What’s Next: St. Ignatius’ Advice for Midlife Discernment
Insights on Ways to Enter the Next Chapter With God’s Eyes
Rather than easing into his retirement, David Snively spent two intense years leading the sale of the Monsanto Co. as part of an $83-billion takeover. When the sale was completed in 2018, Snively, who lives in St. Louis, retired after 35 years with the company.
With more time for quiet reflection, Snively talked with God about his next move.
“What was the best use of my time?” wondered Snively, 68, who served as executive vice president, secretary and general counsel of the American agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation that was acquired by the German company Bayer AG.
“Should I serve in a soup kitchen? Practice law with a firm? What should I do? And what’s God calling me to do?”
Retirement and career change are among the events that unsettle many Catholics in midlife, while also presenting them with opportunities to pray, discern and pursue new interests. For Snively, it was the chance to reassess his talents and spiritual gifts and discern using Ignatian spirituality during a retirement-planning course. Part of his next phase was returning to the board of directors of Life Teen International, a Catholic youth ministry founded in Mesa, Arizona.
Life Changes and Challenges
Americans face at least some significant life changes between the ages of 40 and 65. Even if retirement is still far off, there may be career moves, children leaving home, financial issues, marital challenges and mental or physical decline, whether for themselves or loved ones, according to Psychology Today. In 2020, 121 million Americans were between the ages of 40 and 69.
Midlife changes can bring uncertainty, but by approaching them with hope, Catholics in this phase of life can discover their true selves through the Holy Spirit, deepen their relationship with the Lord and possibly follow his call in a new way.
By learning to transition through such changes with prayer, other tools of the faith and guidance, Catholics in midlife can find or rediscover their gifts along with a deeper sense of identity, purpose and mission that may lead to new ways of contributing to the Church and society.
For Catholics in midlife, their next phase is a “beautiful opportunity for living in the Church, for experiencing community, for diving into mission, for reconnecting and renewing our faith and our life with God,” said Karen Herbert, co-founder of Themelios Coaching in Blaine, Minnesota, who co-hosts with her husband, Curtis Herbert, The Catholic Midlife Podcast.
“I think for serious Catholics they really want to use that time for God,” she said. “They’re thinking about things like: What would some new purpose or mission look like in this phase? How can I use this well and serve the Lord and serve the Church?”
Each generation may face distinct societal challenges at midlife. The prevalence of “midlife crises” may be exaggerated, but midlifers often grapple with a range of emotions as they feel the effects of various changes, along with increasing work demands and decreasing control over life, according to Psychology Today. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated midlife problems, sources said.
Americans are educated to fear rather than love change, which makes it harder to move through inevitable life transitions, said Jim Merhaut, founder of Coaching to Connect in Youngstown, Ohio. “All change requires an openness to learning, an openness to experimentation and the skills of implementing whatever it is we’re changing.”
Midlife changes can “have the effect of unraveling us as though the very fabric of life was coming apart,” said Richard Johnson, founder of Johnson Institute for Spiritual Gerontology and Lifelong Adult Faith Formation in St. Louis. “We can feel broken and fragmented, at least unsettled and restless.”
But what overcomes anxiety and fear in midlife transitioning is hope, underscored Curtis Herbert. “Part of this is that we’re sensing that we’ve lived longer than we’re going to live; it’s a natural thing to focus on.”
Sometimes as midlifers have more freedom in their lives, they can further contemplate intrinsic success, rather than only external success, Curtis Herbert said. “The questions really become for the first time, ‘Who could I be?’ ‘What could I be?’”
There’s an opportunity to learn who they are before God and the gifts he has given, said Jesuit Father Christopher Collins, vice president for mission at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, who in a previous position at St. Louis University supported development of “The Next Chapter,” a six-month discernment program for Catholics and Christians near retirement using Ignatian spirituality.
“Who am I, and how do I want to put these gifts to work in the world for a meaningful and life-giving next chapter?” he posited. Launched in St. Louis in 2017, “The Next Chapter” is also offered in St. Paul.
In the Footsteps of Ignatius
Father Collins points to the example of St. Ignatius himself as an example of how to discern as a new chapter of life emerges.
“In a sense, it starts with the life of Ignatius himself and that most foundational story of when he’s wounded in battle and he has a long time to recover. So he’s on the verge of the next chapter of his life.
He would daydream about ‘as soon as I recover’ and ‘be more successful as soldier, man of court and gain influence and fame’ and so forth. So he’d have those daydreams that brought excitement, but then, afterwards, loneliness and sadness — and after a while he thought ‘maybe that’s not of God, if it leaves me sad and empty.’
“And then the other daydream he started to have was: ‘What if I let go of all this and started living my life for God instead of myself? What if I became like St. Francis or St. Dominic and imitate Jesus?’ And that’s when he found peace and consolation — but he didn’t realize that until days and weeks of that daydream. Those two competing daydreams, that’s where it starts with discernment of spirits, practiced in the Ignatian tradition, at least. Then you just learn that by life and paying attention to his interior movements.”
He continued, “The other thing that reminds me about Ignatius is after he breaks with his life in leaving the castle and his family and everything, in the end, when he comes back and founds the Society [of Jesus], using all of his natural gifts that he had in the beginning, he knows how to deal with princes and dukes and cardinals — that he learned as a young man but now for the glory of God, not his glory — natural gifts reemployed in a different way.” As Ignatius changed course, he even had to go back to school, as the Register has recounted.
Some Catholics at midlife may face different fears, but there are also new possibilities, agreed Tom Auffenberg, founder and program director of “The Next Chapter” in St. Louis.
“The retirement transition for somebody who is interested, in pretty good health and pretty good financial shape, probably is the most radically free time of one’s life where one doesn’t have a complete blank slate but has a pretty blank slate to craft a new life, and that can be intimidating,” he said.
Midlife can also be a time to reflect on how God has worked in one’s life, Karen Herbert said. If regrets or guilt enter into that reflection, self-compassion and the sacrament of reconciliation can help, she said.
‘Seeing Yourself Through God’s Eyes’
“A lot of that goes along with that theme of seeing yourself through God’s eyes and not through my human eyes, which my natural tendency is to have a negativity bias,” Karen Herbert said, adding that it’s about “letting God help us see that and experience ourselves as God sees us. … Acknowledging and then letting go of guilt is another huge thing.”
Catholics in midlife particularly need to learn how to love themselves, Curtis Herbert said. “It’s simply that we need God’s love, and we have to love ourselves so we can receive it.”
Along with recognizing God’s love, Ignatian spirituality can help Catholics find him in all things, including our deepest desires, Father Collins said. Catholics should aim to include God in their decision-making and let the Holy Spirit guide them in different dimensions of prayer, he said.
Jean Dole, 57, found a midlife possibility to volunteer in the area of social and racial justice and is putting aside a plan to build a home for retirement.
With her three children reaching adulthood, Dole, of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, participated in a Facebook group on empty nesting led by Curtis and Karen Herbert last year. Conversations with students protesting after a 2020 police shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, caused her to think about larger questions.
“I start to look at … what kind of life I want to live,” said Dole, chief of staff for the office of the senior vice president and chief operating officer at Marquette University in Milwaukee, adding that she has been thinking about “doing some meaningful work and trying to put my time and energy into that.”
Whatever midlife changes they face, with God as their partner, Catholics can have more confidence in decision-making, Auffenberg stressed. After they identify their spiritual gifts and talents and devote time and work, new ideas may emerge, he said. “You uncover more possibilities.”