Tag Archives: Discernment

Sell Everything

I began my discernment journey 11 years ago with these two words that kept coming up in prayer, but I wasn’t sure what it really meant.

Months later, I attended a Vocation Discernment Retreat, hoping for God to give me an affirmation that I wasn’t called to the priesthood, so that I could get a confirmation on marrying the girl of my dreams then. But God instead revealed a path that immediately gripped my heart with excitement and joy, even amidst the pain of knowing I would have to leave the one I love with all my heart. I then realized: God was asking me to sell my dreams of marriage, for a higher calling to the priesthood.

Many years later while in my 6th year of seminary formation, I went through a vocation crisis. I was experiencing desolation in prayer, unworthiness in sin, and even an attraction towards someone. I thought God changed His mind, and I was close to calling it quits. That’s when I learnt that just as love is more than a feeling, but a choice, so too is my vocation dependent not just on my feelings, but on a choice to remain faithful regardless of how I was feeling. At this stage, I was asked to sell my need for spiritual consolations.

Recently, after having completed my seminary formation and waiting for my ordination, I went through another round of crisis, feeling frustrated and disappointed with things that seemed to obstruct what I wanted to do in my eventual priesthood. It wasn’t till someone challenged me if I had fully given up my life to Christ that I realize I had placed so much emphasis on my priesthood as the pearl of great price, that I hadn’t really fully given my life to Him who ought to be my pearl of great price. This time, God was asking me to sell my attachment to the vocation of priesthood in order to more fully give my life to Him and really do whatever He tells me. And when I did, all desolation was removed, and I felt immense peace once again.

For now I’ve learnt, that seeking one’s vocation is not about the WHAT, but about WHO am I giving my life entirely to, so that I do whatever He tells me to, even if it means SELLING EVERYTHING.

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Originally posted on Instagram.

The Conscience of the Modern Man

By guest writer Kachi Ngai.

“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself, but which he must obey, its voice ever calling him to love and do what is good and to avoid evil… For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God… There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.”
— Article 1776, Catechism of the Catholic Church

We no longer live in an age where truth and reason guide our principles. The mood of the current age is one of emotionalism, where a person’s feelings now become the inviolable truth for that person, and God forbid if someone else should dare to question it. The objective truth has given way to the subjective truth, provided that someone feels strongly enough about it. Take a look at how love is considered these days. The concept of agape (the supernatural, and certainly superior, sacrificial form of love) has been overthrown in favor of eros, the natural and more receptive form of love.

Variations on catchy slogans such as “love is love” and “love wins” are thrown around to somehow suggest that we as a society have thrown off the shackles of discrimination, and that only by “following what’s inside our hearts” will we find inner fulfillment and freedom. Arguments in favor of the protection of the family unit and society are pitted against the supposed personal fulfillment of the individual. If someone “follows their heart”, then they cannot stray.

I accept that I am taking liberties by assuming that the objective truth is a given, mainly because whether truth is objective is not the focus of this. I will discuss objective truth and how it is tied to human dignity in a later article. For now I will focus only upon the actual nature of the conscience, something on which Cardinal John Henry Newman spoke at great length, and how it applies to our Catholic Faith and the spiritual journey.

Newman was 15 when he experienced his first conversion which brought him into the Protestant faith. It was not until much later that he converted to the Roman Catholic Church, which he describes in his Apologia as largely due to the acting of his conscience.

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman saw the conscience as the connecting principle between the creature and his Creator. He went as far as to describe it as the aboriginal Vicar of Christ (Newman, 1885). In the secular world, a certain primacy is given to the conscience, almost as if it is some infallible judge. This is a far cry from the notions Newman had.

Our concept of conscience is misconstrued these days, whereby if our conscience dictates that we can act upon our whims even if they be contrary to Mother Church’s teachings, this would be permitted provided that we are at peace with it. Newman argued that this disparity between the internal conscience and the teachings of the Church did not give us free rein to reject the Church’s teaching. When the conscience no longer points towards the external (the Church’s teachings), but instead towards the internal, instead of directing us towards God and a life of virtue through obedience and discipline, it is turned towards the selfish and interior. Instead of God being our Lord and Master, it will be as Henley once poetically described in his famous poem Invictus:

“I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” (Henley, 1875)

A lovely-sounding sentiment of the triumph of the human soul over suffering, but it encapsulates the current idea that the personal conscience is the final judge.

Newman argues that conscience advocates for the truth, and that the conscience is much cruder and almost ruthless. The conscience is the compass for non-believers by which God re-directs us towards Him. The voice of conscience has nothing gentle, nothing to do with mercy in its tone. It is severe and stern. It does not speak of forgiveness, but of punishment” (Newman). This is why the redemption by Our Lord Jesus Christ is The Good News. It provides the relief for the condemnation offered by the accusing conscience. The conscience is to direct us towards where there is a particular deficiency or uncertainty in our judgement and spiritual life, and the conscience is the starting point for a particular conversion in our life.

The conscience is the call for conversion and a sign of humility. This is counter-cultural to the secular understanding of conscience as a sign of personal freedom, especially the freedom to reject the objective truth when it makes one uncomfortable (Pell, 2005). As a result of free will, man can choose to reject the prickles of their conscience, but the conscience is the beginning of the exploration and conversion through prayer and discernment, it is not some infallible judge. In Veritatis Splendour, Pope St. John Paul II describes the formation of the Catholic Conscience as a dignifying and liberating experience (Pp. St. JPII, 1993), which is why as Catholics we have a moral responsibility to develop an informed conscience (CCC 1780).

By divorcing the Catholic Faith from reason, reason becomes effectively neutered because we fail to see the impact of moral predispositions in reasoning. Simply put, the conscience can easily be fooled by our own inclinations and desires whether subconscious or otherwise, and can lead us down the path of lining up our reasoning in view of a desired result (Armstrong, 2015). This is the danger of reducing the conscience to a mere moral sense. Natural religion is based upon the sense of sin; it recognizes the disease, but cannot find the remedy (Armstrong, 2015). To emphasize the earlier point, this is where the call to conversion is required, and through this we can start to appreciate the necessity of Christ’s redemptive act.

The conscience points towards the need for constant discernment, prayer, and the turning of the heart towards the objective authority of Christ through His Church. To follow one’s conscience is not to do as one pleases, but to earnestly seek what is true and good, and to hold fast to this, as repulsive as it may appear. Only then can we truly and honestly say to our Lord: Speak Lord, your servant is listening (1 Sam 3:10).

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References:

Armstrong, David (2015). “Newman’s Conversion of Conscience and the Resolution of the Crisis of Modernity.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible.

Henley, William (1875). Invictus. England.

Newman, John Henry (1885). “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” V, in Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching II (London: Longmans Green, 1885), 248.

Pell, George (2005). “The Inconvenient Conscience.”

Learning to Listen to the Divine Whisper

It has been a crazy past few months here. I have been facing the usual high school senior dilemmas regarding the “afterlife”, so to speak, of high school — whether to go to college or not, whether I should go immediately or postpone it, what I would do in the meantime, and to which colleges I should apply to and visit. All of this on top of my normal activities: finishing up my schoolwork so I DO have a joyful afterlife, working, taking guitar lessons, and the million-other household tasks which are forever regenerating themselves. Ugh. Never before have I been so stressed out about the calendar and fast-approaching deadlines!

In deep waters.

A few weeks ago my dad and I drove to a college here in the Southeast. It was an eight-hour drive, but a comparatively uneventful one. We were attending Scholarship Day at the college. I was excited to be interviewed for a prestigious scholarship, tour campus, attend seminars, and meet students. My dad and I were very impressed with the college.  As we were leaving campus I knew that it was the school I hope to attend.

Over the next couple weeks, I feverishly worked on applications for some outside scholarships. I wrote essays, tracked down signatures, and received letters of recommendation. Yesterday I was informed that I hadn’t received my much sought-for scholarship from the college, although I was eligible for some minor scholarships.

At the end of all this, I just want to laugh the laugh of a treasure-seeker who has searched the world for years for a priceless treasure, beautiful beyond imagination. When he finally finds the treasure, in his exultation he slips on the damp floor of the cave. The treasure slips out of his hands and into the mouth of the volcano. There are only two possible reactions: to weep or to laugh. He begins to laugh.

Perhaps my problem is I am too anxious to discover God’s plan for my life. I stress out too much about what it could be, and the fastest way of obtaining it. Hence, I will run in all directions hoping that I will find a billboard screaming “THIS IS IT”. But of course that is not how God works. I need to remember how God spoke to Elias: not in the wind; not in the earthquake; not in the fire; rather, in the whistling of a gentle air.

Let’s Hear It For The Church!

While I was thinking about all this, it dawned on me. I already know what God’s plan for me in this life is. As a matter of fact, it is what the Church has been telling me my entire life!!

Q. Why did God make you?
A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.

—Baltimore Catechism (Lesson 1, Question 6)

That is exactly what I have been looking for, right in front of me the entire time! As long as I truly know God, love Him, and wish to serve Him, everything else will fall into place!! I don’t need to worry about the college I go to, or whether I am to be married or enter a convent. God will tell me in a whisper when I can no longer serve Him in my current situation. He will lead me on the path to Him. All I need to do is to follow. If I know Him, love Him, and serve Him in every “now”, I will forever be living His plan for my life.

I am still looking at my options for this coming year. I don’t know where I’ll be six months from now. It might very well be that I’ll be working overtime at some job trying to save up for college. But right now I am surprisingly unstressed about it; I know that God has a perfect plan for me, and for right now He wants me to swing along behind Him until He can trust me with knowledge. Until then, if anyone wants to hand me $68,000, that would be all right, too. You’ll know where to find me: just follow the trail of empty coffee mugs, chocolate crumbs, Rosary beads, and Divine Intervention.

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

“Cimourdain was a pure-minded but gloomy man. He had ‘the absolute’ within him. He had been a priest, which is a solemn thing. Man may have, like the sky, a dark and impenetrable serenity; that something should have caused night to fall in his soul is all that is required. Priesthood had been the cause of night within Cimourdain. Once a priest, always a priest. Whatever causes night in our souls may leave stars. Cimourdain was full of virtues and truth, but they shine out of a dark background.” ―Victor Hugo, Quatrevingt-Treize

I was walking with an atheist friend when he said, “Did you hear about the coup in Turkey? Both sides thought they were in the right, and called the other evil.”

It is inherent in human nature to strive toward a good, or at least a perceived good. The chain smoker or alcoholic seeks the good of relief from whatever stress they’re undergoing; the man who commits suicide seeks relief from what he perceives as insurmountable pain.

Idealism untempered by prudence and charity is often the cause of massive suffering. Look at China, shorn of its magnificent, beautiful, ancient culture by the Cultural Revolution, with intellectuals and artists tortured to death by frenzied, manipulated youth, not to mention 45 million dying of famine in the Great Leap Forward. Look at France, with 40,000 killed in the French Revolution. All human attempts to create a perfect society on earth will fail, for we are frail beings with many faults. Even religious communities are not perfect—all of them except the Carthusians have had to undergo reform in order to return to their ascetical roots.

dantes-infernoIt is said that Napoleon declared, “Je détruirai votre église”—“I will destroy your Church.” Cardinal Consalvi replied drily, “He will never succeed. We have not managed to do it ourselves.” Fr. Roger Landry explains: “If bad popes, immoral priests, and countless sinners in the Church hadn’t succeeded in destroying the Church from within, Cardinal Consalvi was saying, how did Napoleon think he was going to do it from without?” (Catholic Answers: “A Crisis of Saints”).

The worst suffering in my life came not from my family’s multiple brushes with death, but from living in a Catholic community formed by idealists who had made woefully insufficient provision for addressing the mental-health issues of its members. A few friends and I carried the weight of our suffering fellows, and it crushed us. The reality is, we live in a broken world, suffering the effects of original sin. And that is why we need a Savior, a Divine Physician Who can bind our suppurating wounds and restore us to eternal life.

It is not enough to pray. Jesus always prayed, yes, but then He acted. God has granted us reason and free will to govern our emotions and appetites. He has also permitted us to develop modern medicine (thanks in great part to countless Catholic scientists, physicians, and nurses through the ages). He has permitted us to make laws and lay down regulations to govern our earthly lives for a just and flourishing society. Medicine and law are imperfect and can be twisted to evil ends, but that is the nature of the moral life, to be able to discern both intentions and ends and act according to the law written on our hearts, the natural law that God has planted in every human soul so that we may seek out what is good in accordance with our nature—which is ultimately God, the source and end of our existence.

It is often difficult to discern the right path, as our intellects have been darkened after the Fall. We are unable to see all the consequences that may flow from our actions, no matter how well-intentioned. We are obliged to form our consciences (CCC 1798) and avail ourselves of God’s grace in every circumstance. The world is a dark place, yes—but God has entered our darkness to give us Light.

In the end, even if we go through a seemingly pointless hell, the wonderful thing is that God has entered hell to bring us to Heaven, and He is in that hell with us. Like straw spun into gold, so may our horrible sufferings be turned into the radiant glory of salvation.

“The evil that is in the world almost always comes from ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.” —Albert Camus

“Hell is full of good meanings, but Heaven is full of good works.” —Traditional proverb


Image: Gustave Doré, illustration of Dante’s Inferno / PD-US

Treading Water and Making Decisions

Often, when I have faced points of transition in my life, I have felt a sense of weariness, waiting for clarity as to where to go next. Unsure of which direction to take, I feel as though I am treading water at a fork in the river, stagnating as I wait for a clear call to move forward. It’s exhausting, but I don’t know what else to do—I am afraid of taking a turn in the wrong direction, so I end up staying right where I am, waiting for some kind of signal, some kind of peace about where to go.

When we find ourselves stuck in indecision, how do we figure out where to go? St. Ignatius of Loyola gives great advice on making good decisions in his Spiritual Exercises, with seven steps to follow:

  1. Ignatius suggests that we start the decision-making process by putting before our mind what it is we want to decide about….
  1. He then asks us to pray for the grace to “try to be like a balance at equilibrium, without leaning to either side” (Spiritual Exercises, [179]). In other words, we should try to the extent possible not to prefer one option to the other but only desire to do God’s will. To help us maintain focus and perspective, he asks us to keep the ultimate end and goal of our existence clearly before us.
  1. Then we pray for God to enlighten and move us to seek only what is most conducive to God’s service and praise.
  1. One suggestion Ignatius makes is to imagine a person we never met who seeks our help in how to respond to God’s call in the same decision we are considering. We then observe what advice we give this person and follow it ourselves. This is helpful since most of us are better at giving others advice than at figuring out what we should do.
  1. Another suggestion is that we imagine ourselves at the end of our lives either on our deathbed or after our death standing before Christ our Judge. How would we feel about our decision then? What would we say to Christ about the decision we have just made? We should choose now the course of action that would give us happiness and joy in looking back on it from our deathbed and in presenting it to Christ on the day of our judgment.
  1. When we do not experience inner clarity about the correct decision to be made, Ignatius suggests that we use our reason to weigh the matter carefully to attempt to come to a decision in line with our living out God’s will in our lives. To do this we should, bearing in mind our ultimate goal, list and weigh the advantages and disadvantages for us of the decision at hand…. We are then to consider which alternatives seem more reasonable and decide according to the more weighty motives—not from our selfish inclinations. Looking over our list of “pros” and “cons” for the decision at hand, we should notice if any of the reasons listed stand out from the others and why and see which way this might point us. This technique can help us move from inner confusion to greater clarity at least as to the issues that need to be attended to and help separate out which are more significant.
  1. Having come to a decision, we turn again to God and beg for signs of God’s confirmation that the decision is leading us toward God’s service and praise. The usual sign of this confirmation from God is an experience of peacefulness about the decision. The confirmed decision has a feeling of “rightness” about it, and we feel a sense of God’s presence, blessing, and love. This is a very important step, since the feeling of rightness, peace, and joy about a decision is a positive indicator that we have made the right decision whereas feelings of anxiety, heaviness, sadness, and darkness often indicate the opposite (Warren Sazama, S.J., “Some Ignatian principles for making prayerful decisions”).

It is easy to become distracted by the many pros and cons of each potential choice, but some reasons are more meaningful than others. The most important thing to do when we are mired in indecision is to pray. We need to quiet ourselves to listen to God’s voice, and then, when we have a reasonable sense of where we are called to go, we have to stop second-guessing and make a choice. Sometimes we will make mistakes, but mistakes can be corrected as long as we keep moving through them. Staying still and never moving anywhere would be the greatest mistake of all.

When I tread water and agonize over every bend in the river, I use up all my energy to stay afloat but don’t go anywhere. Instead, I could be floating upon the current of God’s love—resting as I let Him carry me where I need to go. Just as a current ebbs and flows, sometimes He will lessen the pull of His guidance, letting me choose where to go and helping me to take ownership of my own journey. But I don’t need to be overanxious about the choices I make, because He can always lead me back. Whatever decisions I make, He can use them to help me learn and grow as I move forward. I just need to be attentive to the gentle flow of His voice as I continue on my way. I don’t need to fight against the current, trying to do everything myself; I can work with the current, letting His guidance propel me onward to do His will.


Image: Winslow Homer, The Rapids, Hudson River, Adirondacks / PD-US

Your Vocation is Your Mission

On the First Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared to the Apostles and said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He astonished them with the reality of His Triumph over death, calmed them with His Peace, and directly informed them that they were going on a mission.

And this makes sense. They are the Apostles, they have a Church to build. Of course the Apostles have been sent on a mission. It’s in their name, apostolos, which is Greek for ‘one who is sent’.

The Apostles were sent to teach, make disciples, and baptize, bringing to all the life of grace regained by Jesus on the cross, that was lost with the Fall of Original Sin, in order to restore the relationship between God and man. They handed down this mission, and the grace to carry it out, through Apostolic Succession and Holy Orders, but you need not be a successor of the Apostles (Bishop) or priest in order to receive a mission from God.

Everyone has been sent on a mission by God. We all have particular missions specifically ordained for us by God, but we all also have that universal mission to love. In ecclesiastical terms, these missions are more popularly known as vocations, a calling. Yet, if we believe the words of Scripture in the first chapter of Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you,” we can understand that God knew our vocations before we were born, created us for a specific purpose, and finally sent us on a mission to fulfill that purpose.

To help us participate in this mission with our free will, God allows us to freely choose. He never merely uses us against our will, but instead allows us to know his plan in some mysterious way so that we may choose it for ourselves and make His goals our own. This participation is enabled through discernment and is manifested by what many have deemed “answering one’s call”.

However, if God knows our purpose for our entire life and merely calls us to come to know it for ourselves, it would be equally correct to say that God is sending us to complete this purpose. He sent us on our missions, some specific mission for each of us, to somehow, as light, leaven, and salt of the earth, bring God to the world so that God may be known, praised, glorified, and loved in this life and in the next.

The idea of all of us being sent on a mission is a fitting description of what God has done and we see it beautifully exemplified and revealed by Jesus Himself. Many times in the Gospel, Jesus speaks of the One Who sent Him. “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me” (Matthew 10:40). “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). “Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).

Jesus was sent by God to fulfill His mission. His mission was multifaceted, to teach us using words and deeds, to institute the Church and it’s sacramental mission, and to make atonement for the offense of sin. (All of this is beautifully encapsulated in the “Will” of the Father that Jesus must do). Christ came to show us how to complete our missions.

Christ’s life is an ocean of Truth, so I imagine many more lessons can be fished out, but by observing what He said and did, we can agree that to carry on our missions well, we need to remember certain things such as: We should (1) speak to the Father often, praying in solitude and in groups, (2) seek the Father’s Will in all things, and (3) keep the two greatest commandments, Love of God and Love of Neighbor.

The Church has articulated this last lesson of keeping the two greatest commandments as a vocation itself. In the fifth chapter of the Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium, we find the Universal Call to Holiness. This call to holiness can be seen as a call to love as holiness is the turning away from selfish sin and toward God and others for God’s sake.

Lumen Gentium explains, “For charity, as the bond of perfection and the fullness of the law, rules over all the means of attaining holiness and gives life to these same means. It is charity which guides us to our final game at end.” In the language of the Church, ‘charity’, or caritas, is love. Love is the means of attaining holiness. Love is the Universal Vocation, which means, Love is everyone’s mission.

In fact, Love is everyone’s primary mission. Sometimes we get caught up with other things (like money, work, or school) and seem to love others on the side as we focus on these other things. First, Love God and your neighbor, and then do everything else.

Furthermore, this mission is more than just items we check off of a “to-do list”. It is a mode of being. It is not our mission to do holy, but to be holy.  To not just do loving things, but to be loving. We can form our wills to desire holy things by doing holy things, doing loving things can shape us to be loving, but only through God’s grace can we truly be loving and be holy.

We cannot earn holiness, because we cannot earn grace. However, we can put ourselves in the right place to receive the grace we need to carry out our missions. We can do this by 1) frequenting the Sacraments; 2) Prayer; and 3) Practicing devotions with sacramentals, which can include blessings, venerating relics, wearing a sacpular, visits to sanctuaries, and the stations of the cross. Sacramentals do not confer grace directly, but “they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it” (CCC 1674).

Through the Sacraments, Prayer, and Sacramentals we can put ourselves where God wants us. These tools will furthermore strengthen and nourish us as we continue with our missions. By seeking to love and be holy through these tools, we can best imitate Jesus, who is God’s Word, and thus not return back to Him empty, but full (Isaiah 55:11).

Your Vocation Is To Love

I’ve noticed that so many young Catholics have an inordinate amount anxiety about their vocations. I definitely put myself into this category. When I understood that my vocation was to the married life, it felt like I spent every waking moment worrying about it. Was this particular person “The One”? Was this other particular person “The One” but we messed it up somehow?  Did I have the necessary virtues to be the best Catholic wife I could be? Where did I need to improve? What else did I need to learn?

I spent so many sleepless nights thinking about these big, important things. “God,” I would say, “this is the most critical decision of my life. This is what You have called me to do when You knit me together in my mother’s womb. So why are You making it so confusing and hard!?”

It was so frustrating to me at times to wrestle with questions of my vocation and to hear radio silence from God about it. Or, even worse, to decide to go down one path that I was sure was His will only to have it end for one reason or another. It gave me so much grief that God was making this all so difficult when all I wanted was to live the life to which He had called me. I would come to my spiritual director with the same worries and frustrations month after month. He would always just smile and remind me of the words of St. Thérèse of Lisieux: “My vocation is love”

We must, indeed, remember that our primary vocation in this life is to love. I had missed that point entirely early on in my discernment and still sometimes do in my daily life. Marriage or the religious life are secondary vocations – but first and foremost is the commandment to love God and others. When I took this to heart, I realized that I needed to stop worrying about my vocation and how it would unfold. I needed to stop questioning God about it and having faith in His timing and His ways. To love Him, to love others, and to give myself to those who needed me the most right now in the present moment. And He would take care of my secondary vocation when the time was right.

So young friends, stop worrying incessantly about discerning your vocations. Stop trying to “figure it all out”. Stop running yourselves ragged. God is not trying to hide His will from you nor is He intentionally making it confusing or difficult. It is all so very simple: just love those whom He has put in your life today. That is all He asks of you. And He will take care of everything else.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…” – Matthew 6:25

 

Mary’s Yes, and Yours

Advent has come upon us. We watch and wait with Mary, as her fiat, her “yes” to God’s will comes to fruition. The Annunciation isn’t an event that makes sense on a purely human level. Mary was just a young girl—and God asked her to carry the Savior of the world within her, conceived by the Holy Spirit! Sometimes, too, it becomes unmistakable that God is calling us to do something that may not make sense. Will we have the courage to say “yes”?

annunciation

There are many decisions to be made in our lives. Decisions are complex, and so is discernment. There are times when we realize, along with the help of holy advisors, that we are being pulled in a certain direction. God sometimes asks us to do things that push us outside of our comfort zones. We are asked to obey and say “yes,” though we don’t know the implications of what will happen after our act of obedience. One of the most difficult aspects of this earthly life is the unknowns. It is intimidating to make big decisions or to take risks when we don’t know what those decisions will bring. That is where trust in God comes in. Mary knew that it was a risky thing to be an engaged woman and pregnant out of wedlock. Though she knew it would cause controversy, she trusted God to be God and gave her “yes”. From her fiat, her “let it be done unto me according to Your Word,” a Savior came to Earth. He loved us even unto the point of death, so that we could live eternally.

The decisions that we are asked to make don’t have such drastic consequences. Yet often the consequences can be eternal. Think of the person who leaves a lucrative job to bring Christ somewhere where He is not yet known. How many souls did that person help to save? What about the woman who gives her child life against the doctor’s advice due to her frail health, putting her own life in danger? In one particular case in 1920, a woman in this very situation decided to give her child life, bringing Pope Saint John Paul II into the world. In scenarios more possible in our own lives, accepting a job that tears you from what is comfortable could be the step that leads you to your spouse. Often God pours down blessings through obedience. In my own life, I can think of situations where I knew what the right thing to do was, but delayed. Once I made the decision that I knew God was asking, it seemed as if the floodgates of blessing poured down.

When God asks us to obey, the consequences may not always be desirable in our eyes. For example, a move that we clearly discerned may not pan out how we had hoped. Yet these situations can humble us by reminding us to rely on God alone and His purposes, instead of searching for our own glory. Only God knows where our obedience will lead. It is up to us to take the step of saying “yes” and walk into the great unknown.

What will your “yes” bring? As the angel Gabriel told Mary, “do not be afraid.” Trust God and know that your “yes” will work for your own good and for His glory. Step into the great unknown, holding the hand of your Father Who loves you more than anything.

“And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.” Luke 1:38

Pastoral Discernment and the Synod on the Family: A Medical Analogy

St. Joseph, Mary and Jesus, pray for families.
St. Joseph, Mary and Jesus, pray for families.

With the publication of the summary document of the 2015 Synod on the Family, the brouhaha about the synod appears to be taking on a new life. The most vocal people on both the liberal side and the conservative side seem equally displeased with the results. Father James Martin, well known for being sympathetic towards the liberal side, although I have never seen him specifically define his position, wrote a piece for CNN in which he undertakes to explain for the benefit of the rest of the world why some Catholics are so afraid of change. By implication he is explaining why the hard-nosed reactionaries in the Church have been so frustrating to good ol’ Pope Francis who just wants to extend mercy to everyone.

In the middle of the road, Fr. Longenecker insists on confidence in the Holy Spirit’s direction of the synod, while taking some issue with Fr. James Martin’s approach to the topic, and expressing some concern with the “internal forum” approach that seems to be a main liberal take-away from the document.

To balance out the picture, Fr. Z laments the ambiguity of the document, and considers paragraphs 84 – 86 to be lamentably adulterated by the liberals. However he also unapologetically crows over the “defeat of the Liberals.”

In the meantime, I am waiting for the full official English language translation, which I will read when it appears. Even the “controversial” paragraphs (84 – 86) do not seem all that controversial to me. They seem to be make it very clear that no rules or teachings of the Church have changed, that discernment and wisdom are as necessary now as they have ever been, and that this wisdom consists in knowledge of and obedience to the teachings of the Church.

I think people on different sides of this debate may have different ideas about what discernment really is, and understanding what it is influences how we understand the role of pastoral guidance in these hot-button issues. Discernment is not an internal wrestling with one’s own subjective feelings of guilt or innocence. This might be the case in non-moral matters, such as discernment of a vocation, but in moral theology, how I feel about my situation is largely irrelevant.

Discernment is a quite objective process of looking at the facts of one’s own individual situation to see where it fits in with the teachings of the Church. If the facts of my situation are out of line with the Church’s moral teachings, then I must change the facts, i.e. change the situation, in order to bring myself in line with the Church’s teaching. I must go to confession, receive absolution, and evidence a “firm purpose of amendment,” which implies concrete steps to remove that sin from my life. Once I do that I can be restored to full communion. Until then I am out of communion, living in a state of sin, and therefore may not receive the Eucharist.

This is the role of pastoral discernment, pastoral “accompaniment,” in the language of the Synod. It is to help the faithful to examine their lives to see where they fall short of the truth, and to change their lives to be in accord with the truth. This is both mercy and justice. It is just because it acknowledges the truth of the situation, that it falls short of God’s will, and that it must be restored to God’s will. It is mercy because it enables the person to reform his or her life, and to be made right with God, i.e. justified.

I am not a priest or a marriage counselor, so you may wonder where I get off offering my advice on the process of pastoral discernment, and you would be right. Perhaps a medical analogy would be more appropriate, and better illustrate what I am trying to say.

Suppose you are a doctor in a primary care practice. A patient comes in to see you, complaining about fainting spells and a lack of energy. Her chart says that she is a 25-year-old female, 5’5” tall, 63 Lbs. Right away you know that that is not healthy. When she walks in the office you see that she is pale, lethargic and emaciated, but dressed to the nines, with perfect make-up and hair. After your examination and history you further know that she eats less than 500 calories a day, works out for an hour a day, has stopped menstruating, bruises and bleeds at the drop of a hat, has a heart rate of 45 and a blood sugar of <20.

When you ask the patient to rate her physical appearance she describes herself as slightly overweight and unattractive. She describes her health level as overall very good, with just few “tired spells here and there.”

The truth of this situation is that she is unhealthy and in imminent life-threatening danger. She doesn’t realize how badly off she is. Her subjective feeling is that she is fine, and that unreal perception is itself an ominous sign.

In a way, her feelings are irrelevant. The numbers don’t lie. She might feel like she is doing well, but she is wrong. Justice, or in this case objective truth, demands that you as a doctor do not play along with her illusions. She must know the truth.

She must know the truth so that she can be healed. Healing is a physical symbol of mercy. In order to say “healing” we must acknowledged that there is a disease, that is, we must have justice. In order to say “mercy” we must acknowledge that there is a sin. Healing then consists in slowly guiding the patient back to health. Mercy consists in slowly guiding the person back into justice.

The role of discernment in medicine is very similar to the role of discernment in spiritual guidance, I think. A doctor who says, “You are anorexic. You need to eat more,” and thinks that he is thereby somehow “healing” her, is going to lose his patient. She won’t come back. A skillful and caring physician’s job is to help the patient discern all the (often painful and humiliating) details about how and why they are unhealthy, so that these can be fixed. So for example, I said above that the anorexic patient’s subjective feelings are largely irrelevant to her situation because they are not informed by reality and so are not a reliable guide to the state of her health. On the other hand they are very relevant, because very often there are either the source of her poor health or a contributing factor to it. Part of the healing process is to acknowledge and address these poorly formed feelings of self-image, so that they can be more reflective of the truth.

That, at least, is my take on the whole question of pastoral discernment.

In the end, I am not a pastor or spiritual director. All I can do is pray, read and discuss, and try to give the best witness I can to the truth by my life. It is not up to me to implement any

But I can pray for those who do have that responsibility.

End Your Day With the Examen

Praying the Examen is a great way to unwind at the end of the day. St. Ignatius of Loyola popularized this method of prayer. The Examen is similar to an examination of conscience, but there a few added pieces- the Examen gives you an overall picture of the day and helps you to see God’s presence in each moment. It can also assist you in periods of discernment. I wholly recommend this method of prayer.

So, how does one pray the Examen? First, find a quiet place. Be still. Ask for the Holy Spirit to guide your time of prayer. Review your day. If you are a writer, you may want to journal your thoughts as they come. What brought you joy? Give thanks to God for these blessings. As you continue, think about what brought you frustration. How was God with you during that time and also during the joyful moments? If you’re feeling empty of God’s presence, ask Him to reveal moments where He was with you. Maybe you didn’t clearly discern the presence of God throughout the day but looking back you are able to see moments where Christ was clearly with you. As you reflect upon the day, faults and failings will come to mind. Ask forgiveness for the times that you sinned. Accept the tender mercy of God and pray for the grace to do better tomorrow. Close with a prayer such as an Our Father or Glory Be.

At one point, I was regularly practicing the Examen at the end of each day. I used a journal to write down the blessings, frustrations, failings, and the ways in which I saw God operating in my daily life. Practicing the Examen helped me to find the joy woven into the many frustrations during a difficult period of my life. I was able to pinpoint certain “themes”. These recurring joys assisted me in figuring out more of what makes me tick and they also helped me to see beyond the frustrations. Praying the Examen helped me to figure out what kinds of steps I should take for the next portion of my journey. If you are at a point where you are encountering many disappointments or hoping to make changes, this can be a great prayer as it is a great discernment tool. Praying the Examen can bring peace and it helps to re-orient oneself each night and prepare for the next day.

The Examen is a great way to reflect upon the ways in which God is working in your life. This method of prayer allows you to see the blessings present in your daily life and also to recognize where you can do better. It is a prayerful way to end a day and to ponder how to walk more in the light during the next one. I hope that you can also find peace through this prayer and walk more closely with God as you recognize more clearly His hand in your daily life.

 

 

Living at the Ends of the Earth

Growing up, I heard two things.

One was that I could be and do whatever I wanted if I put my mind to it. The other were stories about saints. The former spoke to my work ethic, high ideals, and diligence. The latter sparked my desire to do great things, be something great, and impact the world for the better in a bold and dramatic way.

Since stories about saints often involve romantic notions of leaving everything behind to go to the ends of the earth in service of the Lord, they also served to energize my natural wander-lust and implant the idea that it is only in great big sacrifices that holiness is realized.

The combination of these two culminated in a very impassioned desire when I graduated college. I wanted to give my life to God, and I knew that that was possible because I could do anything I wanted if I worked hard enough! I knew (or thought I knew) that I was supposed to leave everything behind and gallivant off to the yet undiscovered rain forests of Cambodia to serve the natives there (because that’s how you become holy, duh!) and by golly, I was ready to do so.

However, soon after graduating, I found myself working a retail job in Columbus, Ohio. Then I found myself living in a small, heavily depressed town in southern Michigan. Newly married, away from my friends and family in Ohio, and most certainly not at the farthest ends of the earth feeding the homeless of Transylvania.

For a while, I kept telling myself that this was just the first step in the grand plan to bring the Eucharist to the natives of Madagascar. Yet, my husband and I became more established in Michigan and the plan seemed to change. As I slowly began to realize that Iceland and I were not going to meet anytime soon, I also had to ask myself the question “how do I become holy here?” and then the insecurities had to be dealt with: “why am I not good enough for the Lord? Why doesn’t He want to send me to the ends of the earth?”

As I searched for the answers to these questions, the same stories of saints from my childhood kept popping up. As I got to know many of these saints better, I also began to understand that the stories of the saints paint an incomplete picture.

These stories make the saints’ lives out to be a great adventure, and surely they are, but the stories never delve into what the saints were truly experiencing during their great sacrifices. Sometimes the stories told mention that Saint so-and-so didn’t really want to go to China/Indonesia/Africa/you-pick-the-place, but it is usually presented as “but that’s why this person is so cool.” No doubt it is cool, but this approach cuts short the nature of their sacrifice.

The places considered to be at the ends of the earth several centuries ago were not at that time the hip, trendy, social justice places they are today. As I learned to live in (and even love!) my small, depressed town, I began to realize that when St. Francisco Álvares went to Ethiopia, he wasn’t going on a Christian Safari. He was going to the equivalent of my Michigan town. Ethiopia wasn’t some neat, exotic place to travel to, it was a place of loneliness, poverty, and distance from all that was known, familiar, and comfortable to him.

My little Michigan town is, perhaps, the absolute lowest on the list of places one wants to travel to. It is poor and distant from my family and friends in Ohio (even hostile at times to a natural-born Ohioan!). It was, consequently, lonely when I first came here, and certainly not comfortable.

As I began to put my situation next to the those of the saints, I slowly began to realize that my dream had, really, come true. As we live four hours away, I have in a sense, been asked to “give up” my friends and family, and live in a small town that in many ways, I didn’t at first want to be in. I consider my situation to be living at the ends of the earth in many ways. There is no good place to get a hair cut, no good date places, and we are surrounded by cornfields. Yet I am also living in a town that desperately needs love, mercy, and the Eucharist.

The ends of the earth aren’t in some far-away country. They are right here in our own nation. Africa isn’t the ends of the earth, Flint, Michigan, Hillsdale, Michigan, Cranks Creek, Kentucky, Harlingen, Texas and numerous other towns like them are. What’s more, the work the saints did wasn’t glorious in and of itself. It was – and still is – glorious because it made Christ present in the world in a place and a manner which He previously wasn’t.

That is glorious.

The work the saints did was really hard. It wasn’t, to them, the most romantic thing in the world. It probably stunk a lot of the time. No doubt, they asked themselves “am I really going to live the rest of my life here?” Yet knowledge that you are doing God’s will provides peace which surpasses such earthly discomfort.

Sometimes, it is really hard for me to be joyful or to believe that what I am doing is good and important. It is really hard to be away from a state, family, and friends that I love. Yet, holiness isn’t dependent on where you are, but rather who you are and how you respond to where God put you. Holiness isn’t about some misguided passion, it is about being passionate about your faith even in the smallest, most overlooked, most forgotten towns in America. Holiness is about trusting that God put you there for a purpose, and that if you can love this small town with great love, and do little things with great charity, then you’ve done more good than any mission trip you could have done to Australia. When it comes down to it, these humble towns and seemingly invisible callings do more for the development of humility, the interior life, trust in God, prayer, faith, hope, and love than any great work I could do elsewhere. Moreover, the peace and subtle, yet strong joy that comes from this town far surpasses any worldly comfort I could gain elsewhere. Indeed, I have fallen so hopelessly in love with this place that I wonder if I could ever leave, if given the choice. Indeed, how great is our consolation when we do the works of the Lord and allow Him to be present to us!

So, let us not be misguided by the shiny, exciting “calls” to Japan or India. No doubt, some are called there and God bless them. But for the rest of us, stuck with a “mediocre” calling in a boring old town, embrace it! The Lord has chosen you to go to the ends of the earth and make Him known there! The greatest adventures, and the greatest joy, await you right here, in the homes of your neighbors and the backyards of your neighborhoods.

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Are You Too Busy?

Lately, I’ve run into periods of extreme busyness. There have been times I’ve come back home to finally sit down and cook myself a decent meal—and truly couldn’t recall the last time I’d been able to do so. Being busy in American culture is sometimes made out to be a good thing. People are made to feel as if they are better, more productive members of society if they are busy. The endeavors that keep us occupied can all be worthwhile: volunteering to help pass out food to the needy, attending events at the parish, or trying to run 5Ks to raise money for good causes. Yet there is a point at which it can all become overwhelming and we lose track of our good motivations. Being too busy can be a distraction. Our full schedules can keep us from hearing God’s call and the needs of others in our lives.

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When we’re running to and fro, we don’t have time to tend to the needs of others. When someone calls in a bind or wants to get together, we might even feel as if they’re an inconvenience and that we’re too busy for them. A person turns into simply another “thing” to check off our lists. When we’re constantly unavailable, we’re unable to focus on relationships. The times when I’ve been available to help someone and need to do so, it interestingly seems as if God multiplies my time! For example, today a friend was in dire need and, thankfully (for the first time in a long while), I had no plans for the day. I was able to minister to her when she felt as if she had no one else to turn to. Yet still I’ve had time to accomplish numerous things today and even to write this article! God blesses the times that we allow ourselves to rest. He also blesses the time that we use to serve others.

Time is a tremendous gift from God. It is easy to forget what a gift it is. After all, we are living the gift every moment! We pray about the big decisions in our lives. Do we pray about how God is asking us to use our time? We can fall into the trap of thinking that the more “good” things we do, the more we are serving God and others. Yet, did we consult God about all of the items filling up our schedule? There are times God asks us to choose between a good and a better. For example, if you are volunteering at multiple ministries and finding you are getting sick often, maybe God is calling you to step back. Or, maybe your work allows you to do something great for the world–but you’re working so much that you haven’t been able to give your spouse and children the love and attention that they need. God could be asking you to think about another job, or simply to work less hours and trust Him to do the rest. Life is a constant journey and God may be calling you to open a new chapter in the way you use your time.

By God’s grace, I am taming the “busy” monster. I am seeking more earnestly to determine the priorities that Christ is calling me to hold. If you’re feeling busy and overwhelmed, don’t feel like you have to stay there. There are seasons of life, and there are also times when you can allow yourself to step back and have open time on your calendar. You will benefit, as well as the people in your life that you love. When there is free space, you can more easily hear the voice of God and discern where He is calling you. Let yourself stop running. Ask God what He is asking of you. Leave open space for the Holy Spirit, and be amazed at how God will work.