A school of discernment


13 Oct 2020

Learning discernment is learning to live with a basic sense of peace. The good spirit brings peace, while the evil spirit disturbs.

A journey into deeper prayer, discernment and Ignatian Spirituality began when I met Bill Thompson SJ from Chicago at Lavender Bay. I was enrolled in a Master of Pastoral Studies at IPS Loyola University Chicago, starting in January 1980. Once I arrived in Chicago, Bill met me for lunch after the first class and asked if I wanted a spiritual director while there. He suggested John Dillon SJ.


John challenged me to make prayer a priority, saying, ‘Allow God to love you. Don’t do anything else until I tell you’. Since many of my classes were in the evening, I could take extra time for prayer. I will never regret the hours spent sitting on the grass looking at Lake Michigan, with its ever-changing moods and colours. Prayer deepened.

John spoke of living with a basic sense of peace and becoming aware of disturbances in that peace. The good spirit brings peace, the evil spirit disturbs.

Just before summer break, I had a session with John. Leaving him, I felt assaulted by shame. The message was ‘What must he think of you? You can never go back to him’.

I felt buffeted by an internal storm which continued for two days. John had left for his summer retreat work, as had Bill. I knew no-one else well enough to talk to them. I had arranged to make a retreat in August with Jim O’Brien SJ at Milford. I decided that, when I got there, I would talk to Jim about this.

As soon as I decided that, the turmoil stopped. When I next saw John, he explained one of Ignatius Loyola’s rules for discernment. The evil spirit insinuates and demoralises, and wants us to keep this a secret. As soon as we talk to someone about it, the attack loses its power. This incident illustrated also that the evil spirit lies, or uses half-truths, exaggerates and distorts.

Twenty years later, during the Spiritual Exercises at Loyola House, Guelph, I discussed an experience with my director and we were unclear if it were from God or a deception.

As soon as he said, ‘Tomorrow is a break day and I will be going to Toronto,’ I knew the experience had been a deception and that I would be assaulted by shame again.


I recognised the pattern. I rejected the assault, prayed for help, then distracted myself. From experience, I always carry an ‘insurance policy’ on retreats, a murder mystery or two. It is the most effective way for me to escape disturbing thoughts.

Next day, I wrote out a formal discernment and gave it to my director. There are two things that reassure me. Instead of being creative, the evil spirit tries attacks that have worked in the past. The other is a mantra of the late Ted Tracy SJ, my first director of the Exercises, ‘Anything that makes you feel less than a child of God is not from God.’

During Christmas break 1980, I was to begin the Spiritual Exercises on 15 December, directed by Ted. There were some errands to run, so I rode the 147 Outer Drive Express into Chicago, as always, delighting in the beauty of the parks and Lake Michigan. Jobs done, I decided to walk down to State Street to see the Christmas decorations in Marshall Field’s store. The further I walked, the more restless I felt.

Finally, I stopped and asked, ‘What do you want to do?’. The answer was, to go back to where I was living. As soon as I boarded the return bus, the restlessness stopped. I realised I was being drawn into the retreat and needed to take some time to be quiet and pray.

When I asked John what that was all about, he responded, ‘The process is detachment and the gift and skill is discernment. It is a kind of negative correction mechanism. When the Lord becomes central, peripheral desires become so much less important. Some things no longer fit at all, others become unnecessary or side-lined.’


Some days later, rounding a bend near Loyola, I felt as if I were in the path of a suction pump. I was being drawn into the retreat and needed to take time to be quiet and pray. Classes finishing made this easier. Describing this to John, he said, ‘You will probably be restless from now on’.

He thinks we die like that. It’s a kind of reorienting, like a missile aimed at a moving target. There may be 10 things you could do, the ‘pain in the neck’ things.

You do number 11, which involves the use of your talents and you get this craving. It stops when you do what you should.

He said we get to know whether the ‘squawk’ is a call to prayer or a call to help someone. I have experienced it sometimes as a ‘blah’ feeling.

John’s teachings on prayer and discernment have been a touchstone. We met a number of times over the years, most recently in 2018. He died in Colombiere Center, Michigan on 12 May 2020, aged 90.

Email this Print This Page