In a few days I will be heading for my annual retreat. I usually choose to do silent, directed retreats. The chance to be completely quiet, except for the forty minutes each day with a spiritual director, helps me to go much deeper. It enables me to get more connected in that place deep within where God dwells.
Even though it’s not always an easy time, I always look forward to these “vacations with God” with excitement, knowing that God and I will have some extra focused time to nourish our relationship. By now I know that, even though I may be in the same retreat house, I will be surprised by God. God accepts me where I am, and at the same time offers me what is needed. Sometimes it’s comfort, sometimes it’s a chance to slow down, sometimes it’s a nudge, and sometimes it’s a push.
Even though it can sound like a retreat is just about “me and God” it’s always bigger than that. First, I always spend much more time in nature and so become more attuned to God’s grace in all creation and more aware of myself as one of God’s creatures in a much larger reality. Also, what happens in the retreat can remain with me throughout the year and can help to transform my relationships with others.
If you are discerning something in particular, a retreat can be a wonderful way to clear away all the extras for a time and focus on listing to the voice of God’s wisdom. Retreats have played an important role in my own journey to religious life. These special times also help me nurture that relationship with the One I fully gave my life to. I know God is looking forward to this quality time with me as well!
I pray you are able to have a “vacation with God” this summer!
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?
Without a healthy self-love, there can be no love of God and neighbor. According to the Desert Fathers and Mothers of early Christian times, we cannot begin to learn how to love God and others without first learning how to claim for ourselves a self to do that loving. To many contemporary Christians, loving means that as Jesus sacrificed himself for others, so Christians must also in their everyday lives sacrifice their very selves for the sake of others.
While it is true that love requires self-giving and discipline to respond to the needs of family, friends, community and those we serve, it is misguided to think that love is of such a self-sacrificing nature that Christians ought not have a self at all. One sign that we lack a self is the feeling that our worth is determined by others’ approval or liking of us. If we are captive to the need for approval, we may well refuse to make the right decision we know is true to our convictions out of anxiety over what others may think of us. As Christians, we need to realize our intrinsic value as created in the image of God. Our true identity rests in God and our primary relationship is with God.
For this reason, the Desert Fathers and Mothers told their disciples to be like the dead when it comes to other people’s opinion:
A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, “Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.” So the old man said, “Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.” The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, “Didn’t they say anything to you?” He replied, “No.” The old man said, “Go back tomorrow and praise them.” So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, “Apostles, saints, and righteous men.” He returned to the old man and said to him, “I have complimented them.” And the old man said to him, “Did they not answer you?” The brother said no. The old man said to him, “You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of human beings or their praises, and you will be saved.”
The clear message in Macarius’ teaching is that if we are able to understand that our authentic identity is not linked to others’ evaluations of us, we are free to be our true self. Only then will we be able to respond to the call of Christ to love God and neighbor as self.
Waiting is so hard. We want to get things done, to check them off our list, to be sure about the next step. There is a quote I like, “Do you have the patience to wait until the mud settles, until the right answer arises by itself.” We do all our pondering and thinking, discussing and pro and con lists – and that is all good and necessary. But at some point discernment also involves waiting. We take a step and we wait as we live into a new reality.
Think of Mary. She took a huge step in saying, “May it be done to me according to your word.” And then she waited. Like any mother, she had to wait nine months to see her newborn, to learn how to be a mother, to learn how to love her particular child, and, finally, to let go as that child followed his mission in the world.
We say a ‘yes,’ big or little, and then we go forward step by step, learning what that yes really means as we go. What yes have you said to God that is still being formed in you?
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 our life of discernment, the grace-filled gift of dreams can bring powerful messages to help guide our life decisions. Spiritual director Lisa Gonzales-Brown tells us that in the misty realm of dreams “the unconscious plays and works, teases and teaches, invites and demands, frightens and reassures, exposes and conceals.”* Dreams are a mysterious gift from God that entice us to pay attention to what is coming from our hidden depths and to bring that material into conscious awareness. Dreams are special gifts that deserve our attentiveness.
As you know, the Bible is full of examples of people who received in their dreams messages from God instructing them on how to respond in crisis situations. Perhaps the most famous example is Joseph, who is counseled in a dream that there is no need to divorce Mary because her unborn child is the Savoir. He is later instructed to flee to Egypt to protect his family from Herod’s murderous scheme. Later, he is told in a dream that it is safe to return his family to Israel and settle in Nazareth.
Oftentimes the messages of our dreams are not as clear-cut as Joseph’s. We experience a vast variety of action-packed images, scary or comforting, with a wide and sometimes bewildering cast of characters, creatures, and other fantasy figures. How are we to tap into the meaning of our dreams as they shed light on the challenging situations of our lives? Knowing how to process dreams can be a helpful tool in discernment.
I, myself, am a late bloomer to the art of dreamwork. After discovering an easy way to engage my dreams and mine their meaning, I felt encouraged to begin. I share with you, from the book Dreams and Spiritual Growth: A Christian Approach to Dreamwork, the five steps of one simple technique that I found helpful.
What has been your experience of dreamwork? Are you a “beautiful dreamer” who has experienced this mysterious grace in the world of sleeping?
Blessings and Sweet Dreams,
* Lisa Gonzales-Barnes, “Dreamwork: Four Techniques for Spiritual Direction,” in Spiritual Direction, Vol. 18, No. 2, June 2012, 7.
** This dream technique is explained in Dreams and Spiritual Growth: A Christian Approach to Dreamwork by Louis M. Savary, Patricia H. Berne, and Strephon Kaplan Williams.
I was leading a group in some prayer exercises and I was really touched by an experience one of the women had. In the first part, she shared that she was really struggling with impatience. It was something really heavy for her and she felt terrible about how impatient she was with those around her, especially her family.
The next prayer led people to ask God how God is calling them to new life now. She expected to be told by God that she was called to be less impatient. Instead, she received a clear message: she was called to the joy of patience.
How like our God of life! Instead of focusing on what was wrong, God invited this woman to embrace the opposite grace. God did not condemn her for her faults, but rather welcomed her to new life and joy. Tears were running down her face as she shared this response.
Take a look at whatever negative aspect of yourself you are struggling with. Now try and identify the opposite gift or virtue. Instead of fighting so hard to change something bad, put your energy into embracing something good.
“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” John 15:11
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?
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?
By Sister Patty Harvat, OP
Have you ever had the experience of unexpectedly meeting someone that you hadn’t seen in years? They say, “I think I know you!” and you say, “Really?”
During this season of Lent, God says to us, “I think I know you.” and “Return to me with all your heart.” (Joel 2:12)
Jesus looks at us deeply and with such longing and says, “I’d love to catch up with you. Got some time?”
This is the acceptable time; the acceptable time to deepen our experience of God and of our inmost selves. It is the time to allow God to help us to come to Easter in even deeper relationship than when Lent started. All of us enter into Lent acknowledging and accepting who we are while preparing to become more, because that is what God empowers us to be: MORE.
To become more. Was that what the Father was asking of his son in the Garden of Gethsemane? “My soul is sorrowful unto death.” God, it’s been a lonely year: transition, health problems, friends and family members dying, lack of civility in our society, family issues. What is the MORE God asks of us?
Listen to Jesus say to you each day, “I think I know you.” In his January 10, 2018, general audience, Pope Francis said, “Silence is not confined to the absence of words, but rather to preparing oneself to listen to other voices: the one in our heart and, above all, the voice of the Holy Spirit.”
A variety of prayer experiences will provide us with different ways to respond to Jesus: the silent contemplative prayer, the Stations of the Cross, the various liturgies and expressions of spirituality. Journal and observe how you were with God or how you weren’t. Record what you notice.
This is the acceptable time to return to God with all your heart. And to say to God, “Yes, you do know me and I have come to know you in a new and deeper way.”
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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 video series called DISCO (Discernment Conversations): Dancing with the questions of life!