Beauty & Importance of #Discernment in Daily Life

side-light-655024_1280For some people, discernment is most important to practice when they are making a major decision in their life, such as their vocation, a job change, etc. But once they have made this big decision, they forget about the practice of discernment.

But because it’s always important to seek God’s will, discerning God’s will in every day life is a very helpful spiritual practice.

Discerning God’s will in big life decisions like following our vocation enables us to set the overall direction of our life in accord with God’s will. But the purpose of doing so is so that our entire lives can be lived in accord with God’s will. Bringing that same spirit of seeking God’s will into the smaller decisions of our lives—even the daily ones—helps us to become more and more attuned to God’s will, to the point that we take on Jesus’ attitude of seeking only the will of the Father.

When we discern God’s will in the smaller things of our lives, then our entire day—and our entire lives—align with God’s will.

Even small choices can shape our lives, though we may not know it. Especially small choices that we repeat, over and over again, can lead to habits, form attitudes, and push us in a specific direction that shapes larger events. This is another motivation for seeking God’s will in everything, in daily life.


Many of the saints wrote about the importance of uniting our wills to God’s:

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” – St. Paul in Letter to the Romans 8:28

“At the beginning of each day, and of meditation, Mass, and Communion, declare to God that you desire to belong to Him entirely, and that you will devote yourself wholly to acquiring the spirit of prayer and of the interior life. Make it your chief study to conform yourself to the will of God even in the smallest things….” – Jean-Pierre de Caussade in Abandonment to Divine Providence

“Perfection is founded entirely on the love of God: ‘Charity is the bond of perfection;’ and perfect love of God means the complete union of our will with God’s.” – St. Alphonsus de Ligouri in Uniformity with the Will of God

“The first end I propose in our daily work is to do the will of God; secondly, to do it in the manner he wills it; and thirdly to do it because it is his will.” – Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

“The will of God is the great sun to which the soul, like the sunflower, has to be always turned.” – Blessed James Alberione

“My God, you are always thinking about me. You are with me and around me. I am written on your hands. I surrender myself to you completely and forever.” – Venerable Mother Thecla Merlo

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God in the Plot of Our Lives

04H 1choiceWhen I’m writing a story, one of my first concerns is plot. There are many ways storytellers describe plot:

  • A storyline
  • A story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end
  • A character’s journey
  • What happens next
  • A linked series of events
  • A series of events that have meaning

Often we choose to watch a film or read a book because the beginning “hooks” us with a compelling situation and we want to find out what happens. Although in this blog I’m comparing the events of our lives to the plot of a story, our lives are rarely so neat. The bonus of storytelling art is that seemingly random or disparate events are linked together by the storyteller in a way that gives them meaning. Small events are seen in the context of the overall story or the character development of the protagonist; events and choices of the major characters—protagonist, antagonist, supporting characters—have major consequences in the story’s development. Although stories with surprise endings might require a second viewing or reading, in most stories we have the satisfaction of being able to clearly trace the progression of events, which gives meaning to the story.

Typically, when we look for the deeper meaning in a good film or book, we might say, “Where is God in this story?” Most people will look for God in a particular character. For example, in some movies, the hero (or heroine) is a Christ-figure who sacrifices his or her life for others (Luke Skywalker or Superman). Or perhaps the mentor character, who shows the way to the protagonist or blocks the antagonist, can seem like God’s providence in the story (Obi-wan Kenobi or Superman’s biological father). Sometimes the community will become an image of the Church as the members of the community minister to each other and begin to transform the world beyond themselves (in The Dark Knight, Batman must decide whether to trust in the goodness of the people on the ferryboat. Together, they act in a Christ-like way.) All of these ways of looking at stories can be helpful in discerning the meaning of a story and connecting it to our own lives. Reflecting on the stories that we watch and read can help us to see patterns more clearly: the presence of God in our loved ones, or in the people who take action on our behalf, or in a dynamic and loving faith-community, whether it’s our parish or a circle of friends.

Life, of course, is not usually so neat and clear as a well-told story. It’s one of the gifts that the arts give us—a clarity or insight that we can relate to our seemingly muddled lives.

Narrative theology offers us another option: to go a step further and look for God in the plot of the story. In other words, the actual events of the story—what happens to the characters—is the action of God or represents God in the story. This way of looking at a story is more like discerning God’s presence in real life. And it can be difficult, just as it can be troubling to try to find God’s action and purpose in the painful events of our lives. But this less obvious way to think of God’s presence—as the plot of the story—can help us to discern and accept God’s action in the events of our lives. It can also help us to see our lives not just as separate events where God is randomly present, but as actually directed by God, even when we do not understand how or where God is directing us.

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As an example, let’s look at a simple parable from the Gospel: the parable of the seed and the sower in Matthew 13:1-23.

Take a moment, if you can, to read the entire parable. 

In this parable, Jesus talks about a sower that throws seed on various soils, with varying results. The seed on the pathway was eaten by birds; the seed on rocky ground grows up fast but is scorched by the sun; the seed on thorny soil is choked by weeds; the seed planted in rich soil grows and bears fruit. Where are we in this parable? Most people would respond that we are the soil. If we ask, Where is God in this parable?, some simplistic answers could be: God is the sower; or God is the good ground; or God is in the good seed that bears fruit.

But if take the approach of narrative theology, we may reflect further that God is in the events of the parable. Each action or event is allowed or provided by God. So the seed being sown is where God is present. What the seed does with being sown, and where it finds itself sown—that seems to be where Jesus puts the emphasis when he interprets the parable for the disciples. Jesus describes the soil and the behavior of the seed. The response of the seed to being sown and to the soil seems to be the heart of this parable. (In other words, maybe one good way to pray with this parable is with the question: how do we respond to the action of God in our lives?)

One of the blessings of living in a spirit of discernment is to be able to trust that God is at work in the events of our lives as they are—even in the thorny or rocky moments when we cannot see it. When we trust and believe with all our hearts that God is the plot of our lives, then we can follow where God is guiding us, and we can respond in faith and bear fruit.

To Pray With

Take a quiet walk in or near a garden, and closely observe the garden. During your next prayer time, pray with the parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:1-23. (Or perhaps you can can pray with the parable in the garden.) What does the “garden” of your life look like? How is God at work in the garden of your life?

Practical Steps for a Daily Discernment

02G choice 2

When we feel the need to discern something big—such as our vocation—then ordinarily we need to take our time with it, and there are a number of steps we can follow. Discerning about smaller, daily choices may take merely moments to make. For me, it often takes just a few minutes to do the following:

  • an evaluation of the need(s) presented to me
  • a short prayer to the Holy Spirit
  • an honest glance at my heart, to make sure I’m aware of my desires and to uncover any unconscious “agenda” that may sway me
  • a renewal of my deepest desire: to live in union with Christ
  • a check-in with my current schedule/responsibilities and, when needed, with a mentor and the people who will be affected by my decision (e.g. the team I’m working with)
  • good old common sense

Then, I put all those together and make a decision.

This may seem like a lot of steps for a smaller choice, but they’ve gradually become automatic for me as I’ve grown in the art of discernment, and they help me to pay more attention to seeking God’s will. Becoming proficient in this spiritual art means that seeking God’s will becomes as habitual as breathing.

To Think About

What would be your list of steps for a discernment about a smaller, daily matter? If you can, share them in the comments or via email (and I’ll post them)!

Discerning in Daily Life

02 F (GS)Discernment is not just about big decisions. Discernment is a spiritual art, an attitude of seeking God’s will that we can take into our daily life. As our relationship with God deepens and grows, discernment naturally seems to become more and more a part of our daily life, even to our daily decisions. Even the small decisions can have untold influence on the story of our lives or the lives of others.

When I first wondered if I was called to religious life, I thought discernment was a one-time thing I needed to do—to discover my vocation. I believe that God gently led my young self through the steps of discernment, and I entered religious life. I thought I had finished discerning.

But as I traveled further into religious life, I found that, even when I finished my initial discernment regarding my vocation (which lasted several years), I had to continue discerning within my vocation. Especially when I was confronted by large questions, such as being asked to take on a particular assignment, I felt the need to discern God’s will. I wanted to live God’s story for me, so I brought these big questions to prayer and discerned, within the context of my vow of obedience, which apostolic work was God’s will for me.

Gradually, I started to feel the need to discern smaller apostolic choices within the assigned field of my ministry. For example, now every time I write a book, I spend at least several weeks discerning if it’s God’s will that I write that particular book. (Any writer will tell you that choosing one’s next book–which can take from a few months to several years to write–is not a small decision!) Is God calling me to respond to this particular need, to reach out to this particular group of people? How is he calling me to do that? What is it about this topic that God invites me to learn, deepen, and share with others? How will writing this book fulfill the mission that God has given me as a Daughter of Saint Paul? How will writing this book shape how I live my story, and my community?

After discernment became such an important part of my writing, it started to “leak” into my daily life—especially difficult choices. Long ago, I used to just trust common sense, the inspiration of the moment, and the intentions that I placed in my morning offering. But now, I try to bring a spirit of discernment to these daily choices. This allows me to be more mindful about seeking God’s will all the time, not just with big decisions.

But I still have a long way to go before I can claim to truly seek God’s will in everything. That’s my desire, but other things—like selfishness, a desire to please others, or fear of conflict—still get in the way. Making these daily little discernments helps to shape my larger life story, and makes me more receptive to God’s invitations—no matter how big or small, how obvious or subtle.

To Journal and Share

  • What discernments have I already done?
  • What kinds of things do I feel are important for me to discern?