Can a forest help you discern? Reflecting on this “Season of Creation” (September 1 – October 4) that Pope Francis has asked us to celebrate has me thinking of the perspective that nature can give us. Whenever I take time to walk in nature, I am in awe of all that is going on around me. I become aware of all the life in plants, insects, and various creatures, all oblivious to my existence. Walking a nature trail always seems to give me a helpful perspective: all this life goes on whether I am here or not. The energy and vibrancy of God’s creation is so vast, yet I am often not conscious of it.
I come away from my walk in the woods reminded that the world and all creation are so immense and that I am so small. Not that I don’t matter. To the Creator of the universe, we all matter. But I am a part of something so much bigger that I can’t fully grasp. That awareness brings me a sense of both awe and peace. My struggles matter, but they are just one part of a vast universe. I can go forward a little more calmly and make a humble decision, trusting in the God who created all.
Gaze at something in nature today, even a weed breaking through concrete, and see what message it has for you.
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?
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.
There is a beautiful prayer called the “Breastplate of St. Patrick.” In honor of his feast day, I invite you to listen to a beautifully sung version of it here.
The lyrics are below. Take some time to let the words wash over you. Picture the images. When you get to the part about Christ, you might even try movement to match the words. That is a way of praying with your body.
After you have prayed, ponder by what power you arise. “I arise today through…”
I arise today through the strength of heaven
Light of sun, radiance of moon
Splendor of fire, speed of lightning
Swiftness of wind, depth of the sea
Stability of earth, firmness of rock
I arise today through God's strength to pilot me
God's eye to look before me
God's wisdom to guide me
God's way to lie before me
God's shield to protect me
From all who shall wish me ill
Afar and a-near
Alone and in a multitude
Against every cruel, merciless power
That may oppose my body and soul
Christ with me, Christ before me
Christ behind me, Christ in me
Christ beneath me, Christ above me
Christ on my right, Christ on my left
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down
Christ when I arise, Christ to shield me
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me
I arise today
Would you like to attend a nine day meeting with 200 people during which you have to discuss, come to agreement, and make decisions that affect your life for the next six years and beyond? Not only that, you want to do it in a spirit of prayer and with a desire to follow God’s will. On top of it, the people you are with aren’t simply colleagues, but the very people you have committed to share you life with.
We just did it. We just had a General Chapter, which is pretty much what I describe above. And we are still here, possibly more united, having taken time for silence, for prayer, for deep listening, for heartfelt discussion, for putting the common good ahead of our individual agendas, and for fun and laughter. That’s how you discern God’s will with 200 people. You have to invest yourself and let go at the same time. You have to listen for the voice of God in your sister, in small groups, in large groups, and in the words of prayer and scripture. You have to care deeply and let go in freedom.
A gathering like this is an act of trust in God and in your sisters.
Have you lived an experience of this type of large group discernment and trust?
Sometimes we think we’ve figured out a future direction, that we’ve discerned something, but than the other people involved don’t come to the same conclusion. It’s rather unsettling and can be very confusing. You can decide that you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, but if they decide they don’t want to be with you, you obviously can’t force a relationship! This is true for a friendship, a job, and even a religious congregation. Discernment is a two way process – we do all we can to be faithful to God’s desire for our life, and then we hold it lightly. We need to leave God, the other person, and even ourselves free.
We are coming up to a General Chapter, a meeting held every six years in which we make decisions about our future direction and elect new leaders. We have been actively engaged in discerning for almost two years. No doubt many of us sisters will arrive with a strong sense of where we need to go in the future. And no doubt these ideas will not all be the same. We now will be called to discern together, to hold lightly the ideas that we bring and to hear the voice of God in the other.
Discernment is always bigger than “me and God.” What are the other voices you need to attend to in your own discernment?
At dinner the other night, one of the Sisters said, “My spiritual director asked me, ‘So what does Lent mean to you?’ So now I want to ask each of you.” We each shared our thoughts. It was a good discussion and here are some of the meanings we had:
- It’s like a second chance, a deeper commitment than what I did for Advent.
- A time to slow down and get closer to God, to take time to listen to God.
- A time to take on new practices so I grow in my faith and as a person.
- A time to be more aware of others.
- I try to ask God how God wants me to pray in a new way, what God wants me to give up, and what God wants me to give.
We reflected that sometimes these Lenten practices are for a time of six weeks and other times doing them can lead us into a new life pattern. All of us had the desire to grow, to become more who God made us to be.
What does Lent mean for you? What is God saying to you these Lenten days? Jesus prepared for his public ministry by spending forty days in the desert listening to God and being very aware of all the inner and outer temptations facing him. He grew strong and came out ready to take on a new way of being. What do you need to do to prepare for what God is calling you to do and be?
Something about the start of a new year gives us hope -- a chance to start again, make better choices, set up new, healthy patterns for our lives. At least that is how we start out. We may think of all the little and big things we want to change in our lives and make resolutions, but then life happens and those changes often don't occur.
Some good discernment can help us with that. We know we can't change everything all at once, and God doesn't ask us to. Also, although we may want to change something, we may desire even more a habit or attitude that is holding us back from attaining our truest desire. Perhaps this something has a hold of us.
Discernment can help us go deeper. Ask yourself, "What do I really want to change in my life?" Then pause and ask, "What is under that? What do I really want to change?" Keep going as many times as you need to get to the core. It is only by going very deep that you can find out what you truly desire.
Another path is to share with God all the things you might like or hope to change. Then sit in silence and ask God to show you which of these is the most important for you to change now. Be open to what God might show you. It might even be something that wasn't on your original list.
Discernment involves going to the deepest place in our selves and being open to the God of surprises who dwells within us and beyond us.
This week's reflection comes to us from guest blogger, Sister Dusty Farnan, OP.
I’m writing this reflection on the eve of Advent. Advent invites us into two important actions: to be alert and to be awake. What does any of this have to do with me or especially those of you who are pondering what path to take in life. Maybe you are wondering like Elizabeth how is it that the “Lord should come to me?"
I think it has a lot to do with you and me. Luke’s Gospel for the Last Sunday in Advent reminds me of when I felt the call from God to pursue religious life. I believe I felt like Elizabeth when Mary visited her. I had just witnessed the beautiful reception of a classmate of mind from high school who had become a Novice in Adrian Dominican Congregation. I was so moved by the ceremony and the giving of total self that my friend had made that it stuck with me for a long time. It was as if Jesus” leaped inside me” in a way I had never experienced before. I became alert and aware that Jesus was calling me to follow him more closely. And so I wrote to the Prioress of the congregation asking for admission. It’s now fifty years later.
Perhaps this advent you might be awakened to God’s voice calling you to a deeper relationship. May Advent awaken you to the God life already dwelling in you as a result of your Baptism. May you become more alert to the prompting of God’s call to you this Christmas season.
Sister Lorraine Réaume, OP
Director of Formation
Sister Judith Benkert, OP
West-Southwest Vocations Promoter
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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