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 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.
More than simply making a decision, spiritual discernment is decision-making that is rooted in self-knowledge as well as a deep awareness of God’s loving presence and action in our lives. Because we know God as our creator and redeemer, we lean on that graced friendship with God to help us make a good and life-giving decision.
There are many tried-and-true tools that help us prepare the soil for a fruitful discernment process. First, we need to define prayerfully the issue for discernment. It is helpful to focus our issue carefully enough to be able to state it in the form of a question that can be answered yes or no. So for example, rather than ask a more general question like, “What shall I do with my life?” we can fine-tune the question to ask something more specific like, “Will I apply to become a sister with the Adrian Dominicans?” Once the decision before us is well defined, we need to apply the tool of fact-finding. What kinds of relevant data do we need in order to make an informed decision? Once all of the facts are gathered, we can begin to assess and evaluate the data. In this process, we stay attentive to all of the thoughts and feelings that arise as we consider the different dimensions of our decision. The tool of journal keeping is helpful here.
Another handy tool in the toolbox of discernment is dialogue with others. We need to share the different aspects of our decision with the wisdom figures in our life, those who know us well and care deeply about our well-being. Equally important is the tool of solitude, where we invite God into our decision-making process. We need to confide in God our hopes, dreams, expectations, doubts, and fears. We then listen carefully to how God responds to us. A good spiritual director can help us in this discernment process.
Dominican Sister Cathy Arnold shared a useful tool of imagination that she used in discerning her call to religious life. Her spiritual director advised her to imagine herself in each choice for two weeks. So for two weeks, she lived as if she had made the decision to become a Dominican Sister. She reflected on how she felt when she woke up in the morning. What were her thoughts and feelings throughout the two weeks? Then she reversed the process and lived as if she had made the opposite decision. How did she feel? Was she relieved or devastated by the change? Click on the following link to hear Sister Cathy’s discussion on discernment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwWPM4QtGwY.
Finally, how do we know that our choice represents God’s deepest desires for us? Signs of validation include feelings of inner peace and joy with our decision, as well as the confirmation of the others who have shared in our discernment process.
Are you discerning an important life decision? What are your tools for the discernment process?
The hidden assumptions we hold when we begin to discern an important decision can easily derail a healthy life choice. If we automatically assume that certain options are undesirable, unthinkable, or impossible to attain, we will rule them out before we even consider our course of action. Detecting and assessing our hidden assumptions can open the way to finding God’s call in our lives through our concrete decisions.
When I was in my early twenties, I assumed that following God’s will for my life had to involve doing something explicitly religious. I wanted to pursue doctoral studies in European history with the hopes of becoming a college professor. In prayer, I shared my doubts with God; how could studying history possibly draw me closer to Christ or be an expression of discipleship? God, however, seemed to be affirming my desire for studies. I earned a scholarship that paid for my education, and although I never became a historian, I gained a wealth of research and writing skills. These newly acquired skills served me well as I later earned my doctoral degree in theology and became a university professor. I learned through this experience that following God’s will has a diversity of forms and need not only occur in a religious context.
Often our hidden assumptions show up in what surprises us or make us resistant or defensive. When I was a member of the Covenant House lay community in New York City, again in my twenties, I was asked to consider going to Fort Lauderdale, Florida to help open a Covenant House there. At first, I was totally against the idea. As a Vermonter, who loves the four seasons, my thought was, “I won’t be caught dead in Florida.” Dare I say that I warmed up to the idea, and took the assignment? In the end, I loved my time there. In fact, had I not gone to Florida, I probably would not have met the Adrian Dominican Sisters and become a Dominican sister. Only by letting go of my hidden assumption that God’s will must unfold in my preferred climate and geographic location, was I able to embrace God’s deepest desire for me.
What have been some of your hidden assumptions when discerning God’s call? Where have you not wanted to listen? How has God surprised you?
Centering prayer is an ancient prayer of inner awakening to divine presence in the silence of our being. In this prayer we gently let go of our thoughts, feelings, and anxious planning, and sink into that open space within ourselves where God dwells in hidden closeness. When I practice this prayer I feel somehow free from my personal story. I sense a joy in knowing that God’s presence extends far beyond my thoughts, feelings, and achievements, and resides in the depths of my soul soaring into eternity. This awareness of union with God is at the heart of the spiritual life.
How can sitting in the silence of centering prayer help us to respond effectively to various life situations? Clearly, we are not deliberating on our problems and searching for solid solutions during this prayer of silence. Centering prayer, however, trains us to separate from our thoughts and feelings and to wait for God’s wisdom and guidance rather than jumping to easy answers prematurely. As Albert Einstein once said, “no problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.” By learning to orient ourselves toward God in centering prayer, we learn to see our life situations from a new divine perspective. The direction we need to go becomes clear and we are emboldened to take loving action for the betterment of those around us.
In responding to life situations, is anger helpful or is it self-defeating? Anger can be useful because it alerts us to a problem and motivates us to make change in ourselves or in our world. Twelve-step groups, for example, talk about people needing to feel the frustration of “hitting rock bottom” before they turn their lives over to God in the recovery process. Likewise, anger in the face of social injustice can move us to take collaborative action on behalf of the common good. The Adrian Dominican Sisters Vision Statement states, “impelled by the Gospel and outraged by the injustices of our day, [we] seek truth; make peace; reverence life.”
While anger can serve a positive function in our lives, it can also be self-defeating. Unlike our positive emotions like affection, awe, and joy, anger feels bad and separates us from others. Our inability to handle anger effectively can entrap us in hostility, hatred, and despair. Caught in the volatility of anger, we react with revenge and retaliation against ourselves and others. Interestingly, our interpretation of events can create more anger than the event itself. Here is one example of how it can play out in community life.
I begin with the following premise: if I am a good and loving Sister, the Sisters with whom I live will love me in the ways in which I want to be loved. All is well, until one day I experience what appears to be a rejection by one of my Sisters. Feeling upset, I begin to draw out different meanings from the event that only stoke my anger. I might conclude that I am an unlovable community member who caused or deserves this hurtful treatment. I might also decide that the other Sister is a messed up, dysfunctional person because she is not meeting my ideals. Underneath my anger is the fear of losing self-esteem.
My interpretations of the event are invalid because blaming myself for the other person’s actions is diminishing my self-esteem. Making a monster out of the other person and blaming them for causing my hurt blinds me to the good in the other person and hardens my heart toward them.
Empathy, the ability to understand accurately the thoughts and motives of others, is the best remedy for anger. If I can put myself in the other person’s place and see their struggle, I will have more compassion toward them. I can talk with them about why they did what they did. The fact that they treated me poorly does not mean that I am unlovable or less of a person. I no longer see myself as responsible for their actions and my self-esteem increases. I take responsibility for my own feelings and practice self-compassion. I am now in a place of calm to work through the problem with my Sister.
We need to discern the message of anger by taking quiet time to blow off steam and work through our thoughts and feelings. We need to be willing to do the inner work it takes to have healthy and happy relationships. How have you dealt with anger in your life?
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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 new video series called DISCO (Discernment Conversations): Dancing with the questions of life!