What brings you joy? A crucial discernment question.

What brings you joy? A crucial discernment question.

I see discernment as being more a presence than a skill, a kind of secret spirit and hidden calling in the depths of my being; an awareness that lies underneath all I think, and am, and do. It is a ‘simple gift’. In fact, one of my favorite hymns is Simple Gifts by Joseph Brackett. After I fell in love with the song, I discovered Brackett was an elder of The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, better known as the Shakers. It so happened that at that time I had been reading Thomas Merton’s writings on the Shakers, and how he came to love and revere them for their ideals of “simplicity, honesty, and good work for a spiritual motive” (Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love) – not a bad list for good discernment!

This is how the song begins:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight. …

The great question posed to me in discernment is: how can I reach a state of clarity and ‘just-rightness’ about what I am to do, or how I am to be? Can I strip myself of all the accretions of ‘wants’ I have covered my heart with, so that I can hear it beating in freedom and simplicity?

In thinking about discernment and simplicity, I am reminded too of the wisdom of Michael Himes. He suggests three simple discernment questions we should pose to ourselves when making decisions about what we want to be and to do:

  1. Is this, (occupation, pathway, choice), a source of Joy for me?
  2. Am I any good at it?
  3. Does anybody want me to do it?

Not bad! The first one, in my view is the most important – but often neglected. Joy, of course, is not the same as happiness; happiness is ephemeral, but joy is that deep sense of rightness in the way I am living my life. It is a surge of energy and uplift, a kind of holy restlessness that sparkles with deep desire, a longing to invest myself more deeply, more richly, more fully, to open my talents even more widely than I have before.

So, you might want to ask the question of yourself: what is the source of my joy?

The Second two questions are self-explanatory, but the answers will be revealing. These questions rely very much on feedback from others. If others say you are good at something, you probably are! If other people want you to do it, that too might be a prompting of the Holy Spirit.

But in the end, you are the one who is in direct communication with God, so only you can make the call on all three questions. My sense is that the response to the first question will knock all the other responses into place.

So, before you make a new decision, or choose a new path, the primary desire might be to choose the path that generates the deepest joy in you – then you will find yourself in “the place just right”!

With thanks to Micheál Loughnane for this contribution to the JISA Discernment Series. Micheál is a Giver of the Spiritual Exercises and an Ignatian Spiritual Director with JISA Campion. He is also a sessional lecturer at ACU and the Coordinator of the Australian Jesuit Province’s Arrupe Program for forming givers of the Spiritual Exercises. He is married with four adult children and loves reading, walking, and listening to music.