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.

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Back from Hiatus

hand-226358_1280for being so patient with me these past few weeks!

I’m back from my blogging/mostly offline hiatus. It is a real joy to be back online and blogging again! Posting three times a week has really pushed me to  come quite far writing the book on discernment, but it’s also proven to be quite challenging to keep up with. By the end of summer, I know I was barely hanging in there. I think I finally went into “overload” mode these past couple of weeks—in part because I’d fallen behind posting, but also because of other responsibilities that have arisen.

One benefit to all of this is that out of sheer necessity, I’ve been trying to live in the spirit of discernment even more than usual during these past couple weeks. So I have some more personal experiences and stories to share with regard to discerning day-to-day. Another (probably the best) benefit to you is that when I miss a blogpost, I pray extra for you, that you will receive the insights and graces that you need for your next step in your discernments! You have been in my prayers more than usual.

But I’m really excited to be back here writing. I’m trying to plan things out so that if it once again becomes impossible to blog regularly, I can at least post once or twice a week until I’m able to make time again.

From November 1-7, 2015, we celebrate National Vocation Awareness Week here in the USA. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (the USCCB) designated this week to encourage a culture of vocations specifically for priesthood, diaconate, and religious life. (In general, a vocational culture also includes discerning a possible vocation to marriage or single life.) Here are some recommended resources for parishes, families, and religious education–click on the link for National Vocational Awareness Week, English or Spanish. During that week, I hope to highlight a few other resources for encouraging openness to the call to consecrated or ordained life in the family that I’ve recently come across.

And just a reminder, please feel free to share your insights about discernment and your discernment journey with other readers through the comments. I love hearing from you, and also receiving your questions! The best way to reach me is here on the blog or via email. (Although you can find me on Twitter and Facebook, I am not able to maintain a consistent enough presence to be sure that I will receive your messages in a timely manner.)

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.

3D Listening: Connecting with God Every Day

Various spiritualities offer support in living in greater awareness of God’s presence in our day to day life. You can get really creative with this, depending on your schedule and what helps you! I hope that you share in the comments below what you are already doing, or what you might try to increase your awareness of God’s love for you daily. Here are a few practices that I have found useful.

* Begin the day with meditation on a Scripture passage that concludes with a preview of how I want to live what I meditated on through this day. As I look forward to my day and the responsibilities I will face, I resolve how to  respond with love in the various situations that might arise

* Use everyday events to remind myself to pray a one-line pray (or aspiration) frequently. For example, I  set my watch to beep on the hour. When my watch is silenced, I try to remember to pray every time I stand up from my desk. I’ve also used other reminders, such as beginning or switching to a new project/file, as a reminder to pray

* Use part (or all) of my lunch break for prayer: go to Mass, pray the Angelus, make a spiritual communion or visit Jesus in the Eucharist in a nearby church, or take a prayer-walk (during which you can simply rejoice in God’s love for you, or pray the Rosary, etc.). I know people whose work is flexible enough that they can stop at 3 PM to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet

* Use times when I have to make a decision or am not sure what to do to pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit

* Close my day by putting on my “Sherlock Holmes” hat to look for one way that God revealed himself to me today. It might not be obvious or expected. For example, God often “speaks” to me through nature, such as a chickadee that chirps a greeting. A friend’s support at just the right moment, a film or song that deeply moves us, or a sudden insight—any of these can reveal God’s love.

Often, at the end of these mini prayer breaks, I will ask Jesus to guide me to respond to his call through the next hour/minute/project.

A favorite prayer practice that I use daily is the examen, and I hope to blog more in detail about that next.

How To Discover the Holy Spirit in the “Setting” of Our Lives

If God wants us to begin our discernment where we are, then another helpful thing we can do is to reflect a bit about the “setting” of our lives, our particular world—the concrete circumstances in which we live.

There will always be some things about the circumstances of our lives that we cannot change:

  • Aspects of our own  personality
  • Our families and the people we share our lives with—our primary commitments
  • Our history (although we can change the way we understand our past)

But even though we cannot change them, it’s helpful to consider our situation, to accept where we are, and to actively seek the Lord’s invitations within this “setting” of our lives that he shares with us.

Other circumstances of our lives may be relatively permanent, or we may be able to change them over time, if we want to or feel we are called to:

  • The responsibilities that we have committed to
  • Where we live
  • Our relationships with the people we share our lives with
  • Our training/the kind of work we do/our vocational commitments

Finally, there are many things in our lives that we can change—our behavior, attitudes, and choices; how we interact with others; how much time we spend in certain activities; what we give priority to each day, etc. But before making any changes, it’s helpful to first understand and acknowledge where we are, what’s going well and what we’re struggling with or longing for.

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When we pray to the Most Holy Trinity, we often do so by distinguishing the roles of the Persons of the Most Blessed Trinity in our world. If we praise the Father as Creative Love, the Son as the Beloved Word of the Father, then we might pray to the Holy Spirit as the Embrace between Father and Son. This holy, eternal Embrace, the Holy Spirit, extends outside the Trinity into the lives of God’s beloved people. The Holy Spirit embraces us in our lives, in the concrete situations in which we live. When Saint Paul tries to explain God’s presence in the world to non-believing Greeks, he speaks of God as the One in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Isn’t that an apt description of the Holy Spirit as the One embracing us, within and through the context of our lives?

A. To Pray With

Below is a series of questions about the setting or circumstances of your life that you may wish to journal about or pray with. As we pray with these questions, we want to remember that this setting of the story of our lives is the realm of the Holy Spirit, who works in and through all the particulars and details of our life. God is active in the moments, in the day-to-day, in the concrete details of our lives. These questions can help us to recognize how the Spirit is at work in our lives as they are—where are his invitations, his signs of faithful love, his challenges? As we begin to pray with the circumstances of our lives, we ask for the light of the Holy Spirit so that we can contemplate our lives with the eyes of Christ, with his loving gaze.

Here are some questions to pray over:

  • Where am I?
  • What are the circumstances in which I find myself?
  • What do I love about my life?
  • What do I struggle with or find not working for me?
  • What do I long for?
  • How is God present in my life?
  • How might God be speaking to me through the circumstances of my life?

B. To Pray & Journal About

While there are some things about my life that I cannot change, there are many ways that I can improve my circumstances to grow spiritually, to be healthier, to foster personal growth, to more fully live the mission God has entrusted to me. In another time of prayer, reflect on these two questions, praying the second question especially in the light of the Holy Spirit, and asking for his light and for clarity:

1. What insights have I received about myself and my life?

2. How is God speaking to me through the circumstances of my life right now: encouraging me, blessing me, inviting me, challenging me to grow?

Antagonists in Our Discernments

04E 2 choiceAs we look through our life with a storytelling lens, we might ask ourselves: do good followers of Jesus have antagonists?

Yes, we do!

Keep in mind that antagonist doesn’t mean villain or enemy, although in a story they might be. Rather, an antagonist is anyone or anything that stands in the way to the protagonist achieving his or her goals. An antagonist can be an enemy, but doesn’t need to be, as an antagonist can oppose our goal for many reasons (their reasons may be good or bad or neutral). An antagonist may not even be a person but force, and have no reason at all. In my experience, many of us have antagonists but few of us have the kinds of real enemies or villains that we see in the movies.

It’s helpful to think about how we, as followers of Jesus, may want to respond to those people in our lives who, in some way, distract us from or stand in the way of our discernment. (Later, we’ll look at other obstacles to discerning.)

In addition to a loving relationship with God, the most important condition for a genuine discernment is freedom: freedom to hear God’s invitation, and freedom to choose how to respond. The people in our lives can either help us towards freedom, or block our journey to freedom. Yet, even when someone seems to “block” our discernment and our freedom, their antagonism may be the resistance we need to discover a deeper freedom. Their resistance may also push us to a new level of commitment in seeking God’s will.

For example, Joe, a husband and father, is discerning if God is calling him to move from his current stable job to a new kind of work—perhaps as an entrepreneur doing the kind of work that has always been his dream. The people in Joe’s life will be important in his discernment. His wife, his parents, his friends, his children, his co-workers—each person will have his or her own idea about what Joe should do. Their ideas may be motivated by love for Joe, selfish concerns, or a mix of any number of motives, ranging from the desire for support and stability for his family, to fear of the new or unknown, doubts in an unproven ability, a desire to maintain the status quo, etc. Most likely Joe’s wife will have the most important role and influence—she has a unique prominence in Joe’s discernment as his wife. Ideally, Joe and his wife will discern God’s will for their family together.

Let’s suppose that, while Joe’s wife is fearful of how a change of work will affect their family’s financial stability, she loves Joe and shares his faith, so she supports his discernment. But a close friend—perhaps someone who has always been Joe’s strongest support—is adamant that Joe should continue doing exactly what he’s doing. Joe respects his friend’s opinion, and owes him alot for the support he has given to Joe and his family in the past. What does Joe do with the friend’s unhelpful advice and expectations?

It’s pretty clear that, as an adult responsible to God, his wife, and his children for living his life and call, Joe cannot simply listen to his friend blindly, even though their friendship means a lot to him. This friend is not just not helping Joe discern; the friend is antagonistic to Joe’s discernment, and has become a force against discerning at all. How does Joe handle this so that he can freely discern?

Depending on their friendship, Joe may use his friend’s negative response to explore his own feelings and motivations—whether during or after their conversations. After several attempts at discussion—perhaps after his second or tenth conversation—Joe might simply want to close this topic with his friend until he has completed his discernment. He may even call or visit his friend a little less frequently so that he is able to detach somewhat from the pressure of his expectations. Note that the friend’s resistance to Joe’s desire to discern can actually help him to focus and deepen his own reflection.

(Also note that it’s not the relationship itself that ends; Joe simply tries to put an end to fruitless discussion about his discernment. While there may be cases where we decide that it’s better to end a relationship or put it on hold so that we can freely discern, this usually has more to do with how the relationship has been developing, rather than the discernment itself. The discernment just becomes the “breaking point” where a shift or end of a relationship is recognized is inevitable.)

In any discernment, we want to choose carefully when and with whom we share our journey. We need the input of others, but we also need to be free to hear and listen to the other ways that God might be speaking to us—especiallyl interiorly. This is especially true for a young person discerning a vocation to marriage, religious life, priesthood, or single life, as pressures are sure to arise from all directions. Many people don’t understand well the vocation to priesthood or religious life, which makes it hard for them to be supportive even when they want to be.

For a number of reasons, I didn’t share my discernment journey with too many people—just several sisters and a few family members. But afterwards, when I shared my decision to enter religious life with family and friends, I was sometimes surprised by their reactions. Some friends whom I thought wouldn’t understand were supportive, pleased at how happy I was. Others—relatives who were faithful Catholics—surprised me by strongly opposing my decision, expressing concern that I was “wasting my life” by choosing religious life. Some of them tried to pressure me to change my mind.

Everyone with whom we are connected can influence our discernment. People can be supportive, cautionary, resistant, encouraging…the responses are as varied as the people you know. Choosing how and when to share our discernment, and with whom, is what we will explore next.

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.

Discerning with Deep Despires


04A 2As we explore how God might be speaking through our deep desires, it might be helpful to describe “deep desires” a little more, as compared to other kinds of desires:

  • a sudden sharp craving for ice cream on a hot day
  • a yearning to spend time with a loved one
  • a fancy for a new gadget
  • a pining for some peaceful moments in the midst of a busy day or week
  • a physical attraction to someone we find good-looking
  • an impulsive “itch” to clean the house or do something else we find immediately satisfying
  • a passionate love for our spouse
  • a longing to be immersed in creativity—writing, music, art
  • a yearning for a real, profound relationship with God
  • a devotion to someone(s) else; a dedicated giving of ourselves in love to someone(s) in need

We all have many kinds of desires every day. Because we are body and soul, our deepest desires often manifest themselves physically even when the desire isn’t for something material. We may say that we “ache” for something, or experience restlessness when a desire goes unfulfilled. Whenever we desire something, we perceive it as good. Eating unlimited chocolate feels good on some level, and so we might desire to eat two pounds of chocolate in one sitting, even though it is not actually good for us.

Our desires can be good and healthy, or they can be evil, disordered by original sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about feelings, desires, and passions in #1768. If you are interested in exploring a bit more about the morality of feelings and desires, you may want to read up in the Catechism or other sources. (If you need references, send me an email or visit a Pauline Book & Media Center!)

Because in any discernment, we are discerning between good things (see my January 23 post on four essential principles for discernment), this blog isn’t the place to address evil desires that are sinful or lead to sin beyond the obvious fact that evil desires are to be avoided, and that God doesn’t “speak” through sinful desires.

However, for the purpose of discernment, we distinguish different kinds of desires. We look at their source, how lasting they are, how connected they are with our identity. If we feel a craving for chocolate (can you tell that I have the potential to become a choc-a-holic?), we know that is a physical desire that arises from our body—perhaps a need for certain nutrients, or a desire for the gratifying pleasure of a delicious bite. But a desire for chocolate has nothing to do with my God-given identity, and while it may arise periodically, it is not a lasting desire.

Our deep desires are longings that are profound, lasting, and entwined in our very identity. The reason that we look more carefully at how God might be speaking through deep desires is because we know that God wants our happiness, and fulfilling a deep desire often leads to happiness. Personally, the further I go in life, the more I see how my deepest desires are given to me by God.

A deep desire is something that we will long for and be passionate about for a long time…perhaps our entire lives. Many people would agree that the deepest desire of the human heart is to love and be loved. (This is definitely a God-given desire!) Since God is Love, this can be rephrased to say that the longing for God himself is the deepest desire of the human heart. In discernment, we acknowledge this deep desire for God, and we look for the specific, unique “how” God is calling me personally, to love and be loved in my daily life.

We all desire love, goodness, beauty, etc. Getting to know our deep desires and the unique “how” we feel called to fulfill them is really helpful and important to living God’s invitations. Here is a personal example from my own life. All human beings desire not only beauty, but to express beauty. For me, that desire to express beauty is specified in one way by my deep desire to write. I’ve wanted to write for a long time, but it took me years to discern that my desire to write was not just a personal desire but also a call from God. Eventually, my community confirmed my discernment when sisters and superiors affirmed my written works and gave me writing assignments.

I still love other forms of beauty, and I dabble in music, but writing seems to come from (and go back to) the core of who I am.

To Pray & Journal With

  • Pray with Psalm 63: “My soul thirsts for you.”
  • How do you experience your longing for God?
  • What are your deepest desires?

What’s the connection between deep desire and discernment?

Anna_Brassey_438-victorian-woman-writing-jornalThe driving force of any story is the protagonist’s deepest needs and desires, because they determine what the protagonist chooses and does. Think of Will Smith’s character in the film The Pursuit of Happyness. Or Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. 

Whenever we are discerning, we want to become more mindful of our deepest needs and desires. (Deep desires go much deeper than a passing urge, such as our appetite for chocolate or ice cream. “Deep desire” means desires that well from deep within our soul, such as the longing for happiness, etc.)  Just like in a movie, our needs and desires drive our choices—often without our knowing it. So the more aware we can become of what we want and need, the more honest and free our discernment becomes.

When writing a story, the writer has to write two stories that are deeply connected: the outer story with events, plot, obstacles, and other characters; and the inner story of the protagonist’s growth with the protagonist’s desires, needs, and choices. In a good story, these two stories are so deeply connected that it’s the resolution of both the inner and outer challenges that make a powerful ending.

Just as a good story has both an inner and outer story, so does a good discernment. In our world today, it’s easy to spend time focusing on the outer story: What are the needs of the world today? What do my family and friends tell me about myself? What does this spiritual book tell me? What is Pope Francis saying about the needs of the Church and how to live our Christian vocation?

All of these are important and critical when we discern. Yet the most critical place to listen to the voice of God is interior: within us. The basis for any discernment is our relationship with God. If we do not pray, we cannot hear the voice of God—often the whisper of God—within us.

When we discern, we also need to go within, to listen to God speaking and working within us. Our deepest desires often express our God-given identity! It’s just as important to pay attention to the voice of God within as it is to pay attention to how God speaks to us through events, circumstances, and people in our lives. Discernment involves weighing the different “voices” that I hear—from within, from outside—and discovering which is God’s call.

Our interior journey—our understanding of who we are, and our needs and desires—will profoundly influence and shape our response to God’s call in our choices and actions.

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To Journal About

  • Make a list of the ten things in life that are most important to you.
  • When you’re finished, bring that list with you before the Lord in prayer, and ask him to reveal his priorities for you.

How Our Weaknesses Shape Our Discernment: the Importance of Knowing One’s Self

“The Mirror” by William Merritt Chase, c. 1900

What makes a novel or movie fascinating for me is when the protagonist is flawed and must overcome inner obstacles to achieve his goal, or to choose (and find) her happiness. If all the characters—especially the main ones—are practically perfect, then we have trouble being interested in the story or the characters, because they’re not real. (Even the practically perfect Mary Poppins has a fault—or at least a weakness—in how she deals with her affection for the children and for Bert.) Perfect characters don’t just make the story less interesting. We are unable to relate to these flat characters, or to their lives, because they aren’t struggling with anything. They’re not like us.

We all struggle with ourselves—our faults, a flaw, or even a simple tendency that, in our situation, causes pain or distress. If we truly come to know ourselves, we acknowledge that we struggle with much more than the occasional fault. We all have a tendency to sin, and the more honest we are with ourselves, the better we know our sinfulness and flaws. (One of the benefits of spiritual direction is gradually coming to a clearer self-knowledge.) St. Augustine encourages us to pray for self-knowledge, and it’s something we can do daily before we make our examen.

People have different levels of awareness of their faults and sinfulness, but almost all of us have “blind spots” when it comes to how we see ourselves. A strength or talent we take pride in may actually be an irritant or flaw to others. For some of us, pride blinds us to our flaws and we have trouble acknowledging our sinfulness, except in things that we don’t consider that important. For others among us, all we can see is our faults and sinfulness. And many of us swing back and forth between the two perspectives—we have days we feel we can conquer the world, and other days where to love that irritating person for the love of Christ feels way more heroic than we can manage.

Neither perspective is really helpful. If you are someone who, like me, shifts back and forth, then you have one advantage: you know that you have still not come to the truth of who you are. For me, the key word in my understanding of who I am is one word: and.

Who are we? We are flawed and saved. We are called to eternal glory through the gift of our Baptism, and we are limited and sinful human beings. We are sinners and redeemed. We are cherished and we are called to conversion.

When we are discerning an important decision, it is crucial that we remember who we really are: precious and weak, sinful and called to holiness. At some point, God will probably call us to go beyond ourselves, beyond our own strength, sustaining us with the gift of his grace. But God also perfects our human nature, the gifts of our specific personality inherent in us. Our weaknesses shape our call just as much as our gifts, so it’s important in our discernments that we know who we are, in all the greatness of our call and all the weakness that we suffer.

For some helpful real-life examples, we can read more about the saints. In comparing two saints, we will often discover that the questions that they wrestled with were very different. A sensitive monk who grapples with scrupulosity and becomes a great confessor (like the great saint, Padre Pio) will have very different discernments during his life than a practical peasant woman who grows up on a farm and founds a religious congregation dedicated to bringing the love of God to others through the corporal works of mercy (like the great St. Frances Xavier Cabrini). Both are great saints known for their love for God and selfless service of others, but their love was expressed in completely different ways.

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To Journal About

  • How do I see myself? Do I use “and” or “but” when I describe myself?
  • At this point in my life, what is my greatest fault?
  • At this point in my life, what is my greatest gift?

You may wish to conclude your journaling time with a prayer to the Holy Spirit for the grace to see yourself through God’s eyes.