Thank you for your patience with me as I return from my trip to Illinois and catch up with a few urgent projects. For the beginning of the New Year, I will be in Los Angeles for meetings with our sisters, and I am taking that opportunity to offer a retreat day at our Pauline Book & Media Center in Culver City, CA, on Saturday, January 7th. Retreat will be followed by Mass at our chapel at 4 PM.
A day of retreat is a wonderful way to re-discover and rejoice in the gift of God’s love and to allow his love to transform us. Abiding in his love enables us to discern God’s will for us in this new year, and once again align our will with God’s. If you live in the Los Angeles area, this is a marvelous way to start the year.
I’m delighted to share with you this lovely vocation story of Sr. Maria Kim, FSP, who recently made her perpetual profession in the Daughters of Saint Paul. Not only is she very open about the steps of her discernment, but there are “tips” and feedback from other young women who witnessed Sr. Maria Kim’s perpetual profession while discerning religious life.
As you enjoy her inspiring story, pray for young people discerning their vocations, that they may have the same openness and joy to Christ’s call of love.
Many of us discern our vocation informally through the years. When we enter more intentionally or deeply into vocational discernment, we need a few things already in place in our lives. If we aren’t currently trying to live these already, we will find them of immeasurable help in our discernment. But before I post my list, I want to share about another list, found in a book that I highly recommend:
In his book, Geekpriest: Confessions of a New Media Pioneer, Father Roderick Vonhögen shares the story of his vocational discernment in chapter 2, “Spider-Man’s Day Job.” He compares discerning our vocation with the typical superhero story, and shares a checklist for what we can learn from superheroes in discerning our vocation. (How cool is that! I wish I’d had this checklist when I was discerning!)
Father Roderick’s “Superheroes Checklist” is insightful and a great deal of fun for those with geekish tendencies (like myself) who enjoy superhero stories, but it also makes discernment very accessible to anyone who has seen even one superhero film. Included in his checklist are: seek solitude, study and read, discover your strengths and acknowledge your weaknesses, be humble, listen to your friends, do not fear, and persevere.
Geekpriest is a great, fun read and I highly recommend it for young people, as it offers a fascinating and entertaining “inside look” at the life of a dedicated priest, as well as offering helpful ways for living as a Catholic amid our social-media-inundated world. If you are discerning a vocation to the priesthood, the whole book is a fun read that will also get you thinking and praying! (You can read my full review here.)
Below is my less-fun, not super-hero related list of essentials to put in place in your life as you begin or continue to discern your vocation. (Notice that my list intersects with Geekpriest’s SuperHeroes Checklist in more than one place!) This list also sums up a whole slew of my previous blog posts.
1. A dynamic prayer life and sacramental life. Have a real relationship with God that is living and growing. This means a regular prayer life, not just a “hit or miss” approach, or only praying “when I feel like it.” If you haven’t already, commit to daily prayer.
Becoming an “expert” in prayer is a lifelong journey, but having a genuine relationship with God when we are seeking his will is essential. How better to learn how to recognize God’s invitation in the big decisions we have to make, than to listen to God every day?
The sacraments are the privileged ways that the Church offers us an encounter with Christ. Frequently participating in Holy Mass (Sunday Mass is the minimum) and regular reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation are the ordinary means for growing in our relationship with God. They might seem “ordinary,” but both sacraments are really hidden miracles in our midst.
At Mass, we adore, thank, offer ourselves with, and receive Jesus himself, who delights in sharing himself with us and inviting us into his own relationship with the Father. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, all of the obstacles that we put between God and ourselves—our sins, woundedness, and flaws—are forgiven and healed in a sacred encounter with Jesus’ merciful love.
2. Strive to live a good moral life. All of us are called to holiness, to grow in union with God here on earth, a union that will be fulfilled in perfect communion with God in heaven. Every vocation is a call to profound holiness. Constantly living in a state of serious sin means we are putting obstacles between us and God. All sin is a roadblock for our discernment, because sin is turning away from God’s will and choosing our will over God’s. Instead, discernment is striving to know and live God’s will. We do not need to be sinless to discern because we are all sinners, but we want to be striving to be upright, sincere about our journey of growing in virtue.
3. Trust in God. We can grow in trust in God by pondering and praying with these truths:
- God loves us
- God knows us better than we know ourselves
- God has a plan for us that will bring about our greatest happiness and in which we will help others in a way that no one else will.
4. Get to know ourselves. This includes not just getting to know our gifts and weaknesses, but also discovering our motivations, which helps us to know what is most important to us. Including a daily examination of conscience in our prayer helps us to discover any area in our life—an attachment to a particular sin, for example—that might prevent us from seeking God’s will. Why are we entering into this discernment? What is in our hearts, what are we seeking? How can we more singleheartedly seek God’s will?
5. Active engagement with the Church. Our vocational state in life determines our role in the Church, as well as in life. Discernment doesn’t just involve God and us; it also involves the Church, the People of God within whom we will live and serve. In order to discern our role in the Church, we must already know the Church from the inside by being actively engaged with our parish or a church group. If we have not been involved with our parish, or other form of ministry, now is the time to get involved!
Especially for those discerning religious life or priesthood, or between one of these and marriage, it is essential to take part in the ministry and missionary life of the Church; otherwise we will not have the experience of sharing our gifts in ministry and the Church’s mission. Without this experience it’s hard to know what it would be like to share our gifts in this way as a lay person, sister, brother, or priest. We don’t always have to do this through our parish—there are other church groups that we can become involved in—but we need to find some way to get really involved in the Church’s ministry and mission.
6. Regular spiritual direction. [For more about spiritual direction—what it is, how to find a director, and what to expect for the first time, visit here and here.] A spiritual director may not be necessary as we begin discerning our vocation, but once we start to get serious, we should definitely start seeing a spiritual director regularly.
The first five areas are so important for discerning that they are, in a way, “prerequisites” to seriously discerning one’s vocation. If any of these are lacking, it might be a good idea to make that our “next step” in discerning our vocation.
In times of deep desolation, what can we do? St. Ignatius encourages us to be faithful to our commitments, to rekindle our prayer and our longing for God, and to wait until the Lord lifts the fog. As our time of deep desolation passes, we will gain a renewed perspective to see the beauty and potential for love, even in the suffering we are undergoing; we will be able to recognize how God is inviting us and how God makes even times of desolation bear fruit. But in the meantime…
How To Avoid Becoming Discouraged by the Darkness
When we are going through great desolation and the darkness is so intense that we really want to give up, this is the time to pull out and use the tools that our Catholic spiritual tradition—especially the tradition of discernment—have given us.
* Continue to pray—be faithful to your usual prayer time. Even if it feels like your prayer is “wasting time,” and that you’re “not getting anything out of it”, remember that times of dryness or desolation in prayer are often the times when God can do the most work in us. If you aren’t doing anything or getting anything out of your prayer, and you continue to faithfully show up and trust in God, God will take over…and work within you in ways that you cannot imagine. (And you may only recognize this afterwards, sometimes years later.) You may wish to vary your prayer if it’s dry: one day, pray the Rosary, another day simply sit quietly with the Lord in Eucharistic adoration.
* Hold fast to your convictions, and the resolutions or course of action you made when you weren’t experiencing such profound desolation. A time of deep discouragement is not usually the time to make big changes in your life. Instead, if you are overwhelmed by the challenge of staying with your convictions and way of living, make small changes in how you live your long-held convictions. Experiment with how you live your convictions, rather than giving up on your actual convictions.
* Don’t get discouraged—or at least, don’t let discouragement grip you too tightly. To gain insight on desolation and darkness, you may want to read what Saint Ignatius has to say about desolation and consolation. (I recommend Discernment of Spirits by Father Timothy Gallagher, OMV)
* Don’t be afraid of the unknown. God is already there. If you are receiving new—even uncomfortable—insights about your life, evaluate them one by one. Could these be possibilities for growth or invitations from God? If you feel your values are shifting, take time to pray with these new insights and desires so that gradually you can discern if or how to act on them. Perhaps take some time to go back to and re-visit your first real encounter with God. Remember his love for you, his invitations to you, his affirmation of who you are. Rest in his loving gaze, and renew your commitment to him, wherever he is leading you.
* Read and pray about God’s love for you and how trusting in God—who is almighty, who loves us, who is faithful—is the best choice you can make every day. Because you are in a spiritually dark or even dry place, find resources that you can read more easily. Read a favorite book of the Bible or a spiritual writer whose insights resonate with you.
* Seek advice from your spiritual director or other mentors; go back to the spiritual wisdom you have already received and have striven to live by. What does it tell you about your current situation?
* Seek support from good friends you trust who share your values, might understand your struggles, and always want what is best for you. Seeking support and comfort can strengthen us in the deep loneliness and suffering that accompanies desolation.
* Make the time to do something that you love to do, that you feel drawn to doing now. Doing something you truly enjoy can give you a place to find a break or comfort from the darkness that you are undergoing. Truly enjoying something can relax you and also give you a safe place to “process” or “connect” the pieces of what you are undergoing.
This week, I want to make sure I respond to your questions! I know that my responses are often delayed by months, and there are probably a few questions that came to me that I didn’t answer. If you have a burning question about discernment, or specifically about religious life, please email me or add a comment! I will try to be proactive in the next two months and respond to your questions, either individually or as a post, within a week or so.
I was wondering if you had any tips on how to BE silent? Whenever I try to meditate on a reading in silence, or go for a walk, or spend some quiet time in my room to pray, I find my mind instantly wandering to other things. How can I focus quieting my mind, not just my environment?
Entering into silence is often daunting or uncomfortable. Here are a couple of things I did when I first tried to pray silently. Even today, when I’m especially distracted I still go back to some of these, especially #s 1, 3, 4, & 5.
1) Start small. Try to focus your attention for a very short time–maybe 2 to 5 minutes. When your mind wanders (and this happens to all of us!), as soon as you realize it, bring your attention back to what you’re meditating on. Try meditating or praying quietly for 5 minutes a day. After you feel that you are able to focus for about half of that time, increase it to 10 minutes, and so on. Many people pray silently or meditate on the Word of God between 20-30 minutes a day.
2) What time are you choosing to pray? Prayer–especially contemplative prayer–is hard work, so it’s a good idea to find a fairly consistent time when we are quite alert, but not imminently distracted about our responsibilities. This is why early in the morning is a good time to pray for many people; others are able to pray best in the evening–after supper or before bed.
3) If you’re meditating on a reading, choose just one sentence or phrase that “resonates” with you and re-read it slowly several times. What comes to mind as you re-read it? What about this phrase stands out for you? Even if no thoughts or insight arrives, savor the sentence or phrase. Simply spending time with the Word of God and allowing it to enter deep within us can be deep prayer and transformative.
4) Look at the sources or “fonts” of your prayer. If you’re struggling to “quiet” your mind, choose a source that is easier to enter into. The Word of God is the best “font” for our prayer, but different passages are easier than others. For example, it took me several years to learn how to pray with the letters of Saint Paul, while praying with the Gospels–especially with the stories of Jesus healing people–was much easier for me to enter into. Needless to say, I used to pray mostly with the Gospels! Pick a book of the Bible–and the Gospels are ideal–that you can read more easily.
If you’re struggling to read the Bible or if you feel especially distracted, you can pick a spiritual writer that engages you, whom you really like to read. Sometimes another person’s insights can enable us to enter into silence a little more deeply or easily.
5) Talk to God about what you read or are trying to pray with–a spontaneous conversation. If you’re by yourself, you can even talk out loud! Make sure you give God space to respond to you. If you really find it impossible to concentrate, talk to God about what’s on your mind. Once again, after you have opened your heart to the Lord, make sure you take time to listen to his response. You may not “hear” any words or “feel” anything, but even making an act of faith that God is present by listening for him will bear fruit in your day.
6) Choose an environment that enhances your ability to concentrate. For example, try praying in a quiet chapel. If you’re praying in your room, create a simple prayer-corner with a religious image, statue or crucifix, a prayer book, a Bible, and a comfortable chair. If you like to pray outside, pick a beautiful but quiet place. Wherever you choose to pray quietly, use the environment to quiet your mind: focus on the religious image in your room; offer your heart to the Lord as the candle that is burning in the chapel sanctuary; etc. Using beauty or religious imagery to enter into prayer often engages our emotions and enables us to “bypass” our mind’s noisiness and encounter God in our hearts.
* * *
There are so many styles of prayer, and it’s helpful to pray in a variety of ways, depending on what’s going on in our lives, where we are in the moment, how much time we have, and how we feel. Prayer doesn’t always need to be silent or contemplative:
- Vocal prayer is the easiest way to pray as a community together.
- Praying amid the bustle of the day is the easiest way to connect with God or stay connected with God. Snatching a moment on a subway commute, praying the Rosary when we’re out for a walk, or making short acts of faith and love while waiting in line at the grocery store are ways that we sanctify our day.
- But we also need quiet or more focused times when we can have “quality” conversations with God. The quiet in our prayer is important because it helps us develop the habit of listening for God and to encounter God more fully in the depths of our hearts.
This week—from Sunday, November 1 until Saturday, November 7, 2015—is National Vocation Awareness Week. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops invites us all to dedicate this week to promote vocations specifically to the priesthood, diaconate, and consecrated life through prayer and education, and to renew our prayers and support for those who are considering one of these particular vocations.
With the recent Synod on the Family, the importance for young people to discern and be formed in their vocation to marriage is recognized, but there is one big difference. In our culture, marriage as we understand it as Catholics may be under pressure, but it is still considered a “usual” or “normal” path in life. Whereas ordained and consecrated life are the “hidden” or “forgotten” options for many young people. There could be any number of reasons for this, but in working with young people, I’ve found there’s usually just a few:
- Out of sight, out of mind. A young person has never truly connected with a young priest, deacon, or religious, and so the thought that he or she could have a similar vocation never comes to mind.
- Celibate chastity is so counter-cultural in our “do whatever feels right” culture obsessed with pleasure and sex, it’s immediately dismissed as “not possible.”
- Similarly, the vow of poverty is absurd to someone immersed in the materialistic culture
- The mistaken belief that true freedom means to be absolutely unencumbered by any form of restraint whatsoever, makes the priestly or religious vows unthinkable: like an unbearable lifetime of captivity.
- Fear of commitment
- Fear of unworthiness to be consecrated to God
National Vocation Awareness Week (NVAW) is especially helpful for highlighting consecrated life as a valid vocation to discern; NVAW can also help to address the misunderstandings that people often have about a life consecrated to God’s service. Great joy, beauty, love, and goodness flow from authentically living a priestly, diaconal, or religious vocation.
Of course, the greatest joy and love flow from living one’s own authentic call, so the point of National Vocation Awareness Week is not to put pressure on anyone, but to ensure that the full range of beautiful vocations in the Church are understood, considered, and discerned.
Through the week, I hope to:
- Answer the most recent questions about religious life that have come in. Feel free to email, comment, or tweet me with your questions. (Note: I’m only on Twitter once or twice a day, so to reach me through Twitter, I believe you have to add a period in front of my name: put .@SisterMPaul at the beginning of your tweet, otherwise I might miss your question.)
- Tweet resources that I discover through the week (and I’ll try to list them on the blog)
- Highlight resources for nurturing vocations to religious life, priesthood and diaconate in the family, which is ideally the place where one can find the greatest support for discerning and taking the first steps to follow one’s vocation.
In addition, as I mentioned earlier, you can support NVAW in prayer by: downloading reflections for each day, a holy hour that you can pray for vocations this week, and a digital prayer card (PDF) that you can pray with and share, as well as other resources here on the USCCB’s website.
1. Place Yourself in God’s Presence
This is a moment like that of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor: Jesus is here before you, wishing to bathe you in the radiance of his love, wanting to speak to you. This is a moment of very personal encounter between you and Jesus. Take this moment to rest in the light of his gaze of unconditional love for you. Allow his love to fill you—perhaps with awareness of his presence, or peace, or joy—whatever grace he wishes to give you at this moment.
2. In Gratitude
In the light of his love, look over your day or the past week, with gratitude. What are the gifts you have received this day/week? Give thanks to God for the blessings that immediately spring to mind. Now look deeper. Have you received a special grace this day or week for which you want to thank God? A hidden gift that you took for granted until now? Or a little joy that reminded you of how loved you are? Remember also to thank God for the special gifts that he has given you, in your person—whether it’s a talent to serve or to cook, or to listen, or your patience, or a gift to encourage others… Thank God for these gifts.
Confident in God’s desire to draw you closer to himself, now ask the Holy Spirit to come into your heart and to help you gently look over the day or week in the light of his grace and your response to his grace.
4. Gently Review Your Day/Week
Look through your life in these days/week. A particular event might spring to mind right away—that might be God’s invitation to spend some time with him reflecting on it. If nothing comes to mind, look through the events of your day, especially noticing what’s going on inside of you—your motivations and feelings.
Good questions to ask yourself:
- When did you feel loved today? How were you able to show love to someone else?
- What drew you closer to God today?
- What drew you away from God today?
- What kind of moods were present in you today? Why?
- What regrets do you carry for today?
- Where were God’s invitations to you today? How did you respond?
- Do any events seem to be unfinished, requiring some reflection or making you feel uncomfortable, angry, or fearful? How might God be inviting you in this situation?
5. Renewal of love and resolve
Express whatever is in your heart to Jesus—how you feel about the events of this day or week, how you have grown closer to him, asking forgiveness for your sinfulness and failures. In a particular way, ask him to be with you in the coming day or week.
Close with a prayer for the grace to live in his love, such as the Our Father.
Several Christian artists have written songs that refer to God’s “fingerprints” in our lives. We may have to look for them, but our lives are covered with signs of God’s love at work in us, although sometimes these signs are hidden. How can we grow in awareness of God’s presence and saving love in our life? Here are four simple ways to get started:
1. List your life—all the big events of your life. Can you see a pattern of how God has been present in your life? Later, you may wish to bring one of the events on your list to prayer.
2. Choose one of the events in your life that has influenced you and journal about it. (You can also bring it to prayer.)
3. If there’s a time in your life that you feel God wasn’t present, simply bring that hurt to God in prayer and ask him to reveal to you, at the best moment, how God was with you.
4. Make it a practice to bring your day or week to a prayerful review with the examen. (I’ll post more on how to do this later. If you want to get started right away, you can visit Father Michael Denk’s website and download his Examen App.)
Sometimes it is easier to enter into a new awareness by actively doing or creating something helps us to reflect with images, craftsmanship, or physical activity. Try one (or both) of the following:
- Make a timeline, patchwork, or scrapbook of your own life – which includes both the “outer” or visible significant events of your life, and the “inner” or invisible significant events.
- Draw your life as a pathway. Has it gone up a mountain, or through a dark forest? What signposts have shown you the way? Have you crossed beautiful meadows? Hit any roadblocks? What are the landmarks or milestones on your path? Where did your path begin, and where does it lead?
Just a reminder for any New Yorkers that I’ll be visiting this week for two special events:
2. Daughters of Saint Paul Centenary Day of Recollection and Centenary Mass on Saturday, June 6th, from 10 AM to 6:30 PM, at Holy Family Church, where I will be giving one of two talks and will lead the Eucharistic Hour of Adoration: