Carolyn sat on a cushioned bench with both hands embracing a cup and stared blankly out the coffee shop window. A steady stream of people entered and left the shop as she continued quietly entertaining questions rambling around within her. She could see no clear answers, just silence that opened after each of them.
The questions began shadowing her after she attended a lecture during her five-year college reunion six weeks ago. It wasn’t the topic of the lecture that nagged at her, but the sense of purpose she noticed in the speaker. The woman was dynamic, but there was something else. She was passionate about the research she was doing and the people she had met during their interviews. Carolyn believed this professor was really making a difference in peoples’ lives. It made Carolyn wonder why she wasn’t feeling that way about her own career.
Her questions about her future had come fast and furiously since then: “What am I passionate about? What do I want to do that would make a difference in others’ lives? I do want to contribute to making this world better, but how can I do that?”
These and more now wandered inside her as the coffee shop first filled and then emptied most of the afternoon.
Questions of the kind Carolyn pondered can signal change that’s edging its way into our thoughts. Answering them for ourselves is vital to our happiness in life and our own sense of purpose. God’s call often comes through questioning.
Christine Valters Paintner, in her book The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred, says, “Discernment is essentially a way of listening to our lives and the world around us and responding to the invitations that call us into deeper alignment with our soul’s deep desires and the desires God has for us.”*
With that description in mind, how do we enter that space of quiet where the “way of listening” she mentions is possible? Once we slow down and stop for awhile, our thoughts don’t necessarily stop with us. They keep going and we can count on multiple distractions invading that space! They might sound like: “I’ve got to get going.” “I can’t just sit here like this!” “I have things to do.” “This is a waste of time; nothing’s happening!”
Try sitting in a chair, feet on the floor, hands resting comfortably in your lap and begin breathing slowly, in and out. Count the breaths if that helps. Count them while focusing your attention on each breath until you begin to notice your breathing gradually slows more and more. This intentional quieting each day, even for ten minutes at a time, will begin to develop a pattern in our thoughts. We will start to notice something different is happening. Our thoughts will take their cue from our breathing and also slow down.
Thoughts will never be totally erased from our quiet time. But being intentional about taking time everyday to become familiar with this sacred space within will set the stage for our best and deepest listening to God’s voice within.
*Excerpted from The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred by Christine Valters Paintner. Copyright 2018 by Ave Maria Press, P.O. Box 428, Notre Dame, IN 46556. Used with permission of the publisher.
Unless I make a conscious choice to stop on our back porch on my way in or out of the house, I do not see the tiny yellow blossoms and smaller green tomato orbs on the vine or the young pea pods among the plant’s leaves and tentacles. Even in my widow-box veggie garden, Nature has her way of protecting – even hiding – the fruits of growth until they’re ready to be picked. I’m amazed how long it takes me some days, to even find the pods and tomatoes – once I stop. Remembering my impatience with the plants and their leaves for hiding their fruit from my eyes makes me smile now!
Only gradually and with persistent hunting could I notice the pods and orbs that I’d missed on my previous searches. The harvest time may not be here yet, but I do hope to experience it eventually. Right-timing is everything!
Discernment in our lives shares some of these characteristics. It’s vital to stop and step away from our normal daily routines so we can notice what may be surfacing in our lives. Constant busy-ness leaves little space to take that closer look and notice God’s call in our lives.
Sporadic times of reflection may not be enough to provide the kind of stopping and noticing needed to hear and see God’s hints at our life purpose. Just as the leaves and tendrils of the peas eventually intertwine in a jumbled green ball, our discernment of God’s call mixes with many other possibilities and these take time to sort through. Giving the time for stepping away carries a reward. Trust that the results of looking, noticing and listening will bring us its bounty and insights.
While I was having lunch at Chilli’s with a few visiting Australian friends, they surprised me by commenting, “I get tired of how many choices you Americans have, even when you go out to eat!”
I’d never considered this, of course, because I’m so used to being asked, “Do you want that toasted or plain and on what kind of bread?” “Paper or plastic?” My friends weren’t used to so much decision-making just to have a simple meal, so they felt overwhelmed.
We can experience that same sense that it’s all too much when considering the important life question, “Where is God calling me?” Many young people are fortunate in having a solid education and /or successful work experience, so the possibilities for the future are plentiful. At first glance this seems like a good thing. And it is – until you have to choose.
When we make a choice for something good for our life’s purpose, it also means letting go of other good things – a dilemma for sure! This is also why it can take longer than we’d like to decide which way to go in life, what choice to make.
Wisdom tells us each letting go of a good choice makes another one possible. Since we cannot be totally sure the good choice we’re making is the right one, reality elbows in to remind us that there’s risk involved in choosing. The risk is worth it, however, if it results in peace of mind and an inner sense of rightness. Both are indicators that this choice is your response to God’s call.
Carmel Boyle, a popular Irish vocalist, has recorded the song “My Soul’s Desire”, an engaging and foot-tapping melody designed to get us thinking deeply about what we are looking for in life. No, that’s not entirely true. The words of the song ask what you desire and what you think God desires too!
Many spiritual writers have told us that one clue to what God is asking of us – calling us toward – is found in our deep desires, our heart’s desires, or as Ms. Boyle puts it, our “soul’s desire”.
One of the ways to discover what my soul desires can be spending time in quiet, the kind of inner quiet that allows me to really focus and listen deeply for my heart’s response. Pay attention to what you long for, what it is you’re passionate about, what brings you joy and hope. In these longer summer days of light, may you make the time for this kind of quiet and ready yourself to listen for your soul’s desire.
Blessings as you listen,
There is a famous question, “If you were charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” In other words, does the way you live your life really reflect what you claim you believe and value? Most of us fall short, but in general, we can recognize if we are muddling along in the direction toward what we hold sacred and true or away from it.
For Dominicans, we view it in a slightly different way. How does your life preach? How does the way you live proclaim to the world? We are members of the Order of Preachers, after all. Dominican houses were and are called “Houses of the Holy Preaching.” That doesn’t mean we sit around listening to homilies and reflections. It means we strive to recognize that what we do – how we treat each other, how we live together, how we reach out to others – is a way of preaching Christ’s Gospel.
How do I preach with my life? What do I preach with my life? Does my life say what I want it to be saying? Does my life align with God’s desires for me? Asking these questions can help us figure out if we are on the right path and can help us discern the forks in the road.
Ultimately God’s desire for our lives and our deepest desires are united. But it takes a while to understand and accept those deepest desires within us.
Take some time this week to ask God to show you how you already preach with your life and, perhaps, show you new ways you may be called!
In a few days I will be heading for my annual retreat. I usually choose to do silent, directed retreats. The chance to be completely quiet, except for the forty minutes each day with a spiritual director, helps me to go much deeper. It enables me to get more connected in that place deep within where God dwells.
Even though it’s not always an easy time, I always look forward to these “vacations with God” with excitement, knowing that God and I will have some extra focused time to nourish our relationship. By now I know that, even though I may be in the same retreat house, I will be surprised by God. God accepts me where I am, and at the same time offers me what is needed. Sometimes it’s comfort, sometimes it’s a chance to slow down, sometimes it’s a nudge, and sometimes it’s a push.
Even though it can sound like a retreat is just about “me and God” it’s always bigger than that. First, I always spend much more time in nature and so become more attuned to God’s grace in all creation and more aware of myself as one of God’s creatures in a much larger reality. Also, what happens in the retreat can remain with me throughout the year and can help to transform my relationships with others.
If you are discerning something in particular, a retreat can be a wonderful way to clear away all the extras for a time and focus on listing to the voice of God’s wisdom. Retreats have played an important role in my own journey to religious life. These special times also help me nurture that relationship with the One I fully gave my life to. I know God is looking forward to this quality time with me as well!
I pray you are able to have a “vacation with God” this summer!
That famous question, “Who do you say that I am?” occurs in this Sunday’s Gospel. It can be a very important discernment question because how we answer it affects everything. If you say Jesus was a good man who set a good example, that may be nice, but it doesn’t necessarily call a person to any radical change. If you say Jesus is the one who will judge us in the end, then it might just make you anxious and act out of guilt. If you say Jesus is the creator of the universe manifesting in human form to teach us how to live and love, you might feel more drawn to respond with your life.
At a very personal level, we probably answer this question differently from others, and even for ourselves at different points in our lives. Because Jesus is also a ‘person,’ we are in a relationship, and relationships change over time. Jesus may not change, but our understanding of him and way of relating to him will. Some of the different answers I have had to this question: Jesus you are… my partner… my hope… a caress… a challenger… the one I take time with each night and morning… the core relationship in my life.
Discernment involves other people. But the strongest voice in becoming who I am, and discerning what I am called to do, is the voice of Jesus.
Who do you say Jesus is?
Without a healthy self-love, there can be no love of God and neighbor. According to the Desert Fathers and Mothers of early Christian times, we cannot begin to learn how to love God and others without first learning how to claim for ourselves a self to do that loving. To many contemporary Christians, loving means that as Jesus sacrificed himself for others, so Christians must also in their everyday lives sacrifice their very selves for the sake of others.
While it is true that love requires self-giving and discipline to respond to the needs of family, friends, community and those we serve, it is misguided to think that love is of such a self-sacrificing nature that Christians ought not have a self at all. One sign that we lack a self is the feeling that our worth is determined by others’ approval or liking of us. If we are captive to the need for approval, we may well refuse to make the right decision we know is true to our convictions out of anxiety over what others may think of us. As Christians, we need to realize our intrinsic value as created in the image of God. Our true identity rests in God and our primary relationship is with God.
For this reason, the Desert Fathers and Mothers told their disciples to be like the dead when it comes to other people’s opinion:
A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, “Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.” So the old man said, “Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.” The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, “Didn’t they say anything to you?” He replied, “No.” The old man said, “Go back tomorrow and praise them.” So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, “Apostles, saints, and righteous men.” He returned to the old man and said to him, “I have complimented them.” And the old man said to him, “Did they not answer you?” The brother said no. The old man said to him, “You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of human beings or their praises, and you will be saved.”
The clear message in Macarius’ teaching is that if we are able to understand that our authentic identity is not linked to others’ evaluations of us, we are free to be our true self. Only then will we be able to respond to the call of Christ to love God and neighbor as self.
Waiting is so hard. We want to get things done, to check them off our list, to be sure about the next step. There is a quote I like, “Do you have the patience to wait until the mud settles, until the right answer arises by itself.” We do all our pondering and thinking, discussing and pro and con lists – and that is all good and necessary. But at some point discernment also involves waiting. We take a step and we wait as we live into a new reality.
Think of Mary. She took a huge step in saying, “May it be done to me according to your word.” And then she waited. Like any mother, she had to wait nine months to see her newborn, to learn how to be a mother, to learn how to love her particular child, and, finally, to let go as that child followed his mission in the world.
We say a ‘yes,’ big or little, and then we go forward step by step, learning what that yes really means as we go. What yes have you said to God that is still being formed in you?
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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!