Discernment: Listening with Our Hearts

Slide1Thank you for your patience with me while I’ve been “absent” online. Initially, I planned to take a three-week hiatus from blogging, but events conspired to keep me from getting back here for much longer—I haven’t really blogged since February. In addition to trying to complete a draft of the book, I’ve been focused on other things, such as leading a seven-day retreat, etc.

With the end of the Year of Consecrated Life and the almost-completion of the book’s content, I’m going to blog in a way that I can keep up with; I’ll start with a weekly post. I have a few more posts from the book to put up here, but I also want to simply update the blog with new insights, and respond to your discernment questions. (I have a few still to answer—thanks for the patience of those of you who have emailed me!)

Hopefully, starting this week, I can make my weekly posts fairly consistent. I am excited about “being back” online—I’ve missed blogging about discernment! I will be traveling over the next three weeks, but I will try to get a weekly post up.

* * *

Yesterday’s Gospel (for the 4th Sunday of Easter) is particularly relevant for those of us who seek to discern the Lord’s invitations in our lives:

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one” (John 10:27-30).

This past Sunday—Good Shepherd Sunday—was also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, during which Pope Francis offered a beautiful reflection on Sunday’s Gospel about listening with our hearts to the voice of the Good Shepherd, which you can find here. In it, the Pope offers perhaps the best definition of discernment: Listening to Jesus with our hearts.

Listening as a way of encountering the Lord and each other has been a strong theme in Pope Francis. In this year’s Message for World Communications Day (which is celebrated every year on the Sunday before Pentecost—this year falling on May 8), Pope Francis has beautiful words about how we are to listen to each other. But we can apply it also to how we listen to God:

Listening is much more than simply hearing. Hearing is about receiving information, while listening is about communication, and calls for closeness. Listening allows us to get things right, and not simply to be passive onlookers, users or consumers. Listening also means being able to share questions and doubts, to journey side by side, to banish all claims to absolute power and to put our abilities and gifts at the service of the common good.

Listening is never easy. Many times it is easier to play deaf. Listening means paying attention, wanting to understand, to value, to respect and to ponder what the other person says. It involves a sort of martyrdom or self-sacrifice, as we try to imitate Moses before the burning bush: we have to remove our sandals when standing on the “holy ground” of our encounter with the one who speaks to me (cf. Ex 3:5). Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice.     –    Message for 50th World Day of Communications

Yesterday, Pope Francis concluded his remarks with a special invitation to young people to consider if God is calling them to consecrate their lives to the Lord’s service, in the  priesthood or in consecrated life.

May God bless each of us in these days with a heart that is open, that attentively listens, that draws us close to the heart of the Divine Master.

Advertisements

Connecting Lent & Discernment: 2 Amazing Journeys

sand-768783_1280Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of an amazing six-week opportunity for a spiritual “makeover,” for deepening our relationship with God, for experiencing anew God’s great mercy.

So many connections between our discernment journey and our Lenten journey are immediately obvious. Any time that we focus on renewing, revitalizing, and deepening our relationship with God, our ability to discern is also going to grow. This Lent, in addition to making the 7 Qualities of Mercy online mini-retreat, I have decided to focus my Lent around listening. Listening is a wonderful quality that is a prerequisite for genuine communication—with God first of all, but also with self and with others.

Pope Francis talks about the importance of listening in our relationships in this year’s Message for the 50th World Communications Day:

Communicating means sharing, and sharing demands listening and acceptance. Listening is much more than simply hearing. Hearing is about receiving information, while listening is about communication, and calls for closeness. Listening allows us to get things right, and not simply to be passive onlookers, users or consumers. Listening also means being able to share questions and doubts, to journey side by side, to banish all claims to absolute power and to put our abilities and gifts at the service of the common good.

Listening is never easy. Many times it is easier to play deaf. Listening means paying attention, wanting to understand, to value, to respect and to ponder what the other person says. It involves a sort of martyrdom or self-sacrifice, as we try to imitate Moses before the burning bush: we have to remove our sandals when standing on the “holy ground” of our encounter with the one who speaks to me (cf. Ex 3:5). Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice.

You might have noticed that Pope Francis talks about listening as a form of self-emptying love, similar in a way to Jesus’ kenosis in taking on our human nature and in dying on the cross. Listening can be a sort of martyrdom. In truly listening, we can imitate Jesus’ self-giving, sacrificial love for us, by putting ourselves and our agendas aside and becoming deeply receptive to whomever we are listening to. Deep listening enables us to become aware of the sacredness of the other. Even if we are just having an ordinary, everyday conversation, deep listening takes us beyond the surface to glimpse the depth of someone else’s humanity and thus, how beloved they are by God.

Lent is a time to die to ourselves so that we can rise with Christ. Learning to listen better is a concrete way to die to self and to welcome the other in a genuine encounter of love and mercy. When we really hear one another, we are more likely to respond to them with compassion, gentleness, and mercy. As attentive listeners, we can discover God speaking to us—not just in prayer and in his Holy Word, or within ourselves in the depths of our own hearts—but especially in the words and unspoken longings and vulnerabilities of others with whom we relate.

Deep listening will enrich our discernment journey, eventually becoming more and more foundational to our prayer and our daily seeking the will of God.

* * *

Join me in making the 7 Qualities of Mercy Online Mini-Retreat.

7 QUALITIES FB

The One Word That Best Describes Discernment

06P pixabay

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?

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.

The Most Important Thing To Do When Discerning

The most important thing we can do during our discernment is to listen deeply. Listening is a skill that most of us can improve in, as we tend to talk more than listen. Even if we consider ourselves good listeners with our friends and family, we may still need to learn an attitude of listening in our every day life. In “3D listening,” we seek to listen to God who speaks to us and invites us through:

  • our lives and our whole being (our thoughts, feelings, gifts, limitations, desires, past and present)
  • the people in our lives (including their needs)
  • the “voice” and needs of the community
  • the Church
  • the guidance of a mentor or guide
  • our circumstances
  • the world around us (including the needs of the world)

A really helpful tool for 3D listening is the examen, which we’ll look at in the next post. But one of the keys to learning how to listen more deeply to our lives is to make time and space in our lives to listen.

We will find it very difficult—if not impossible—to listen deeply if we:

  • are constantly running from one thing to the next
  • don’t make time in our day or week for reflection or a meditative/contemplative prayer
  • don’t take time to genuinely relax regularly
  • don’t create quiet moments in our day or week (e.g. our lives are filled with constant “noise” — the radio is always on in the car, the TV is always on in the home, we can’t take a walk without headphones, we are always on the phone with friends, etc.)
  • neglect to put smart limits around our media use (e.g. we never “unplug,” we don’t take breaks from twitter, work email, news updates, etc., or we’re always listening to music or talk radio)
  • work excessively (e.g. workaholism, always being “on call,” or being so absorbed in our work that we only think of ourselves in terms of what we “do” and not who we are)

Many of these obstacles are easy to overcome, depending on our personality and our circumstances. Because of the culture we live in, many people don’t even think about creating quiet in their lives, and yet when they do, they find it can make a big difference in their awareness and appreciate of the beauty of their own lives.

Listening to God is possible only when we take time to pray and nurture our relationship with God. To do that, we need to create occasional (or regular) oases of serenity and quiet. Even the way we pray can prevent us from deeper listening, if we do all the talking and we don’t take time to listen.

Listening prayer can be as simple as starting or concluding our daily prayer with a few moments of quiet, doing lectio divina, or checking in with God and ourselves at the end of the day using the examen.

Follow-up

  • Which obstacles to listening do you struggle with?
  • Choose one way to improve your listening and start doing it today.