Anxiety and Discernment


24 Sep 2014

In making decisions, we face practical questions, spiritual questions, moments of emotion, and various ups and downs which cause us to pause.

One of St Ignatius Loyola’s greatest gifts to the Church were his rules for the discernment of spirits, rules that make up part of his 16th century spiritual guide “The Spiritual Exercises.”

And, it wouldn’t be a Jesuit prayer site without us bringing up something about our friend Inigo.

Yet, the parallels that Ignatius’ 16th century wisdom (much of it gained as he grew his hair and fingernails while living in a cave in Manresa, Spain) has with modern psychology and just plain good sense are quite interesting.

My big decision was to go and spend a year in South America. The big question people ask me is “what will you be doing there?”, but I prefer to say “for me, at the moment, it’s more about what I want to be, or become, while I’m there.”

Now, that all probably sounds terribly evasive and at its worst, self-indulgent, but really, I don’t know much more than the fact that I will be volunteering as a teacher of English and music in a poor community.

Saying that does beg the question: why would a middle-class, ordinary girl with a good job, wonderful friends, having just bought my first house decide to throw it all in? Surely that’s not a good discernment?

Hence, there has been some anxiety.

Ignatius warns not to make decisions at a time of desolation, so I took my time with this decision. Moments of sadness, lack of vigour, lack of motivation were many as I started toward this decision, but as the days and months went on, some clarity emerged and strengthened my resolve that this could work.
This came in the small things that started rolling into place. House rented without advertising; free accommodation in South America; and slowly and surely, the support of the person who gave birth to me, my mother, a late believer in the idea.

Anxiety does come with decisions. That may have been some of my mother’s concern, she saw the wrestling. Yet, anxiety comes with the discernment process. Any good discernment will have its positives and negatives, but true discernment is only deciding between two “goods”.

Ignatius warns that at times, anxiety can be a sign of the bad spirit, but, that it can also be a sign of the good spirit.
I expect that over the coming weeks as I begin my new life, there will be a whole spectrum of emotions. And yet, I am comforted by the words of one of my favourite Catholic singers Tori Harris who writes:

“When I talk to young people I find myself repeating, “the battlefield for the soul is fought in the mind.” Extraordinary circumstances aside, the devil most often attacks us through our thoughts, especially the thoughts and stories we tell ourselves. Scripture is very clear that the emotions of fear, doubt, insecurity and anxiety are birthed in Hell and thus NOT from Heaven. When you apply this knowledge to the fact that the devil attacks that which is most Holy and most good – you quickly realize that if you are feeling doubt, fear, anxiety or insecurity, that you are likely in thought or action, doing something very good and very holy. You see, our God is SO good. He desires to pour into us the deepest desires of our heart. He has organized the universe very intentionally and very exactly so that He can present to us our hearts deepest desire.” (

So take heart from these words. The Lord will bless our efforts, however small, and the Lord is present and will help us to overcome moments of anxiety in our decision making.

Beth Doherty is the editor of PrayOnline and the author of the new book Tweet others as you would wish to be tweeted. The book can be ordered from or on
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