How I pray my dreams into reality
Listening to your heart as you ponder your dreams is a way to move forward with a vocation decision. (Image credit: “Solitary” by Spodzone on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Christians don’t just decide things; we discern them. That means figuring out how God is calling you in every situation. That means saying yes to divine invitation. But how do we discern God’s will for us? That’s the tricky part.
There are a number of approaches to discernment in the Catholic tradition. The one I know the best comes from Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, who lived in Europe during the 16th century. His insights are so rich and abundant that hundreds of books have been written about his life and work, but one insight in particular gets to the heart of the process: “Good discernment consists of prayerfully pondering the great desires that well up in my daydreams.”
I let God dream in me
Are desires good or bad? Many spiritual writers of Ignatius’ day spoke of desires as obstacles to God’s will. One solution was to suppress desires, to eliminate them whenever possible. Ignatius, on the other hand, held the radical notion that God dwells in the desires of a good person.
How, then, do I tap into these desires? I daydream, that’s how! I fantasize about great and beautiful futures. I let God dream in me, and I sit in silent awe and wonder as these holy dreams come to life before the eyes and ears of my soul. Now that’s a different approach to prayer than most of us know. But that’s what Saint Ignatius taught.
If I have to choose among several different options, I might start with one option and ask God to show me the marvelous things he could do with this possibility. I think crazy thoughts and mull over preposterous proposals. I have galactic visions of new worlds of possibilities opening up merely by saying yes to God’s invitation to that option.
I then start all over again and dream about a second option, a third one, and so on.
Let’s take an example. Say I’m a manager who has just been given an offer to relocate to a faraway city and join a more prestigious company. My immediate inclination might be to feel frightened of all the unknowns: Will I be happy in this new place? Will I like my new bosses? Will I find affordable housing? Will I be burning bridges with my current firm? All of these are reasonable concerns and will have to be considered later.
Saint Ignatius would argue that these negative considerations are not the proper starting point for discernment. Instead, he said, start with dreams and desires. I might begin by asking, what is my purpose in life? The answer Catholics learned as children applies: To praise, reverence, and serve God.
I might then ask, how am I uniquely called to do this? Right now, as a generous single Catholic. Then, what are my dreams in my current roles? In my roles as a professional, a citizen, a member of my family, and a parishioner, to further the reign of God in my own corner of the world.
Then I ponder, what are my dreams for my career? That I might serve God and society through my profession. That I be honest, professional, and fair-minded. That I might seek justice above all.
Now, I begin to daydream—or better—to “praydream”! I ask myself, how might I make these goals for my life come true? First, I dream big dreams of all that could happen if I continue in my present situation. Then I dream about how I might make these goals come to life by moving to the new job and city. To prayerfully explore my options, I praydream all of the possibilities.
Note the difference between the way most people normally make decisions and this radical way of discerning that Saint Ignatius is proposing. Most allow the tools of the false spirit to drive the bus: fear and anxiety (What might go wrong?), ambition (Here’s my chance to rise!), pride (It’s a more prestigious employer), jealousy (Finally, I’ll leave my co-workers in the dust!), and so on. There will be time enough to deal with these negative realities. But for now, I allow my desires to take the lead. I imagine the greatest potentialities—the best-case scenarios—for each option. For now, I dream of glorious outcomes.
I discern my dreams
As I praydream the possibilities of living out my great desires in each option, I try to note the stirrings in my heart and understand their meaning.
After the initial excitement and fear fade, which dreams leave me in consolation? That is:
• Which of these dreams leave me filled with holy and wholesome desires?
• Which leave me with a sense of closeness to God?
• Which leave me filled with faith, hope, and love?
• Which make me want to go out and share them with the people I love, with my mentors and friends?
• Which leave me with deep peace and tranquility? With a sense of rightness?
Then I discern, which dreams leave me in desolation? That is:
• Which leave me without faith, hope, or love?
• Which leave me with a sense of distance from God?
• Which leave me with no passion and zeal? With a sense of boredom and tepidity? With no energy? Feeling deflated?
• Which fill me with deep anxiety and fear?
• Which are the dreams I’m not very excited to talk about with my mentors and friends? Which are the ones that I avoid mentioning to them?
As I praydream, I pay particular attention to the fluctuating moments of peace versus disquiet and passion versus deflatedness.
What brings me inner peace?
Saint Ignatius says that when a well-intentioned, prayerful person is in sync with God, God’s will comes “sweetly, lightly, gently, as a drop of water that enters a sponge.” This inner peace—even when making a tough decision—is one of the most important signs of God’s will. When I ponder my praydreams, which of the options leave me feeling this way?
Deep peace is not simply feeling comfortable. It may well be that God’s will lies in the most difficult option—for example, leaving a comfortable job in order to enter religious life. I may therefore feel fearful when I praydream this scenario, and yet deep down, there is a sense in me that this is the proper way to go and that the Lord’s abiding presence will sustain me through the unpleasant fallout. It is this deeper peace that I am seeking.
I am also looking out for the opposite: deep agitation. Again, one particular option may look good on paper and make me feel comfortable on the surface of my emotions. This “easy option” may smooth things over or avoid conflict or unpleasant situations (for example, upholding the status quo, not making waves, making only complimentary remarks). Despite the fact that this option is clearly the path of least resistance, deep down there is agitation within me. There is something that isn’t quite settled in my spirit as I imagine myself moving forward in this direction. This negative indicator of agitation is as important as the positive indicator of peace.
I’ll know in a moment
Often, after many hours of prayerful deliberation, there will be a moment when you will just know. It will feel not as though you are making a decision but rather as though you are acknowledging a decision that has already been agreed upon by God and your heart.
I’ll recognize this auspicious moment by the way one option over the others leads to more praydreams. Maybe those praydreams aren’t idealistic, comfortable, or beautiful. But somehow they are realistic and right, more peaceful and charged with energy. These dreams will fit like a glove. All the other options—though perhaps beautiful, comfortable, or safe—will drift away from my soul and fade on the horizon.
Once you feel that you have reached a point of decision, Saint Ignatius suggests you place that decision before God and await his confirmation. How will this confirmation come? In the same way that your initial discernment came—through pondering the stirrings of your heart as you begin to take the first tentative steps toward your new option.
Is your heart charged with God’s energy? If so, then you can move forward with the decision, knowing that you have done all that you could to discern God’s desires.
It’s never easy to make decisions, and discerning God’s will is challenging. Saint Ignatius assures me that God has placed his desire deep within the desires of my own heart. Praydreaming allows me to ponder those deep desires and to discover and say yes to God’s grace-filled path for my life.
This 2017 Reprint Edition is published under arrangement with Liguori Publications, Liguori, Missouri, USA. For more information visit liguori.org or call 1-800-325-9521. Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved.
Related article: VocationNetwork.org, “The paths of prayer.”
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