Fun (and Quick) Invitation to Join My Sisters

A fun invitation to join an online Catholic community online, hosted by the #MediaNuns:  My Sisters

My Sisters is an online community devoted to helping you meet Christ and experience his love in your daily life. Created by the religious sisters of the Daughters of Saint Paul, My Sisters is a portable and accessible “sacred space” for asking the big questions, exploring the faith, and nurturing your identity as God’s beloved one, no matter where you are in your walk with the Lord. Find out more at: http://www.mysisters.blog

 

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Upcoming Lenten Retreat on Seeking God’s Will

It’s great to be slowly getting back to blogging! My first couple of blogposts will simply be to offer some resources for you as you continue to discern God’s call in your life. This first “resource” is very special: an online retreat on God’s will hosted by two other Daughters of Saint Paul and myself:

 

Retreats aren’t just for priests and sisters, but they are one of the best “perks” of my life as a sister. So I am delighted to invite you to join us at My Sisters’ very first online Lenten Retreat beginning on March 3rd, 2018: Seeking God’s Will Online Lenten Retreat.  The online retreat can be made at your own pace, according to your own schedule. I envision some people making the retreat in 3-4 hours, some people taking a full day for it, and others breaking the retreat into three or six parts, taking one part each day or each week.

A special bonus for members of My Sisters is the Facebook Live Spiritual Accompaniment sessions that I will be hosting on the evenings of Monday, March 5th, and again Thursday, March 8th, to deepen this theme of God’s will. Seeking God’s Will Online Lenten Retreat will eventually become available as a stand-alone retreat, but without a live accompaniment session.

God has a loving plan for each of us. But how do we come to know God’s will? How can know what God’s particular will is for us, here in this moment in our daily life?

Sister Mary Lea Hill, popular author (Prayer and You, Blessed Are the Stressed, Basic Catechism, The Church Rocks), is lovingly known by her readers as “the Crabby Mystic.” She has the knack for making the spiritual accessible, and she’ll start this powerful Lenten retreat by unpacking that mysterious term, “God’s will,” and how our happiness and God’s will are connected.

Sr. Marie Paul Curley, author, blogger, and film reviewer, delves into how we find God’s will, love, and presence when things get tough and life’s challenges become overwhelming.

Sr. Margaret Michael Gillis, FSP, is Vocation Director for the Daughters of St. Paul throughout the USA and Canada. In her work with young people discerning religious life, she has become somewhat of a “specialist” in discernment, and her insights and suggestions come from years of accompanying young women in their vocational discernments.

An engaging, popular speaker (enjoy her distinctive Staten Island accent!), she offers both practical and spiritual tips on how we can discover God’s will and receive the grace to follow God’s invitations–big and small–in our lives. 

An online, downloadable Retreat Guide is also available to help guide retreatants through the various movements of the retreat, offering reflections, guided prayer, a Holy Hour, and suggested takeaways to help you to bring the graces and insights you received during this retreat back into your daily life.


Into the Deep Retreats are designed to be spiritual experiences that you can make in the midst of your every day life, at your own pace. You can make this retreat as a true spiritual getaway by dedicating a whole day (or long half-day) to it. You can also break the retreat into three sessions—and make it over three days or three weeks. Or you can simply give your Lent a spiritual focus by going through each retreat element in the way that fits best into your day/life.

However and whenever you make this retreat, our prayers, and the prayers of all the sisters of our community, will accompany you.

My Sisters is an online community devoted to helping you meet Christ and experience his love in your daily life. Created by the religious sisters of the Daughters of Saint Paul, My Sisters is a portable and accessible “sacred space” for asking the big questions, exploring the faith, and nurturing your identity as God’s beloved one, no matter where you are in your walk with the Lord. (And it’s where I have been spending most of my time online lately.)

 

Checklists for Discerning Our Vocation

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:

GeekpriestCover

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.)

At a recent meeting with Father Roderick. (With me is Sr. Anne Flanagan aka @Nunblogger)

I was excited and thrilled this week to meet Father Roderick. (Sr. Anne Flanagan aka @Nunblogger is with us)

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.

A True Story: Discerning During Midlife

A few years ago, a wonderful wife and mother named Catherine came to see me.

dawn-nature-sunset-woman

Catherine is a loving and generous woman who has inspired the many people at her parish who know her. She constantly seeks God’s will amidst the usual and sometimes unusual challenges of married life, and puts herself at the service of the needs of her parish. But recently, she underwent a particular experience of change, accompanied by darkness: her children were growing up and leaving home and didn’t seem to need her as much; her relationship with her husband felt routine; her daily life gave her little satisfaction. At one point, Catherine confided to a friend, “I was attracted to religious life when I was younger, and being a sister is so much more peaceful and holy. Maybe I missed my vocation. What if God really called me to religious life?”

This thought that she might have “missed” her vocation was a scary one for Catherine (and for anyone serious about seeking God’s will–more on that later). However, because she still had commitments to her husband and children, it was clear that God’s will for Catherine was to continue in her vocation as a loving mother and wife. If Catherine had indeed chosen a path other than what God originally willed for her, God’s will for her at his point in her life was clear: to continue in her vocational commitments. Her doubts were almost certainly not a call to switch vocations in midlife. But at her age, repeatedly experiencing these doubts could be an important part of Catherine’s midlife journey: she may have needed to re-evaluate certain decisions and how she was living her vocation. Rather than something to discourage or scare her, Catherine could use these troubling questions as an invitation to reflect on her life, bringing them to prayer and spiritual direction.

When we talked together, I encouraged Catherine to consider these possibilities:

A) It was possible her doubts were a temptation, especially because the doubts seemed to be making Catherine lose some of her interior peace. Perhaps the devil wanted to distract this loving, goodhearted woman from her true vocation—that of being a loving mother and wife. By putting the “holier” life of a religious sister on a pedestal and entertaining doubts about her own vocational discernment, Catherine could have been letting the devil gain a foothold in her thoughts, blurring her perception of the unique beauty of her call and gradually weakening her commitment to her vocation.

Instead of allowing these doubts to distract her, Catherine could use them as an opportunity to recommit more deeply to her life of self-giving love as a mother and wife, perhaps discerning new ways in which she can express her love in her changing situation.

B) Catherine might have been going through a time of desolation where, through her doubts and longing for “more,” God was inviting her to purify her motivations and deepen how she lives her true vocation. Catherine could take time to examine how she was living her vocation and how she could grow in her call to love as a wife and mother.

C) Perhaps God was inviting Catherine to dig deeper into what attracted her about religious life. Catherine’s feelings of dissatisfaction could have been reflecting a desire placed in her by God for greater union and intimacy with him—something that she previously thought was reserved only for sisters. God could have been using her feelings of desolation to call her to a deeper spiritual life of union with him. Perhaps deep within her restless longing, God was calling Catherine to offer herself to him in a special way: for example, in a particular ministry or consecrated lay institute.

Every person’s individual experience and discernment has specific details that God uses to lead them. Catherine never shared the fruits of her prayer after we talked, but she chose to continue in her vocation of love. She is now a happily devoted grandmother.

Will My Family Disapprove If I Discern Consecrated Life?

Ferguson Slide by Eeekster (own work) [CC by 3.0]

One response that came up high in the results of the poll, What’s the Biggest Obstacle to Considering Consecrated Life, was a written-in answer that had a common thread:

  • Fear of what others (especially family) will think of me
  • Fear of disappointing family or parents
  • Fear of disapproval or lack of understanding

All of these answers are about what others think and expect of us, especially family and loved ones. This fear is very understandable. But, being overly concerned or fearful about others’ opinions impinges on our freedom to discern. Yet in our discernments we are to consult with those who know us well. How are we supposed to take into account our family’s and friends’ advice when we are discerning something that they don’t expect, such as an unusual vocational choice? Should we even consult them?

Several Factors To Consider
1) Discerning our vocation is sacred, and if we truly feel that we might be called to religious life or priesthood, it’s important to discern it without letting our families’ or friends’ opinions prevent us from doing so. Our vocation is a sacred calling that is too important to let the resistance or disapproval of family and friends stand in the way of even exploring it. This doesn’t make it easy. But it is very freeing to seek our true calling, and if God is calling us to religious life or priesthood, he will give us the grace to work through our fears and all other obstacles.

2) When we are discerning, the people we seek advice from should above all be living a spiritual life, otherwise they may not understand or be able to support us in seeking God’s will. (Other qualities, such as wisdom and knowing us well, are helpful. But above all, they must also desire that we follow God’s will.)

3) Seeking advice or counsel is not the same as seeking approval. In consulting others, we are looking for greater knowledge and insight about ourselves, our situation, and how God is inviting us, but we are not seeking to please the person we are consulting with.

4) To know our fears when we discern is really helpful because fear can help us to reflect and to bring our discernment to prayer. However, fear in itself is not a sufficient motivation to decide whether or not to discern something, especially when it’s something as important as a vocation. Instead, we can make our fear part of our discernment by exploring why we are afraid, and then, offering our fears to the Lord and moving forward.

If we feel the need to discern something which we know someone important in our life (such as a parent or friend) is probably going to disapprove, then we need to seek greater interior freedom. Becoming free is the hardest part of discerning! In these cases, it is really important to detach ourselves from others’ opinions about our discernment, so that we don’t allow fear to control us and so that we can more freely listen to God’s invitation. This detachment is often a gradual journey that happens as we discern and God’s call becomes clearer to us.

Sorting Through Others’ Opinions
Sorting through others’ opinions—whether favorable or unfavorable to our discernment—can sometimes be helpful in detaching ourselves from them. We may want to ask ourselves a few questions:

A) Why do we think they would oppose a particular decision? Are we just unsure, or are we pretty certain that they will be disappointed? Will the lack of support be permanent, or is it just that what we are discerning is new, and they will need time to get used to the idea?

B) If we are pretty sure that this person(s) will not understand or be disappointed in our decision, do we know why? For example, some parents are hesitant about their daughter becoming a sister because they think they will never see her again, and they love their daughter and want to stay close to her. (Different congregations have different practices about their sisters visiting their families, so this particular concern may not even be real.) At other times, a parent might resist a child trying to follow a certain career (such as becoming an actor or an artist) because they know how hard it is to earn a living in the arts, and they want their child to have security.

These kinds of questions can help us to see past our own fears into the real concerns of our loved ones—concerns that we need to think about and perhaps address with them, if and when we tell them about our discernment.

Discerning Our Vocation Is Sacred
Ideally, we’d want to share our vocational discernment at least in part with our family, because we want our family’s understanding and support throughout our life. But sometimes a parent or family member will be so resistant to a particular vocation that we simply need to wait to tell them about it until after we have completed our discernment.

Our vocation is a sacred calling that is too important to let the resistance or disapproval of family and friends stand in the way. Countless priests, brothers, and sisters had to go against their parents’ wishes to follow their vocation. (The family of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s family kidnapped and imprisoned him to prevent him from following his vocation in the Dominican Order.) This is not an easy path to walk, but if we possess sufficient maturity and have discerned well, it is more important to follow God’s call than to give in to our family’s opinions. Jesus himself called his disciples to leave their parents and families behind to follow him.

St. John Paul II had this to say about following one’s vocation:

“Do not be afraid of the radicalness of Christ’s demands, because Jesus, who loved us first, is prepared to give himself to you, as well as asking of you. If he asks much of you, it is because he knows you can give much.”                                                                                                                – Sept. 8, 1992

Photo credit: Ferguson Slide by Eeekster (own work) used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license

Discernment in Times of Temptation

06_EE Pixabay (2)Sometimes people raise the question how to distinguish the voice of God from the voice of the devil. It’s a good question because the devil truly is the father of lies and an expert at deception. The devil often preys upon our deepest faults, and because of this, his voice can sometimes be hard to recognize.

God allows the devil to tempt us, but God never allows us to be tempted beyond our strength. Jesus has already conquered the devil, sin, death, and all consequences of sin. So in our discerning, we seek to make sure that we are attuned to the voice of God, and not deceived by the voice of the devil.   

The closer we grow to Christ, the more subtle the devil has to become in the ways he tempts us. If we are truly discerning God’s will, the devil may not be tempt us outright, but manipulates us by using our worst faults and sinfulness—especially our negative thoughts—to try to draw us away from intimacy with God. This is where the expertise of an experienced spiritual director can help us recognize a temptation more quickly than we would on our own.

The devil is not privy to our private thoughts and our conversations with God. But the devil is a keen observer of both human nature and our behavior, and thus can deftly nudge us towards thoughts that lead us away from faith and into self-doubt, discouragement, and self-righteousness—thoughts that we might easily fall into or have on our own—without our even realizing what’s happening. And the devil often uses the subtlety of our thoughts to deceive us.

A basic criteria to discerning the devil’s voice is the question: Does this [thought, choice, action] help me to grow closer to Christ and keep my focus on him?

If the thought focuses my attention on myself in an unhealthy or discouraging way, then it is most likely a temptation.

* * *

Here is a personal example of how the devil uses one of my weaknesses—my perfectionism and tendency towards being overly self-critical. For years I thought that this was actually humility, so it took me a long time to recognize the pattern of temptation that happens to me repeatedly:

  1. Relying on God’s grace, I work hard to accomplish something in our mission—for example, perhaps I wrote an article. I know that the article is not perfect, but I did my best with the time and resources I had, and I entrust the results to God, praying that the readers of the article will be touched and feel God’s invitation.
  2. Afterwards, I’ll reflect on the article. How was it received? When I re-read it, what do I like about it? What is missing? How could I have written something that would bring more people to encounter the Lord?
  3. It’s during this reflection—which is actually important to do if I want to improve what I’m writing—that the devil jumps in. Rather than noticing what I could improve for next time and then humbly offering the article and its readers to God’s loving care, I’ll start to focus on the fact that I didn’t do a perfect job. My feelings of dissatisfaction that the article wasn’t perfect will start to grow, and then quickly spread to other areas of my ministry and of my life.
  4. Pretty soon, I’m dissatisfied with everything I do, and with myself overall. All I can see is my faults, my omissions, and what I’m not doing well. Once I’ve started riding this train of thought, I’m focusing not on what actually happened but on myself and everything I haven’t done. This is an express ride to discouragement.
  5. If I don’t recognize that I’ve jumped onto this train of discouragement, I may stay in a discouraged state focused on myself for days or even weeks. This kind of discouragement prevents me from taking risks in my ministry because it has sapped my trust in God and my self-respect. Worst of all, I end up focused on myself rather than on God, even though I started with the good intentions of growing in humility, and of trying to improve in my ministry.

The devil knows that being hyper-critical of myself is a place where I am vulnerable, and so preys on this weakness. Over the years, with the blessings of God’s grace, spiritual direction, and good friends, I can often recognize what’s happening pretty quickly. I still evaluate my apostolic work and efforts, but I’m careful to always conclude by offering each effort and my littleness to God, and even to rejoice in my littleness. In these times, the temptation to discouragement is transformed into an opportunity to grow in true humility.

* * *

Our Catholic traditions of the spiritual life are all helpful in drawing us closer to the Lord and away from the devil. But three guides that are particularly helpful for growing in a spirit of discernment are: Jesus’ gift of himself in the Most Blessed Sacrament, our relationship with Mary, our Blessed Mother, and praying with the Word of God. All three of these topics deserve their own books…but in upcoming posts, we’ll look briefly at them in light of discernment.

Distraction or Call To Discern?

SONY DSCA third obstacle to interior listening is allowing external distractions to disturb our interior serenity so that we cannot truly listen. Part of the listening we need to do is paying attention to how God is inviting us through the needs of others, through our loved ones’ struggles, through the needs of the world. Gazing on others with compassion, praying for them, taking action to alleviate others’ suffering or to offer assistance, are all part of how we are called to respond lovingly to others.

But having done all we can, it’s important that we then try to let go of those situations and entrust them to God. When we don’t, when we give others’ situations, needs, problems, or conflicts undue importance so that they take over our thoughts and attention, they can distract us from God’s call. We risk actually becoming deaf to the other ways that God invites us. Distracted by others’ needs which we can’t do anything about, we stop paying attention to God’s call to us. We might even give in to worrying about things that we can’t do anything about.

When we worry,  we lose our serenity or forget that God is taking care of the world, and then we can become too distracted, agitated, or distressed to live our own deeper calling.

Creating our own distractions

If we or others have a problem that is too painful or anxiety-provoking for us to confront directly, we sometimes create drama or conflict around the problem. This focuses our attention on the drama–a less painful problem–and distracts us from our deeper pain, and often, from the best thing that we can do to grow. When we do this, we prevent ourselves from addressing the real conflict, and sometimes from hearing God’s call to us within the situation. We have created our own distraction!

I have a personal example of this: my tendency to procrastinate when I am going to give a talk or presentation to a large group. I often become anxious about speaking to a group, so sometimes rather than simply being straightforward about preparing and dealing with my anxiety as it comes up, I will put off working on the presentation until the last minute. (I’m “putting off” my anxiety, along with the work.) When the time to give the presentation comes close, I become all stressed out and rushed because I didn’t give myself the time to prepare that I usually would. This stress—as difficult as it is—distracts me from the larger, underlying anxiety for a while. In the end, though, I have to struggle with both anxieties, and my procrastination makes the experience of giving a talk much more difficult for me. But even though I can see this so clearly, I still sometimes procrastinate when I need to prepare a talk.

When our loved ones create drama around a small problem to distract from a bigger problem they don’t want or cannot resolve, we can easily get drawn in by the drama, and waste our energies. We are called to love and support our loved ones, but only in rare cases are we able to “fix” one of their problems. If we try to resolve what only another person can resolve, we stop expressing our love wisely and we trample on the other’s responsibility and dignity. We start worrying about things we can do nothing about. We might become controlling, rather than helpful. We can be so taken up with them that we forget about our other responsibilities. Worry isn’t truly helpful to anyone, and can quickly become self-destructive.

Helpful attitudes to distinguish distractions from a call to discern

When we truly love others, it can be hard to know when to reach out to help and when it is more helpful to let them sort things out for themselves. Some attitudes that can help us to love while remaining true to God’s call are:

  • intentionally making choices out of love that seeks the best for those I love and for myself
  • seeking wisdom to respond in the way that is most helpful at this particular time
  • entrusting others and their struggles to God’s love
  • when we have done all we could, and we pray and entrust the person into God’s hands, we let go of our thoughts and worries about them, and return our attention to our life and our call

Share Your Insights!

There are many other external things that can disturb our serenity and make it hard for us to quietly listen to God in our daily lives. What are the things that make it hard for you to quiet down, that you see as obstacles to the deeper listening that can help you to grow in a spirit of discernment? If you have a topic you’d like me to talk about in the blog, or something you would like to share, please do so in the comments or in an email! I’d really love to hear from you, and I’m sure other people reading this blog would find it helpful, too.

The One Word That Best Describes Discernment

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Discernment can be described in many ways, but the best single word to describe it is listening. How can we hone our listening skills, and what are the obstacles to listening to God?

We have all watched movies where a character is alone in the dark, hears a noise and, despite the danger and fear, decides to go investigate. As the character walks into danger, we may even shout at the screen, “Stop! Don’t go in! Don’t you know that something bad is going to happen?” Either the movie has a poorly written cliché, or something else in the story prevents that character from listening to their intuition.

We may be wise enough not to investigate a dark alley at night by ourselves, but we all have moments when we don’t listen to the experienced voice of wisdom within us. Whether it’s lack of time or the noisiness of our life, consistently listening for God within is often the hardest part of discerning for us. Listening to how God is speaking within us includes:

  • listening for God in our prayer and desires
  • recognizing God’s presence in the circumstances and events of our lives.

Listening to God means living reflectively.

I try to check the pulse of my life daily to ensure that I’m making enough time for silence and prayer. Doing this daily is important because I find it so easy to be distracted by the “noise” of daily life, allowing it to overwhelm the much-needed interior silence that I need to live in mindful awareness of God’s daily invitations.

In addition to simple distractions, three obstacles that I regularly face in listening attentively to God within (in my prayer, desires, and reflection on my daily life) are:

  1. Busyness and/or overwork
  2. Restlessness or discomfort with silence or deeper reflection
  3. Giving others’ situations, needs, problems, or conflicts undue attention in my thoughts, so that I’m focusing on external situations that are often beyond my control, rather than my own

For me, these choices, behaviors, or attitudes are often rooted in ambition or overdeveloped ego.

What are the biggest obstacles that prevent you from listening attentively to God?

Mary, Model Discerner

As mentioned earlier, when we discern we pay special attention to where we are at the present moment. We don’t begin our discernment from where we’d like to be, or from unrealistic expectations, but from where we are right now.

Because who we are and where we are has been shaped by the past, we also prayed with our past—with significant moments in our lives that have shaped us as persons, and with significant moments of grace in our lives. We may need to continue to pray about significant moments in our lives, but as we go forward in our discernment, it is time to bring all of who we are, here and now—the present—to prayer. In the past two months, we been reflecting on cultivating a listening attitude in our daily life, listening intently intently to God speaking to us through:

  • our prayer
  • our deep desires
  • our relationships
  • our conversations with others
  • our current situation
  • the Church
  • the needs of the world.

But we face any number of obstacles in this deeper listening. In the next few posts, we’ll look at some of those obstacles that can “stump” us or detour us on our discernment journey, and how we can respond to or overcome these obstacles.

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898.

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898.

Our first response in facing any obstacle on our discernment journey (or our spiritual journey) is to entrust our spiritual lives and any special intentions to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. This is especially true for our discernment. Mary is the disciple who most faithfully listened to and responded to God’s invitations in her life, and she wants to accompany us as we seek to do the same.  The Founder of the Daughters of Saint Paul, Blessed James Alberione, used to say, “Mary is the way to go to Jesus, the easiest way.” Mary wants to draw us closer to her Son, so we can ask her in a very particular way to accompany us throughout the rest of our discernment, and ultimately, the rest of our lives as we seek to live God’s call in fidelity as she did.

Suggestion for Prayer

The Angelus is a beautiful and rich prayer that is so helpful for discerners, as it helps us to recall the moment when Mary received and responded with her generous “yes” to God’s call. Traditionally, the Angelus is prayed three times a day—morning, noon, and evening. Make time today to pray the Angelus at least once today. (If you aren’t familiar with this beautiful prayer, you can pray it with this lovely music version:

You can also find the Angelus in almost any Catholic prayer book. Once you have been praying the Angelus for a while, you may enjoy meditating on a beautiful work of art depicting the Annunciation while you are praying: http://calltoprayer.blogspot.com/

How To Make the Most of Spiritual Direction

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Prepare

Pray for the grace to listen to and respond to God’s invitations. Seek to bring an attitude of openness to spiritual direction, so that Jesus can “shape” you and draw you more deeply into his love

Approach spiritual direction with reverence. Your relationship with God is sacred; this time that you are taking for your relationship with God is also sacred.

Prepare by noting/journaling about your recent prayer experiences.

  • If you are praying Lectio Divina or another meditative or contemplative prayer, you will find it helpful to reflect on your feelings, inspirations, and the fruit of your prayer immediately after praying. Review these reflections before you go for spiritual direction.
  • If you pray the examen prayer, you will probably find your first meeting for spiritual direction easier, as the examen prayer includes reflection as part of the prayer.

Also, note any questions you wish to ask regarding your spiritual life.

Spiritual Direction Session

When you arrive, the spiritual director may begin with a prayer, then will most likely invite you to talk about your spiritual journey and what has brought you to direction. In your conversation, you will want to focus above all on your spiritual life—that is, your prayer, your relationship with God, and how you live your relationship with God in your day to day life. Because your whole life is the context of your relationship with God, you will want to tell your spiritual director briefly about the important things that are happening in your life and how they are affecting you.

Spiritual direction is different than a counseling session or a conversation between friends. Your time is limited, so you will want to keep the focus on your spiritual life. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to do that, but the spiritual director will help to focus the conversation around your relationship with God. He or she may ask you questions so that they understand the context of what you are saying. Feel free to answer, but also feel free not to answer, saying something like, “I have to think about that.”

Also feel free to acknowledge that you don’t know exactly what to talk about or how to speak about something. The spiritual director can then help guide the conversation.

Don’t be afraid of the silence that may arise—the silence may give both you and the spiritual director an opportunity to reflect and listen together to God’s invitation to you.

At first, you may feel a bit uncomfortable or uneasy speaking about your prayer and your relationship with Jesus. This is natural because you don’t know your spiritual director and also  because it’s not something that you usually do. Speaking about your prayer life takes practice. Finding the words to describe a spiritual experience can be challenging, which is why it is helpful to reflect on it ahead of time, and bring those notes to your spiritual direction session.

During the session, the spiritual director’s role is to:

  • Listen attentively (to the point that you feel understood)
  • Help to focus the conversation around your relationship with God
  • Offer insight into what you shared so that you can reflect more deeply on your relationship with God
  • Direct you back to your relationship with God
  • Occasionally, offer advice on spiritual matters or on how to pray
  • Address any questions you have

If a director offers advice on spiritual matters, this is important to listen to and receive thoughtfully.

If you feel that the spiritual direction session was helpful or went fairly well, you can arrange for another appointment. Typically, someone in spiritual direction would see their director about once a month, although it can certainly be more or less frequent.

Don’t expect too much from any one session of spiritual direction. The spiritual director is not there to “fix” your problems, but to help you recognize God’s action in your life. Sometimes spiritual matters take time to unfold. As the spiritual director gets to know you, their insights and advice will become more specific to you and your situation.

Follow Up

Immediately or as soon as you are able to, take some time to pray about what came up during spiritual direction. Journaling or noting down what the spiritual director said may also be helpful. If the spiritual director offered advice that seems helpful to you, give it a try. If you’re not sure that it would be helpful, pray about the advice that was offered, as the spiritual director is speaking from the wisdom of prayer and experience. If you decide not to take the spiritual director’s advice, is there something else that you can do that will address the area that the spiritual director’s advice was directed towards?

Follow up your spiritual direction appointment with prayer: this is the best way to help it bear fruit in your life.