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?
In this week of All Saints and All Souls, we remember the people in our lives that have helped to build our character and shape our sense of Christian discipleship. These special people have been the face of God for us.
I grew up next door to my grandparents on their farm in Vermont. When I was a little girl my twin sister, Sandy, and I would run up the road to visit them. No matter when we came, Grammy and Gramp were always so happy to see us.
Gramp was a tall, slender man. He was not a great dresser. He wore tan, baggy pants, plaid flannel shirts, and big work boots. He sported an old red cap on the back of his head, which was always slightly tilted to one side. He had twinkling eyes and a big arching nose over an equally big grin.
Gramp loved to spend time with us. He would harness his big white workhorse and take us with him into the fields and forests. It was his delight to share with us the wonders of his world! He would point out the wildflowers and tell us the names of all the trees. He was a great storyteller, and there was always a moral to the story. One of his favorite themes was the importance of resourcefulness and creativity. He would say to us, “What if you are out working in the woods with the horse and the harness broke? What could you do?” Seeing our bewilderment, he would explain, “Well, you could look for some tree vines, like this princess pine, braid them together and use it to repair the harness.”
When I was about 4 or 5 years old I wanted to help Gramp with his farming. His response to me was always, “Of course, you are just the girl who can do it.” I felt like I could do anything.
That spring I wanted to help him plant the potato crop. The problem was that potatoes had to be planted a specified distance apart. For some varieties it’s 10 inches apart, others 8 inches. But for a 5- year-old getting the potatoes the right distance apart seemed like an impossible task. So my grandfather cut a stick the right length and all I had to do was put a potato at each end of the stick — stick potato, stick potato. I probably only planted one row of potatoes that whole day, but I felt included in all the good work that was happening in my family.
My favorite thing to do was to drive the horse and wagon. Now Gramp had taught me how to hold the reigns and steer the horse. When we would get into the driveway in front of the barn, he taught me how to make a big sweeping turn so that the wagon would end up in front of the barn door. However I did it, he would say, “I couldn’t have done it better myself.”
When my sister and I would leave my grandparents, their constant refrain was, “Come again.”
Gramp said to us, “When we are not together, and I see the two of you playing, and I am in a distant field, I will call out, “I, YI, YI, YI, YIIII! And you will know that I see you and that I love you.”
Who are the ordinary saints in your life?
How we handle criticism affects our capacity to discern the workings of the Holy Spirit in the ups and downs of our everyday life. If we can learn to befriend our critics, we will discover that they are actually our best teachers in the process of becoming a mature follower of Christ. Growth in the spiritual life requires self-knowledge, humility, and trust in God’s unconditional love whether our behavior happens to be right or wrong. So what is your experience of dealing with criticism?
In his book, Feeling Good, cognitive therapist Dr. Dave Burns describes three possible responses to critique, which he calls: “sad, mad, or glad.”* If you go the sad route, you will automatically conclude that the critic is correct. You never take time to explore what actually happened. Instead, you jump to the conclusion that you were wrong. You magnify and personalize the negative message. “I’m always screwing up. I’m a complete failure.” Because you live with the expectation that you should be perfect, you assume that your mistake means that you are worthless. As a result, you will experience sadness, anxiety and diminished self-esteem. Your response will be ineffectual, as you withdraw in isolation and avoidance.
If you go the mad route, you will defend yourself against the ravages of imperfection by attempting to persuade your critic that they are the problem. You refuse to admit even the possibility that you could have made a mistake, that you are less than perfect, because to do so means admitting that you are worthless. Ready for a fight, you attack your critic with fierce accusations. In the heat of the battle, you may feel emboldened by your self-righteous indignation. But when it’s over, your response will also be self-defeating because you have done irreparable damage to the relationship.
If you go the glad route, you will need enough self-esteem to accept yourselves with all of your imperfections. When under critique, your first response is inquiry. You ask yourself: “Is there any truth to the criticism?” Having taken the time to prayerfully investigate the situation, you are now prepared to offer a solution. If compromise is called for, you can negotiate. If you were mistaken, you can offer an apology, if appropriate, and then make the necessary amends to address the problem. If your critic was wrong, you can find a way to address this reality in a respectful fashion. This response will enhance your sense of competence because you have handled the situation in a way that respects your own integrity and that of others.
Take some time this week and explore your experience of handling criticism. What have you learned?
*For a more in-depth discussion, see David Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), 146-147.
Every once in a rare while, we can have a particularly intense encounter with God. I would like to share an encounter I had with you.
I was at my favorite place to do a retreat, Loyola House in Guelph, Ontario. I was sitting in the chapel in the evening. A few lamps cast a dim light in the space. I sat in a chair off to the side. I don’t even remember what led up to this moment: I believe I was praying with scripture. All of a sudden I had the sense of God as a burning flame. But I wasn’t separate from God. I could feel all the atoms that make up my body intermingling with the atoms of God in the flame. I was completely part of God, and yet I was still conscious of my own identity. I felt full of peace and joy. I could sense all the false thoughts and beliefs I carried just melting off me. I realized it didn’t matter what anyone thinks of me, how anyone might judge me. All that matters is union. Not only that, I also sensed that everyone and every part of creation is part of this union. Our separation is false. We are really all one in God and it will all be okay.
Now, of course, I couldn’t stay and live in that intensity for long. But whenever I recall the experience, I feel more free and hopeful and am reminded that there is a greater reality.
Sister Lorraine Réaume, OP
A vicious enemy of the spiritual life is perfectionism. If we succumb to this compulsion, we become our own worst critic. We monitor our every move out of fear and shame at the prospect of being imperfect, mediocre, or, worse still, someone unworthy of love and connection. We believe our perfectionism will make us successful and admired, but in reality it sucks the joy out of life.
Perfectionism also urges us to focus on the deficiencies of others, blaming them for our irritability, upset, or unhappiness. We often project our weaknesses onto others, accusing them of faults we fail to admit in ourselves. Sometimes putting others down becomes a strategy to prop up our own collapsing self-esteem. If we persist in perfectionistic fault-finding, we will lose our capacity to feel warmth or genuine like for ourselves or other people.
One effective way to free ourselves from the burden of perfectionism is to discover our motivation for maintaining this compulsion. Imagine doing poorly at a task that is important to you. Ask yourself, “Why would this be a problem for me?” Repeatedly ask this question of yourself until you discover the hidden assumption that is at the root of your perfectionism. Perhaps you have been deeply hurt by the put-downs, disapproval, or abuse of others. Perhaps you fear being disliked and abandoned by others. Perhaps you fear being incompetent or vulnerable and out of control. Whatever the particulars, embrace your wounded heart with self-compassion. Hold your pain with tenderness and allow God to wrap you in unconditional love. Gently address your fears with sound reason. By facing your fears in this way, they begin to lose their power over you.
Do you struggle with perfectionism? If yes, what do you think is the hidden fear that grounds your compulsion?
Consider these three roadblocks to discerning the call of God.
Is following the call of God your top priority in life? Are there other obstacles to discerning God’s call that you would like to add to this list? Write us a comment on your reflection.
Who am I? What do I really long for in life? What is my heart’s deepest desire? How can I serve the world?
In discernment, paying attention to questions like these propels us along the path of self-knowledge and into the loving arms of God. Our deepest and truest desires come from God and help us to dedicate our entire selves to God in the fulfillment of our unique potential as human beings with a world to serve. Our desires are the power behind our actions.
An important spiritual exercise in discerning God’s call for your life is simply to begin to surface your heart’s most basic desires. Start with prayer. Ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to discover your desires and to respond to them faithfully.
As you sit quietly in God’s presence, ask yourself again and again, “What do I really want right now?” As these wants emerge, you can then ask, “What desires are even underneath these desires?” Also, pay close attention to contradictory desires, which often cause inner conflict.
As you sift through and evaluate your desires, identify those desires that distract or divert you from your authentic direction in life. Likewise, identify those desires that are most important, most full of energy and represent your truest values.
In her book, The Way of Discernment, Elizabeth Liebert suggests that even before we can enter this kind of prayer that searches our heart’s desires, we need to believe that our individual desires are important and worthy of our consideration. If we are convinced that what we want is of no significance, that someone else must tell us what matters for our life, or that any desire that we have will surely go against what God desires, we are unlikely to trust our desires or even know what they are. If this is the case, we will never come to know who we truly are.1
Authentic discernment of God’s call in our life, therefore, requires self-respect and a deep listening to our heart’s desires, which will lead us more fully into God’s life and mission. Our heart’s desires reveal our vocation. As Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”2
What are the desires of your heart? What more would you like to do with your life? What is your deepest joy? What need in the world could you meet through an exercise of your gifts and talents for others?
1 Elizabeth Liebert, The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 26.
2 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 95.
I had an unexpected holy moment in the City Chambers of Adrian, Michigan, last night. It was the result of serious discernment taken by our local mayor. He presented a resolution supporting DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and Dreamers, the people who were brought to this country as children and who consider the United States their home. As you may know, their permission to stay in the U.S. is at risk now, even though this is the only country they have really known.
We Dominicans pray with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. We are called to be aware of what is happening in our world and to engage it in prayer and action. DACA is one of those areas. Our former Prioress, Sister Attracta Kelly, OP, an immigration attorney, spoke first to address the issue, setting the context of the twenty-year failure to institute immigration reform and speaking in support of the resolution.
Six other speakers followed of varying ages, faiths, political parties, and cultures. Each one had discerned, mostly through actual contact with Dreamers they knew, that the only just thing to do was to pass the resolution. Several of the City Commissioners spoke of how important diversity is to our small city and how they had encountered Dreamers (and their parents) who needed our support. They know we are stronger together.
The passion and sincerity of those present was palpable. This was not a perfunctory decision or some rote task that needed to be passed. The resolution meant something essential for those there – it was about justice and mercy.
The resolution passed and the room erupted in joyful applause. And God saw that is was good.
Learn more about the Adrian City Commission’s resolution.
For the U.S. Bishops’ statement click here.
For the Adrian Dominican statement click here.
If God is all-loving and all-powerful, how can God cause or allow such devastation and suffering as was perpetrated by Hurricane Irma this past week? Human tragedy can trigger serious doubts in the provident love of God or shatter belief in God altogether. How do we understand the mystery of God and suffering?
Theologians who are also scientists can help us wrestle with this question. They suggest that because the vast expanse of creation is loved by God, not only do human beings have a freedom appropriate to their nature, but all living creatures and processes also have a type of freedom as well. As human beings, we cherish our independence and freedom to make choices in life that will help us realize the fullness of our human potential. In giving us the gift of free will, God freely chooses to limit divine power and control in our lives. Never forcing us to act against our will, God makes us partners, not puppets, in the ongoing care of our world. This gift of human freedom, however, has a “shadow side,” making us vulnerable to the moral evils of violence, war, poverty, hateful prejudice, and oppression of every kind.
Like human free will, all living creatures and processes exercise a type of freedom according to their nature that generates the flourishing of life for the continuous development of the evolving cosmos. In the ongoing creation of the universe, God acts, but does not control; God guides, but respects creation’s autonomy. These free processes, however, also produce situations of “natural evil,” namely, the suffering caused by experiences and events of nature such as Hurricane Irma. While hurricanes produce rainfall that can end droughts, promote the dispersal and growth of plant species, and produce biodiversity, they also cause the destruction of human lives, vegetation, wildlife, and infrastructures. Our abuse of the planet is also increasing the intensity of these natural disasters. Unfortunately, suffering and death make up a necessary and purposeful part of the evolutionary process.
The crucified, self-giving love of Jesus Christ reveals a God who freely chooses to be vulnerable to suffering. The resurrection of Jesus shows that while God allows suffering and death, God will bring newness of life out of suffering and death for the transformation of the whole world.
Take time this week to ponder the mystery of God and suffering. Do moral evil or natural disasters trigger doubts in you about God’s unconditional love for all creation? If someone told you that all the pain and suffering in the world caused them to doubt the existence of God, how would you respond to them?
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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!