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?
The hidden assumptions we hold when we begin to discern an important decision can easily derail a healthy life choice. If we automatically assume that certain options are undesirable, unthinkable, or impossible to attain, we will rule them out before we even consider our course of action. Detecting and assessing our hidden assumptions can open the way to finding God’s call in our lives through our concrete decisions.
When I was in my early twenties, I assumed that following God’s will for my life had to involve doing something explicitly religious. I wanted to pursue doctoral studies in European history with the hopes of becoming a college professor. In prayer, I shared my doubts with God; how could studying history possibly draw me closer to Christ or be an expression of discipleship? God, however, seemed to be affirming my desire for studies. I earned a scholarship that paid for my education, and although I never became a historian, I gained a wealth of research and writing skills. These newly acquired skills served me well as I later earned my doctoral degree in theology and became a university professor. I learned through this experience that following God’s will has a diversity of forms and need not only occur in a religious context.
Often our hidden assumptions show up in what surprises us or make us resistant or defensive. When I was a member of the Covenant House lay community in New York City, again in my twenties, I was asked to consider going to Fort Lauderdale, Florida to help open a Covenant House there. At first, I was totally against the idea. As a Vermonter, who loves the four seasons, my thought was, “I won’t be caught dead in Florida.” Dare I say that I warmed up to the idea, and took the assignment? In the end, I loved my time there. In fact, had I not gone to Florida, I probably would not have met the Adrian Dominican Sisters and become a Dominican sister. Only by letting go of my hidden assumption that God’s will must unfold in my preferred climate and geographic location, was I able to embrace God’s deepest desire for me.
What have been some of your hidden assumptions when discerning God’s call? Where have you not wanted to listen? How has God surprised you?
In this week between Thanksgiving and Advent, I thought I would share with you part of a Thanksgiving reflection given by our Sister Maria Goretti Browne, OP, that focuses on the sometimes hard work of practicing gratitude. Suffering is an unavoidable part of life and at times we need to lament and share our grief with others and with God. By embracing suffering in this way we can grow in our ability to love life unconditionally.
Sometimes, however, we may choose to intensify the difficulties of life by incessant complaining, stirring up resentments, nursing grudges and basically being a walking wet blanket. There is another more healthy option: gratitude. Research tells us that if we learn how to appreciate life in all its dimensions, we will feel better, be less prone to stress and sickness, sleep better, and live longer and healthier lives.
Sister Maria Goretti challenges us to give thanks in all circumstances of life. She recounts a rather extreme response of giving gratitude in the unbearable circumstances of war. She writes:
I read one time that during the war in Southeast Asia, there was a young Vietnamese boy who would sing as he worked in the rice fields, even as the bombs burst all around him. He explained that he could not stop the war, but he could keep the fear of death from overtaking his heart; he had to fight to be peaceful and happy inside while the horror and sadness of war swirled around him.
Maybe gratitude is an attitude. Most of us take very good care of our bodies, even try to walk – what is it – 10,000 steps? We practice each day, and eventually we will get to the 10,000 number. How about us practicing gratitude – Each day being more grateful than the day before, being more and more conscious of the blessings in our lives. Just look around. Thank God for our vocation, be it religious life, or married life, or single life; we are blessed with wonderful spouses or companions, wonderful co-workers, blessed with beautiful families, blessed with talents too many to enumerate, blessed with the ability to spread God’s love. Everywhere we look we see where we can spread that love and gratitude.
We know the account in Scripture of the three young men who were thrown into a fiery furnace. What’s the first thing they did? They broke into a song of praise and thanksgiving for all that God had made. Theirs was such an attitude of gratitude that their suffering was secondary. They danced among the flames unharmed (Daniel 3).
What about us? Do we find ways to give thanks to God in all circumstances?
The feast of Thanksgiving with family and friends ushers in the Advent season when Christians begin our preparations for the celebration of Christ’s birth in our world. This spirited season proclaims the awesome mystery that, in Jesus Christ, God became one of us and found a home in our midst.
Jesus, who in his very being houses divinity, calls us to do the same: to be the presence and action of God for our world. In fact, Jesus tells us that if we follow God’s love commands, God will dwell in our hearts in intimate communion. God’s loving presence actually takes up residence in the inner recesses of our being.
Can you imagine what God’s home in us would look like? God’s home would have walls of welcome, solid floors of fidelity with plush carpets of compassion. There would be high ceilings of inclusivity and wide windows letting in nature’s beauty and the multi-faceted light of wisdom. The furniture would circle around a fireplace of forgiving warmth. There would be chairs of charity, couches of consolation, sofas of serenity, and tables of tender togetherness. And, like in every godly home, there would be bookcases full of challenge, new learning, and adventurous opportunities.
In our world so wracked by ruinous hatred, violence, and despair, we must do everything in our power to safeguard God’s home in our hearts. As Thanksgiving gives way to Advent’s approach, what actions do you need to take to nurture God’s dwelling place within you?
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?
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
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.
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?
Would you agree with the following statement: the only person in the world who has the power to insult you is you and no one else? When another person levels harsh criticism at you, certain negative thoughts begin to flood your consciousness. Perhaps you exaggerate the importance of what is being said or jump to the conclusion that the criticism is valid and accurate. You may see this single negative event as part of a recurring pattern of defeat. “I always mess up! I’m a complete failure! I can never correct this mistake! Everybody hates me! This criticism shows that I am worthless!” Your emotional reaction will be produced by this bombardment of negative thoughts and not by what the other person says.
In his book Feeling Good, cognitive therapist David Burns gives some helpful advice. He suggests that one important way to conquer the fear of criticism involves your own thought processes: Learn to identify and analyze the negative and irrational thoughts you have in reaction to being criticized.* These distorted thoughts can create negative and hurtful emotions. Upon reflection determine whether the criticism is right or wrong. If it is wrong, then there is no reason to feel upset. It was the other person’s mistake to criticize you unfairly. With a spirit of compassion, let it go. No one is perfect. On the other hand, if the criticism is right, still there is no reason for alarm. Humbly acknowledge the mistake and do what you need to do to make amends. With a spirit of self-compassion, gently forgive yourself recognizing that you do not need to be perfect. If you have healthy self-esteem, it is easier to hear and to respond to criticism. You do not require the approval of others to be full of love and at peace.
Take time to reflect on how you handle criticism from others. Do you fear criticism? Do you recognize how your own distorted thinking can create negative and hurtful feelings? Can you grow and learn from criticism in becoming your authentic self?
*See David D. Burn, M.D. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, (New York: HarperCollins), 131-148.
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
1257 East Siena Heights Drive
Adrian, Michigan 49221-1793
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