Young adults who are discerning their vocation from God often ask me, “How do I hear God’s voice in my life?” Sometimes we think that God’s will for us comes from beyond us, outside our world, like the Ten Commandments delivered to Moses on stone tablets. Yet, a closer look reveals that God is present and active within us and among us through the ordinary circumstances of life and through all the decisions we make that shape our lives.
In reflecting on my own life, I realize how my vocation to be a Dominican Sister was realized through many years of paying attention to how God was meeting me in my life and how my response to God’s presence brought me a deep sense of joy and fulfillment that only God can give.
Here is just a glimpse at one meeting with God which happened my junior year in college. I was a history major. My academic advisor told me that I needed to take a course on the Protestant Reformation because that particular split in Christendom had powerful political ramifications for all of Europe. So, quite unexpectedly, I ended up taking my first college religion class. This situation has God written all over it!
During one class, our professor explained to us that one of the great themes of the Protestant Reform was the right of every Christian to read the Bible in his/her own language. At the end of the discussion, our professor said, “I challenge each one of you to pick up the Bible and read one of the Gospels all the way through.” Can you hear God’s voice echoing in this challenge?
Since I didn’t even own a Bible, I borrowed a Bible from a Protestant friend. One night I decided to take up the challenge. I opened to the Gospel of Matthew and started to read it. At one point, I got to the passage in the Sermon on the Mount: “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.” I sensed, for the first time, the presence of God with me, speaking these words directly to my heart, awakening me to a divine love that I had never known before, a love unsurpassed. “Ask and you shall receive!” What open-handed, unconditional love! It wasn’t “Get good grades, and I will love you!” or “Do what I say, and I will love you.” Rather, I experienced God’s presence as a lavish, unconditional love. I was in tears. This experience was totally unexpected. God’s love was real!
This meeting with God, which happened through very ordinary circumstances, became a beginning step on the way toward fulfilling my religious vocation. Through the help of many other faithful Christians, I gradually learned how to develop my relationship with God through prayer, community, and service to the poor and those in need.
How do you sense God is working in your life? What is your response?
When we are stuck in a state of restless dissatisfaction—“I want this, I want that”—we can fail to see the value of life and focus only on what is wrong with the situation, ourselves and other people. We may relentlessly push ourselves to achieve success and independence because we want what do not have. And once we have it, we want something else. When we are caught in this dynamic, we do not value the good things we have in life or take joy in God.
The remedy for this unhappy state is simple: gratitude. It should not surprise us that people who feel thankful acknowledge inner richness and deeply appreciate small things that many of us take for granted—good health, the beauty of nature, a kind word. Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, often speaks about the joy of breathing!
Are we supposed to be thankful even in times of suffering? How are we to respond to the tragedies and evils that cause us such great pain and turmoil? Gratitude does not mean ignoring hardships in life. True gratitude exists only where compassion and awareness of evil are present. It is strange but true: when we have struggled with illness, we appreciate health; when we experience a broken relationship, we rediscover the importance of friendship, when we have experienced the agony of defeat, we appreciate the sweetness of success.
In good times and bad, may we allow gratitude to open us to the presence of God. May we learn to savor God’s loving relationship, who gives us this day our daily bread. As Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart states, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”
As you celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, take time to reflect on your practice of gratitude. Do you easily give thanks for the many gifts in your life in a spirit of inner contentment for what you have, or are you easily caught up in the sense of dissatisfaction with life, forgetful of your blessings through lack of time or attention? How might you cultivate gratitude in your life?
True love, the foundation of discernment, never avoids conflict. This kind of discernment is the most difficult to practice. It arises out of a situation in which we are suffering from a situation that we think is caused by the person or community that we love the most. We might refuse to ask the person or community for help in understanding and dealing with our hurt.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, tells of a young Vietnamese man who went off to war, leaving his pregnant wife behind. When he returned after three years, his young wife and son welcomed him home with tears of joy.
When his wife went out to buy food for their celebration, the young father tried to get his son to call him daddy. The little boy refused, saying, “You are not my daddy. My daddy is somebody else. He visits us every night and comforts mommy when she cries. Every time my mommy sits down, he sits down, too. Every time she lies down, he lies down, too.”
The young father was stunned, heartbroken, and humiliated by these words. When his wife returned, he refused to talk to her or even look at her. He stormed out of the house and spent the day at a bar. This went on for several days. Finally, the young woman was so distraught over her husband’s change in behavior that she threw herself in the river and drowned.
When the young man heard the news, he returned home, and lit a lamp. Suddenly, the little boy exclaimed, “Look, it’s my daddy! He’s come back!” He pointed to the shadow of his father on the wall.
In reality, his mother had been so alone in the house that every night she had to talk to her own shadow. Now her husband’s false perception was corrected, but it was too late. His wife was dead.
We all fall victim to our misperceptions every day. When in a painful situation of conflict, we must check things out with the other person before taking action if we want true love to guide our lives.
Sister Sara Fairbanks, OP
This week’s blogger is Sister Ellen Burkhardt, OP.
“I don’t believe you brought me this far to leave me.”
These words are from a hymn we sing in my parish in Detroit, one of my favorites. We sang it one week while I was discerning a call to religious life, and honestly, I thought the words were jumping off the page and into my heart with a message specially formulated for me! God seemed to speak directly to me through the words “I haven’t brought you this far just to walk away from you now. Trust me, now and into the future.”
As is often the case for those struggling with a discernment issue, I was filled with questions: How can I know that this is where God is leading me? Why won’t these questions go away? I also had concerns about giving up my home and a career I loved. I worried about entering religious life and then discovering that it doesn’t fit me. What would I do then?
Over time, with the help of prayer and spiritual direction, I came to a deeper trust that the same God who led me this far, will accompany me today and each day that follows.
In The Book of Awakening, Mark Nepo offers us this colorful piece of wisdom about discernment: “The instant fish accept that they will never have arms, they grow fins.” In other words, we will never discover who we are meant to be until we accept who we are not. Most of us have tried to be someone we thought we could or should be in our grandest fantasies of ourselves, only to discover that it was not in our nature to be like the person we so admired.
In high school, I played the trumpet and dreamed of being a professional musician—the next Louis Armstrong! Once I discovered that I did not have the disposition nor the natural talent necessary to achieve that goal, I could let go of my desire to be famous and instead focus on enjoying music and the companionship of my friends in the band. Once I could accept who I was not, I could freely embrace my true self and develop the gifts and talents I did have, making for a much happier me.
Take some time to reflect on your relational life, career path, or lifestyle choices. Are these dimensions of your life nurturing your true self or blocking your path to authenticity and your real purpose in life? Are you at home with yourself, or are you trying to look like someone else? While people may say to us, “You can be whatever you want,” why be someone you are not? When we decide that who we are simply is not good enough, and we strive to look like someone else, we become just like a fish that is trying to grow arms.
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.
This week's blogger is Sister Judith Benkert, OP.
For many years, I was a practicing midwife. I used the undergraduate science degree to become a registered nurse. Some years later, I was working with Nurse Midwives at our hospital in Santa Cruz, California, and then became a certified nurse-midwife.
When I look back on the path I chose, it seems obvious that the pieces of the puzzle of discerning a ministry were rather clear. I’m not the type of person who discerns using a list of pros and cons or a great deal of discussion. My discernment comes in the form of putting one foot in front of the other, and the path seems to open before me to the next step. My answers come in the form of excitement and comfort that the path is right for me.
Another part of discernment is trust. Sometimes it’s a little shaky putting your foot out in a space that is not tested. As a midwife, I felt a major part of my work was to help a woman trust her body. We spent a major part of the prenatal time building trust, letting the woman know that her body was doing the “right thing.”
A midwife is a guide. In discernment, the Spiritual Director is a guide to help us develop trust in the call of God and to become the witness we are called to be. The best we can do is simply to ask God to show us the footpath.
This week's blogger is Sister Barbara Kelley, OP.
In a recent blog, Sister Lorraine Réaume, OP, our Formation Director, wrote about the dual dangers of overthinking in discernment – and of plunging into a decision without enough thought. I believe my own vocation story is a good example of overthinking – but with a happy ending!
My dad was a Jesuit, who left the Society of Jesus before making final vows because he realized that this was not his call – and returned to his home town to marry my mom. They had four children, raised us as faithful Catholics and I believe all of us are contributing well to society and are certainly a source of joy to those around them.
I was drawn to religious life, but was also always aware that, if my dad had gone on to be an ordained and perpetually professed Jesuit, I wouldn’t be who I am today. In my young years, as I constantly wavered on the fence between marriage and religious life – both good, both very holy callings – I thought often of my dad’s situation. What if I entered religious life and thus deprived the world of people who should have been born?
It was a powerful presentation on the life of St. Catherine of Siena that finally pulled me out of this “fence-sitting” posture and drew me, finally, to the Adrian Dominican Sisters. But I learned a powerful lesson: you can over-study the possible ramifications of everything you do to the point of paralysis, but that causes neither peace of mind nor a well-discerned decision. In the end, it’s a good idea to give these monumental “what if” questions to God, in trust that God will lead us to the right decision.
What serious questions in discernment do you need to leave trustfully in the hands of God?
I have just returned from taking our new novice, Sister Katherine, to St. Louis, to our Collaborative Dominican Novitiate. She will spend the next ten months there with two other Dominican novices and two Dominican Sisters, the co-directors of the novitiate. It’s a big step. She is far away from the motherhouse and with all new people. She will grow in her identity as a Dominican Sister, and yet Adrian will remain her home. She will have many new experiences in an unfamiliar city and a new graduate school. To take this step, Katherine had to be willing to risk so much newness all at once. She also has to trust that these new people will care for her and help her on this journey and will need a spirit of adventure to really enjoy all this change.
In so many ways, these words describe any big life choice we make when we are following the Spirit of God. We need to be willing to risk. There are no guarantees and life is not easy. We also need to trust that God is walking with us and that good people will appear on this path. And, we need the joy to see it as an adventure – one more step in our life-long adventure with Jesus.
Eighteen years ago, I was in Katherine’s exact position, being dropped off at the Novitiate by my formation director. I was really nervous. But the openness to risk, to trust, and to a spirit of adventure served me well then. They have served me well as I have continued on this path that never ceases to bring new challenges and adventures.
When have you been asked by God to step out to risk and trust in a new adventure? Is God asking that of you now?
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?
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Sister Tarianne DeYonker, OP
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Adrian Dominican Sisters
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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 new video series called DISCO (Discernment Conversations): Dancing with the questions of life!