Learning from The Sisterhood: Discernment in Episode 2

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Prayer To Discern Well from new Discern It! App

As I mentioned in my previous post, and have shared in many conversations, Lifetime’s show The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns,  while suffering all the limitations of a reality TV show, can do a great deal of good by offering to viewers a fascinating portrayal of religious life, and a sense of the challenges and obstacles a young woman faces in discerning whether she is called to become a sister.

Episode 1 introduced us to each young woman and to the Carmelites of the Aged and Infirm, where the young women are doing the first two weeks of their live-in. Episode 2 brings us right into the “nuts and bolts” of the young women’s discernments.

For this episode, I’d like to look at some of the typical discernment moments that arose on the show, seeing what we can learn from them (and without making any judgments on the people  involved). Some key moments in discernment that I noted while I watched:

  • Eseni’s desire for growth and peace, and Sr. Maria Theresa’s response that it is important for her to seek healing. I really loved Sr. Maria Theresa’s comment that all of us are broken, and all of us need healing. (By the way, this is a wonderful insight for Advent: we are all in need of a Savior!)When we feel deep turmoil and restlessness, it’s a good time to reflect, but isn’t necessarily the best time to make a big change in our lives, because we might be making a change simply to find relief from our inner pain, rather than truly following God’s invitation. Saint Ignatius of Loyola has some great guidelines about this. If we are discerning about something major in our lives and we discover that we are deeply troubled about something else, we may want to slow down our discernment, or discern the cause of our turmoil and take steps towards healing and peace, rather than make a big decision about our original discernment. In general, when we are discerning something major in our life like our vocation, we want to discern from a place of peace.
  • Christie’s desire for greater intimacy with Christ, while instead she was feeling desolation. I love how honestly she puts it: “I showed up and he [Jesus] didn’t!” A wise spiritual director might encourage someone in a situation like Christie to not be afraid and to “stay the course” and not make any hasty decisions—either about going home or entering religious life. In the midst of the kind of anxiety or desolation that Christie seemed to be experiencing, we want to pay attention. The spiritual life is full of experiences of consolation and desolation, so when we are in the throes of desolation, it’s good to take it slow and reflect on what’s happening. A spiritual director who has experience in Ignatian discernment, especially “discernment of spirits,” can be really helpful, because St. Ignatius offers a lot of wisdom when he describes the different causes of spiritual consolation and desolation, and how we can discern even from within them.
  • The courage that several young women showed during times of anxiety or difficulty in participating in the sisters’ mission is inspiring and encouraging for all of us who seek to discern. Discernment takes great courage and freedom because we are letting go of our illusions of control and our ego, trusting in the Lord instead, and surrendering to his guiding love.
  • At several points Claire struggles with her relationship with the other discerners. Several comments that were made highlighted for me an important principle in matters of the spiritual life—including discernment. It’s not helpful to compare ourselves with others, especially if we’re trying to determine where we are on our journey or our next step. God works with each of us individually, and each of us has unique experiences and a unique relationship with God. While we can learn from each other, note similarities or differences in our journeys, we don’t want to fall into the trap of making comparisons or judgements.

And this is important, not just for the young women and sisters in the show, but for those of us watching as well. Even in a show with such good intentions as The Sisterhood, the temptation seems to be to compare these young women to each other, and to judge their responses to the challenges they face (and then to compare with ourselves). This is a very human tendency, but comparing these young women to each other and making judgments about their journeys is really unhealthy spiritually. (It brings to mind a homily Pope Francis gave last year about gossip.) Talking about others uncharitably is gossip. A TV show about discernment might especially tempt those of us who know more about this spiritual art to make judgments about the people involved. But in all honesty, as viewers we are not even receiving the full picture.

We all know that reality TV is not real:

  • it’s edited so that we never have the full context for any event or conversation
  • people naturally play to the camera or can even react differently if they are within range of a camera
  • reality TV fosters or emphasizes drama.

We also don’t know what only God knows: the deep desires and motivations of each person. Keeping all of that  in mind, even if we had the right to judge, we don’t have the full information needed to do so. (And we never do!)

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In that spirit, I’d like to close with a prayer for all the discerners: those on the show itself, and those who are watching and seeking to discern God’s will for their lives.

Come, Holy Spirit, and shine your light, peace, and wisdom on Eseni, Stacey, Francesca, Claire, and Christie, and all those who seek to live more fully in accord with your will.

-Give them the peace to not be caught up in their feelings, but to sort through them in serenity to have greater clarity about their desires

-Purify their hearts so that their motivation to live in union with you grows always greater

-And grant them the courage and freedom to risk, to take on new challenges and try new things, as they seek to discover how you call them to live the Gospel of life and of love. Amen.

For those interested, you can find the new, free Discern It! App here from the Daughters of Saint Paul.