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?
Based on a reflection by Sister Romona Nowak, OP
Our journey of life can at times take us to a place of unbearable suffering where we would rather not go. As Jesus gently warns Peter, there will come a time when “you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will put a rope around you and take you where you would rather not go” (Jn 21:18). Our Sister Romona shares with us her own reflection on suffering as she struggles with terminal cancer. She leans on Christ who is with her on this road. She writes:
I have been in the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus asked his Father for exactly what he felt and truly what he wanted, “Don’t let me suffer anymore.” Finally, he was able to say, “Not my will but your will be done.” Like Jesus, my tears have flowed. They express my fears, hurts, and longings. I learned that my suffering and my cross is my cancer, and the journey is my way of the cross. When the pain is so deep that I cannot even pray, I hold my rosary cross and in holding it I remember that Jesus is holding me. This is a blessed assurance of what is most important—remaining one with my God.
My struggles have been many: acceptance of my journey, review of my life with its sinfulness, grief in letting go of what I know, etc. Cancer, and especially metastatic cancer, has left me feeling out of control of my life; a basic human need. I am incredibly vulnerable, dependent, and so often confused. I sought another medical opinion just to verify my untreatable condition. A sobering thought to hear, “no treatment will change the course of the cancer.”
I needed friends that would help me think through my thoughts and get the feelings out. I believe it must be nearly impossible to go through cancer alone… I am blessed by many wonderful friends. You have affirmed me when I have been so hard on myself. You have been an incredible blessing that has not only helped me accept, but also stop the temptation for withdrawal that accompanies fear and anxiety. God’s action is amazing through you.
Just like most of humanity we strive for perfection. My failings, faults, and mistakes in mind and action (i.e., being overly critical, judging others, pride, etc.) make me aware of the constant need for forgiveness... Discouragement comes. Faith helps me find peace. When I turn my weakness and my whole life to God, sometimes in a mantra of just the name of “Jesus”, or scripture, or a short “Have mercy on me” I experience a calming. Other times the fear of death overwhelms me. I’m too sinful to be welcomed by God. Then someone reminds me that God didn’t ask us to be perfect, just to trust in him. “Jesus, I trust in you.” Please hold me in your prayer, because the battle with these temptations, especially self-forgiveness will continue because of my humanness.
I am still alive. This length of days is for God’s mission. Although I will not be physically cured, hopefully, this journey will enable spiritual healing. The cross doesn’t get lighter nor the suffering easier, but I can embrace the journey with your companionship in presence and prayer until I am one with my Beloved—in the great surrender.
What has been your experience of religious faith in hard times?
Sister Romona’s reflection was informed by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, The Gift of Peace, Michael Paul Gallagher, Into Extra Time and Jim Willig, Lessons from the School of Suffering.
By Sister Judith Benkert, OP
After a winter of snow, ice, and freezing weather the new blossoms of spring seem so far away. We hear of a new wave of cold arctic air to hit the Northeast. And yet the first blossoms are bravely opening with the urging of the warm sun.
Discernment was for me a chilling winter. Where was the answer to my seeking? Where was the God I so believed in? Give me an answer, and soon! Then one morning I was out the back door and peeking through the winter soil was the small point of a peony plant. I lived in the Midwest. I was able to see the warmth of the sun bring the decision to light. I haven’t looked back. Spring blossoms are always reminders for me to believe in the warmth of God’s grace.
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.
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?
Guest blogger Sister Mary Soher, OP, is currently the Co-Director of National Catholic Sisters Week. She is based at St. Catherine’s University in St. Paul, MN, and travels extensively to raise awareness about Catholic Sisters.
Just before the start of the Year of Mercy, I heard a gospel story that I do not remember having heard before. It’s the story of two blind men in Matthew’s gospel who asked the “Son of David” to have pity on them. When asked if they believed that Jesus could do that, they answered, “Yes Lord,” and Jesus said “let it be done for you according to you faith.”
It is a beautiful story, for them, but it made me wonder if I have enough faith. I let the thought roll around my mind and heart for awhile, and then a familiar gospel passage came to mind, that of the mustard seed.
Jesus tells his disciples, both then and now, that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we could tell a mountain to move and it would. I only need to have enough faith to let Jesus into my life, a seed-size amount, and then the wonders begin.
My discernment of religious life was sort of like that. I had an interest, a wondering about religious life, but I also thought I knew what it was and that it wasn’t for me. However, the thought, small as it was, would not go away – I needed to find out what was religious life really was about before I could decide if it would be life-giving for me.
I let the thought or call settle into my inner self and began the journey of learning more. Step by step, sister by sister, conversation after conversation, I began to see that there was indeed a direction for me to become my best self and develop a deeper and ongoing relationship with an incredibly merciful and loving God.
If there is the slightest bit of interest, of wondering, of longing, do not be afraid. Start a conversation, ask your questions, think about the responses you get and the feelings you feel. Have faith that whatever you need, God has already given to you all that you need and will continue to do so.
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
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