Is it God’s will for us to remain in work we don’t want to do?

This was a challenging question asked during a session at Fr. Korko’s quiet day at the Christian Meditation Centre. As far as I could follow, the discussion mostly centred about how we remain in work we don’t want to do, which implies the underlying assumption that the answer to the question is “Yes”. And while I acknowledge that “Yes” is a possible answer to this question, so also is: “No”, “Maybe”. “Depends”, “For the time being anyway”, “Until such times as…”. And the answer will depend on the individual, the context, the timing and any other number of factors unique to the one asking the question. It is a question of personal discernment:

For me, for now, for good.

Considering the “for good” part, and that Ignatius is encouraging us to choose between good and what is more for the Glory of God, rather than between good and evil, and I thought as long as your job is not immoral, say killing people, because that would fall into the latter category – breaking one of the commandments. I was then brought up short by the memory of a couple of scenes from the film The Green Mile, with Tom Hanks in it. I realised that I am lucky to live in a time and a place where there is no capital punishment, but what if I didn’t? What if I were on death row, wouldn’t I prefer the executioner to soberly carry the weight of their responsibility, rather than have a lust for it? The Tom Hanks character, rather than the other younger guard? (It is on my list of “too painful to watch twice” films, so I won’t put any clips on here.) An executioner who shows compassion…an oxymoron? But I’m digressing. Suffice to say, a spiritual direction conversation around discernment with the Tom Hanks character at the height of his career might be interesting. More on that next time I think.

So, St. Ignatius to the rescue. Let us assume the job you are doing is moral and good. In the Spiritual Exercises, he outlines for us three different ways that a choice such as the one in question might be made, and some guidelines to help us to discern God’s voice and God’s will for us, and he calls them first, second and third time, but it is not that you make a choice using all three times in this order. Let me illustrate with examples from my own experience and work.

First time choice is the most infrequent. It involves a revelation, about which there is no doubt at the time, there is a desire for it and it is possible to follow through on it. I have experienced this twice in my life regarding the work I do, with respect to becoming a teacher and secondly, a spiritual director.

In the first case, I was studying for my PhD and I was at a Catholic Student Council conference on Education. We were in a discussion group about privilege and responsibility, and examining the question of what the ethos in a church school should look like. I remember feeling very lucky and grateful that I was able to engage in education to the level that I wanted to, and there came – I can only describe it as a booming voice – which said:

Be a teacher!

It was a real Damascus moment for me, since not long previously, when I had been asked, I had vehemently asserted that I would not touch teaching with a ten foot barge pole! I had no doubt about who the voice belonged to. The rest, as they say, is history, and twenty seven years later, here I am, still in the classroom four days a week. Not every day or every part of my work has been filled joyfully with a zest for it, sometimes it has been a real drag, and for periods that have lasted a long time, but I have used this example in response to the question asked in the title of this post. It is bringing to mind the original moment of consolation that set me on that particular path that has sustained me through the difficult times: I was certain about why I was there doing what I was doing. To the person asking the question in the title I would ask:

What drew you into the work you are doing in the first place?

Second time choice is more difficult to my mind, and involves much angst, a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, doubts, certainties, oscillation; what is called “turmoil of spirits”. We are arguing within and outwith ourselves at this point and it is pretty exhausting. Giving voice to a spiritual director of the push and pull, the attraction and the repulsion going on is invaluable in my experience. After my first time choice of training to be a spiritual director, I entered a period of questioning about it…it would mean going part time, less financial security as well as stability, it took two hours to travel to where the course was held…the list went on, and the decision had to be made very promptly, because of the way schools have to sort out staffing for the following academic year quite early. I felt under pressure to decide or delay making the decision for another year. My director logically, asked about making the decision to go part time now, and of applying for the course later, if I had doubts about the course. By the time I sat down on the train to go home, I realised that it was fear of going part time that was getting in the way, not my desire to do the course. This would be an example of the first rule Ignatius gives to help us with second time choice:

The love that moves and causes one to choose must descend from above, that is, from the love of God, so that before one chooses he should perceive that the greater or less attachment for the object of his choice is solely because of His Creator and Lord.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.

And so I realised that training to become a spiritual director was the attraction drawing me to God: fear of the consequences of going part time in order to do it was getting in the way, and that the fear was not of God. And when I put my MP3 player on, this was the song that played first:

Maggie Said: Natalie Merchant.

Holding back, what did I get for all of that? What did it count for? Tell me that, tell me that. Nothing, nothing, that’s a fact.

Maggie Said: Natalie Merchant,

I even wrote the chorus down. It haunted me, it was like a conversation wth an older version of myself – a very practical example of Ignatius’ third rule to help with second time choice:

This is to consider what procedure and norm of action I would wish to have followed in making the present choice if I were at the moment of death. I will guide myself by this and make my decision entirely in conformity with it.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.

And my decision was made, turmoil over. Ignatius gives another two suggestions in the first and fourth rules which involve considering what advice you would give to someone you have never met before who was struggling with the exact same decision to choose for the greater glory of God and also to picture yourself in front of God on your day of judgment and ask yourself which decision you would have wished to have made.

To the person asking the question and experiencing turmoil of spirits I would ask:

What is holding you in your current work?

And I would explore with them their fears, desires and motivations. I might ask:

What is preventing you from looking for a different job?

And I would definitely ask:

What happens when you put all this to God in prayer? How does He respond?

Third time choice is a means of making a choice when we are tranquil; when there is no push or pull, and one choice seems as another. Ignatius gives us a useful and practical tool. I used this method to decide whether to apply for a job in a different school.

I should apply for the job at School. I should NOT apply for the job at School.
Advantages Disadvantages Advantages Disadvantages

Church school – ethos  
Has a prayer room!  
Energy to pursue spiritual direction
Hassle of moving when I’m settled  
Would feel disloyal to people who have supported me  
Familiarity – established here   Good colleagues I know I work well with Have not enjoyed being here since last years stress

Notice the choice is framed as both a positive and negative, and the advantages and disadvantages of both are considered. It is more subtle than a staightforward list of pros and cons, and it is not the number of reasons in each column that is important, but the weight given to each of them. It draws out the different desires that are motivating us, even when we think we have no strong feelings about the decision. Also notice how specific the decision is – I can only discern for myself, and the only choice I had here was whether to apply for the job or not. Whether I was offered the job was someone else’s discernment, and whether I would accept it if offered it was yet another choice to be discerned. Above is only a small section of my grid but before I had finished it, I knew that I wanted to apply for the job, and I was also sure that, failing a terrible experience there, I would accept it if offered it. I have been there a year now and have not doubted the rightness of the choice for a moment.

To the person asking the question in the title, if they are tranquil (and the question itself and the way it was asked suggests not), but if they were, I would suggest trying Ignatius’ grid for themselves.

And finally, after making a choice by whatever way, Ignatius suggests that:

…the one who has made it must turn with great diligence to prayer in the presence of God our Lord, and offer Him his choice that the Divine Majesty may deign to accept and confirm it if it is for His greater service and praise.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.

Remembering that the absence of anything to contradict the decision can also be regarded as confirmation.

Answering the question in the title of this post is a very individual process. Ignatius describes ways of going about it which are helpful, and conversations with a spiritual director invaluable in helping the seeker find a way through until in the end, the choice is offered to God. In my experience, there is a deep, sustaining peace about choices made like this.

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