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?
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?
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 Tarianne DeYonker, OP
Sister Mariane Fahlman, OP
Adrian Dominican Sisters
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