“Supporting Characters” in Our Discernment

02K  (GSReduced)In any story, we find supporting characters. In our discernment—actually throughout our entire spiritual journey—we also have “supporting characters”—people in our lives who walk with us on our journey, even if just for a time. It’s important to remember that not everyone shares our same goals.

When we write a story, we are need to be reminded that each character has:

          Their own goals, wants, and needs

           Their own arc or story of growth

This means they may or may not share our goals, which will affect the support they are able to give us on our discernment journey. In some cases, someone who is important to us may not be able to offer us any direct support, but their input or their care for us may still help us in our discernment.

From a story perspective, here are some of the key roles that people take on a hero’s journey (which is akin to a discernment journey):

  • Mentor or guide. (Think: John Newton to William Wilberforce in Amazing Grace, or Jor-El—Superman’s father—to Superman in any Superman films. In the TV series Smallville, the very human Jonathan Kent is an awesome mentor to the teenaged Clark Kent, aka Superman-in-the-making.) A mentor with a lot of spiritual experience, who know how to share both human and spiritual wisdom, can be invaluable in our discernment: their guidance, their support of our pursuing a spiritual path, and the gift of their wisdom and insights as applied to our lives.  Ideally, when we realize that we are entering a period of discernment about something “big” in our lives—a career shift, a move, a vocation—we would seek out a spiritual director to accompany us. (I already posted some helpful tips when looking for a spiritual director here.) One of the best things about a mentor is the freedom from pressure and expectations that they offer because they do not have a vested interest in our decision. But others can also hold the role of mentor, offering us guidance and spiritual wisdom, such as our parents, a trusted teacher or counselor, or a wise friend.
  • Friend/Sidekick. (Think: the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.) We all need friends who support us. The ideal friend in our discernment would also be a person of faith, but any close friend who knows us well and wants our happiness can be a tremendous support to our discernment. Good friends can support us in so many ways: they encourage us to take a step forward when we feel intimidated, listen to our confidences without betraying our trust, or even “cover” for us if we go away for a weekend retreat. A true friend will put aside his or her own ego and needs and let our journey and needs take center stage for a while. (A good sidekick does the same, and actively helps us on our journey.)
  • Trickster. (Think: Captain Jack Sparrow in any Pirates of the Caribbean film; the monkey is a great trickster too!) This is someone whose response to us is unexpected, who doesn’t share our goals and doesn’t necessarily want our happiness. A trickster may seem to oppose us or our goals and may actually be an antagonist, but often the trickster simply has an agenda and point of view that’s very different from ours. We can usually learn something about ourselves from the trickster, who is usually different from what he or she appears to be, and can “stir things up” that we may find frustrating or annoying, but ultimately can help us to come to a better understanding of ourselves and our inner resistance, and can sometimes even help us move forward on our journey.
  • Threshold Guardian. (Think: the cave on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke faces Darth Vader, or Shifu in Kung Fu Panda.) Especially for stories that follow the pattern of the hero’s quest (which finds some of its roots in Christianity), the “threshold guardian” is sometimes a person, a test, or an obstacle that tests the protagonist’s resolve, preparing them for the challenges that he or she  will face during the rest of the journey. This “initial resistance” can even be interior.
  • Rival. (Think: Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire, or Woody and Bud Lightyear in Toy Story) If we are in a discernment situation with rivals (such as vying for the same position), our rival(s) can be very helpful in pushing us to do our best, to reach beyond our perceived limits. In a healthy rivalry, our rivals seek the same goals as we do and thus have a unique perspective about our situation. They may occasionally offer a valuable insight or appreciation of our efforts, and may even offer help. (Of course, rivalry is not always a healthy approach to achieving a goal, and is not usually a helpful approach to discernment. It’s always helpful to remember that rivalry is very different from enmity…and especially important to remember that as a follower of Christ.)


To Journal About

Take a moment to think about the people in your life.

  • Do you have support for your life of faith?
  • Who is supporting you on your discernment journey?
  • What kind of support might you still need to seek?


To Share or Not To Share? Finding Support for Our Discernment

04FCompressedAs we grow in the spiritual life, it’s important to find a community of people who can support us on our journey towards holiness. St. Paul’s image of the Church as the Body of Christ is relevant here—we make our journey towards heaven together. Discernment—coming to know God’s will for us—is a part of our journey, and it’s not easy. Friends or companions who also view life through eyes of faith, and who can share their discernment with us, can be invaluable.

That doesn’t mean we cut off our relationships with everyone else, but it does mean that we develop ways to support our discernment, which includes finding people who share our perspective of faith.

The  more important our discernment is to our life, the more thought we should give to whom we share it with and when. In early stages, we may wish to keep our discernment mostly to ourselves, sharing it only with a spiritual director or other trusted mentor, and perhaps a really close friend. Knowing that an important part of discernment is to become free—free of the pressures that could prevent us from hearing or following God’s call—should shape when and how we decide to share our discernment. Early on, everything feels very tentative. Because we haven’t “worked through” even our own desires and thoughts, we can be more easily influenced by the strong reactions of others. We may even be influenced to prematurely end our discernment.

Sadly, I’ve personally witnessed this when a young person expresses a desire to discern religious life or the priesthood. Parents—sometimes even faithful Catholics—immediately put pressure on their child to give up any idea of following a vocation to religious life or priesthood. In some cases, the parents might clearly see that their child isn’t called to the consecrated or priestly life. But most of the time, the parents are reacting because of their own desires, and this impinges on their child’s freedom. Ideally,  a young person would share their vocational discernment (or any other big discernment) with their parents at an early stage—because of their youth and need for guidance, and because of their parents’ knowledge of them. But sometimes,  to feel truly free, the young person has to discern without their parents’ support, and share their discernment journey only as they receive more clarity, as it nears its conclusion.

The further we go in our discernment, the stronger our desire grows to do God’s will in this particular regard. Even though we do not know how we are called, this time of strength and greater commitment to God’s will is a helpful time to share our discernment with a wider circle. Our friends and family know us well, and they may be able to articulate things about us or our situation that we find helpful to our discernment. Their expressions of support can also be invaluable as we come face-to-face to our own inner resistance.

If a friend or family member truly loves us, they will try to understand what is important to us. They won’t demand that we follow their path, but our own. A friend who truly loves us wants what’s best for us, and gives us the freedom to seek it. This kind of friend can be a tremendous support on our journey of discernment even if they don’t have any faith in God at all.

When we look back at people who have accomplished great things in history, we discover that they were often surrounded by other notable people. For example, great writers often hang out with other great writers. (Look at the Inklings.) Great artists know other great artists. And the more I’ve researched the lives of the saints, I’ve discovered how often great saints know—or are even good friends with—other great saints.

On our spiritual journey, we don’t want to underestimate the importance of spiritual friendship and spiritual support. We may find it at our parish, in a prayer group or lay movement, on a retreat, in a particular ministry, or in an affiliation with a religious community. Our spiritual director may be able to recommend a group that can nurture us spiritually. We all need spiritual support—not just for this discernment but for your entire spiritual journey.