  In fact, we may even have found ourselves echoing that very sentiment to others who were in the same situation.  Or, another one of my “favorite” perfectionism phrases: “but it should work this way,” despite that the less elegant approach does the job.
  • Human Respect: we just don’t have the “heart” – or really humility – to say, “I have a number of chores to do today, so I’d love to hear about your paint matching skills, but I have to run – far and fast.”
  • Neuroticism:  how many times do you check that the door is locked before leaving the house?  But it will only take a minute.  Remember that if every hair of your head is counted, so is every minute of your life.  I often think of how much of Himself God expends for every minute of existence.  Why do we (myself included) discount the “minute.”  Each minute matters.  One minute per day for 70 years of life equates to almost 18 (24 hour) days  – a pretty nice vacation!.
  • Timidity: How often do we fret about how will the message be received, the impact it will have on our lives, or the trials we will have to suffer because of the decision?  So, we procrastinate. For example, putting off asking our managers for PTO, or delaying getting this blog entry finally written – after months of deliberating about it and receiving clear spiritual direction on the matter…
  • Individualism: Am I too proud to ask for help? I know my phone battery, and therefore my GPS, is dead, but I know where I’m going. 
  • Lack of Trust in Divine Providence:  “But it’s so expensive, even though it will save me three years of my life, and my back, and my marriage…”  Our Lord will provide – even in small matters.  He will provide help, financial support, and most importantly grace (that stuff that makes difficult moments possible, for which people say, “how did he do it?”).  Don’t worry, He will take care of your needs.  Erase the debt, pick up the phone (with battery charged) and get the help you need. A good resource to help with this is:  Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence (another one of my favorite books).

Erasing the debt can poise us for being more readily receptive to God’s will in the daily decisions, and allow us to master the demands of life.  Through the incorporation of these ideas that I picked up from Mary, McKeown’s EssentialismFather Gallagher’s Discernment of Spirits, and Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence, I started to discover and ponder with a keener insight on how to discern when presented with little decisions.  I started jotting them down, and arrived at the following list:

1. Does this decision put my spouse, my children, or myself in moral (as opposed to physical) danger?  As a Dad, I think some physical danger can be ok as long as it’s not reckless.

2. Am I multi-tasking?  St. Pius X was very focused.  He was reported to have memorized his speeches and get the redaction perfect.  When asked how he did it, he said that he would do nothing but this task prior to the public oration.

3. Am I making this decision out of fear or human respect? (Fear can even be a small one.  For example, I won’t leave the party to go to the store for fear of losing my parking space).

4. Do I believe God inspired me to do this or did I receive Spiritual Direction on this matter?

5. Does this decision bring glory to God? joy to my children? affirm my spouse? help others? etc.

6. Did I make a commitment (especially to the Lord) that should be honored?  Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Matthew 5:37. One important example is keeping our resolutions, particularly regarding our prayer life.

7. Do I need to do this out of my  responsibilities (eg. work, etc)? If not, is it clearly non-essential?

8. Am I working on a virtue that relates to the decision?

9. Am I making this decision solely because it’s difficult?  Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s God’s will.

10. Am I playing chess?  For example: If I call now, they won’t answer the phone because they’ll be in Church, so I can just leave a message.

11. Am I falling into the “it will only take a minute” temptation? Be vigilant of your thought process.  Sometimes (or for me, almost always) our plans take longer than we anticipate, and we rationalize with the “it will take a minute” mantra, and then hours later…

12.  Last, but most important, Is this an act of love?

And with the posting of this blog, I am now debt free, essentially



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