There are times when we absolutely have to die to find new life, and this is something we resist. Because discernment involves the difficult task of making life-changing decisions, we are forced to let go of some possibilities in order to open ourselves to new and abundant life. Here is just a small sampling of death-to-new-life choices we are called to make on our journey of discernment.
The death we may need to embrace might be deciding to quit a secure, high-paying job in order to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to the work we love and that uses our talents and strengths to the fullest.
It may mean taking the courageous step of finally ending a relationship that has proved to be a dead end so we can be free to pursue more life-giving relationships.
It may require that we die to an addiction that binds our freedom to be truly intimate with others and to experience the fullness of life in all its joys and sorrows.
If we come from a home with some troubling family dynamics, it may mean finally leaving home by doing the inner work necessary to release and integrate the painful feelings of grief, fear, and anger. Only through this kind of death, will we be able to experience the new life that comes from our ability to trust self and others.
All these choices require dying a death, which is frightening. It seems so much easier to hold on to what we know, even when what we know is killing us. The death and resurrection dynamic, however, gives us the hope that strengthens us to do what must be done.*
What death-to-new-life decision might you be wrestling with? Do you have a spiritual director, counselor, or trusted guide who will gently nudge you toward the death you need to die?
*See Thomas Hart, “Toward a Life-Giving Christian Spirituality: Ten Guiding Principles,” Presence, Vol. 23, No.3, September, 2017.
If you are going to make it through the birth canal, baby girl, you need to change your direction. I hate to tell you this, but you are going the wrong way! Your twin sister has already left the womb. She was positioned headfirst and made it out with no problems. Since you are positioned feet first, you have a more complicated assignment. Don’t panic! I made you resilient and adaptable. Help is on the way. A female doctor with small hands is reaching in as we speak. Her gentle touch is encouraging you to make a somersault and head out in the right direction. Ah! There you go! You did it! Welcome to the world!
As you may have guessed, I was a breech birth — born one hour after my twin sister. Back in the 1950s, breech births were a threat to the life of both the baby and the mother. So, first of all, I feel blessed to be alive. The story of my birth, however, speaks an urgent message: new life demands necessary change! Hard fought effort on our part is required. God takes the lead and shows us the way.
Here is where discernment steps in. We need to decide when change is a good thing. Change for change’s sake, chasing every new experience for the excitement and pleasure of novelty, or running away from healthy commitments do not equal healthy, life-giving change in our lives. If God is calling us to make a change for the better, it is usually because we are beginning to experience a failure to thrive in some important area of our lives. Like me in the womb; I had to make a change in order to experience new life.
Are you heeding the call to healthy change in your life? Do you believe you can make the necessary changes with the help of God and others?
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke makes a wise observation when he says, “The future must enter into you long before it happens.” The use of imagination is one powerful way we can explore the meaning, promise and peril of a future direction we are discerning before that future is actually realized.
Images can come to us in many different ways. They can come through dreams, contemplation, prayer with Scripture, listening to music, or walking in nature. One way we can use imagination in the service of discernment is to contemplate thoroughly one image for the insight it holds around our decision.
Here’s an example from my own life: A few years ago, I began to seriously consider the possibility of leaving my university faculty position of 20 years to enter my name for election to congregational leadership. One morning, I woke up with the image in my head of someone going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. It was a startling image! Would a decision to leave university teaching to go into administration (which is not my strong suit) be as foolhardy, reckless, and without purpose as a decision to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel? The image helped me to get in touch with both my fear of failing (I could lose the election) and my fear of success (I could win the election, but be totally inept at the job). As if on the edge of the falls in a barrel, was I on the edge of a fatal mistake that could ruin my life?
As I continued to mull over the image, I remembered my attraction to Niagara Falls. Having visited the falls many times, it had become a God image for me. Like God, it was glorious, awe-inspiring, and fearful in its grandeur. Yet, it bedazzled me and allured me to come close and experience its beauty and its power. The roar of the falls often wrapped me in prayer. Above the falls, the river would roll along at its unhurried pace and then quite suddenly, without notice, meet the falls and plummet through mid-air as if to its death, only to reemerge at the foot of the falls and live anew as a river once again. It was an image of death and resurrection.
Leaving my university position would certainly be a kind of death, which I felt deep down was necessary for new life to emerge. It felt like God’s call. After much deliberation, I left my position. I was not, however, elected to leadership, but was appointed as vocation director, a ministry more suited to my gifts and talents. The image brought clarity and insight to my decision that has brought me new life in abundance.
Take time in prayer to get in touch with your discernment issue. Let an image arise from your prayer. Interact with your image. Pay attention to what it represents. Ask your image, What wisdom do you want to reveal to me? Listen for its response.
By Sister Patty Harvat, OP
Have you ever had the experience of unexpectedly meeting someone that you hadn’t seen in years? They say, “I think I know you!” and you say, “Really?”
During this season of Lent, God says to us, “I think I know you.” and “Return to me with all your heart.” (Joel 2:12)
Jesus looks at us deeply and with such longing and says, “I’d love to catch up with you. Got some time?”
This is the acceptable time; the acceptable time to deepen our experience of God and of our inmost selves. It is the time to allow God to help us to come to Easter in even deeper relationship than when Lent started. All of us enter into Lent acknowledging and accepting who we are while preparing to become more, because that is what God empowers us to be: MORE.
To become more. Was that what the Father was asking of his son in the Garden of Gethsemane? “My soul is sorrowful unto death.” God, it’s been a lonely year: transition, health problems, friends and family members dying, lack of civility in our society, family issues. What is the MORE God asks of us?
Listen to Jesus say to you each day, “I think I know you.” In his January 10, 2018, general audience, Pope Francis said, “Silence is not confined to the absence of words, but rather to preparing oneself to listen to other voices: the one in our heart and, above all, the voice of the Holy Spirit.”
A variety of prayer experiences will provide us with different ways to respond to Jesus: the silent contemplative prayer, the Stations of the Cross, the various liturgies and expressions of spirituality. Journal and observe how you were with God or how you weren’t. Record what you notice.
This is the acceptable time to return to God with all your heart. And to say to God, “Yes, you do know me and I have come to know you in a new and deeper way.”
By Sister Nancyann Turner, OP
Last Friday afternoon, a distraught mother sort of pushed her 8-year-old daughter into my office so that I could talk with her. The little girl, Alice, had a crumbled paper indicating that she had already served a one day “in-school” suspension and now had just been served a one day “out of school” suspension for outbursts, defiance, and talking back.
I asked Alice to tell me all that had happened. She pretty much agreed that she explodes, has outbursts, and often has great trouble controlling her behavior. We talked briefly about how important it is to think before reacting and screaming angry words. She told me that my previous idea of counting to ten just didn’t work for her; did I have any other ideas?
I mentioned that sometimes I take some deep breaths or I ask God to help me calm down. Alice seemed startled at my answer and asked if I really believed in God. I assured her that I did. She, then, related to me that she wasn’t sure yet if there really was a God; she was still trying to decide that.
We talked a few more minutes and she asked about the devil. “My brother says I have the devil in me…in my heart. Do you think I do?” Naturally, I disagreed.
“No, I don’t think you have the devil in you. In fact, I think you have great love in your heart. But sometimes you forget that you have it—and love has great power. So remember that you have love and remember to use it.”
After a few minutes, she seemed quite satisfied with these thoughts and thanked me for our conversation. Our theology and spiritual life session was finished. And I renewed my belief in God.
How do you experience the great power of Love in your life? What actions result when you put your belief in God into action?
By Sister Corinne Sanders, OP
The Gospels portray Jesus as a great teacher. He teaches and suddenly things happen. Jesus not only carries authority in his teaching but he carries power to heal and bring freedom. His presence, his authority, and power will continue to amaze and astonish as he speaks of the presence of God among us. His teaching will also frighten some and threaten others.
We know the world is longing for hearts and souls whose voices carry authority; strong voices that cause us to sit up, to take notice and to respond. My life has been shaped by these voices as I have heard those who speak of the rights of nature and I find myself taking delight in listening to Earth with a new heart.
I have been shaped and inspired by those who speak with passion and urgency on behalf of immigrants. And I have been freed over the years by women who teach and speak from a feminist perspective releasing my spirit to new ways of knowing and expressing faith in my God.
I am sure you can name those who have taught with authority and have shaped your lives, calling you deeper and deeper into mystery. As disciples, each of us has this responsibility to step out in whatever ways we can and to speak of God’s presence among us. In what ways are you being called to spread God’s truth in our world? How do you teach with your life?
Have you ever thought of yourself as a mother of God? We tend more to speak of ourselves as brothers and sisters of Jesus, and children of God. But Jesus even said, “For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:35). The famous Dominican Mystic, Meister Eckhart, said, “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”
This question can give a different perspective on discernment. How am I called to give birth to God in the little acts I do this day? Every interaction we have, the way we treat people we encounter at the store, on the road, in our homes – all of these can help give birth to God in our midst, or not.
The question really fits well when we are discerning the larger life choices: Will this job help me to bring God to birth in our city, our neighborhood? Is the relationship I am in witnessing to God’s love in the world and helping to share that love? Is the path I am on for my life the way I can best give birth to God with my life?
Take a look at your life this day and ask yourself how you are helping God to be born.
By Sister Carleen Maly, OP
As we reflect on God’s call in our lives, there seem to be some common characteristics:
I like to call these the “had it not been for…” moments. These people or events can be the instruments of God’s invitation, messengers, if you will, who are filled with God’s presence and understand what it means to be used as disciples.
As followers of Jesus we have all had our “had it not been for…” moments when we have heard God’s call. These are stories of trust in our ever-faithful God who continues to call us. What are some of your “had it not been for…” stories? What is happening in your life right now that seems to have God written all over it? May you listen and be attentive to the promptings of your hearts.
I would like to share a reflection written by Sister Antonette Lumbang, OP, a Dominican Sister of Adrian who lives and ministers in the Philippines.
Surrounded by violent political upheaval and cataclysmic natural disasters around the world, now, more than ever, I feel grateful for the gift of my Dominican vocation. Being Dominican nurtures my sense of hope while confronted with the daunting present. It gives me the lens to view what's happening in the world, good or bad, with deeper faith in the transcendent One whose love for all goes beyond what is imaginable.
To live in hope means getting up each morning ready to face what today brings. It is looking at our problems square in the face, to search for the truth that could ultimately lead to the answers we have been praying for. One Dominican motto is "to contemplate and give to others the fruit of our contemplation.” Somehow, it encapsulates neatly the flow of our life which relies heavily on prayer, our personal connection with God, that permeates our relationships with our neighbors and the rest of the world. As Dominicans, our contemplation is enriched by the daily experiences of our encounter with the people. What we bring to God in prayer are real stories of struggles, frustrations, and joys. In return, though unrecognizable at times, prayer gives us strength, reassurance and renewed hope for a more promising future.
"Prayer" is not isolated to the divine realm, it is a strong link to the life of the people who are largely responsible for what actually happens in the society. Our prayer moves us to act with kindness, respond in love, facilitate healing, be just in our dealings and raise our voices against injustices. As Dominicans, we do not subscribe to prayer being used as a recourse to inaction. Rather, it directs us to remain involved and be strong advocates of justice, love, and peace in our respective realities.
To be a Dominican is a gift but at the same time a challenge. The challenge is to emulate our founder, Brother Dominic, a preacher of truth, in this present age. Today, much of that truth is shrouded with politicking, selfish accumulation of profit, and the pursuit of vainglory. I realized that the first task is always to seek the truth to be preached. And this is no mean feat. Speaking the truth today entails tedious study beyond the pages of books to reading the signs of the times. It calls for discernment, setting aside personal prejudices, and finally, finding the courage to "speak your mind even when your voice shakes" (Maggie Kuhn). It can mean raising your voice against the deafening stillness of passivity and indifference. For some of us, it is going against a wrong masquerading as right due to majority support. At times, speaking truth is having the humility to admit your mistake when it dawns that you arrived at a wrong conclusion. Whichever it may be, our prayer at the start and end of each day is that through it all, we let the Spirit guide and unite us with Jesus – our way, truth, and life.
By Arlene Bachanov, Adrian Dominican Associate
Sister Sara’s recent post regarding tools for discernment, in which she shares some creative ways to access our thoughts, feelings, and intuitions when making a decision reminded me a bit of the at-first-glance wacky advice my college roommate once gave a friend. It involved flipping a coin – sort of.
Here’s the story: one afternoon my roommate and I met with a friend who worked at our college. She confided in us that she had a dilemma. Another staff person, who was an eligible bachelor (I’ll call him Dave), had invited her to go to a dinner meeting with him that night. However, she already had a date planned with her current boyfriend (let’s call him Tom).
“If I go to the dinner, I’ll be bored silly. If I keep my date with Tom, honestly I’ll have a lot more fun,” she said. “But I really like Dave and I’d like to see if maybe this could turn into something. If I cancel on Tom, however, that’s the end of that relationship. So… do I go out with Tom and maybe Dave never asks me out again, or do I go out with Dave, thereby blowing up my relationship with Tom, and run the risk that maybe it won’t work out between Dave and me, in which case I’m left having neither one of them.”
My roommate said, “Here’s what you do. You flip a coin.”
Our friend said, “Oh, yeah, I’m gonna decide my future on a coin flip!”
“No, it’s not that you actually DO what the coin flip says,” my roommate told her. “But if you flip the coin and look at the result and your immediate gut reaction is “SHOOT!!!!,” then you know that’s not the right choice. The coin doesn’t make the decision for you. It makes you focus on one thing and see how you feel about it.”
Well, long story short, my roommate and I went off to dinner and left our friend to think about whether or not to take Dave up on his invitation. Afterward, on our way back to our dorm, as we walked past our friend’s office, there she was, coming out the door … with Dave.
“Hey, you two!” she called out. “I flipped the coin!”
Eventually, she and Dave got married, and the last time I saw her, they were still happily so.
So, what’s the lesson here when it comes to discernment? Find creative ways, like flipping a coin, to key into your true feelings and deeper intuitions about the decision before you. May your decision lead you to the fullness of life that God so desires for you.
Whether you do as Cathy Arnold suggests and live “as if” for a time, or whether you flip that coin to force a focus on one side of the issue over the other side, do it, see how it feels … and then trust your gut.
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Get out your bell-bottoms and platform shoes, because DISCO is here!
Okay, so it's a little less dancing, a little more talking... Sisters Lorraine Réaume, OP, and Sara Fairbanks, OP, have a video series called DISCO (Discernment Conversations): Dancing with the questions of life!