What Do We Need To Be Freed from To Discern Well?

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One of our biggest obstacles in discerning God’s will in our life is ourselves. Because of original sin—the sin of Adam and Eve which has marked every human being—we are prone to sin. In our discernments, we want to “sort through” our desires, distinguishing between disordered desires which can lead to sin and genuine desires that well up from deep within and reflect our true identity.

Sometimes when we find ourselves in difficult situations, we’ll discover that our main difficulty is really ourselves. We might think that if we just didn’t have to deal with this situation, or this person, or this challenge, we’d be fine. And then we end up in a new situation and we find that it’s not the situation that was the problem, it’s ourselves and how we deal with the situation.

* * *

I remember one time as a younger sister when I found myself in what I thought was a really difficult situation. Another sister and I really clashed, and it made community life really challenging for me. At the end of the year, I was transferred to a new community. At first I was thrilled, thinking everything was great. Then I started running into the exact same difficulties that I had run into before!

Gradually, I realized that although the circumstances of life would never be perfect, what made them unmanageable was me. My particular faults—in this case my high expectations, my desires for perfection, and my impatience with others—were really at the root of my problem in getting along with the other sisters. It was a hard lesson to learn, but a wonderful opportunity to get to know myself better. I realized that sometimes—perhaps more often than I’d like to admit—I am my own worst enemy!

* * *

In discernment, we spend a lot of time seeking greater freedom. (This is why sometimes we need to take a longer time to discern.) In our discernments, we seek freedom:

  • from our ego
  • from our tendency to seek ourselves or to put ourselves ahead of God
  • from our disordered desires
  • from the world’s materialistic and secular perspective
  • from others’ expectations

When Saint John the Baptist was pointing to Christ as the Messiah, he made a wonderful statement that fits this aspect of discernment: “He [Christ] must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). Discernment is about giving Christ and his will for us more and more space in our life, so that our true identity as disciples of Christ can clearly emerge.

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Discernment Tip: Give Everything Its Proper Place

The best discernments are those in which the person discerning makes a journey towards interior freedom. In other words, they are no longer constrained by unhealthy attachments to nonessentials—things like others’ opinions, our comfort, or anything other than God’s loving will.

Everything has its place in creation, and God has given us many gifts in order to live fully. When we give a created thing more importance than it deserves, we call that an unhealthy attachment. Unhealthy attachments prevent us from having the freedom to recognize and respond to God’s will.

Here’s a petty (but realistic) personal example: I like sitting in the same place in chapel every day. The prayerbooks that I keep at that place, and the familiar view helps me to enter into prayer. But our chapel is free for everyone to use, and sometimes another person will take the place I usually take. When I find someone sitting there, I pay attention. If I’m mildly irritated because I’m inconvenienced, that’s normal. If however, I become upset because someone took “my place,” then I’ve got a problem. I’ve become attached to a particular spot of a wooden pew. I’ve made it more important than it really is.

As human beings, it’s really easy for us to become too attached to things that really aren’t very important. If you have a favorite book, movie, dessert, or sport, you know this temptation—even if you haven’t given in to it! It’s also easy for us to become unhealthily attached to other people—for example, we can rely too much on what someone else thinks of us. If we enjoy a particular friendship but find ourselves jealous when that friend spends time with someone else, we may have an attachment to our friend that is unhealthy.

The attachments that are hardest for me to recognize, though, are the interior ones—for example, to my own way, opinions, or desires.  Certain work by its very nature requires flexibility. If someone cannot be flexible about the way that they work, becoming angry whenever they collaborate with someone else, this is a sign that they could be too attached to their way of doing things. It’s fine to have a preference for a way of doing something, but when we overreact or refuse to try something a new or different way, then it’s possible that we’ve become too attached to our own way. This attachment can prevent us from receiving God’s inspiration.

A disordered attachment to anything or anyone can become an obstacle to freedom because it puts something else in the place of God’s will. Healthy detachment can help us to regain our freedom.

To Pray With

We can begin by listening to Jesus’ words in the Gospel, where Jesus reminds us that where our treasure is, our heart will also be. Pray with Matthew 6: 19-21. What do we treasure in our life? Do we truly treasure our relationship with God above everything else?

NOTE: For the rest of this week, I’m taking a break from blogging to cover Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S., and I’d like to encourage you to take a break, too. Let’s truly listen and take in the words of Pope Francis to us! Especially if you are discerning your vocation or a decision about ministry, God may inspire you through the Pope’s words and presence. I’ll return to blogging about discernment after the Pope’s visit, on September 30th.

Too Busy To Discern?

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1. Busyness and/or overwork is sometimes a simple reality. American culture emphasizes doing over being. Between home life, demands at work, needs of extended family, and everything else, we can become too busy practically all the time, doing things that we consider important.

The needs and sufferings of our brothers and sisters in the world are so great that it’s easy to see that every baptized person is called to “busy” themselves about the Lord’s work. Whether it’s praying and offering for others, reaching out with small gestures of love at home, responding to a neighbor’s crisis, or engaging in full-time apostolate, living the corporal and spiritual works of mercy keep us all busy! For those of us involved in full-time apostolate, juggling family and work, or part of the “sandwich generation”—raising our kids and taking care of elderly parents or relatives—there is simply not enough time in the day to do all that we want to do, to express our love in all the ways that we want to. And there are certainly seasons of our lives when the Lord invites us to that special self-offering of giving at “full stretch”—whether to our children and family at home, to fulfill our responsibilities at work, to reach out to those in need, or in fulfilling the Church’s mission.

But we cannot run at full stretch all the time. We also need time to replenish ourselves so that we can continue to give of ourselves fully and freely. If we find ourselves often grumpy, stressed, or exhausted; if our life starts to feel unbearable; if we have crafted or allowed our lifestyle to develop in such a way that we don’t have time for daily prayer and a weekly chunk of time to nurture ourselves; if we find ourselves taking refuge in work or busyness, then we need to re-examine our lives, giving some time to these questions:

  • What is most important to us?
  • What do we want to give priority to in our lives?
  • Are we giving priority to what is merely superficially urgent (e.g., work has many deadlines), or to the truly crucial (e.g., our spiritual state, the direction of our lives, our important relationships?)
  • Are we deceiving ourselves with the illusion that being super-busy or overworked gives us more importance, control, or power?

Allowing ourselves to be deceived by the illusion of importance, power, and control is not spiritually healthy. It can distract us from what is truly important in our lives, and deceive us about our true, deepest call. The world is in God’s hands and will not fall apart if we take a break, make time for a half hour of daily prayer, or schedule in the necessary time to take care of ourselves. Always being “too busy,” or always saying “yes” to additional responsibilities can become a way of avoiding ourselves. This can be a deception of the ego or of the devil; either way, I am sure that the devil uses this self-deception to prevent us from listening to God and to prevent our growth in humility.

When we choose or allow ourselves to become frantically busy all the time, we can start to think we are more important than we are. Our priorities become mixed up. There is a difference between feeling needed and feeling indispensable. The first may be true much of the time; the second is rarely true, and if it is, a back up plan is needed! Being overly busy isn’t just difficult for us; it also affects the quality of our relationships and can prevent us from taking time with the loved ones who really need us. When we fall into a cycle of being over-busy all the time, we may even be using being busy as an escape from prayer, spending quiet time, or difficult aspects of our relationships.

Above all—for the purposes of our discernment—being super-busy, stressed, or overworked prevents us from taking time to become quiet enough to deeply listen to God.