Silence: Irreplaceable for Discerning


allows a person to speak with God,

to hear God, and to receive from God;

in holy silence the soul withdraws into itself,

comes to know itself better,

and achieves greater union with God.

The person will be fascinated by God,

enter into intimate conversation with God,

and pray with Saint Augustine:

“That I may know myself, that I may know thee.” 

                                                            – Bl. James Alberione

When is the last time that you were surrounded by silence?

When I first visited the convent, I was told about “Grand Silence,” which was the sisters’ daily practice of not talking (except for an absolute emergency) from night prayers until breakfast the next morning. As a postulant (sister-in-training), I would be required to keep the Grand Silence too. The first night I was a bit uneasy–I worried that I’d forget and start talking to someone, and I wasn’t sure what the penalty would be! I also wondered how dire “an absolute emergency” would have to be to justify speaking a few words.

Grand Silence is a monastic tradition which recognizes how valuable silence is for growing in a spirit of recollection and prayer, for knowing oneself, for entering into a deeper communion with God.

Because we Daughters of Saint Paul are an active apostolic community, we don’t keep “Grand Silence” as strictly as a contemplative monastery, but we do keep a spirit of silence in the convent at night and in the early morning, a silence that is rarely broken. I find it invaluable for allowing me to turn my focus once again inward, to my relationship with God, and to mull over how I spent the day. Silence is one of the things I miss the most when I’m traveling and not staying at a convent.

The “noisiness” of our lives can distract us from the deeper purpose of our lives: to do God’s will. Today, many of us live with almost constant noise of some kind or other. Whether it’s our smartphone’s frequent ping calling our attention, the roar of traffic, the mechanical whir of the refrigerator, favorite music or talk radio coming through our tiny earbuds, or chatting with friends or family, silence has become a rare, precious commodity.

I treasure the moments that I take a walk in a park where I can really focus on the birdsongs and the whisper of the wind in the trees, and just take in the silence. Making time for silence in our lives is vital to deepening our relationship with God. Silence is not just passive: I often find that God speaks to me in silence, without words.

In his short message for World Communication Day in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI wrote the best “call to silence” I have ever read. I encourage you to read the whole message—it’s just a little over two pages long—and it will say better than I ever could why making silence part of your daily or weekly routine is irreplaceable in your life as a human being, as a believer, as a discerner.

For us who are discerning God’s will and seeking to listen to God’s call in our daily life, making time for silence is key. Silence helps us:

  • come to know ourselves
  • recognize what in our lives is important
  • hear God and enter into fuller communion with God
  • enter more deeply into our relationships with others
  • listen compassionately to others
  • open ourselves to the Truth
  • contemplate God’s invitations and presence in the world
  • become aware of what we really want to communicate….

If you are able to take some silent time, add to this list afterwards. How does silence help you to become more yourself, and closer to others and to God? You may not notice much of a difference at first, but if you develop a “silence habit,” you may find yourself more self-aware, focused, happier, and more “in tune with” God through your day.

Try This

Make time for real silence in your life this week. Go for a long walk in the country, visit a quiet church, go into your room and close the door and do something quiet, or find another way to spend time in silence.

Too Busy To Discern?

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1. Busyness and/or overwork is sometimes a simple reality. American culture emphasizes doing over being. Between home life, demands at work, needs of extended family, and everything else, we can become too busy practically all the time, doing things that we consider important.

The needs and sufferings of our brothers and sisters in the world are so great that it’s easy to see that every baptized person is called to “busy” themselves about the Lord’s work. Whether it’s praying and offering for others, reaching out with small gestures of love at home, responding to a neighbor’s crisis, or engaging in full-time apostolate, living the corporal and spiritual works of mercy keep us all busy! For those of us involved in full-time apostolate, juggling family and work, or part of the “sandwich generation”—raising our kids and taking care of elderly parents or relatives—there is simply not enough time in the day to do all that we want to do, to express our love in all the ways that we want to. And there are certainly seasons of our lives when the Lord invites us to that special self-offering of giving at “full stretch”—whether to our children and family at home, to fulfill our responsibilities at work, to reach out to those in need, or in fulfilling the Church’s mission.

But we cannot run at full stretch all the time. We also need time to replenish ourselves so that we can continue to give of ourselves fully and freely. If we find ourselves often grumpy, stressed, or exhausted; if our life starts to feel unbearable; if we have crafted or allowed our lifestyle to develop in such a way that we don’t have time for daily prayer and a weekly chunk of time to nurture ourselves; if we find ourselves taking refuge in work or busyness, then we need to re-examine our lives, giving some time to these questions:

  • What is most important to us?
  • What do we want to give priority to in our lives?
  • Are we giving priority to what is merely superficially urgent (e.g., work has many deadlines), or to the truly crucial (e.g., our spiritual state, the direction of our lives, our important relationships?)
  • Are we deceiving ourselves with the illusion that being super-busy or overworked gives us more importance, control, or power?

Allowing ourselves to be deceived by the illusion of importance, power, and control is not spiritually healthy. It can distract us from what is truly important in our lives, and deceive us about our true, deepest call. The world is in God’s hands and will not fall apart if we take a break, make time for a half hour of daily prayer, or schedule in the necessary time to take care of ourselves. Always being “too busy,” or always saying “yes” to additional responsibilities can become a way of avoiding ourselves. This can be a deception of the ego or of the devil; either way, I am sure that the devil uses this self-deception to prevent us from listening to God and to prevent our growth in humility.

When we choose or allow ourselves to become frantically busy all the time, we can start to think we are more important than we are. Our priorities become mixed up. There is a difference between feeling needed and feeling indispensable. The first may be true much of the time; the second is rarely true, and if it is, a back up plan is needed! Being overly busy isn’t just difficult for us; it also affects the quality of our relationships and can prevent us from taking time with the loved ones who really need us. When we fall into a cycle of being over-busy all the time, we may even be using being busy as an escape from prayer, spending quiet time, or difficult aspects of our relationships.

Above all—for the purposes of our discernment—being super-busy, stressed, or overworked prevents us from taking time to become quiet enough to deeply listen to God.

The Mission Entrusted To You by God

This beautiful reflection by Blessed John Henry Newman can inspire us and offer direction to us both as we discern our mission, or as we struggle to respond to the challenges of taking the next step forward in our mission:

06N PixabayGod has created me to do Him some definite service;
He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.

Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—still He knows what He is about.

O Adonai, O Ruler of Israel, Thou that guidest Joseph like a flock, O Emmanuel, O Sapientia, I give myself to Thee. I trust Thee wholly. Thou art wiser than I—more loving to me than I myself. Deign to fulfil Thy high purposes in me whatever they be—work in and through me. I am born to serve Thee, to be Thine, to be Thy instrument. Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see—I ask not to know—I ask simply to be used.

– From Blessed John Henry Newman. The complete meditation can be found online here:

Discerning Our Call To Serve

06L my crazy ideaA hugely important part of any good discernment is to listen to God’s invitations as expressed in the needs of the world—the needs of those around us: Where is God sending us to serve?

We live in a busy world, with so many needs. Any person of good will alive today can easily become overwhelmed by the number of requests for help, whether from family, friends, neighbors, parish, or work. Sometimes it may seem to be a call from God; at other times, we may become casually involved in helping out our family, our community, or a ministry simply as a favor, and the favor turns into a bigger commitment that we didn’t pray about or plan for. Especially when the invitation is casual, or we never envisioned ourselves serving in this particular way, we may not recognize God’s call.

When we feel pulled in many directions, or find ourselves juggling too much, this is the perfect time to enter into a spirit of discernment, to sort through the different demands on our time and discern which requests or needs are invitations from God. Sometimes, we can easily sort through them. At other times, it may take time to gradually clarify how God is inviting us. But as we go forward in our lives, we will develop more of a sense of our personal mission, of how God is calling us to be and to love in the world.

For example when I visit a hospital, I am drawn to help the people I encounter there—not just the person I am visiting, but also the people I meet casually. While I’m at the hospital, I seek to respond as best I can to the requests that I receive. I believe that God wants to work through me to touch the lives of the people that I encounter on that particular visit. (And often I am deeply touched by the people who are so courageously undergoing such suffering.)

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However in my vocation as a Daughter of Saint Paul, I am also aware that I am not called to be a nurse. Instead, my vocation as a Pauline communicator is to focus on the spiritual poverty and suffering of the people whom I encounter, whether they are wealthy or poor. This can be a less obvious call, because physical poverty and suffering are often more noticeable.

What criteria can we use to sort through the many demands that we experience? For me, the wonderfully profound Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner sums it up best when he wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Frederick Buechner, from his book Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC). Looking for that resonance between the outward call we receive/perceive, and the inner movements of our heart may take time, prayer, and discernment, but the God who lovingly calls us will clarify his will for us in his time.   

Three ways the Church helps us discern

06H Sr Margaret JosephBelonging to the Church and being active in the Church is one of the best ways to live and grow in our faith, and can be invaluable in helping us discern God’s call. Our faith community can be as small as a prayer group, as large as a parish, or a midsize group that centers around a form of ministry or nurturing our faith and spirituality in every day life. Virtual faith communities can also support us spiritually and help us to grow, although in more limited ways. We may belong to more than one faith community.

Faith communities that really nurture us can be difficult to find, and they take many shapes. If you do not have a faith community—for example, you go to Sunday Mass but are not more involved in living and sharing your faith in your parish or in other ways—I encourage you to actively seek one. Your own parish is a good place to start. (If you don’t feel that your parish is nurturing your faith deeply enough, there are many other ways to connect with the Church.)

Why is belonging to a faith community so important to our discernment?

1. Because we need to be actively involved in building the Church in order to fully live our faith. Jesus doesn’t call us as isolated individuals, but calls us into community, to serve one another and to live in communion with each other. How can we do that if we aren’t actively involved? An essential part of our baptismal call is to evangelize, to witness, and share our faith with others. And the first place that we can do that is within the Church.

We cannot nurture and grow in our faith alone; we need others to help us, to inspire us, to motivate us, to call us to greater self-giving. Finding a dynamic faith community where we are nurtured spiritually can be challenging, but it’s worth the search. If we cannot find a vibrant parish nearby, we can start looking for other kinds of Catholic faith communities. Retreats, lay movements, or connecting with religious communities of priests, brothers, or sisters, are three ways we can find people who are committed to growing in holiness in ways that we can identify with and share. In a dynamic faith community where we truly share the height and depths of our Faith, we can more easily hear and respond to God’s invitations to us—whether they are to a particular ministry or initiative, or a deeper relationship with Christ. Especially if we are discerning our vocation or ministry, Jesus will call us and affirm our call in and through the Church.

2. We often receive Christ’s call in and through his Church: through receiving the Word of God, through our sacramental life, through the Eucharist, in the homilies, in the calls of our pastors, in the service that we give, in the holy examples of the saints and perhaps in the inspiring lives of someone we know. For those discerning their vocations, the Church has the best understanding of how to receive, respond to, and live the call to marriage, single, priestly and religious life.

3. Usually it is in the Church that we can best learn how to serve with the mind and heart of Christ. Despite the reality that the Church is Christ’s Body, we will find many people in the Church whose humanity and sinfulness irritate, disturb, and perhaps even appall us. But we know that Christ died to redeem us and sanctify us, and that the Church’s holiness comes from Christ. If we look attentively, we will also find people in the Church who are truly holy: who are receptive to the Word of God in the Scripture and in the Eucharist, and who humbly serve—often without being acknowledged. We are called to build up the Church—sometimes the irritating or wounded part of the Church that would normally turn us away—with our faith and service. In turn, certain members of our faith community will invite and/or challenge us to serve. And they will also affirm us in our service.

As Catholic Christians, we are called to listen to the invitations the Church makes–because Christ speaks through his Church. Our last few popes have wisely and unapologetically called the Church to take specific actions. Coming from pastors who most clearly represent Christ on earth, these are calls from God. Today, Pope Francis sometimes startles us with the vividness of his invitations of how we are to called to love the world as Christ did. His wise and pastoral invitations to holiness and service are not just for the bishops and clergy, but for all of us Catholic Christians to bring to prayer and discernment.

Our Gifts and Weaknesses Help Us Discern Our Way of Being in the World

06D RGBstock 2 choiceDiscernment can be approached in many ways. Personally, I’ve found it easier when I begin with my own heart, my identity, and experience (as at the center of a circle) and then gradually expand outwards to my situation, my family, community and workplace, the calls of the Church, and the needs of the world.

If we imagine discernment as a series of concentric circles, the innermost circle would be my interior life, including: my God-given identity, my feelings, thoughts, deep desires, my gifts and limitations. We discover these in prayer and also by praying with our history, the needs of the world, and our current situation.

In particular, reflecting on and praying with our gifts and limitations—the ways that God has given us to be and to act in the world—is extremely helpful in discerning a course of action or our vocation. One of the most popular sayings of St. Thomas Aquinas is: “Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.” This is helpful in understanding that we are called be holy in a way that respects our humanity, although grace also enables us to transcend the merely human and to selflessly sacrifice for the sake of love.

A superficial examination of the lives of several saints quickly reveals how unique each saint’s path to holiness was. (I give a quick example between St. Pio and St. Frances Cabrini in this earlier post.) Sanctity certainly has many common elements: faith, hope, and love; the works of mercy; the Beatitudes. But how each individual is specifically called to live holiness is unique, partly according to that person’s gifts and limitations.

Taking into account our gifts and limitations, therefore, is an important part of understanding God’s call for us. There are certain roles that require certain aptitudes or skills. If we are discerning our call to a role that has such requirements, we need to reflect on whether we have the aptitudes or the ability to acquire the needed skills. We don’t discount the reality that grace can help us to do something that would ordinarily be beyond us, but we also don’t seek to work against the foundational inclinations of our personality, unless we have a compelling reason to do so.

* * *

As a college student, Sarah is currently discerning her future career. At heart, Sarah is an artist and idealist who feels called to serve others. For some reason—perhaps because of her family background—she believes that being a doctor is the best way to serve others. Yet, she finds herself dismayed when she starts to fill out an application for medical school because she feels no personal inclination towards a medical profession: she isn’t good at science, and she becomes faint not just at the sight of blood, but at the thought of blood. If Sarah’s interest in becoming a doctor is based solely on her theory that being a doctor is the best way to help others, then she is basing her discernment on a faulty assumption, and her resistance to filling out that application is a real indication of that. The clue here is not that being a medical doctor is hard, or a lot of work, but that it actually goes against Sarah’s personal inclinations and gifts. Sarah may indeed be called to serve others, but in another way.

* * *

When we discern, we want to take our personalities, gifts, limitations, and inclinations into account. Part of the work of vocation directors for priesthood and religious communities is to see if the candidate is a “good fit.” For example, as Daughters of Saint Paul we share life closely—not just daily life, but also in the ways we carry out our daily mission together. It can be quite demanding to live and work so closely together, even for those of us who are called to it. (One of the greatest “daily miracles” in religious life is the reality that five women, who all take turns cooking the meals, can share the same small kitchen and still be friends at the end of the day!)

Since a young woman needs to have a certain amount of flexibility and sociability to be happy as a Daughter of Saint Paul, this becomes part of her discernment with our community. If she doesn’t have those particular qualities, it doesn’t mean she isn’t a wonderful person called by God to a special mission, but it’s an indication that she might be called somewhere else—perhaps to another congregation of sisters who don’t live community life together so closely, or perhaps to single life, or married life.

On the other hand, someone who hastily dismisses an invitation to be involved in something good–such as their parish’s outreach program–only because it’s “too hard,” is not really discerning. The amount of sacrifice involved is not the question; as followers of Christ, we will always have something to offer because we seek to love selflessly as Christ does. Instead, the question is how God is calling us to use our particular gifts and our limitations to serve others’ needs in the way that only we can.

Discerning: What’s In Our Heart?

06B foto stochDiscerning what is in our heart is the touchstone of our discernment, and it’s what we need to keep coming back to throughout our discernment. Previously, we spoke about desire and deep desire (see What’s the Connection Between Desire and Discernment, and Discerning with Deep Desires blog posts), but let’s re-visit this briefly, as many people struggle with interior “listening” the most.

Our deepest desires—such as the longing to love and be loved—are placed in us by God. These deep desires are often buried beneath more superficial desires that spring from our ego or the stress or distractions of daily life. That’s why it’s so important to pray with our feelings and desires, and to continually “go deeper” and evaluate what we most truly want. If you haven’t had the opportunity to do this, I encourage you to take some time now to pray with your desires. You can use the journaling and prayer exercises in the earlier posts listed above, if that’s helpful.

As we reflect on the other important aspects of our lives to discern, we want to constantly return to what our hearts are telling us. How do we feel about the needs of the world, about the needs of the people around us, about the circumstances in which we find ourselves? It’s not that what our heart says is more important than whatever else we bring to discernment, but rather it is our minds and hearts that find the balance and assign the right importance to each of these different elements. Everything must be sorted through our minds and hearts because, in the end, it is with our will and heart that we will say “yes” to God.


To Journal With

When we begin a discernment, it can be helpful to start with how we feel, because our feelings can often help us determine what troubles us, what we are resisting, and what feels like an invitation. Because all of us want to be happy, we can receive important clues for our discernment when we ask ourselves a few questions about happiness. These might be helpful questions to pray with over the next few days:

  • What does happiness look like for me?
  • Am I happy now? Why or why not?
  • What might I need to become truly, deeply happy (or happier)?

Throughout our discernment, we will want to continue to touch base with our thoughts, feelings, and desires, and bring them often—daily—to God in our prayer.

Follow-up Resource

For a prayerful reflection on how our gifts and our dreams can intersect to reveal God’s will to us, read Meditation 48 in my book, See Yourself Through God’s Eyes, Pauline Books & Media. In the printed book, Meditation 48 can be found on pp. 139-142.

Discernment: Praying Our Future

2012-10-11 16.38.21The art of discernment encompasses praying our past, our present, and our future. But we are called to live in the present moment. Does the art of discernment force us into an unhealthy attitude of trying to live in the past, or in a future that is not here yet? Not if we are discerning well.

Discernment is very much a call to live the present moment. In order to attentively listen to and seek God’s will for the next step in our lives, we need to be fully present to ourself, to God, and to our own lives, in the here and now. Discernment is the art of listening to God in the present so that we are open to carrying out God’s plan. The greater our ability to listen, the more we discover—perhaps to our surprise—that God invites us in specific ways to draw closer to him and to do his will in the world. We are not seeking to foretell the future, nor to make our own plans, but to seek God’s plan, so that what God wills can fully become our will. Whether it’s seeking how to approach an important conversation with a loved one, discerning our vocation, or recognizing God’s invitation in the moment, discernment is being present to God right here, right now, and making ourselves available to God’s plan for us. As Father Ivan Rupnik says in his book, Discernment: Acquiring the Heart of God: “Discernment is not a technique for resolving the problems of our spiritual life, but a reality found in the relationship between the human person and God.”

God’s Dream for Us
Up to this point, we have focused more on how to grow in the attitudes that will help us discern God’s will for us. As we go forward, we enter into the concrete practice of discernment, of how to give priority to God’s will in our lives, and how to overcome the obstacles that get in the way of a discerning heart so that we can fully live God’s will.

God’s will=God’s plan=God’s desires=God’s dream for us.

We know from the Bible that God’s dream for us is what is truly best for us. God dreams of our happiness, our freedom, of being in a close relationship with us, of our knowing and trusting that we are loved, of our complete fulfillment. As mentioned earlier, God doesn’t just dream for us, but with us. We can see discernment as our way of dreaming with God, of discovering how we can reach that fullness of happiness and freedom that God desires for us—even more than we want it for ourselves. Since God shares his dreams with us most often in the ordinary “stuff” of our lives, these ordinary things are what we will be praying and discerning with: our prayer, our interior dispositions, our situations, our world, our desires, our abilities, limitations, and gifts.

What’s My “Character Arc”? Personal & Spiritual Growth in Discernment

 © Daughters of St. Paul, by Sr. Chelsea Moxley-Davis

© Daughters of St. Paul, by Sr. Chelsea Moxley-Davis

Picking up from Monday’s post about how discovering our desires is part of our “character arc” (or personal growth) as we continue to be the co-protagonists with the Holy Spirit on our discernment journey:

The character arc in the discernment journey—the inner part of our journey towards choosing God’s will in our lives—is twofold:

1) a journey towards understanding ourselves and our deepest desires and needs

2) a progressive freeing of our minds, wills, and hearts from anything that will limit our free choice and availability to God’s call

Our character arc—the personal and spiritual growth that is needed for a wise and authentic discernment—is often what requires the most time on our discernment journey. This is why we need patience, faith, and trust in God for the discernment journey, because it’s a spiritual journey that goes largely unseen, and is hard to explain to others and even harder to understand from the outside.

Coming to know ourselves—as we’ve been exploring—is not easy. It takes prayer, self-reflection, and courage. But coming to freedom, which is so essential—even critical—to our discernment, can be even more challenging. It’s critical because our full and free assent is the only kind of “yes” that God wants. God wants our greatest joy and happiness—but to be truly joyful and happy, we need to be truly free. Growing in freedom—from sinfulness, selfishness, old ways of thinking and acting, past habits of relating to others and accomplishing our goals, old and limited ways of seeing things—letting go of all of these can be extraordinarily challenging!

Becoming truly free is a lifelong journey, and it doesn’t need to be fully accomplished in order to make a good discernment. But lacking in freedom in certain areas can make it very difficult to discern God’s invitations in our lives. When we pray for the light and grace that we need on our discernment journey, we are often mostly praying for the grace of spiritual freedom.

What Makes Our Hearts Tick…

04A 3 choiceThe kind of “deep” desires that we refer to here doesn’t necessarily mean our strongest desires, but rather, the most urgent, the most all-encompassing of our identity. The deeper we go and the more personal our desires are, the more universal they usually are.

Being loved is hugely important to each of us—it’s a deep need and desire. But our deepest fulfillment is not found in being loved, but in loving. True love is giving one’s self away, a self that no longer clings to selfishness, but puts the beloved one(s) first. As we come to a fuller understanding of who we are, we also start to see our deepest needs and desires, in all their beauty, urgency and intensity—desires and needs that are not determined by sin and egoism but have been placed in our hearts by God. It is in these deepest needs and desires that we can glimpse God’s “dreams” for us, because God often speaks to us through them.

A popular paraphrase of Saint Augustine is: “Love, and do what you will!” Psalm 37:4 goes even further, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (NRSV). When our hearts—and thus our entire beings—are directed towards God, then God can use our heart’s desire to draw us to himself.

Each of us is unique, unrepeatable, created out of love and for Love. Discovering and living fully God’s call for us is the key to our happiness—God knows the deep desires of our hearts better than we do. God calls us to be holy in a way that makes our hearts tick, and our personalities click.

Coming to understand ourselves and the true desires of our hearts are important parts of our “character arc” on our discernment journey. Growing in this self-understanding will help us to eventually respond to God wholeheartedly because we will see how our desires are in harmony with God’s desires for us.