Discerning in Crisis or Desolation

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By Sam Garza from Los Angeles, USA (Mono Lake Serenity) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Discernments about making big changes in our lives, such as discerning our vocation, changing jobs, or moving across country, are best made when they are coming from a place of relative peace in our lives. This is true because we can best hear God’s invitation when we have a certain amount of serenity. For example, if our life is so chaotic that we can’t make time for prayer and we are deeply distressed and unhappy, it might be hard to discern our vocation because we cannot get past our own inner turmoil to be able to hear how God is calling us.

It’s not that our lives have to be perfect or happy for us to discern well, but the best discernments often presuppose a certain foundational security/freedom. Otherwise, we may think we are discerning, but actually we are simply trying to survive and running from our pain.

Sometimes crises include with them a call from God to make an immediate and big change in our lives. But sometimes crises are times when we need to “sort through” the meaning of the crises and its effects on our lives before we can discern making a big change in our lives.

Tragedy can include within it a call from God in which God invites us to something more. Certain difficult or painful events, like the death of a loved one, change our lives forever. We may need to take time to discover what these painful events mean for us before we can start to discern another big change. Losing a job can become a crisis when it happens in a way that’s unfair, unexpected, and financially unmanageable.

If we find ourselves in crisis, in a place of unmitigated darkness, turmoil, and chaos, God may be inviting us through this darkness to grow in our relationship with him. When we are calmer, having had some time to resolve some of the distress and immediate challenges that the crisis precipitated, we may have the focus and freedom we need to begin a larger discernment, even if we are still in a time of suffering and desolation. When we are going through a crisis or a deep spiritual darkness, a spiritual director is a valuable guide who can help us decide whether this is the time to discern a big decision in our lives, or whether it might be better to wait.

Below is a beautiful reflection that can be very helpful during a time of discouragement or desolation. This reflection is taken from a book I highly recommend: Secrets of the Spirit: Wisdom from Luis Martinez, edited and with a foreword by Germana Santos, FSP, published by Pauline Books & Media.

Another online resource you may want to check out is this article that briefly describes how Saint Ignatius of Loyola recommends dealing with desolation.

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Meditation on God’s Action in Our Lives

by Servant of God Archbishop Luis Martinez

I have a special place in the thought of God. I occupy a post of honor in his heart. I am the unique object of his providence and his action. God is singularly present in my life and in my soul. God is for me a God present and hidden. Not for a single instant does the action of God fail to touch me—not only his power that preserves and moves all creatures, but more especially, his exceedingly gentle action that keeps guiding me along unknown paths toward my perfection and happiness.

I do not understand how much God loves me nor how immense, constant, and active is the love he has for me. Not for one instant does he fail to draw me toward himself with the force of his love of predilection. My life is God’s work, my life with its alternations of joy and grief, fear and hope, activity and rest, and with all its variable and innumerable circumstances. It is the fruit of his love. God foresees everything in my life, and he directs and disposes of it for my good. Only when I separate myself from him by sin does my life cease to be the fruit of his action. Yet God permits even my faults, then returns to convert me and to repair the damage caused by sin.

Beneath all external happenings, God is always present and hidden. Joy and sorrow are equally God’s messengers coming to accomplish in my soul the work of his love. They are instruments of his action, veils that cover his presence. If only I would continue to discover this God hidden in my own life! If I would always let myself be led by his gentle hand, my life would be his action, my soul, a temple, and I, a saint. – Secrets of the Spirit: Wisdom from Luis Martinez, edited & foreword by Germana Santos, FSP

Praying with Our Past: Shadows & Mercy

“Salvation history” is how God is at work in the lives of the People of God. Each of us has our own personal salvation history. From time to time, we need to genuinely bring our history to God because our past is such an important part of who we we have become. Praying with our history is not about remembering our past for its own sake, but so that we can discover God’s faithful presence throughout our lives.

When we reflect on our personal history, two things are likely to happen: we experience resistance, and/or we begin to see patterns in our life.

1) We may experience resistance. Perhaps we fear we will be overwhelmed by the pain, suffering, or sinfulness of our lives. It may be too difficult to think about certain times in our lives. If we find great resistance, offer that resistance to the Lord. We need to be gentle with ourselves—we can do this a little at a time, or perhaps simply leave aside the most difficult part of our personal history until we feel ready to bring it to prayer.

Our favorite Old Testament story can be helpful at this point. Very often, the best stories from the Old Testament are about a time of failure, weakness, or infidelity on the part of God’s people. And yet in this darkness, God reveals over and over again his faithful love for his people.

When we have the courage to face the pain or darkness of our past, we receive the grace to experience God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. Along with many spiritual writers, Father Rupnik agrees that the experience of God’s mercy is the foundational spiritual experience. It is God’s love that shapes us into his people, that places us in his story of salvation. When we recognize that we are truly unworthy, we can discover that God loves us as we are!

Looking back on our life’s journey can help us to see our past more clearly, but the goal isn’t to get lost—or stuck—in our past. Instead, we seek to discover and cherish the ways God has worked in our lives, our own sacred memories. Praying with our past—even the difficult moments—we can allow our  foundational experiences with God to take root in us, nurture our spiritual lives, and build our relationship with God.

When we are praying with difficult experiences in our past, it’s helpful to remember:

* Be gentle with ourselves. If something is too painful to remember, we can wait until we’re ready, until it’s the right time. We can also choose to pray with it with the help of someone we trust, whether a friend, mentor, or counselor.

* God doesn’t will evil for us or for anyone. If we were sinned against, or chose to sin against others—these were not and are not God’s direct will for us. But, just as God turned the most evil and tragic event in all of human history (the crucifixion of his only Son) into the means of the Redemption of all humanity, so God can take any circumstance of our lives—no matter how bad—and bring good out of it. When we pray with painful events from our past, we do so in the hope of discovering (or re-discovering) God’s faithful love. If we cannot see his love, we can make an act of trust in his love, and then pray for the grace to see how God has loved us.

* Focus not on the suffering but on God’s presence. We survived it—how? How we have healed or grown from it? How have we learned from it? Is God inviting us to heal further? Might God be inviting me to use that painful circumstance to remember that God is also mysteriously present in the pain or difficulty that we’re undergoing right now?

To Pray With

  • Pray with Psalm 139.
  • After you have prayed with Psalm 139, write your own version of the psalm. How would you describe how God has been with you and saved you in your life? (For an unusual example, read Francis Thompson’s famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven.”) What image would you use to describe how God acts in your life?