Discernment in Prayer
Part 5: Is there a reliable method for discerning important life choices in prayer?
Hello, and welcome back. We’re glad that you’ve joined us for this fifth tape in a series of five tapes around spiritual discernment. In the first tape, we tried to answer the question, what is spiritual discernment? In the second tape, we talked about what do we mean by saying a vocation? We have a vocation, or we have a particular calling in life. And third, we looked at the life of Jesus and tried to imagine some factors that influenced his sense of his own vocation, his purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God. In the fourth session, we talked about how we might begin to explore and look for what our purpose in life might be and begin to focus down on a particular path that might be right for us.
In this final video, I’d like to just talk about how we make a choice and how we bring God into that choice and how we can decide. And I’d like specifically to present a method of discernment that is offered to us by Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Saint Ignatius was a 16th century Spanish Saint, and he is the author of “The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius”. And in those exercises, he lays out a method for discernment. So we’ll talk about that method today.
I’d like to begin just by saying a bit about discernment itself. What is discernment and what does it mean to discern? It’s interesting that the dictionary gives two different meetings. One is to discern is to perceive or to recognize. And the second meaning is to discern is to separate mentally one thing from another or others. So if those are the definitions, we can see that in spiritual discernment as well. What are we to perceive or recognize? In another words, what are we to look at? What are we to investigate? And so discernment involves, first of all, a kind of careful look at our lives, an investigation of our gifts, our talents, our interests, our desires, our capabilities. So we’re gathering information about ourselves and about different possible paths that we might follow. And then the second movement of discernment is that movement to separate mentally one thing from another or others. And here we take all of this data that we’ve received and we sift through it to decide what are the most important factors and what seems to weigh in that determines, helps determine our course.
So we’ll engage in both of those things as we go along. I’d like to encourage you to do some reflecting first of all, and you might wanna pause the tape at some point for this. Do some reflecting about your own experience of discernment. You might ask yourself, is there a time in my life where I actually prayed through a difficult or important choice or where I came to a juncture in life and had different options and how I prayed with that, how I discerned which one to take, how did I make my choice? What process did I go through to make this decision? And then ask yourself, how did I sense God was working in me or with me in making this decision? How is God involved? And how certain was I that I was finding in God’s purpose for me? Or how comfortable did I feel with the decision? Did I feel it was right? And did I feel consolation as I thought about this choice? And finally, was there any evidence that confirmed the choice for me? Did someone’s words or actions or something happened that seemed to confirm this choice and reassure me that it was the right choice?
So you might take a pause right now and just pause and think about your own process of discernment. How do you go about making choices? And if you pray about choices, how do you pray? What do you look for? How do you expect God to partner with you and to help you make the best choice?
So let me begin to explain this method that Ignatius proposes. Ignatius begins his exercises with a prayer exercise that is called the Principle and Foundation. The Principle and Foundation of the spiritual exercises is the first thing that retreatants will pray as they move through the spiritual exercises in the course of a retreat. And in the Principle and Foundation, Ignatius is laying out his vision, his understanding of the purpose of life, the meaning of life. So listen to his words. First of all, he says, “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord.” And by this means to save his soul. So he’s saying in the very first sentence, our purpose, human beings have been created to praise, reverence, and serve God. And by this means to save their souls, to live fully into God’s eternal life for them. So if we could think of it, we might rephrase it slightly and say, human beings are created to know God, to love God, and to serve God. And maybe you’ll recognize those phrases from the song “Day by Day Three Things We Pray”, to see thee more clearly, to love thee more dearly, to follow thee more nearly, day by day. So to know God, to love God, and to serve God. We are created to know God, we are unique among all the creatures of the earth. We have a unique capacity to relate to God and to receive God’s love and to return our love to God. So we have a capacity to know God and a capacity to love God. God invites us into a personal relationship with God’s self. That’s what our faith teaches and proclaims.
And then finally, that love expresses itself in service. And we serve God by our worship and by our service to other people. So this is why we’ve been created. As Saint Augustine once said, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. And Ignatius would say, our lives are going to be meaningless and unfocused unless we understand that this is the purpose for which we’ve been created, and this is the way to fulfillment in life, to know God, to love God, and to serve God. So then Ignatius goes on and says, “And the other things on the face of the earth are created for us, that they may help us in prosecuting the end for which we are created.” So he’s saying available to us are all of these gifts that are surrounded, the beauty of the natural world and the creation, the resources of the earth, our homes, our schools, our churches, our families, our loved ones, all of these, our resources, our wealth, our financial resources, material resources, all of these are available to us and they can be used to further us along the way toward the end for which we’ve been created. In other words, they can be used profitably to help us to know, love, and serve God. But Ignatius warns they can also become obstacles to our achieving that purpose of life. And they become obstacles when we cling to them, when we are attached to them, when we make them the center of our focus and when we get absorbed by them so that they become idols, they become gods for us and take the place of God.
And so we get consumed with being wealthy or being successful or being popular or whatever it is, and that skews our life. And so, everything in the world is available to us. We can use this in a good way to further us to know, love, and serve God, or if we handle it wrong and we try to cling to it and possess it and make it the center of our lives, these can be obstacles. These same things can be obstacles that hinder us on our way to fulfilling the purpose for which we’ve been created. Next, Ignatius goes on to say, “From this, it follows that we are to use them as much as they help us to our end. And we ought to rid ourselves of them so long as they hinder us to it.” So just as Jesus spoke to the rich young ruler and said, “For you to find the way to life, you should sell all your possessions.” He recognized that they were getting in the way of him realizing the purpose for which he’d been created. And he said, if you’ll get rid of them, you’ll remove this hindrance that’s in your way and you’ll be able to progress. So these things, Ignatius says, can help us or hinder us depending on how we use them. They can further us toward the end to which we’ve been created, or they can limit us.
And so Ignatius then says his final statement, “For this, it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it. So that on our part, we want not health rather than sickness. We want not riches rather than poverty. Honor rather than dishonor. Long life rather than a short life and all the rest. And we choose only what is most conducive for us to realize the end for which we’ve been created.” So Ignatius says, look at all of these resources around you, your relationships, the things that you possess, the opportunities that you have and decide if they are helps or hindrances. And if they are hindrances, rid yourself of them, and if they are helps, then embrace them. But look at all things, he says, with a spirit of indifference, and that’s a very important word in Ignatian spirituality. And it doesn’t mean what we usually take it to mean. Usually, we talk about indifference as a kind of apathy, see that movie or that movie, I don’t care which, I’m indifferent to that choice. So we talk about it as kind of an apathy, either one will work for me. But Ignatius is talking about it in a different way. He’s talking about approaching a decision or a choice and holding it in balance. So that I say, maybe this job or this path is the right path for me, or maybe it’s not. And I’m going to come to God with both of my hands balanced, like in equilibrium. And I’m going to present this choice before God and pray about it and to see which God leads me to. So his indifference has do with freedom. I don’t insist on having this thing nor do I immediately reject it, but I come with a balanced view, trying to be free, trying to be indifferent toward the outcome in order that I can choose the thing that will give glory to God. So he says we desire and choose that which is most conducive for us to realize the end for which we’ve been created and thus to bring honor to God.
So you see, Ignatius has this framework in which he’s doing discernment. He says, all of us have been created for this purpose. We’ve been created to know, love, and serve God. All of us have access to gifts and resources and material things, but we should use them if they help us progress, but we should get rid of them if they become obstacles and hindrances. And so we need to approach everything, every choice and everything. Should I buy a bigger house or should I invest in this relationship? And we bring those things before God in a spirit of indifference, a spirit of freedom to invite God to help us identify which things will be helpful to us and which will be hindrances. So he creates a large framework, the purpose for which we’ve been created. And then within that framework now he’s going to help guide us to what might be a good choice for us. So we move on to a section in the spiritual exercises that is entitled “Three Times for Making a Good and Sound Election”. In other words, three contexts for making a good choice. And the first time that he describes is a time of absolute clarity.
And this is, Ignatius says, “The first time is when God our Lord so moves and attracts the will, that without doubting or being able to doubt, such devout soul follows what is shown.” And here, God shows us something and makes it so clear to us that this is a path we must take, this is the option that we must choose. It feels right to us, and we just don’t have any doubts about it. And occasionally, we get that kind of clear revelation, that kind of clarity and simplicity and assurance that this is the right path, or this is the right person to marry, or this is the right vocation to pursue. We have a very strong feeling about it. Ignatius gives the example of St. Paul writing to Damascus persecuting the Christians. And he is stopped by a blinding light on the road and the voice of God literally turns him around and makes him a new creature and sends him off in an entirely different direction. It wasn’t a matter of discernment for Paul. God made it very clear what he was to do and how he was to change his life. So sometimes we benefit from that kind of clarity, and that’s always the easiest time to make a good choice is when it’s very clear to us what the best choice is. The second time for making a good choice, says Ignatius, is when enough light and knowledge is received by experience of consolations and desolations.
Now here with consolations, he’s talking about that feeling of peace, that feeling of rightness, a feeling of this really works, this fits, this is true and authentic, as opposed to desolation where I feel anxious and unsettled about this, it doesn’t seem right, it doesn’t seem to fit, it doesn’t leave me peaceful, I’m anxious about this choice. And he says, sometimes we come up to a decision and we have two options. And as we consider these options, we notice this movement of consolation and desolation within us and these interior feelings. And he says to identify those feelings and to see what they mean for us. And so he says, those feelings can be very helpful indicators of what God is showing us. And maybe you’ve had this experience where perhaps you’ve been searching to buy a home and you know exactly what you want and you want three bedrooms and you want it to be nearby a school, and you want it to be near a grocery store and you want it to be near a park and you want to have enough yard and you want these various things. You have said, this is the kind of home we’re looking to buy. And so you go to see a place. And the first place that you see has all of these criteria, it has three bathrooms and it’s a near school, you can check them all off, meets all the criteria. And yet, when you walk into that home, there’s something about it that doesn’t feel right. You say, no, this isn’t the place. This isn’t a place that I resonate with or that I feel like I want to live here. And so the feeling of desolation as you consider this option prevails, and you say this isn’t the right place, even though it meets all our criteria. Or conversely, you can walk into a home that someone is showing to you and say, this is it. This feels right. I know it. I feel tremendous consolation, that kind of affirmation and a certainty, a rightness about this place. This is the place that we want.
So those movements of consolation and desolation can be helpful indicators to us of what the best choice is for us. The third time for making a good choice that Ignatius describes is what he calls a quiet time. And this is a time where we don’t feel much movement of consolation and desolation at all. Maybe we’ve been looking at this choice with its various options for a long time, and we simply don’t know what to do. And Ignatius likens it to a sailboat that’s out on the lake without any wind. We don’t feel like we’re going anywhere with this decision. We don’t know what to do. And so then Ignatius recommends to us that we turn to our rational side of ourselves and to reason this out. And he says to go through an exercise, he suggests that we put these options down before us and list for each option the pros and the cons, the advantages and the disadvantages of that option.
So I take the first option and I explore what I think are the possible advantages of making this choice and the possible drawbacks or the disadvantages of choosing this particular item. And I do that for each of the options that I have, whether I have two options or more, I do it for each of those options. And I particularly look at those advantages and disadvantage, and maybe I put a star or an asterisk by the ones that are most important to me. I evaluate their weightiness, say, this is kind of a small one, it would be nice to have, but it’s not important, but this is a major advantage, something that I really want and need. And I think this is why this choice might be the right one for me. So some of those reasons will be more advantageous than others, and some will be more obstacles than others. Say this one in my disadvantage, that one is really serious. I’m not sure if I can live with that provision. So we assess these pros and cons for the choices, and then we make a tentative choice. I just said, just looking at this data that’s before me, which seems like the best way. And we make a choice, say, okay, I’m gonna go with option A just to make a choice and just to get the ball moving. And then we ask God in prayer to confirm that choice for us, by bringing us into the realm of the first time or the second time.
In other words, making it so clear that we have no doubt that this is the right choice for us, or secondly, giving us movement of consolation and desolations that seem to confirm this choice or seem to turn us away from it. So we ask God to bring us into one of the first or the second time about this choice that we have tentatively made. Now, if that election is not made, there are a couple of other things that he recommends that we can do. There are two ways that he suggests. The first way is this way of analyzing pros and cons that I’ve just described. He says, first of all, determine what it is that you wanna decide, then try being at like a balance, at equilibrium, seeking detachment and inner freedom about the choice. It’s no good to come to God and ask for God’s help in discerning when we’ve already made up our mind that we want this choice. If we are actually serious about discernment, we have to find a way to balance these choices and to consider that God might want this one or this one, and this might be best for us, or this might be best for us and come with that kind of indifference and freedom, like a balance, an equilibrium. And then we pray for God to show us, pray for enlightenment, pray for guidance. Ask God to speak to us and to show us which is the better way. Then we analyze, list the pros and cons and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each option.
We finally choose tentatively one alternative that seems the most reasonable. And then we seek confirmation by asking God to either give us a certainty, like the first time, or to give us movements of desolation and consolation like in the second time. That will help us to know that this is the best choice for us. He goes on to say, if you’re not able to arrive at a choice with that method, you might try this. And he offers three imaginative exercises that might help give us clarity and which is the better option. The first thing that he suggests is he asks us to imagine ourselves, imagine a person coming to us with the same dilemma that we are in with the same type of choice. And they are just as stuck as we are in this choice. And they come seeking a counsel, and he says, put yourself in the counselor’s seat, in the spiritual director’s seat, in the advisor’s seat, in the pastor’s seat or whatever, and listen to what you might say to them. And you might not immediately have an answer like, oh, you should definitely take option A, but you might say, well, if I was faced with someone that had this exact same conundrum, I might ask them about this, or I might ask them what are the implications about this decision for this particular area of your life or for these people in your life, or what might this lead to, or why would you choose this one, or what would I ask them? How would I help them to consider this choice? And sometimes simply that change of perspective where we’re the ones giving counsel gives us some insight into what might be the best way.
And a second way, he says, is to imagine ourselves on our death bed, looking back over our lives. And if this is a little bit too morbid for you, you might just say, I put myself at the end of my life and imagine myself looking back. So I imagine, for example, that I’m 80 years old and I’m looking back at this time when I was 32 and I faced this difficult choice. And from that perspective of the 80-year-old me, I reflect on this decision and I decide which of these would be the better choice. And what that does is it changes our perspective again by putting this decision in the context of our whole life. What do we want our lives to be about? What do we want our priorities to be about? What are our values that we’re trying to live? And how are those expressed in this particular decision? So sometimes the distance of looking back from old age on this will put some light on it in terms of how do I wanna live my whole life? What do I want my life to be about? And how does this decision reflect that? And then the final idea that Ignatius has, he says, “I imagine myself standing before Christ and giving an account of my life.” And this also might be a little bit intimidating for you to imagine a kind of judgment scene where you have to defend your choice to Christ.
I sometimes pray this way by just imagining Christ sitting next to me. And I try to explain to him why I think this choice might be the best and what my reasons for it. And what this does is it puts us in a perspective of how does this decision line up with what Christ wants, with Christ’s values, Christ’s priorities? How does it look in the light of Christ when I name my reasons for making this choice? Are my reasons in line with what Christ’s values and priorities are? So hopefully that outline of that method will be helpful to you as you’re facing choices. And if so, give thanks to Ignatius and the lower of 500 and almost 30 years ago wrote down this message for us. Thanks for being a part of this series of teachings. As you know, a second part of this course on spiritual discernment will be coming up, 11 podcasts that Brother Curtis and I will be recording. We’ll compose the second half of this course on spiritual discernment.
Part 4: How can we discern our own vocation or calling in life?
Hello and welcome back to our series of teachings on spiritual discernment. This is the fourth in that series. And today we’ll be talking about how do we find God’s will or God’s purpose for our own lives.
I’d like to begin by talking about a specific challenge, and that is the phrase God’s will. Christians often use this and they will say things like, I’m looking for God’s will for my life, or I don’t wanna do what I wanna do, I wanna do what God wants me to do that. And the understanding there is that God has some predetermined purpose for me. And my job then is to find out what that purpose is and fulfill it. But I’m not sure that it works that way, and it doesn’t feel authentic to me to think that God has one path that God has chosen for us. And it’s our job to follow that path. And if we misread the signals in our life, we could end up doing something other than what God has determined for us. So I’d like to propose a different kind of understanding, but I’d like to explore that through a recent movie, or not so recent now, “Dead Poets Society”. And maybe you’ve seen that movie. Robin Williams plays John Keating, an English teacher at a private boarding school for boys. And he’s a creative and dynamic teacher, very inventive. And, and he touches these boys that he’s teaching and gets them enthused about the arts, about poetry and literature and theater. And one boy in his class, Neil, Neil is particularly motivated by these classes and he gathers the other boys in the class to begin the Dead Poets Society, which is a secret meeting that they hold, a secret gathering where they read poetry to one another. And he also lands a job in this school play. He gets the lead role. So Neil has come to life in a new way. He’s discovered poetry and beauty and art. And he’s discovered himself as an actor. And he dreams of fulfilling that dream of becoming an actor. The problem in the film is that his parents don’t approve of his plans and his father in particular dismisses his desire to be in a play. The father wants him to be serious about life and is hoping that he will go to school to become a doctor. And so the father has determined that the course that he should follow is the course toward a degree in medicine. And he insist that that Neil quit the play and not do drama. And he’s very suspicious of Mr. Keating and his influence on Neil. So there is a tension between Neil who wants something and has discovered something about himself and his father who wants something different. And the father imposes his will. He’s very rigid and hard, and he won’t listen or comply with Neil’s wishes. The end result is a tragic one where Neil commits suicide in the film. He doesn’t know how to work out this tension with his father. And so he ends his life. I think of that movie, because I think in Neil’s parents, we have an example of bad parenting. Parents who make a determination about their son or daughter and decide what path that child should follow. I don’t think that’s good parenting. It puts a lot of pressure on the relationship. And if the desire isn’t shared by the son or daughter, they either end up compromising and following the parent’s path, which often leads to conflict in their own soul or breaking free from the parents and following their own desires.
So a better image of parenting I think is a parent who has deep desires for the child, but is not making a determination about which path they should follow. For example, a good parent might desire that their child grow up and be healthy and join in society in a productive way. They might hope that their child realizes his or her gifts and abilities and find some way to express those gifts and live into them in their life. They might hope that their child finds love and finds someone to love and finds someone that loves him or her, and that perhaps they enter into a relationship and become a family themselves. They might hope that they find meaning in their work life and find something to do that is productive and helpful in society. So they might have all of these desires, but none of them is as tight as saying, I want you to be a doctor, or I want you to be a lawyer. I want you to go to this university. I want you to study this.
So there’s a kind of fluidity, a more openness about their desires. And it seems to me that that is also how God parents us, that God doesn’t sit at some control panel in the sky and determine that this person will be commissioned as it were and designated to fulfill this particular job or need in the world. I don’t think God makes that predetermined judgment and that it’s our duty to find out what it is and to follow it, whether we desire that or not for ourselves. I think rather God has these deep desires for us, God has created us, God has created each of us as a unique individual with interests and likes and skills and talents, and a certain temperament and a certain tendencies to want to live and work in a certain way. So we are unique creatures. And I think that God has a desire for us to discover ourselves and to live into the person that we’ve been created to be. And I don’t think there’s just one path that will fit that. I think there are probably multiple paths that each of us could have taken in life and still realized God’s purposes for us. So God is a parent that has, I would say, deep yearnings for us as his children. And this is different than having a predetermined will, which we must discover and follow. And I think that gives us some freedom to think God has equipped me with these gifts and talents and abilities, these likes and interests, these personality traits. How can I use those and live into them and claim them and find a way to express them in the world that allows me to become the person that God created me to be. So I would set aside that term God’s will, which sounds too determined to me, too set, too specified, set that aside for the God’s desire or God’s yearning and like a good parent God yearns for good things for me, but doesn’t prescribe one particular path. So if that is true, how are we going to companion with God, work with God, to discover our own life’s path?
And I would say that one of the key places we should look is at our deepest desires. Now, many of us as Christians have been taught to be suspicious of our desires to almost assume that if we desire, then it can’t be what God desires. And God’s desires for us are much more difficult or challenging than what we desire or they’re at least different. And so we’ve been taught not to really give a lot of thought or attention to what we want in life. And there is a way where we can be selfishly preoccupied with our own desires, but I think desires are also a key indicator of how we’ve been created and of the unique individual that we’re meant to be. And these deepest, most authentic desires of our hearts are like God’s thumbprint on us. They’re what makes us unique. And they’re part of how God has created us. And so I think desires are something to be attended to and that they are important indicators of what God’s call in our life might be about. So I sometimes suggest to people that they just take out a sheet of paper and write down whatever they desire. And you might find it helpful if you were to do this exercise to ask yourself some questions, like say, I’ve always wanted to what, or if I could do anything, I would try to do this. Or if I had the chance, I would try to learn about this, or I would try to explore this.
Use some of those leading phrases to trigger your thinking and write down everything, anything that comes to mind, even if it seems silly or inappropriate, just write it down anyway, it’s part of who you are. It’s come to mind. It reflects something about you, just put it on the list anyway, and compile a list of your desires. And then once you’ve had that list, to pause with it, to consider it and to say, what do these desires that I’ve specified that are part of me, what do they show me about what’s important to me, about what type of person I am, about what I might find fulfilling in life. What do they point me to, what indications are there of what God’s yearning for me might be as an individual with particular gifts.
So I think exploring our desires is important. And yet, as we know, we have different desires and not all of them might be authentic to what we are being called to be or what we desire to be. We also have conflicting desires in us, desires for power or desires for money or desires to possess a person or whatever it is. We have things that we’re drawn to that we know are not really consonant with God’s purposes for us. And so it’s a matter of sorting through those desires that we find in our heart and looking for those desires that are most authentic, that is most true to us, true to the person we want to be and true to the person that we believe God wants us to be. And to name those desires and to bring them into the light and see what they show us about what path we might take in life. Not all desires are equal. Some will be more important to us than others. And we might desire to learn a language or something, but it’s not as crucial to us as a desire to fulfill a particular type of work in the world. So they vary in importance. They vary in authenticity and we’ll have to do some discernment to see which ones are the most important to pay attention to. So if you’d like to pause the tape and spend some time on this exercise of naming our desires and looking at what they say to us, you can do that now.
We’ll go on then to talk about some obstacles that we face in discerning what God’s yearning for us might be, what God’s desire for us might be or what our deepest desires are. I’d like to name three obstacles. And the first obstacle is what I’m calling other voices. We are all bombarded with other voices every day from every angle. And just think of the power of the media in our lives, how much we are exposed to advertising in magazines, on television, on computers, there are ads popping up constantly. And the purpose of those ads is to get us to want something or to think that we need this thing, or to think that our lives would be better if only we had this thing. That’s what advertisers are doing. They’re trying to create a hunger, create a need that you will, that will force you to go out and buy their product. So that can be an obstacle because those ads are constantly showing us glimpses of idealized lives and saying, you’d like to look like these people wouldn’t you, you’d like to have fun like these people are having fun. And so to do that, you should buy our product. And we have to recognize that those subtle voices are coming at us all day long from the media, that is just a part of our lives. And we’ll have to see them as the enticement said they are and be very discreet about how we respond to them.
We’re also subject to other voices, were subject to the voices of our peers, our friends, people of our own generation who have ideas of what’s important in life, who have beliefs and constructs that they follow in their own lives that they would like to see us follow as well. They might think it’s important to make this particular choice or to follow this particular path in life or to find this particular kind of relationship. And they pressure us to do the same and to follow those same values. So we hear from our peers and they might not be valuing the same things that God values or that we, in our deepest, most authentic self value and dream of for ourselves. So we have to be careful about those voices and how they influence us and ask ourself, is this a voice that feels authentic to me? And is what it’s asking of me the right thing and does it feel authentic and right to me. We also have the voice of our parents, no matter how old we are, we have this voice in our head from our parents and we know what they would expect of us and what they would want for us. Or we at least project that and imagine what they would want for us. And so that’s an influence, a strong influence for some people, they don’t want to disappoint or hurt their parents. And so they might comply and conform their life to their parents’ wishes. So we have all of these different voices coming at us, plus our own internal voices, maybe the voice that says you should be doing this. You should be doing that. You should be more like her. You should be more like him. Those kinds of should messages come from a particular part of ourselves.
And we’ll have to be careful not to always listen to them very often. They’re forcing us in a way that isn’t the correct choice for us, but we feel like we should do it because other people are doing it, or because our idealized self thinks that that should be what our life is like. So to be cognizant of these different voices that are going on inside of us and around us, in our heads, and to evaluate what those voices are asking us to do, what they’re telling us is most important in life is the things that should be our goals and our priorities, and to weigh those things. Other voices can get in the way, we need to clear them out and be very clear about the voice that we’re listening for. A second form obstacles to finding our path in life is what I call attachments and specifically disordered or inordinate attachments, unhealthy attachments. And an unhealthy attachment is when we claim to some idea or some person or some thing and we come to believe that our lives will not be happy or meaningful without this thing. And so we must have it. And that’s a sign of a disordered attachment.
We see it, for example, in the rich run ruler that comes to Jesus and Jesus asks him what, how he’s already living. He wants to live for God and asked Jesus for advice and Jesus says, what are you doing now? And he says, I’m following the commandments. I’m living our religious faith. And the gospel writer says, Jesus looked at him with love. And he said, there’s one more thing. He said, if you want to really be free, sell everything that you have and come and follow me. And I think it’s because Jesus recognized in this man an attachment to wealth, he couldn’t let go of the wealth that he had and of the privileges that it gave him in society. The status it gave him among his friends, the voice that it gave him in society. The fact that he was wealthy, had a great influence on his life. And so when Jesus asked him to surrender that, he wasn’t able to do it and we read in the story that he went away sad. He was attached to wealth. He had to have that wealth and all the benefits that came from it in order to be happy, in order to have his life sustained. And he just couldn’t imagine life on a simpler scale. Or take the old Testament story of David and Bathsheba. David sees this beautiful woman on the roof of her house and he decides that he must have her, even though he knows and learns that she is someone else’s wife. And so he calculates her husband is away at war and he calculates a way to invite her to his palace and then seduces her and has sex with her and impregnates her. And now he realizes he has even more of a problem. And so he creates a strategy. Has her husband come back from the war for a few days of leave and he’s hoping that her husband will have intercourse with her and then when he discovers that she’s pregnant he’ll assume that the child is his. Well, this doesn’t happen because the soldier is a man of integrity and he won’t go lie with his wife while the other soldiers are out on the battlefield. And so he insists in staying apart from his wife during this short time of leave. So then David has to go even further. And he instructs his leaders, his military leaders to drop back and leave this husband exposed and so that he will be killed in battle. And this is what happens. And so David takes advantage of this and marries this beautiful woman.
Now and there through the whole story, David is consumed with his desire for this particular woman. He has other wives, there are other women that he can associate with, but he wants this one particular woman and he won’t stop until he gets her. And so that’s a sign of an unhealthy possession, a kind of an attachment in which we’re clinging to something with the belief that we have to have this thing in our life. So if you notice that there are things in your life that are extremely important to you, you might ask yourself, what would it be like to let this go? Or what would it be like not to strive after this and not to make this the most important thing, whether it’s wealth or whether it’s success or popularity, or a good reputation, whatever it is that we covet and we are willing to make sacrifices for, and sometimes even do things that lack integrity in order to achieve that thing that we desire so much. So ask yourself how free you are in relationship to your possessions and in relationship to people in your life, or are you clinging to them trying to make them the center of your life and insisting that without them, you can’t possibly be happy or fulfilled.
So disordered attachments are one of the obstacles that get in the way of our finding God’s true path for us. If I’m addicted to wealth, if I’m attached to wealth, I won’t consider a lesser paying job, a job that involves service, but doesn’t have a big salary because my attachment to wealth gets in the way. So those attachments can influence and ruin our choices, take away our freedom to hear God and to follow in what God is inviting us to be or to do. And then a third area that’s an obstacle is the place of fear and anxiety. Fear and anxiety, all of us know something of what that is, but many of us are actually consumed by it and find that fear and anxiety dominate our lives. And especially when it comes to choosing a path or making a commitment or stepping through a doorway into a specific way of life, especially when it comes to those kinds of commitments, we shy away and we’re afraid of making that kind of commitment. We’re afraid of the future. We can’t control the future and we’re afraid of how this might turn out. So for example, a young man making a choice for monastic life, it can be a difficult choice because it’s choosing a particular community and a particular way of living for the rest of your life.
And we find it very difficult, especially in these days to make that kind of commitment, unwavering commitment to a specific path, and to believe that God is calling us to that one path. The problem is of course, that when we have various options before us, by choosing one option, we close down other options that could be available. And so some of us are afraid to step into a specific option for fear of what we might lose. So those can be obstacles in our search for what is the best way for us. A third thing I’d like to talk about is how we might look at our own history to find signs of God’s call at work in us. I suggested in a previous video that God’s call is persistent. It comes to us again and again and again. And so maybe if we can look back on our lives, we can notice some particular thing that keeps reoccurring, some particular call that keeps being sounded within us and see this pattern. And that might help us to make a choice in our future. Esther Deval is the author of a book called “Seeking God The Way of St. Benedict”. And she writes, in order to discern, we need to learn how to read our own situations, our own histories, to see the turning points, the movements of change, the unfolding of God’s plan for us at each new step of the way. In order to discern, we need to learn how to read our own histories, to see the turning points, the movements of change, the unfolding of God’s plan for us at each new step of the way.
So I’d like to suggest three ways that you could look back on your own history and possibly find some signs, some evidence, some indications of what God’s purposes for you might be. The first way that I’d like to suggest is by dividing your life into segments. So you have the segment of your childhood and then your teenage years or adolescents, and then perhaps your college years, and then your twenties, and maybe you start dividing life up according to jobs that you’ve had, or according to places that you’ve lived, but you divide your life into segments that make sense to you. And then for each segment, ask yourself who was I at that point in my life. What was I like as a child? What things interested me? What was I good at? What was excited about? What did I love to learn about? What did I want to do? How did I spend my time? So we try to learn about ourselves in that stage of our life. And then we also ask, who was God for me in that stage of my life? How did I understand God? How did I relate to God? Did I pray? And if so, who did I think I was praying to? And who was God for me? And how was I shaping my prayers? And how did I experience that relationship? And then maybe in your teenage years, or your college years, or your twenties, you notice a change or a shift in that relationship. So ask yourself again, in that period of life, who was I, what was I doing? What was I interested in? What mattered the most to me and who was God for me there? What did I know about God? What did I believe about what God might want for me? So that’s the first way, dividing your life in segments and looking at each segment to see who you were and who God was for you.
A second way is to look back on your life at major decisions you’ve made. Some of you are probably young enough not to have made too many major decisions at this point in your life. Others of us who are a few decades along, might have several decisions that we’ve made that have been important life changing decisions for us, a change of job, or a change of location, or some kind of a discovery about ourselves that changed our lives. So look back on those and see if you can pinpoint the important junctures in your life where you made an important choice, and you could have gone one of two or more ways, but you chose this way. What was that choice about? What was driving it? What was inspiring it? Why did you make that particular choice? What was it about and what does that choice reveal about you? And what does it reveal about your image of God and your understanding of what God might want for you and for your life. So to evaluate each of those major decisions along the way, and scour them looking for meaning, for indications of who am I and how is God calling me to follow Christ in the world?
And then a third way that you might look back on your own faith history is to look at encounters with God. Where have you had significant religious experiences, moments of encounter or epiphany, moments when God was very present and real to you? Can you remember those? Or maybe a word that God spoke to you that was, that really hit you as being true and authentic and changed the way that you wanted to live. Look at those past experiences throughout your history of relationship with God, where has God touched your life? Where has God spoken to you in a way that redirected you and ask God, what does this show about what God wants for your life and what you want? What does it reveal? So I think basically a big part of discernment is simply reading the inner topography of our lives, the inner landscape, and saying, who am I, what are my gifts and talents? What are my likes and dislikes? What are the things that I’m best at? What are my skills and natural abilities? What are my preferences? What do I prefer to do? I prefer to be outdoors or indoors or working before a computer or engaged in some kind of a manual effort.
So ask yourself who you are, what you know about yourself and take stock of yourself. Read that inner landscape. To ask yourself also as part of that, what are my deepest desires? What are my secret hopes or dreams? What is the thing that I wish I could be if I could be anything? And what does that show me about what path I might choose in life. And then to also look back on our history and to say, what signs are there along the way that might point to a vocation, a purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God. In our next session, we’ll look at a specific method for making choices. So when we’re faced with an important choice and have a couple of options before us, how can we engage God in that process of discernment? And how can we pray through that choice and try to select the option that is most consonant with the people that we’re trying to become, and that God wants us to be. Thanks for joining us today.
Part 3: What can we learn from Jesus’ sense of his own vocation/calling?
Hello, and welcome to our series of teachings on spiritual discernment. As we said in the previous tapes, this course on spiritual discernment will be divided into two parts.
First of all, there’ll be a series of five teaching videos, exploring how we discern choices, important choices in our life, and particularly how we discern our own calling our vocation in life. And then the second part of the course, we will discuss how we discern spirits, how we detect and notice and respond to those interior movements in our heart, how we sort them out and recognize which ones are from God and leading us toward God and which ones are the suggestion of the evil one or the enemy, and are leading us away from God. So if we think of a little figure and an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, it’s that tension that we’re talking about, how do we recognize this voice either to accept it and embrace it or else to reject it.
So we are at the third video in this five-part series on spiritual discernment. In the first video, we talked about what spiritual discernment is, in the second video, we talked about the phrases that Christians often use to describe their calling in life, their sense of vocation. And we explored what we mean when we talk about a calling or a vocation. And today we’re going to shift our attention to Jesus. And we’re going to explore a little bit what Jesus’ vocation might have been like and how he might’ve come to discover it.
We began the last tape with a definition of vocation from Walter Brueggemann, a theologian and a scripture scholar. Brueggemann writes that, “A vocation is a purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God.” So we have a sense that we are doing this thing in the world, this form of service, this form of work, but that is part of God’s bigger plan and God’s bigger purposes, that we are cooperating with God and bringing in the kingdom by doing this particular work or taking on this role. So if that’s hard definition of vocation, we’d have to say it is very clear that Jesus had a very strong sense of vocation. He said, “I didn’t come into the world to do my own will. I came to do the will of the one who sent me.” He comes into the world, not with his own agenda, but simply to fulfill the desires and will of the one that he calls Father. He says, “I abide in the Father and the Father abides in me. And whatever you see me doing is what the Father is doing. And the words that I speak are not my words, they’re the words that the Father gives me.” Over and over again, we see this message in the gospels. Jesus withdrawing into silence and solitude to attune his ears and his heart to that voice of God so that he can know what is next and how to respond. Jesus goes so far as to say, “The Father and I are one, and apart from the Father, I can do nothing.” So he realizes his complete dependence on the Father and his purpose for being in the world, the words that he speaks, the actions that he does, the way he relates to people are all reflective of this relationship that he has with the Father.
So Jesus definitely had a purpose for being in the world that was related to the purposes of God. He saw his purpose for being on earth, very much a part of what God was doing. God’s overall plan of salvation. So we don’t have a very clear explanation anywhere in the scriptures of how Jesus understood his vocation or any detailed revelations around how he came to understand what it was that he was to be and to do. So I’d like to look at some passages that might give us some insight into that. We don’t have a clear answer, but I think there are some things that we can see. And I’m directing our attention today to some passages in Luke chapter three and four. And you remember in Luke’s gospel, Luke begins his gospel by telling the story of Jesus’ birth. And he introduces it by the angel coming to Zachariah and predicting that he and his wife, Elizabeth, will parent a boy named John who will be the forerunner and who will announce the coming of the kingdom and the coming of the Messiah. And then in chapter two of Luke’s gospel, we read the narrative about his parents, Joseph and Mary, traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where he is born and the extraordinary circumstances that surround his birth. And chapter three, we lean in, more of it we get an insight into Jesus as a boy. He is, he goes with his parents to Jerusalem for a religious festival and they lose track of him and find him eventually in the temple, talking with the scribes and the Pharisees, engaging them in theological discussions. And he says, “This is my place. This is where I belong. You shouldn’t have been surprised to find me here.” And then, and later in chapter three, we finally got to the point where his adult ministry begins.
And it’s interesting to note, and this is in Luke chapter three, verses 21 and 22. It’s interesting to note that the very first thing happens, that happens, the very first thing that he does, in terms of his adult ministry is to receive baptism at the hands of John the Baptist. He goes out into the wilderness to find John, where, the place where John is baptizing, and he offers himself to John to be baptized. And we read about it in Luke’s gospel. Luke says, “Now when all the people were baptized and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, like a dove and a voice came from heaven, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” We don’t know exactly what happened here. Some of the gospel accounts vary in their description of it, then details are different. Was there really a bird coming down from the sky that alighted on Jesus or did the sky actually open? And was this voice heard? Was it an internal voice that Jesus sensed in himself? Or was it an external auditory voice that he heard? Did other people who were present hear it? We don’t know. We’ll never know the details of how this actually unfolded. If there had been news cameras and microphones and film rolling, we might have a better idea of what other people saw and experienced here, but we don’t really know. But we do know, what we do know is that this event is crucial in the life of Jesus. It’s reported by every one of the gospel writers, and it has a significant place in his…
So whatever happened, however, Jesus experienced this moment, it was a powerful moment, a spiritual epiphany, a moment of awakening and of hearing God say to him, “You are my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” I think it’s unusual too that this is the very first story that we hear. We might expect this word from God, “I’m well pleased with you” to come at the end of his ministry and say, yes, you’ve done a very good job, but it’s not any kind of evaluation or report on how he has performed throughout his life. It’s rather a declaration from God that comes before he’s done a single thing. And it speaks to his heart, a very important message for Jesus to hear from the Father, these words, “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” And I think if that is true for Jesus, if this relationship of love that he was in with the Father, this relationship with intimacy of mutual abiding, of constant communication, if this is true of Jesus, it’s equally true of us. Our calling has to have as its foundation, these words, “You are my beloved child. You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter in whom I’m well pleased.” I suggest that just as Jesus needed to hear these words and internalize them, so we also need to receive this word as it’s spoken to us. And that this, and this foundation, knowing that we are beloved children of God, is the essential foundation for all our ministry and all of our efforts. They won’t amount to anything unless they are grounded in love. And I’m sometimes surprised when I talk to various people about their spiritual lives and how difficult it is for some of us to receive this message and to really believe it. We’ve all been taught from early on and that God loves us. We sing songs like, “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” We have this as our constant message. God is love. And God so loved the world that he sent his son into the world. So we’re clear on this message that God loves the world and that God loves us. And yet, if you explore below the surface, many of us haven’t taken that in really, or it hasn’t claimed our hearts or become a part of our identity.
One of the things I do is ask people, “Does God love you?” And, and invariably, they’ll say, “Yes, I believe God loves me.” And I then, “Does God like you?” Can you imagine a God who looks at you and has pleasure, takes pleasure in you? You are the apple of his eye. He’s pleased with you. Can you imagine that God who looks upon you with that kind of favor? Who actually loves you just as you are. He’s not waiting for you to get it all together or to become very holy or to do everything right before he loves you. He simply says to you, “I love you just as you are.” And I believe that in order for us to be the proclaimers, the conveyors, the conduits of that love to others in the world, we need to receive that message ourselves. And it means to move from our head to our hearts. It can’t be something that we just acknowledged to be true. We have to take it in to a very deep place within us and begin to revolutionize the way that we think about ourselves so that our primary identity becomes the fact that we are beloved children of God. And that’s an identity that can never be changed or taken away from us. No matter what happens to us in life. Other parts of our identity, you know, I’m a husband or I’m a businessman or I’m wealthy, or I’m popular, all of those things are external things. They don’t really define who we are and they can all be taken away. But what can’t be taken away is this fact that I am always and forever, unconditionally loved by God. Saint Paul says it best when he says, “There is nothing, nothing, nothing on earth or in heaven that can separate us from the love of God.” Paul knows himself to be up above a child of God. He says to the Philippians, “I once, I had it all in my previous life, I’ve had a good education, a top-notch education. I was from a fine family. I had status in the community. I was respected, I was looked up to, I was zealous for the faith. People admired me, they spoke about me.” And then a few verses later, he says, “And you know what? All of that I count as garbage. It’s just refuse. None of that matters to me anymore. What matters to me now is being found in Christ. What matters to me is that I belong to Christ.” And so he’s free from any kind of earning popularity or earning status from others. He’s free simply to be the person that God meant him to be. He’s not looking for approval or for, you know, a big salary or an important title. He simply wants to be found in Christ.
Now, Luke, after relaying that short description of Jesus’ baptism at the River Jordan from John the Baptist, then goes on to tell us in the next section at chapter four, beginning at the first verse, the very next thing that happens to Jesus, of course this experience of his baptism at Jordan is that he is driven into the wilderness. He’s led into the wilderness, he’s sent into the wilderness by God, in order to be tempted. And we’re familiar actually most of us with this story of the temptation, how the evil one comes to Jesus three different times and proposes something to him. The first proposal is knowing that Jesus was hungry and that he was fasting in the wilderness. The evil one comes to him, the tempter and says, “You know, you have the power to change this. And if you decide to, you can change these stones into loaves of bread.” And Jesus recognizes this as a temptation. A temptation to use the powers and the gifts that he’s been given in order to satisfy his own needs, in order to do get, or to do something that he wants. And he rejects it, says, “No, I’m not going to do that.” And then he’s led to a high place and shown all the kingdoms of the world, and the enemy says to Jesus, “All of this can be yours if you just bow down and worship me.” And Jesus recognizes this too as a temptation and rejects it. And then finally the enemy leads him to the pinnacle of the temple and said, “What would happen if you jumped off and the angels came to rescue you, as it says in the Psalms, you wouldn’t dash your foot on the stones that the angels would swoop in and save you.
Wouldn’t that be spectacular? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Wouldn’t that get people’s attention? Wouldn’t you be popular and wouldn’t your following increase? Wouldn’t you be successful?” And Jesus recognizes this too as a temptation. Now, to us, maybe reading this story, it may seem to be disconnected from our own experience. Very few of us are tempted to turn stones into loaves of bread or to jump off a high place and to see if angels will rescue us. So his temptations don’t make sense to us on the surface, but if we go deeper in them and ask, what were they about? What do they represent? Maybe we can get some insight into why Jesus chooses to reject them. Before we do that, we’ll have to, first of all, be able to understand that Jesus is human and that he was, as Hebrew says, he was tempted in every way as we are. And there may be some of us who are doubting that. Many of us have a kind of stained glass image of Jesus. We can’t imagine that he was quite like us. He was Jesus after all, and he was the son of God after all, and he had a divine nature after all, but we fail to recognize his human nature, to recognize that he actually was like us and experienced life as we do.
The book of Hebrew says, “He was tempted in every way as we are.” Those temptations were real. So there were something in this temptation to turn stones into bread that appealed to him. Maybe it was the temptation to use his gifts and his powers, the things that God had given him in a way that would satisfy his own ego or his own needs or his own desires to turn it back in on himself. And rather than using these gifts to serve others, to make them primarily active for his own benefit, maybe that was a temptation for him. And that’s a temptation that we can relate to, isn’t it? We may not be tempted by turning stones into bread, but we can relate to the temptation to use the gifts that we’ve been given, to use our influence with people, to use our position or our status or our power or our influence in ways that satisfy our own egos. That’s a temptation that we can relate to. Or Jesus standing on the hillside, and the enemy offering him all of this, says, “It can all be yours if you simply bow down and worship me.” Maybe Jesus was tempted by this. Maybe he was tempted by having it all or being very popular or being very successful. There were points in his ministry where, it looked like the crowds were dwindling, and even his disciples weren’t understanding him. And I wonder if in those times he might’ve wished he were more powerful, more influential, and maybe that he were royalty or had some high position that people would look up to him.
We don’t know what went on in Jesus’ mind, but to imagine how this could have resonated with him and reveal to him something that was a temptation for him or this temptation to jump off the temple towers and to see if angels would catch him. I think I like to call this a temptation to be spectacular, a temptation to be, to different and to stick out, if this were to happen, if he were to jump off and if the angels were indeed able to rescue him and he wasn’t hurt in the fall, he would have something spectacular to point to, and word would spread around him and people would come because they were curious. And so the temptation to be spectacular in a way that would lead to his own popularity and success may have been a temptation for him, as it is sometimes for us. We do something, and not because we are intent on doing good, but rather to be seen by others and to be praised by others and to be honored by others and to be recognized as holy or special or unselfish or whatever it is, but we’re serving our own needs rather than the needs of the one that we’re ministering to. So Jesus has these things that, to which he has to say no, which are incongruent with the purpose, for which he’s been caught, this vocation that he has, his purpose for being in the world, that is related to the purposes of God. He has to say no and no and no to these different ways of being in the world in order to realize his true vocation.
And that true vocation is revealed in the next story, we’ve pickup again, in Luke chapter four and beginning at verse 16, we read that after this time of temptation in the wilderness, Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth and he entered the synagogue and he was allowed to take the position of a teacher and to comment on the scriptures. And he’s given the role, the scroll of the book of Isaiah. And he turns to a specific passage in that book of Isaiah and quotes it for the people he says, he reads this from Isaiah. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then he rolled up the scroll and handed it back to the attendant, and he said to the people gathered, “This has been made true in your own hearing. And right now I am declaring that this is who I am, that this is why I’ve come. That this is my purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God, that this is my calling, this is my true vocation. Is that I’m called not to be popular, not to be successful in the way that the world measures success, and not to be tempted by my own needs and my ego, but I am called instead to be one who proclaims good news. One who sets people free from whatever binds them or limits them. I’m one who has come to help people recover their sight.” And not just people that are literally blind, but all of us who are blind in some ways, he’s come to help us to see the truth and the reality of the world in which we live in and of ourselves and of God. So here we see Jesus saying yes to a particular purpose. This is like his mission statement. This is his, a summary of his vocation. “I’ve been called to release captives and to help blind people to see again, and to proclaim good news to the poor.” Those are the reasons that I’ve come. That’s my purpose for being in the world that is related to purposes of God. And just like the other two things that we mentioned, if this was true for Jesus, this is also true for us. Just as we have to say no to certain ways of being and doing in the world, in order to fulfill God’s purpose for us, so we have to be able to say yes to that purpose, to identify that purpose and to claim it and to live into it and to say, “This is why I believe that I’m in the world. And this is my purpose for being in the world.
That is part of the purposes of God. I am meant to be this kind of a person, I’m meant to do this kind of work, I’m meant to help these kinds of people. This is why I’ve been given life. I sense this is my vocation in life. This is my true calling.” So just like Jesus, we need, first of all, to know ourselves to be loved. First John tells us, “We love because he first loved us.” So we need to receive that love first, before we can be channels of that love to others. It’s only when we know ourselves to be loved, that we can give away love. It’s only when we know ourselves to be forgiven, that we can freely forgive others. It’s only when we know that we haven’t been judged, that we can be, withhold our judgment of others. So we love as we’ve been loved. So that first of all, to know ourselves to be loved. And then second of all, to identify those things that are in congruent with the purposes for which God has called us, and then to identify those things that are integral to the purpose for which God has called us. To say no to these things, to say yes to this calling. So our next video, our fourth video in this series, we’ll look at that call. How do we find that call? How do we identify that purpose for which we have been given in life in the world? How do we identify what God’s purposes for us might be and how do we know what that is and respond to it and choose it. Thank you for joining us in this series, and we hope that you’ll continue to join us and think about these things.
Part 2: What do we mean when we speak of a ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’ in life?
Hello, and thank you for joining us for this second session, in our course on Spiritual Discernment. As I mentioned last time that the course will be divided into two parts. The first part will consist of five video sessions like this one, in which we’ll answer some questions about spiritual discernment and try to answer the question like, how do we perceive God’s voice? And particularly when we’re facing important decisions, how can we pray about those decisions and how do we expect to receive an answer from God? And particularly, we’re going to be talking about that in terms of finding our own vocation or calling in life. That’s the first part of the course, five videotaped teaching sessions.
The second part of the course, will be talking about the discernment of spirits. So how do we recognize the various stirrings within our heart, and how do we identify those stirrings that are from God and therefore that we want to accept, and those that are from the enemy and therefore that we want to reject, how do we distinguish between these various spirits at work within us? And if this sounds kind of mystical and impossible to you, to a topic that you can think for example of a person, and imagine a person with a little angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other, we’ve all seen images like that a very common way of portraying the human reality, the human condition of these voices within us, that don’t always agree and that some of these voices seem to be blackening us toward good and others of these voices are pulling us toward something that’s good, or that is evil. We’ll be exploring what St. Ignatius of Loyola has to say about discerning these spirits in our talks.
So today is the second of the five teaching videos. Last time we tried to answer the question, what is spiritual discernment? And we looked at the story of Samuel in 1 Samuel 3, as an example, and tried to draw some insights from that story. Today, I’d like to turn our focus to these words that we often use a vocation and calling, what are we talking about? Christians, speak about, I feel called to do this or that, or I feel called to be a certain thing. Sometimes we say my vocation, this is my vocation. My vocation, my calling in life is to do this kind of work or to perform this kind of service. What are we saying when we talk about vocation or calling? And how do we expect that calling to come to us? So, let’s begin with a definition of vocation. And this definition is my favorite definition of vocation. I refer to it again and again, it’s from Walter Brueggemann the old Testament scholar. And Brueggemann writes it, “A vocation is a purpose for being in the world “that is related to the purposes of God.” In other words, we have a sense that what we are doing is part of our purpose here in the world. And that that purpose somehow reflects the purposes of God we’re trying to live in congruence with God’s will. So, let’s consider that sort of calling.
I wonder if you have experienced that kind of calling in your life, is there something that you can say, this is my vocation, or is there even some moment that you can say, I felt called to do this certain thing? Maybe it was, I felt called to go to the hospital and visit this person, or I felt called to join the vestry or to volunteer as a Sunday school teacher or whatever it is, or I feel called to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a factory worker of some sort, where do you find that in your own life? And can you identify something that you would say is your calling or your vocation? If you’d like, you can pause this tape and do some reflecting on that. See if you can articulate what it is that you believe is your vocation in life, your true calling in life. So what can we say about the call of God?
And I’d like to identify a few characteristics of that call that might help us to recognize it when it comes to us. First, I’d like say that God calls each of us, a vocation is not simply a vocation to a religious life or to priesthood or ordained life or to some special calling that like missionary work or something. A lot of times we think of this vocation as something that has to do with a spiritual calling, but the calling can apply to any part of our lives. And so it’s much broader than just those particular vocations. God’s call comes to each one of us. Each one of us has been given gifts by God to exercise in the world in ways that are congruent with God’s purposes. So, you might be the one who is called to pay attention to the children in your church, or maybe you’re the one who feels called to look in on an elderly neighbor from time to time, or maybe you feel called to support a certain cause or to work for it. You have a sense that the purpose in taking on this particular work is related to God’s purposes in the world. So God’s called come see each of us, each of us, every Christian has a call and many of us have multiple calls in life, multiple roles that we take on or tests that we take on that we feel drawn to do a purpose for being in the world that’s related to the purposes of God.
Secondly, God can call us on many levels. We can have several, both locations simultaneously. I might be called to be in a marriage. I might be called to be a parent of a child. I might be called to be a school teacher. I might be called to be a mastery member for my parish church, and I could be called to all of those things. And more, I could be called to care about the environment and to actively work in my free time. Or preserving the environment or I could be called to work against gun violence in this country. So there are many things that can take the form of a call, and most of us will have calls at various different parts of our life. That we have a sense of vocation about a sense that God really wants us to do this thing in the world. The call of God, the third thing is the call of God can come to us in a variety of ways. Sometimes we realize our calling in life or our vocation in life gradually and over time.
I was a teacher before I came to the monastery. And as I looked back from my teaching career, my teaching vocation, I looked back and I could see, in my teenage years, I was babysitting. I was teaching Sunday school and I was working as a camp counselor. And I found myself feeling more and more comfortable in this role of working with children. And so I in college chose that path and then that became my vocation, a teacher. So we see signs of it over time, we develop a skill or develop an interest and have become more and more drawn to this particular vocational work. Or sometimes this call comes to us suddenly and almost unexpectedly think of Paul riding his horse to Damascus and being knocked off his horse by seeing a bright light. And he’s to called completely turn his life around. And he’d been doing this persecuting Christians and zealous for his faith. And now Jesus was calling him and directing him to be an ambassador of that same faith rather than a persecutor of it. So in that case, the conversion, the calling happened in a specific moment of time. And a few of us will experience that. I think most of us will experience it more as a gradual dawning over time. And understanding that grit comes more clear as time passes.
Fourth, God’s call is continuous and ongoing, and there’s no stage of our life where we no longer need to be listening for this call. I think some of us might’ve imagined in our early years, we would find a profession and career, and that would be our calling. But now we realize that in each decade, we’ve had to be attentive to what is God asking me at this point in my life, in this situation with these people, what is God wanting me to do, inviting me to do? So God’s call comes to us over time. It’s ongoing and it’s persistent. And even in our later years, we need to be attentive to what is God asking of me in this stage of my life, in this situation, which I find myself in? God’s call often comes to us through everyday events, very few of us receive a spectacular message like St. Paul received.
Most of the time we come to some sense of vocation through very ordinary means. A conversation with someone or reading about something, or being exposed to a particular type of work or ministry. And we said, that interests me, and I’m gonna read more about it. And I’m gonna try to get some experience in that area to see if it fits me. I’m gonna ask others what they think about this path or this vocation for me. So, it can come through a very ordinary unspectacular ways. God can communicate to us through scripture or through the words of a friend, or through a book or something that we’ve read online. The other thing is that God’s call can come to two different people in very different ways. So for example, imagine that two women have received God’s call a invitation to work at a homeless shelter, for example, and they both seem drawn to this and seem interested in this, but as they pray about it, as they discern about it, one of them perceives that it’s not the right time for her, that she needs now really to be more with her family and focus more on her children who are at a crucial stage perhaps. The other person may find that this is exactly the right time, and this is the exact right vocation. And she may step into it and find it. So we have to, even when we recognize a call within us, we have to discern how we enter into that call and how we respond to it.
And so it’s always a matter of further discernment. Another thing we can say about the call of God is that the call of God is always of benefit to others. It’s always leads us to service of others. Every calling, every vocation, is directed to the welfare of others as well as ourselves. So, God’s call always stretches us beyond ourselves. It always involves service or benefit to others. There’s no calling from God that doesn’t benefit other people. Any matter, large or small can relate to our call. So, the call could concern a job. It could be about a relationship. It could be about a particular action or quality of being. I feel called to be someone who brings hope into hopeless situations, or brings love where there is hatred and strife or unifies when there is division, I can be called to serve in a field in business or in medicine, or in healthcare, or in education. Those can be callings for me. So the call can take on many different forms. Here’s one to remember that we very often have difficulty with, and that is we are not called to do everything. And for some of us we’ll have to learn how to say no sometimes to invitations, there might be some form of ministry or service that we are drawn to, and that we would like to volunteer for, but still discernment is needed. Are we being asked to put ourselves forward for this opening? Or might there be someone else who is shy or less experienced, who would benefit from some encouragement to step into this role rather than me?
So always discernment is necessary. We’re not called to do everything. And we have to learn where to put our boundaries, where to define our limits. We’re not called to do everything. We have some specific things that we’re called to do, but not every opening means that we are called to fill it. I think also every call is a call to obey God, this is a call comes to us as an invitation from God. And God invites us to respond, to respond in obedience, to God’s beckoning in God’s revelation, of this purpose for us. So, I think many of us misunderstand this. We have a notion somehow that God has maybe even before we were born, picked out a particular path for us and we’re to marry this person and we’re to do this kind of work and we’re to live in this area. And this is what our life path is to be about. And that our job that is to somehow discern, find out what this is God’s will for us. We say, what is God’s will for me?
What does God want me to do as if there was one path that God had predetermined was the right path. And that if we weren’t careful, we would miss it. I don’t think it’s like that. I don’t think God is sitting at some control panel in the sky and deploying people to different places of need. I think rather God gives us tools and gives us a personality, gives us a temperament, gives us gifts and strong interests that are part of who we are. Of part of who’ve gone has made us to be. And God says to us, let’s work together and take these gifts and build them into something that is a benefit and service to others. Let’s do something wonderful with them, but there’s a great deal of flexibility I think in that, I think many of us, could have been married or could be single. Many of us could have chosen this path or this path, and then equally happy and equally fulfilled. I don’t think there’s simply one path that we have to find. And if we fail to find it, somehow we failed at life. God says, all of this is given to you, use it for God’s glory and to find some meaningful purpose for yourself in life. And then the final thing about God’s call is that God’s call always comes with a promise.
God never calls us to some form of work or ministry without also promising to empower us in that place. And so if we look at the figures in the scriptures, for example, Moses called to appear before Pharaoh and he’s intimidated. He’s unsure that he is up to the task and God says, don’t worry, I’m going to give you the words. I’m gonna tell you what to do, I’m going with you. I am the one who’s rescuing my people out of Egypt, who doesn’t depend on you, I’m the one doing the work. So all I need really is your cooperation. Or Mary says, “How can this be? “How can I be the mother of the savior of the world?” And the spirit responds to her and say, “The spirit will come upon you. “And you will bring forth this child.” So, it’s God that is sending a savior into the world. And your job is simply to cooperate with God’s purposes here. It’s not that you have to do it all yourself. So God promises to come alongside us promises to give us the word, to give us the wisdom, to give us the insight in order to fulfill the calling that we’ve been given. God’s call always comes with God’s promise.
Now, we might experience that call coming to us in a couple of different ways. As I mentioned before, sometimes we experience this as something that just grows within us, like an internal call. We feel drawn to some particular vocation or work or service, and that call gets stronger and more insistent as we go on. It’s a thing that gradually develops over time until we gain the clarity that this is a call that I wanted to embrace and follow. And then it can also come to us externally. I gave the example earlier of St. Paul, where this call was like breaking into his experience, completely reorienting his life and sending him off in a different direction. So sometimes something can happen to us or someone speaks a word to us, or we awakened to something that completely changes our life and shifts our values and points us in a new direction. So this call can be something that grows up interiorly and become stronger and stronger or something that breaks into our experiences as were from outside and redirects and reorients us. So, when we receive this call or when this call is becoming clear to us, it often makes sense to seek confirmation to test the call. And St. Paul writes to Timothy “Test the spirits to see whether they are of God.” So if we feel drawn to something, we test that, we say, does this seem like the right thing? Does this take advantage of my gifts and my strengths and my interests? Does it fit my temperament? Is it the type of job that will be meaningful for me and will be rewarding? Is it something that I can be good at?
We look for signs of confirmation. Sometimes those signs are interior signs that we recognize in ourselves. This would be a good match for me, this type of work or this type of service. At other times, the confirmation comes through circumstances. We talk about doors opening, or doors closing one opportunity closes down it doesn’t seem that we’re able to progress along that path, but then this new opportunity opens up over here and we’re not. So sometimes it’s shifting circumstances that reveal to us the path that God wants us to take. We seek confirmation from other people as well. It’s wise to ask those who know us best. What do you think of this call? Can you see me in this role? Do you think I’d be good at this? And sometimes they can give us valuable insight and they can see things that we can’t perceive about ourselves. So seeking the counsel of others and seeking affirmation from others who know us and who care about us, and who would be interested in our choices is a valuable thing to do. It doesn’t mean that we always have to follow the advice or accept the insights of another person. I know that many of us who came to monastic life experienced that our families and some of our friends had difficulty understanding why we would choose this path and may have even actively discouraged us from it. But we felt in our hearts, we were still called along that way.
So, we’re not just looking for people to say yes, yes, yes, that’s right. Sometimes we make it pushback. And we have to decide whether to receive that and to say that is a correct message and I’m gonna turn away from this path, or whether just say no, in spite of others misunderstanding or not being able to recognize this calling in me. I still feel certain of this calling and I’m gonna set out on this path and test it. So, we listen to others and we ask for their insights and their reflections, but then we put that in the mix with all the other things that we need to discern a choice. And if we listen for the voice of God, in those circumstances and people and situations, God promises to lead us, God promises to empower us, God promises to be with us. As we look for our vocation in life, our own purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God. In our next video, the third video of this series, we’ll be looking at Jesus and what the gospels can show us about his own sense of vocation. How did he perceive his purpose for being in the world that was related to the purposes of the father? How did he come to know the path that he should take? We hope that you’ll join us for that date.
Part 1: What is Spiritual Discernment?
Hello, and welcome to this short course in discernment in prayer. We’re going to divide this course into two sections. The first part will consist of five video teachings on spiritual discernment. How do we hear God’s voice? And how do we bring God into the realm of our decision-making? How do we pray about choices that are facing us? And what are we looking for? What are we listening for? How do we expect God to come alongside us in those decisions? And we’ll look, especially, at the idea of vocation or our calling in life. How do we discern what we’re meant to do or to be in life?
So that would be the first section, five videotapes covering those topics. We’ll ask, first of all, what is spiritual discernment? Then we’ll ask, what does it mean when we speak about the call of God or about our sense of vocation? In the third video, we’ll look at Jesus and his sense of vocation. And in the fourth tape, we will try to play around with the question of how do we discern our own vocation? And in the fifth and final video in this first part of the course, we’ll be asking the question, is there a proven method, is there a reliable method that we could take up in order to make an important choice in life and pray our way through that choice? So that’s the first part of the course on spiritual discernment.
In the second part of the course, we’ll focus more on discernment of spirits. So discernment of spirits is a process by which we seek to distinguish between different kinds of spiritual stirrings in our heart and identifying those that are of God and those that are not. And the stirrings that are of God, we want to respond to positively and accept them. And the stirrings that are not from God, we want to be able to identify and reject. So, in that second part, the 11 podcasts, Curtis and I will be talking about those principles and how they work out in our daily lives.
So today we’ll begin by just asking the question, what is spiritual discernment? What are we talking about here? And I’d like to begin with a story. I once had a deaf friend, he had been profoundly deaf from birth, and so he had no acquaintance at all with sound, but he had obviously observed hearing people converse with one another, and he knew that when they were moving their jaws and their lips, something was happening, and they were understanding one another. And furthermore, he could see that they didn’t even have to be looking at one another in order to be able to communicate. And the person could be out in the hallway or in another room entirely or outdoors and they could still communicate. So this was something that he had never experienced. And he came to me at one point and asked, “Do you hear God? Does God speak to you?” He wondered if hearing people had the ability to receive communications from God in the same way that they receive communications from one another. I assured him that it wasn’t quite that easy.
But I appreciated his question because I grew up too learning of stories from the Bible in which God spoke to various people, God spoke to Moses, or God spoke to Noah, or God spoke to Jonah. And the message was always very clear. They were certain about what God was asking about them, even if they were reluctant or puzzled or overwhelmed by the words of God. So I grew up reading these kinds of stories of God speaking so clearly, so plainly, so understandably to these biblical figures, and wondered if God would ever speak to me that way or if I would ever experience anything like that.
So how do we hear God’s voice? How do we recognize when God is speaking to us? When we can’t hear the words or judge the intonation of the words, we can’t hear from God in the way that we can hear from other people. And so, how do we recognize the voice of God? I think there isn’t a clear section of scripture that will give us clear instructions on how to recognize the voice of God. But I think there are clues embedded in scripture. And I’d like to begin this series by looking at 1 Samuel chapter three, the story of Samuel’s call from God. In the story, Samuel is a young boy living in the temple and serving Eli, the high priest. And as he’s sleeping one night, a voice calls to him, calling his name, Samuel, Samuel. And Samuel jumps up and he runs to Eli and says, “Here I am, what is it that you want?” Eli says, “I didn’t call you, go back and lie down.” And this happens three times where Samuel is called, he gets up, runs to Eli, and Eli says, “I didn’t call you, return back and lie down again.” The third time, though, Eli senses that something is going on, and he recognizes that God is calling Samuel on that. And now, here’s one instance in the scripture, and there are several of them in scripture, where it seems to be an audible voice. That Samuel was responding to a voice calling his name in the middle of the night.
So that may be outside the experience of most of us, but it seems that it’s possible. So what do we notice in this story? First of all, I think we notice Samuel’s openness, his readiness, his eagerness to hear this voice. He pops up immediately when he hears his name being called and runs to Eli. And even though he doesn’t recognize at first that it’s the voice of the Lord calling him, still he’s very responsive, very open and very willing and eager to hear. So the first requirement for those who would hear the voice of God is to be really listening for it, to be watching for it, to be attentive for it. It puts us in a posture of receptivity. How will God speak to us? How will God direct us? And can I be watching and listening and waiting for God’s voice to come into my experience? So I think Samuel is a good example for us in that. Now, of course, that assumes that we believe that God can actually communicate with us. If we doubt that, if we’re skeptical about that, we’re gonna have difficulty recognizing that voice when it comes to us. We’ll doubt whatever message comes to us and say, “Maybe I just imagined that.”
So they have to have some faith and trust in God’s promises that God will lead us, and that God will direct us, and that God will speak to us. And there are numerous places in the scriptures where we receive that assurance. So, what’s involved? Well, one of the first things that’s involved in listening this voice is to find stillness. It’s important for us to be interiorly quiet and still so that we can hear that inner voice that comes to us so softly, so almost imperceptibly. It helps us to be still. We see this throughout the scriptures and the Psalms, for example, the psalmist says in Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” And then in Psalm 62:1, the psalmist writes, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, from him comes my salvation.” There’s that posture of listening. “My soul waits in silence.” It’s from God that my salvation is going to come, from God my help is going to come, from God the direction and guidance is going to come. And my job is to make my stuff still and receptive and open. Psalm 37:7. “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”
We see this so powerfully in the example of Jesus himself, how he was constantly listening for the word of the father to him, receiving as it were his directions day by day through this intimate connection that he enjoyed with the one that he called father. We see Jesus throughout his ministry regularly withdrawing to deserted places, to mountains, and in a boat to the sea or into the wilderness, where he can be alone, where he can be still, where he can attune his heart to listen to God’s word to him. We see Jesus going into the wilderness, struggling with temptation there and learning to recognize the voice of the enemy and the enticing words of the enemy and being able to repel those words. We see him using times of silence and solitude to discern where next to go in ministry. He withdraws and prays through the night before he selects his apostles. And he prays alone, discerning, “Who did the crowds say that I am?” It’s almost as if he’s trying to understand his own identity and his purpose for being in the world.
We see Jesus also using silence and solitude as a means of rest. And he withdraws after intense ministry, periods of intense ministry, in order to recover himself and to recenter himself, and to reclaim his mission and purpose in life. Each of the gospels testifies to this, in Matthew 14:13. “Now, when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.” In mark 6:45-46, we read, “Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side to Bethsaida while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.” Luke 5:15-16. “But now, more than ever, the word about Jesus is spread abroad. Many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases, but he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” John 6:15. “When Jesus realized that the crowd was about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew to a mountain by himself.” So each of the gospels testifies to this practice of Jesus of withdrawing into silence and solitude. It’s almost as if he has to be in a quiet place in order to still his soul and to open his heart to receive God’s instructions. And he invites his followers to do the same. He says in Matthew 6, “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door, and pray to your father, who is in secret. And your father, who sees in secret, will reward you.”
So the place of prayer is to be a solitary place, a quiet place where we’re alone. “Go into your room and shut the door,” says Jesus, “and there, commune with God.” And he also invites his followers to use silence and solitude as a means for restoring themselves after intense periods of ministry. For example, in Mark 6:31-32, Jesus said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves, and rest a while. For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.” And again, in Matthew 11:28-30. “Come to me,” says Jesus, “all of you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon me on you and learn of me, for I am gentle and humble in the heart, and you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
So just as it was for Jesus, so it’s also important for us to find places and times where we can give our full attention to God, where we can sit and allow our hearts to be stilled, where we can turn our hears and our eyes toward God and open ourselves to how God might want to speak to us in that moment. Monastics throughout history have spoken about the importance of silence and solitude. Here are some words from Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “Souls of prayer are souls of great silence. If we are careful of silence, it will be easy to pray and to pray fervently. There is so much talk, so much repetition, so much caring of tales in words and in writing, our life suffers so much because our hearts are not silent. Silence gives us a new outlook on everything. We need to be silent in order to touch souls. The essential thing is not what we say, but what God says to us and through us.
Jesus is always waiting for us in silence. In that silence, he will listen to us. There, he will speak to our soul, and there, we will hear his voice.” Jesus presents himself as the good shepherd, the one who knows his sheep. And he says, my sheep know me, they hear my voice and they follow me. Unlike the hired hand, who has no investment in the sheep, who runs away at the first sign of danger. The sheep don’t respond to his voice, but they do respond to the voice of the one that they’ve come to know and trust. And Jesus is offering us that same possibility, that he wants to be our good shepherd and to lead us in the way. And he wants us to learn to recognize his voice. So the first thing about prayer is this openness to the voice, this attentiveness, this awareness. And stillness and silence and solitude are so important for discerning that voice. It’s like if we scooped up a jar full of pond water and shook it a little bit, it would be cloudy and murky. But if we set it on a table for a while and come back an hour later, we’ll see that the silt has settled to the bottom and we can see clearly through the water. So these times of silence and solitude, where we come apart and still ourselves, are very important for us to gain that kind of clarity that we need in order to perceive what God is asking of us.
Here’s a second thing in the story of Samuel. And that is that the voice of God is a persistent voice. So it’s a voice that comes to us, not just once, unless we miss it or fail to perceive it, but comes to us again and again and again until finally it takes hold of us and we understand its fullness and can lean into it. So often when we arrive at a place of clarity in our life where we can look back and say, this is really what God has called me to be and to do, I’ve found this sense of vocation in this work or in this place. And we look back over our life and we see how that call was coming to us repeatedly in our history. And we had opportunities to experience and to waken to little bits of that call until finally we get to live in the fullness of it. So God’s voice is a persistent voice. God doesn’t just come to us once, but he comes to us again and again, persistently. Samuel’s story, he comes three times, repeatedly coming. So that word is gently but persistently repeated over and over again, until we find they wake up to its full meaning and impact. A third thing that we can notice in Samuel’s story is that sometimes it’s helpful to have a more experienced guide listening aside of us.
The story of Samuel mentions that the word of the Lord was not frequently heard at that time. And so even Eli seems a little rusty and it takes him three times before he finally understands what’s happening and can instruct and tell Samuel how to recognize this voice and how to respond to it and what he should say. And he sends him back to lie down and says, “When you hear this voice, say, speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. And then be careful to listen to every word and take the message in.” And so Samuel goes back and lies down again. And again, the voice of God comes to him. He wakes hearing his name called, and he says, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And he receives a message. I wonder how Samuel felt about the message that he received, because the message he received from God was basically a condemnation of Eli and his whole household. Eli had not been faithful and had raised two sons who were disrupting the temple and were not good influences. And God was speaking judgment through Samuel. And so sometimes we receive a word that seems difficult to us or that seems harsh. Remember that that word has always spoken in love. Even if it’s a word of admonition or of rebuke, even.
So we open ourselves to this message and we prepare ourselves to hear whatever God wants to communicate to us. There’s always, even in the most difficult word, a sense of rightness about it. And we see that in this story too, because Eli accepts the message. He says to Samuel, “Tell me everything that God said to you, don’t hold anything back.” And Samuel gives him this message of doom for his house. And Eli says, “Let it be according to God’s word.” He accepts this judgment. He knows that it’s right and that’s true. And the same thing will be true for us as we listen to God. We’ll have a sense of rightness about it, a sense of, yes, this is true, this resonates with what I know about God and what I know about myself. That’ll be the ring of truth to the words that God gives us. So we prepare ourselves for this message. When Samuel was called, he was still a boy, and God was calling him to be a prophet, and specifically, calling him to deliver this difficult message to Eli, the high priest.
God often calls us beyond ourselves, beyond what we think we’re capable of. And God calls us to greater things. God’s voice is usually the invitation to something that’s expansive for us, something that’s beyond what we are now or who we are now or what we think we’re capable of now. We see this again and again in scripture. God appears to Moses in the wilderness. Moses is a simple shepherd, and he says, “Moses, I want you to go into Egypt and speak to Pharaoh so that he will release my people from their slavery there.” And the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah, and says, “I want you to be a prophet to the nations.” And the word comes to Mary, and says to this simple peasant girl, “You are about to give birth to the savior of the world.” So God’s call calls us beyond ourselves, beyond our own limited view of ourselves, maybe our limited view of the world, maybe our limited view of what God can do. God’s voice is always leading us to something greater, to something that will expand and stretch and challenge us. I don’t think Moses or Jeremiah or even Mary were particularly reassured by that call. It seemed daunting to them. Moses says, “I can’t speak, I’m a stutterer. I need Aaron to go along with me.” Jeremiah says, “I’m just a boy. How can I speak to the nations?” And Mary says, “How can this be?” She’s simply a young girl in a small village in Galilee. But God has God’s way of drawing us on and of challenging us.
So God’s word to us is often a daring word, an expansive word. Often it’s a surprising word. It surprises us and leads us beyond where we could imagine ourselves to be. Now, the other thing that’s clear in this story is that sometimes it takes a while to learn to recognize the voice of God. So we should be patient with ourselves and say, this is something that I will get better at with time. And we’ll come to know that voice and come to recognize it in various contexts and situations, but it takes time. I think of it as, for example, when a music teacher is teaching young children about the instruments in the orchestra, and she might take a flute and play the flute for them and say, “This is what the flute sounds like, and this is the melody that the flute plays in this piece.” And then, after they’ve learned to recognize that voice, she asks them to listen to it as she puts on the whole recording of the orchestra and all these instruments join in. And they wait and listen, and when they hear the sound of the flute, they recognize it. And I think it’s something similar for us. We go away in places of silence and solitude in order to receive the training that we need to recognize that voice. And then, when we step out into the world again, and we’re surrounded by all the voices of our culture, the voices of our friends, the voices of our peers, the voices of advertising, the voices of the culture, whereas we’re bombarded by all of these voices, we can still hear that one voice amidst all of the other noise. Really come to know that voice and to anticipate it and to love it, and to be eager to follow where it shows us to go.
So discernment, spiritual discernment, is this coming to recognize the voice of God and silence, stillness are important. Attentiveness, willingness to listen, eagerness to hear and to do what God says. Sometimes we need an experienced guide, like Samuel needed Eli, to come alongside us and to listen with us, to help train us to recognize the voice of God. So a spiritual director or a pastor or a spiritual friend can be very useful to us. And remember that God’s voice is always calling us on, and calling us to greater things, and calling us beyond our limited vision in our limited imagination. Jesus says, “Even greater things will you do than the ones that you see me doing.” God’s voice is always an expansive voice. And it takes time for us to learn, to heed, to recognize, to discern and to follow that voice. In our next video, the second video in this series, we’ll be talking specifically about what we mean when we use terms like vocation or a calling in life, to say, I feel called to do this or that, or I feel like I have a vocation to this in this line of work or in this type of service. So we’ll explore that in our next video, and I hope that you’ll join us then.
Discernment in Prayer: Hearing God's Voice – Br. David Vryhof
Hearing God’s Voice
If God speaks, why don’t I hear anything?
In the Bible we read that God spoke to people like Abraham, Noah, Moses and the prophets. Sometimes they even carried on conversations with God, conversations we can read in the Bible. God also spoke directly to Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Paul. Reading these conversations, have you ever wondered: Why doesn’t God speak to us today as clearly as God spoke to people in biblical times?
There are times when God speaks to an individual in a dramatic or unusual way. But most of the time, we receive God’s guidance in the deep places of our hearts rather than through a voice that audibly speaks to us. In fact, I suspect that much of the time this is what was happening with the people in the Bible as well. I suspect that Noah and Moses and Mary were no different than we are, even if they seem in the scriptures to have heard God’s voice more directly or clearly than we do. I suspect that they heard God much as we hear God, in the quiet movements of their hearts. The scriptures make explicit and dramatic in these stories the way that, most of the time, the quiet voice of God speaks within us.
It takes time and practice to learn to recognize the voice of God guiding us, challenging us, encouraging us, and loving us. Hearing the voice of God is like knowing a person really well, so that you can anticipate what he is thinking or how she is likely to respond. As we come to know God intimately, we will also come to recognize and respond to God’s voice.
The greatest problem we face in hearing God’s voice is taking the time to listen carefully for it. When we are constantly running about and filling our days with busyness, we are less likely to perceive the voice of God. This is why silence and solitude are important spiritual practices. They create the space in which we can ‘tune in’ to that voice. God’s voice is best heard in silence. Why not take some time to listen for it today?
If you’d like to learn more about discernment, vocation, and listening for the voice of God, register for the Saturday workshop at the Monastery . . . .
Workshop: Saturday, November 13, 2010
Join Br. David, for a day long workshop on Discernment in Prayer. The purpose of workshop is to explore the role of prayer in making life choices, great and small, and these choices make up the pattern of our lives.
The workshop will include teaching and group discussion, as well as some time for individual reflection.
Click here to register
Discernment in Prayer: Trusting Vocation – Br. David Vryhof
How do I know if I’m discerning God’s will or my own desires?
We often imagine that there is some vast divide between our desires and God’s desires. The phrase “God’s will” sounds heavy and onerous, as if God’s will must certainly be terrible and burdensome to fulfill. When we think about responding to God’s will for us, we certainly do not expect to fulfill our own desires in the process.
But in fact our deepest and most authentic desires are God-given. They reflect the unique gifts, talents and interests that God imprinted in us at our creation. Our best desires are given to us by God, so it’s important to pay attention to them. Now, having said that, it’s also true that not all of our desires are good – or good for us. Some desires are selfish and even destructive. Some of our desires are not reliable indicators of God’s will for us.
Here are some things to consider as you try to determine if a desire comes from God or from your own selfish motives. Ask yourself:
· Will this choice I am making be of service or benefit to others?
· Is this choice reflective of my true self, the person I know myself to be or the person that I want to become?
· Will this choice I’m about to make bring glory to God?
· What are my motives in choosing this option over others?
· What other ‘voices’ are weighing in as I consider this choice (e.g. the voices of my parents? my friends? popular culture?)? ”
These kinds of questions help clarify our motives and help us to imagine what effect a choice might have on us and on others. You can probably think of some questions you would find helpful to ask yourself, perhaps even some questions you would find it hard to ask yourself. Ask yourself those questions and meditate on the answers. This is what discernment is all about.
Discernment is the process of sifting through our desires to discover which ones reflect our deepest and most authentic self. Our deepest and most authentic desires reflect who we are and who God wants us to be (or to become). When we locate our true desires, then we find ourselves coming alive! As Irenaeus said (in the 3rd century), “The glory of God is a human being fully alive!”
Next week we’ll talk more about how to hear the voice of God that speaks within us.
Workshop: Saturday, November 13, 2010
Join Br. David, for a day long workshop on Discernment in Prayer. The purpose of workshop is to explore the role of prayer in making life choices, great and small, and these choices make up the pattern of our lives.
The workshop will include teaching and group discussion, as well as some time for individual reflection.
Click here to register
Discernment in Prayer: Discovering Vocation – Br. David Vryhof
How do I find mine?
Discovering, or “discerning” your vocation is a process. You won’t finish it today. The good news is that you already have everything you need to begin, because the best place to begin is with yourself:
· What do you already know about yourself?
· What are your interests?
· Is there something you’re particularly good at, or that you especially enjoy doing?
· What kind of personality or temperament do you have?
· What are you passionate about?
· What has your past experience taught you— through success or failure?
· What particular gifts do others recognize in you?
· What activities have you been affirmed in by others?
· What activities have made you feel most fulfilled?
Answering these questions helps us scout out our inner typography, to know who and what we are. Discerning vocation is a process of self-discovery. As you go deep into your past and present desires, you’ll begin to get a portrait of yourself, which is the first step toward discovering your vocation.
Take some time to think deeply on these questions. Start gathering data. Examine your past choices, and consider what they reveal about you. Ask your parents and friends what they see in you. You might journal about the answers you discover, to give focus to your thoughts. As you do this, ask God to teach and direct you.
God wants to be part of this process, because God wants us to become the people we were created to be. It’s not that God has a pre-determined, set plan in mind that we must discover and accept, whether we like it or not. It’s more that God has a deep yearning for our well-being that arises out of God’s great love for us. In this, God is like a good parent. Good parents don’t dictate the particular path their children must follow; rather, they hope that their children will find work that is meaningful and worthwhile, that they will use their gifts for the cause of good, and that they will experience happiness and fulfillment – no matter what particular path they choose. So too, God’s chief concern is not whether we live in Poughkeepsie or Des Moines, whether we practice law or run a business, or whether we marry or remain single. God’s chief concern is that we discover life – the life we were created to live – and that we live that life as fully and as completely as we can.
Take some time to reflect on the questions above. Next week, we’ll talk about how to know if, in our answers, we’re responding to God’s yearning or ours.
Discernment in Prayer: Vocation – Br. David Vryhof
What is it and do I have one?
Another word for vocation is calling, and every person has one. Each of us has a purpose for being in the world that relates to the purposes of God. We often think of vocation too narrowly, imagining that only those called to ordained ministry in the Church have a vocation from God. In truth, everyone has a vocation, some particular work that God is calling them to do. A vocation could be any work or service we do that furthers God’s work of helping, healing, reconciling and restoring the created order.
Not only does every person have a calling from God, in fact, most of us have several callings! For example, one person may be called to be a teacher and a parent and a member of a political party and a member of a parish church who visits the sick and advocates for the homeless. And this person may experience in each of these things a sense of vocation. Your particular vocation can be carried out only by you. It is unique to you; no one else can do it quite the way that you can. Thus your vocation will always be rooted in who you are; it will reflect your gifts, your temperament, your personality, your interests. Resist the temptation to compare yourself with others and find a vocation that fits you. Better yet, discover the vocation that is already calling out from within you.
Next week we’ll talk more specifically about how you discern the vocation God is calling you to.