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.

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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.

The One Word That Best Describes Discernment

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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?

Listening to the Word of God: Lectio Divina guide

IMG_0005A wonderful way of listening to the Lord—and perhaps one of the first that we should practice—is praying with the Bible. For the past fifty years, the Church has encouraged all Catholics to re-discover lectio divina, a particular way of praying with the Bible that has its roots in the third century (with Origen specifically encouraging it as the way to read Scripture), and then later in the early monastic communities (especially the Benedictines). Lectio divina continued to be practiced through the ages by monastic communities, but in his Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict XVI highly encourages all of us to do lectio divina. Why? Because lectio divina is “capable of opening up to the faithful the treasures of God’s word, but also of bringing about an encounter with Christ, the living word of God.” (Scroll down to #87 for Pope Benedict’s description of how to do lectio.)

Traditionally, lectio divina has four steps, but Pope Benedict recommended adding a fifth without which lectio divina wouldn’t be complete. (There are other methods of lectio divina that have developed over time, too, but here we’ll stay with the traditional structure.) The five-step structure isn’t meant to be rigidly followed; rather, it’s meant to help us to engage with the Word of God with our whole being. It’s important when praying to follow where the Holy Spirit leads us; if we are drawn to stay or “rest” on one step during our prayer, that’s what we should do!

Here is a very short guide to making lectio divina, inspired by Pope Benedict’s short description in Verbum Domini and my own experience of prayer.

*To prepare, set aside some quiet time for prayer, and choose a Scripture passage. If you are new to lectio divina, a passage from the Gospels is a good place to start. Choosing the Gospel reading from Sunday or daily Mass can often be helpful.

Step 1. Lectio (Reading). Read the passage slowly and reflectively, listening attentively. What is the biblical text saying? 

Step 2. Meditatio (Meditation). Re-read the passage a second time, asking the question, What does the biblical text say to me in my circumstances? Listen especially for a particular word or phrase that strikes you more than the others—perhaps a word resonates with you; perhaps a sentence raises a question or even some disquiet. Let that word or phrase enter deep into your awareness and then reflect on it: why does this word appeal to me or disturb me? How is the Lord speaking to me?

Step 3. Oratio (Prayer). Speak to God about what is happening inside of you as you spend time with his Word. Prayer is a dialogue with God, and this is where you can respond to God’s Word. Perhaps the Word of God is comforting you—thank God for his comfort and strength. If the Word is challenging you or raising questions in you, ask God for the grace to understand and live his Word.

Step 4. Contemplatio (Contemplation). Contemplation is a time to take on God’s way of seeing. As you rest under God’s loving gaze, ask the Lord how he is inviting you to convert. What needs to change in your mind, will, life?

Step 5. Actio (Action) Take the Word of God with you back into your daily life. You can live the Word of God in your day by choosing to take on an attitude or particular action in the spirit of the invitation God extended to you as you prayed with the Scripture passage. 

The guided lectios provided on this blot are meant to help those who are just beginning with lectio divina. If  you choose to pray with them, I encourage you to go back later and pray with the Scripture passages on your own, using the above simple guide.