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?
He could have sent the person to jail. I was in awe as Ricardo (a pseudonym) shared his story with a group at a Hispanic young adult retreat weekend. Ricardo is a kind and gentle young man. He is also an undocumented immigrant, so he’s in a vulnerable situation. He was beaten and robbed by several young men. The men were caught, and he was brought in to confront them. He had previously experienced jail when he was picked up for not being documented, and he was thinking about what an awful experience it was. He didn’t want anyone else to suffer that way. He said he looked at his attackers with the eyes of Christ, and he told them that he forgave them, but asked they don’t rob anyone else.
Ricardo said, “To forgive is a decision.” Ricardo discerned his response, bringing to it his personal experience, the eyes of Christ, and deep compassion. Discerning is coming to a decision, and sometimes it’s not an easy or clear one. But it does lead us to freedom.
Ironically, in letting those who attacked him go free, Ricardo demonstrated that he was the one with the greatest freedom.
Is there a pardon you need to offer in order to be free?
If four strong people were each holding the corner of a blanket, would you let yourself fall back into it with confidence? Probably. If one person dropped their side, what would happen? You would tumble out on to the floor. Or, if another person decided to suddenly raise their side, what would happen? You would slide right out.
I just saw this demonstrated literally at the Dominican College Preaching Conference. The point was: to live well and discern well, we need to have a balanced life. As Dominicans we talk about the four key pillars that keep our lives in balance: prayer, study, community and preaching (ministry or service). While sometimes we might focus on one area more than another, if we completely drop one or over-stress one, we lose our stability. Being in balance helps us to live well and to choose well.
Is your life in balance?
“Well, my love story began….” I was so struck by each of the young women speaking with me. I had asked each of them to share with me their story of how they came to religious life, and every single one referred to her “love story.” I thought it was so beautiful!
I was visiting our Sisters in the Philippines and I heard the stories of the five temporary professed sisters, two novices and two candidates – each one of whom knew she was on that path because of Jesus’ love for her. And it wasn’t an insular love – it wasn’t a just “me and Jesus” kind of love. Each story included giving and experiencing love with the other Sisters and with the people they serve. It is a love story that leads each woman out to love and serve others.
Their love stories weren’t all smooth. There were often many challenges. But being grounded in that base of love enables them to go forward in confidence – with the one that loves them by their side.
It is true for all of us, whatever our path. The love of Jesus can sustain us, lead us out of ourselves, and give us the courage to continue forth.
Can you sense Jesus walking with you?
Sister Jamie Phelps has a fascinating life story. Born in Alabama and raised in Chicago, she entered the Adrian Dominican Sisters in 1959. As an African American, she is in the minority in North American religious life. She has brought her unique sensibility to a range of ministries including: educator, social worker, community organizer, pastoral minister, liturgist, spiritual director, preacher, retreat director, theologian, and author. In 1968 she helped to found the National Black Sisters’ Conference. Her most recent position was Professor of Systematic Theology and Director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies of Xavier University of Louisiana.
Sister Jamie shares: “My life objective is to assist in the inner transformation of the human community by participating in the education of Christians and other religious women and men committed to use their knowledge and expertise for the construction of more inclusive world by sharing their knowledge and experience of God and in the case of Christians by continuing Jesus' proclamation of the good news of God's universal love and His call for social justice and communion.”
Her vision is “a future in which all human beings and creation are reverenced as beings who reflect the image and likeness of God by their very being and patterns of inclusive relationships, words and actions. I envision a future wherein the Kingdom of God is ushered into reality by the power God acting in us and through us. In that Kingdom all human divisions will cease and the unity of all creation will be realized.”
To read more about Sister Jamie’s fascinating journey, including her early years in Chicago, how she discerned religious life, and her experience of hurricane Katrina, read the full article from Vision Vocation Network here.
Many blessings as you discern your own unique path,
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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!