In The Book of Awakening, Mark Nepo offers us this colorful piece of wisdom about discernment: “The instant fish accept that they will never have arms, they grow fins.” In other words, we will never discover who we are meant to be until we accept who we are not. Most of us have tried to be someone we thought we could or should be in our grandest fantasies of ourselves, only to discover that it was not in our nature to be like the person we so admired.
In high school, I played the trumpet and dreamed of being a professional musician—the next Louis Armstrong! Once I discovered that I did not have the disposition nor the natural talent necessary to achieve that goal, I could let go of my desire to be famous and instead focus on enjoying music and the companionship of my friends in the band. Once I could accept who I was not, I could freely embrace my true self and develop the gifts and talents I did have, making for a much happier me.
Take some time to reflect on your relational life, career path, or lifestyle choices. Are these dimensions of your life nurturing your true self or blocking your path to authenticity and your real purpose in life? Are you at home with yourself, or are you trying to look like someone else? While people may say to us, “You can be whatever you want,” why be someone you are not? When we decide that who we are simply is not good enough, and we strive to look like someone else, we become just like a fish that is trying to grow arms.
Can a forest help you discern? Reflecting on this “Season of Creation” (September 1 – October 4) that Pope Francis has asked us to celebrate has me thinking of the perspective that nature can give us. Whenever I take time to walk in nature, I am in awe of all that is going on around me. I become aware of all the life in plants, insects, and various creatures, all oblivious to my existence. Walking a nature trail always seems to give me a helpful perspective: all this life goes on whether I am here or not. The energy and vibrancy of God’s creation is so vast, yet I am often not conscious of it.
I come away from my walk in the woods reminded that the world and all creation are so immense and that I am so small. Not that I don’t matter. To the Creator of the universe, we all matter. But I am a part of something so much bigger that I can’t fully grasp. That awareness brings me a sense of both awe and peace. My struggles matter, but they are just one part of a vast universe. I can go forward a little more calmly and make a humble decision, trusting in the God who created all.
Gaze at something in nature today, even a weed breaking through concrete, and see what message it has for you.
This week's blogger is Sister Judith Benkert, OP.
For many years, I was a practicing midwife. I used the undergraduate science degree to become a registered nurse. Some years later, I was working with Nurse Midwives at our hospital in Santa Cruz, California, and then became a certified nurse-midwife.
When I look back on the path I chose, it seems obvious that the pieces of the puzzle of discerning a ministry were rather clear. I’m not the type of person who discerns using a list of pros and cons or a great deal of discussion. My discernment comes in the form of putting one foot in front of the other, and the path seems to open before me to the next step. My answers come in the form of excitement and comfort that the path is right for me.
Another part of discernment is trust. Sometimes it’s a little shaky putting your foot out in a space that is not tested. As a midwife, I felt a major part of my work was to help a woman trust her body. We spent a major part of the prenatal time building trust, letting the woman know that her body was doing the “right thing.”
A midwife is a guide. In discernment, the Spiritual Director is a guide to help us develop trust in the call of God and to become the witness we are called to be. The best we can do is simply to ask God to show us the footpath.
This week's blogger is Sister Barbara Kelley, OP.
In a recent blog, Sister Lorraine Réaume, OP, our Formation Director, wrote about the dual dangers of overthinking in discernment – and of plunging into a decision without enough thought. I believe my own vocation story is a good example of overthinking – but with a happy ending!
My dad was a Jesuit, who left the Society of Jesus before making final vows because he realized that this was not his call – and returned to his home town to marry my mom. They had four children, raised us as faithful Catholics and I believe all of us are contributing well to society and are certainly a source of joy to those around them.
I was drawn to religious life, but was also always aware that, if my dad had gone on to be an ordained and perpetually professed Jesuit, I wouldn’t be who I am today. In my young years, as I constantly wavered on the fence between marriage and religious life – both good, both very holy callings – I thought often of my dad’s situation. What if I entered religious life and thus deprived the world of people who should have been born?
It was a powerful presentation on the life of St. Catherine of Siena that finally pulled me out of this “fence-sitting” posture and drew me, finally, to the Adrian Dominican Sisters. But I learned a powerful lesson: you can over-study the possible ramifications of everything you do to the point of paralysis, but that causes neither peace of mind nor a well-discerned decision. In the end, it’s a good idea to give these monumental “what if” questions to God, in trust that God will lead us to the right decision.
What serious questions in discernment do you need to leave trustfully in the hands of God?
I have just returned from taking our new novice, Sister Katherine, to St. Louis, to our Collaborative Dominican Novitiate. She will spend the next ten months there with two other Dominican novices and two Dominican Sisters, the co-directors of the novitiate. It’s a big step. She is far away from the motherhouse and with all new people. She will grow in her identity as a Dominican Sister, and yet Adrian will remain her home. She will have many new experiences in an unfamiliar city and a new graduate school. To take this step, Katherine had to be willing to risk so much newness all at once. She also has to trust that these new people will care for her and help her on this journey and will need a spirit of adventure to really enjoy all this change.
In so many ways, these words describe any big life choice we make when we are following the Spirit of God. We need to be willing to risk. There are no guarantees and life is not easy. We also need to trust that God is walking with us and that good people will appear on this path. And, we need the joy to see it as an adventure – one more step in our life-long adventure with Jesus.
Eighteen years ago, I was in Katherine’s exact position, being dropped off at the Novitiate by my formation director. I was really nervous. But the openness to risk, to trust, and to a spirit of adventure served me well then. They have served me well as I have continued on this path that never ceases to bring new challenges and adventures.
When have you been asked by God to step out to risk and trust in a new adventure? Is God asking that of you now?
We can make two mistakes when we face a major decision. First, we can rush into a decision just to ease the tension of not knowing. Some people like to have things settled, and are very uncomfortable when matters are up in the air. At first, they feel relieved after their quick decision. They’ve decided – it’s done. Phew! But then, doubts start to creep in, along with concerns that they never faced. In some cases, since they already announced their decision, they go forward, hoping the situation will get better. But it doesn’t. After a lot of pain and chaos, they reverse their decision. We see that sometimes in short-lived marriages.
The other big error is never making a decision. Some people really like to leave open all possibilities. They don’t want to say “yes” to something because that means saying “no” to many other options. That’s good for a time, but if they stay in that mode, they end up being 80 years old, still trying to decide what path they want to follow, never having made a commitment to anyone or anything.
True discernment balances these two tendencies. It listens deeply and honestly to our thoughts, feelings, and reactions to possible decisions. It lets us stay in the tension until one path becomes the clearer one. At the same time, it recognizes when we have given something enough time and exploration and we have to take a leap in trust. The Holy Spirit is actively involved in this discernment, speaking to us about what we need to pay attention to and giving us the courage to step out and take a risk.
Which of the above styles is yours? What do you need to do to balance your discernment?
In an hour, I will be heading out for a week’s retreat. I have been doing an annual silent retreat for over 25 years. This yearly intensive time with God keeps me grounded. Some of the prayer experiences have remained with me as pivotal times that have changed my life. Those experiences with God in prayer are as vivid as other powerful life experiences. It used to be easier to shut down to enter this sacred time. I am old enough to have begun doing retreats pre-email and pre-cellphone, and I’m not even that old!
When you were on retreat, you were on retreat and only accessible by an emergency contact number. Now, I have set two e-mail accounts to “out of office,” post on Facebook that I will be away, change my voicemail message and change my cellphone message. On top of that, I am going to turn off my phone. I have only had a smartphone for four years, but it amazes me the power it has – the seductive way it calls out to us to be connected, aware and reachable at all times.
Sometimes the illusion of connection can actually take away from intimacy – intimacy with God, those we share life with, friends, and even our surroundings. Of course, our phones help us to serve, learn, and connect. But there is a cost as well. We need to put them in their proper place. For this week, that proper place will be powered off in a drawer.
Is there a way this summer that you are called to disconnect in order to connect more deeply with our God?
Do you have the patience to wait until the mud settles and the right answer arises by itself? This line is based on the writings of ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. Ironically this line from a pre-Christianity philosopher helped me in my Christian vocation. Many years ago, when I was still in temporary profession, I was going though a difficult time and the path was not clear for me. When we are uncomfortable, sometimes we can make poor decisions to get rid of the discomfort, or just to have a sense of doing something. Waiting is tough. But I printed out that line and posted it on the edge of my computer screen, and waited. I knew I was in muddy water and I needed to wait until the right path was clear.
It took a long time but that line reminded me that God’s call was to stay faithful to the path I had begun. Over time the mud settled and the path became very clear. I was able to walk forward to my final vows right out of the mud. We don’t always get clarity at the moment we would like. Sometimes it takes quite a while for us to discern clearly God’s call for our lives. Waiting with feet in the mud can also be an act of faith and trust in God.
May you enjoy the feel of the mud on your toes this summer day.
Last week we explored the question Jesus asks his followers, “Who do you say that I am?”
But there’s another way to phrase it. You ask Jesus the question. Just sit quietly and ask Jesus that same question, “Jesus, who do you say that I am?”
It feels a lot different, doesn’t it? There is something very humbling about it, very vulnerable. When we fear that someone will be very harsh or judgmental with us, we don’t usually ask for their feedback. It’s a little easier to hear negative feedback from the people we know do care about us. Honestly asking Jesus this question shows that we have a deep trust that Jesus is only truly interested in what is best for us, that he truly loves us.
What might be more surprising is that Jesus might give us some unexpectedly positive messages. He might very well see all sorts of beautiful things about us that we haven’t noticed or have undervalued.
Whatever the Spirit of Jesus brings to us in response, whether it’s an invitation to grow in some area or a joy at our goodness, the response will always be one of love.
Take some time today to ask, “Jesus, who do you say that I am?”
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?
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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!