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?
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke makes a wise observation when he says, “The future must enter into you long before it happens.” The use of imagination is one powerful way we can explore the meaning, promise and peril of a future direction we are discerning before that future is actually realized.
Images can come to us in many different ways. They can come through dreams, contemplation, prayer with Scripture, listening to music, or walking in nature. One way we can use imagination in the service of discernment is to contemplate thoroughly one image for the insight it holds around our decision.
Here’s an example from my own life: A few years ago, I began to seriously consider the possibility of leaving my university faculty position of 20 years to enter my name for election to congregational leadership. One morning, I woke up with the image in my head of someone going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. It was a startling image! Would a decision to leave university teaching to go into administration (which is not my strong suit) be as foolhardy, reckless, and without purpose as a decision to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel? The image helped me to get in touch with both my fear of failing (I could lose the election) and my fear of success (I could win the election, but be totally inept at the job). As if on the edge of the falls in a barrel, was I on the edge of a fatal mistake that could ruin my life?
As I continued to mull over the image, I remembered my attraction to Niagara Falls. Having visited the falls many times, it had become a God image for me. Like God, it was glorious, awe-inspiring, and fearful in its grandeur. Yet, it bedazzled me and allured me to come close and experience its beauty and its power. The roar of the falls often wrapped me in prayer. Above the falls, the river would roll along at its unhurried pace and then quite suddenly, without notice, meet the falls and plummet through mid-air as if to its death, only to reemerge at the foot of the falls and live anew as a river once again. It was an image of death and resurrection.
Leaving my university position would certainly be a kind of death, which I felt deep down was necessary for new life to emerge. It felt like God’s call. After much deliberation, I left my position. I was not, however, elected to leadership, but was appointed as vocation director, a ministry more suited to my gifts and talents. The image brought clarity and insight to my decision that has brought me new life in abundance.
Take time in prayer to get in touch with your discernment issue. Let an image arise from your prayer. Interact with your image. Pay attention to what it represents. Ask your image, What wisdom do you want to reveal to me? Listen for its response.
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?
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.
Do you ever struggle with being kind and compassionate toward yourself, especially in times of personal suffering? Even though one of the foundational pillars of Christian Spirituality is the love of self, we tend to be harsh and judgmental about our own flaws, failings, and limitations. In his teaching on friendship, the great Dominican theologian, Thomas Aquinas, asserts that since we are more closely united to ourselves than to any other person, all the good we desire for our loved ones, we most want for ourselves. Therefore, the heart of wisdom is to love and accept ourselves as our own best friend. This counsel suggests that when times are really tough and we are experiencing suffering, we give ourselves the patient caring and tenderness that we need.
Human development specialist, Dr. Kristen Neff, has developed what she calls a “self-compassion break.” This five-minute break in time of suffering consists of three main components. First, we must recognize that “this is a moment of suffering” and to speak gently to ourselves in naming our pain. She encourages us to say something like, “Sweetheart, this is really hard right now.” We then simply allow the difficulty to be present and we soften toward it. Second, she suggests that we remind ourselves that “suffering is a part of life.” Instead of feeling alone and cut off from the rest of the world, it is important to remind ourselves that suffering is a part of the human condition. Other people are suffering in a similar way as we are suffering. Third, we say, “May I be kind to myself in this moment.” We offer ourselves soothing and comfort with gentle kindness. She encourages us to put our hand on our heart and feel the care streaming through our fingers. See her website. Learning to love ourselves in this way enables us to love others; when we befriend ourselves, we can be true friends to others. Likewise, this friendship with ourselves also helps us to better open up to the friendship of Christ.
I invite readers to share in the comments:
What has helped you to love and accept yourself?
How has being a friend to yourself helped you be a friend to others?
How has being a friend to yourself helped you to be a better Christian?
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.
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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!