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?
This past Sunday we celebrated the Feast of Christ’s Ascension. I would like to share with you an inspirational reflection on the Ascension written by Springfield Dominican Sister, Rebecca Ann Gemma, OP.
“Why Are You Standing There Looking at the Sky?"
by Rebecca Ann Gemma, OP
When my Sisters sing the song “Land of the Living” by Janét Sullivan-Whitaker, we often emphasize the phrase: “…don’t look to the sky when the reign of our God is here.” Here in this place and in this moment Christ is present. Is this not the same message the angels told the disciples as Jesus was lifted to heaven? Is it not for us today?
I have often heard that where you stand is what you see. So just imagine you’re standing in the middle of a flower-drenched field. What do you see? Color, texture, and swaying objects moving in the wind; beauty surrounds you. As you take it in, you sense being one with this terrain and time stands still. The reign of God is here.
Imagine you’re standing in the middle of a crowded street. What do you see? People running here and there: purposeful, spontaneous, hungry, full, peaceful, anxious, isolated, welcomed. The fullness of humanity gives way to noticing the person closest to you. In the brevity of time, you seek eye contact in which to make connection and converse with the simplicity of “hello.” In that nanosecond, communion becomes reality. The reign of God is here.
Imagine you are standing in the rotunda of your state capitol building. What do you see? Suit-clad lobbyists basking in their privilege, unaware of trickle-down poverty created to protect the 1 percent. Advocates from diverse organizations holding tag-lined signs announcing their needs. Sufferers of injustice waiting to voice their plight and call for change from their elected leaders. You move toward those most vulnerable, most abandoned, most battered and with deep humility seek to harmonize with their cries. The reign of God is here.
Imagine you are sitting in your community room watching the national news. What do you see? Immigrants scaling dividing walls, running from billy clubs of intolerance, and seeking a cactus with which to cower and hide. Graphics of escalating lines revealing opioid addictions as epidemic. Political wrangling confirming that the bar of decency, integrity, and truth is despairingly low. Youth seeking peace and safety in their schools, yet resisted by constitutional purists. The stranger saving a child from flooded streets, only to lose his life from a felled tree. In 25 minutes you see anguish, futility, violence, courage and hope. You now close your eyes and hold it all before our living God. Do not look to the sky. For it is through us, with us and in us that the Spirit will bring about the fullness of God’s reign where all will be whole. We only have here and now. Can you not see it?
In order to make life decisions with God’s help, we need to learn to dialogue with God about the things in life that matter most to us. By developing intimacy with God through prayer, our ability to share life with God grows slowly and steadily. Praying with Scripture is foundational to this growth in intimacy with God.
In my own journey of developing an intimacy with God, I benefited greatly from a book by two Jesuit priests, Dennis and Matthew Lynn, called Healing Life’s Hurts. Using St. Ignatius of Loyola’s prayer of imagination with Scripture, I learned how to identify imaginatively with different figures in Scripture who might be feeling the same negative emotions I was feeling. I then learned how to encounter Jesus in this prayer and experience his response to me.
So in my anger and resentment, as though with stone in hand ready to punish the one who hurt me, I hear Jesus saying, “You who are without sin may cast the first stone” (Jn 8:7). Or to overcome with my fear of failing, as if I am about to go overboard in the storm at sea, I hear Jesus saying, “Get hold of yourself. It is I. Do not be afraid” (Mt 14:27). Or in my guilt and remorse, I find myself as the penitent woman washing Jesus’ feet with my tears and drying them with my hair, and I hear Jesus saying, “Your sins are forgiven …Your faith has been your salvation. Now go in peace” (Lk 7:48-50).
Through such encounters with the living Word, I began to realize that the Bible included me. The biblical story and our story become one story that mediates God’s unconditional love for us! As St. John of the Cross so beautifully states it, “The gospel has eyes – the eyes I so long for. The gospel has eyes; they reach to the heart and change it.”
Does your spirituality include praying with Scripture? Have you experienced God relating to you through the biblical story? What are some of the different ways in which you have grown in your intimacy with God?
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?
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!
Sister Lorraine Réaume, OP
Director of Formation
Sister Sara Fairbanks, OP
Director of Vocations, East Coast-Midwest Vocations Promoter
Adrian Dominican Sisters
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Adrian, Michigan 49221-1793
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