Tag Archives: discernment

The best is yet to come

My life has been turned a bit upside down recently by my mother’s death and my leaving the job I have had for the past seven years. Two big losses at the same time and lots of empty space in front of me.

No more dinners with my mother or shopping for her or calling or stopping by to check in.

And no more work emails or office to go to or meetings to attend.

I have to admit that it is a bit scary to stand in front of this vast empty canvas without the commitments that have structured my life for the past years. And yet…

God-vulnerability-transition

I have decided to view the coming year as a sabbatical, a time to pause after thirty-five years of working in nonprofit management, to reflect on and say goodbye to what has been, and to prepare for what is to come.

Almost as soon as I made that decision, two retreat opportunities presented themselves—one is focused on discernment for people in transition and the other is for writers. I had not been looking for either one, but both seem opportune, and I signed up for them. One is virtual, and the other is in Texas—my first flight since the pandemic lockdown in March 2020.

As a child, I had no idea what I might be when I grew up—no passionate hopes or dreams to be this or that. As an adult, I tended to fall into jobs more than selecting them with a goal in mind.

So here I am in the third third of my life, still deciding what I want to be when I grow up. Only now, I have lots of experience and a pretty good idea of my gifts and talents.

And that knowledge and awareness energizes me—standing on the precipice of the next chapter in my life is thrilling.

My friend Jim used to say, “The best is yet to come.” I am in total agreement, and I am looking forward to what the next chapter of my life holds.

God-vulnerability-transition

Spiritual direction

Forty years ago, when I was considering becoming a religious sister, the Sisters required me to have a spiritual director to help guide my discernment process. That discernment process led me to say “no” to life as a vowed religious and “yes” to ongoing spiritual direction, and I have had a spiritual director ever since.

Whenever I have moved to a new city, finding a spiritual director has been one of my top priorities, right up there with finding a good bakery, a hair stylist and a doctor. Spiritual direction is an integral part of my life.

Perhaps because my spiritual life is so important to me, people have often come to me to talk about their experiences of God or spiritual dilemmas, and I have been an enthusiastic listener. I love hearing how God moves in people’s lives and I also enjoy the challenge of offering suggestions to reframe difficult situations, of inviting people to look from different perspectives.

About fifteen years ago, I took an introductory course to become a spiritual director, but the timing was not right. Now, though, I am enrolled in an Internship in Ignatian Spirituality at a local retreat center, and I am learning about the practice of spiritual direction, which is mostly about listening.

I am reading books written by people who have many years of experience as spiritual directors, and I am learning from their wisdom.

Something that continually surprises me in these books is how many people seem to have an image of God as harsh, demanding and judgmental, something they were taught as children and have carried into adulthood.

It surprises me because I somehow missed that lesson; God has always been loving and forgiving to me.

The image of God I have carried into adulthood is from when I was eight years old and God rescued me, pulling me into a loving embrace and whispering to me, “He can’t hurt you.” My God loves me and wants what is best for me.

When I mess up, God is there to welcome me back, like the father in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). God may not always be pleased with my actions (or sometimes my lack of action), but God always loves me as I am, accepts me as I am and forgives my shortcomings. I am much more likely to be critical and demanding of myself than God is.

Most of us have things from childhood we need to reframe as adults, things we learned that were just plain wrong or at least not helpful. Mine tend to be connected to issues of trust and low self-esteem, and I am continually working to change what I was taught that turned out to be false.

What has been your experience of God? Can you recall a time when you felt God’s delight in you? Can you imagine a conversation with God and hear God call you beloved? Do you ever talk with someone about your spiritual life?

The next chapter

“Don’t buy me any green bananas,” my mother likes to say. We are celebrating her 95th birthday tomorrow, and she jokes that she might not live to see green bananas ripen. On the other hand, she bought a new dishwasher this week.

Her optimism is a constant reminder to me to welcome each day, to embrace what life brings and to look forward to whatever is coming down the road.

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For the most part, my mother does what she wants; she is fiercely independent. When I once called her stubborn, she said, “Don’t call me stubborn. I am not stubborn. I just know what I want.”

And when she knows what she wants, she goes for it with gusto, not caring one whit what others think.

In many ways, I am like my mother (my younger brother likes to point to us and say, tree…apple), but I don’t have her self-assurance in going after what I want; I am easily swayed by the desires and opinions of others.

I am at a crossroads in my life. It is a familiar place because I was basically at the same place a year ago. I made a decision then, announced my decision and then did not follow through because I was dissuaded by what someone else wanted. Ugh.

Again this year, I have come to the same decision about my future, and when I told a friend, she said, “You already made that decision,” sounding like she was speaking to a fickle child. Yes, I make and remake the same decisions. I move toward a new direction and then step back; it is tedious.

I feel stuck at the crossroads. This is one of those ways I wish I was more like my mother—decide and then do it, others’ opinions be damned.

I recently found a note I had written at the beginning of last year, asking, What do I need to do, believe in or allow for myself? It was probably a message to bolster my decision, and it is still relevant.

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Coming home

“That sounds like reading tea leaves,” my spiritual director said. We were talking about discernment and how I discerned God’s will for me in major life decisions. I had just told her the process I had used at twenty-five to decide whether to move to Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, Ohio, or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My decision was made when my car radio play Philadelphia Freedom by Elton John. Not very prayerful, perhaps, but I took it as a sign.

Most of my major life decisions have been made in a similar fashion. When deciding to move to l’Arche, for example, I had wanted to go to l’Arche Toronto, but then a man from Winnipeg randomly appeared and said there was a l’Arche community in Winnipeg. It was a sign.

Or when someone from Midland, Michigan, tracked me down during a time I did not even have a phone and was staying with friends. Their persistence in pursuing me for a job seemed like a sign from God. Off to Midland I went.

When I look back on my life, I look a lot like a leaf blowing in the wind.

But my life also looks like a great adventure that has taken me to places I never would have considered.

Growing up, my future seemed predetermined—after high school, I would work as a secretary for a while, then get married, have babies, be a mom and then a grandmother—all very straight-forward.

But, I stepped off that path early on. I continued working as a secretary at the FBI until I was twenty-seven. Then a new plan formed—I would become an FBI Agent. It made sense; I had worked for the Bureau for eight years and becoming an Agent was a logical move.

Then I was raped, and all plans flew out the window. I spent my thirties bouncing from one job to another and one place to another. Even decisions I made in my forties and fifties were “like reading tea leaves,” once leaving a perfectly good job because of a picture I saw in a newspaper (it was a sign). I can only shake my head!

Now I am learning more about discernment and how to make decisions that are based on what I want and need.

Moving “home” to Michigan seven years ago has felt like I dropped anchor.

I wanted to come home; I needed to come home. Since moving here, I have had offers to move to other places (often to go back to Philadelphia) and I say “no” with confidence. Even if I heard Elton John singing Philadelphia Freedom or the twenty-first century version of that song, I don’t think I would be swayed.

Now the roads I want to travel all start and end here. I can visit other places, and I look forward to the time after the pandemic when that is possible to travel safely, but this is home. This is where I have decided to be.

I only want to be…

I only want to be a SPP, a priest friend used to say. SPP stood for simple parish priest.

I was reminded of that when I read that Padre Pio used to say, I only want to be a poor friar who prays.

Both of those statements got me to thinking of what I want.

Growing up, I had no idea of what I wanted to be. Teachers would suggest possible careers for me—writer or teacher being two of the most popular—but those suggestions sounded beyond my capabilities. My low self-esteem was deeply ingrained.

I was not allowed to go to college after high school, and looking back, I imagine that may have been where I might have discerned my desires.

In my mid-twenties, when I was very involved in my church and attending Mass every day, many people suggested I become a nun, and I did explore that option. But again, it was not something I had always dreamed of (although I did once have a nun doll that I rather liked).

My truth was that I never thought of myself as having a dream; I don’t remember ever saying, I only want to be.…

I tell myself that lots of people don’t know what they want to be when they grow up, and I have learned that lots of people start out as one thing only to discover that is not what they really want after all.

Nurses become pharmaceutical sales representatives, teachers become real estate agents, and businesspeople become nonprofit leaders (or vice versa). I even know a doctor who had been an architect. Imagine all that schooling only to discover it is not what you really wanted.

I know several lawyers who discovered they did not want to be lawyers. Two are now elementary school teachers, another opened a bookstore, and another works in fundraising.

Now, deeply in the third third of my life, I can see that life plays out in ways I and many others could not have imagined. I suppose having a dream, an idea of what one wants to be, can provide a base, but sometimes that dream can get in the way of using our gifts and talents to their fullest.

Padre Pio is a good example of someone who allowed himself to become what people (and God) needed him to be—a sought-after spiritual advisor and confessor. Perhaps he imagined he would have more time for prayer, but he seems to have adapted to the needs of the people who came to him.

A neighbor recently attended a function at my work and commented that she could see that my work is more than a job. You belong to those people, she said, and they belong to you. Growing up, I may not have known what I wanted to be, but my life has worked out better than I probably could have planned.

Have you ever said, I only want to be…? Has the dream changed over time?

Living the life I was meant to live

My Rose of Sharon shrub is finally blooming—a month later than usual—and bees are visiting every morning to gather pollen. As I watch them crawling into the flowers, I wonder where they have been during these weeks of waiting for the flowers to bloom. Do bees anticipate nature the way I do?

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Nature has been snagging my attention this year more than in other years—probably because I am home all the time instead of spending my days in an office. My sunporch is now my office, and the life beyond the windows fascinates me.

Watching the bees gather pollen this morning, I wondered if they gather only what they need and then leave the flower, even if it means some pollen has been left behind. Will another bee enter the same bloom to retrieve the remaining pollen? Do bees have deadlines for the work they need to accomplish?

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The pandemic has given me lots of time to ponder all sorts of things I had not thought of before—like the habits of bees—which has led me to think of how I am going about my work and living my life.

I wasn’t feeling well the other day, and as I rested on the sofa, I thought about the possibility of getting the virus and my possible demise (I am well into the age group most likely to die from the coronavirus).

What is left undone? I asked myself.

Some of the answers are predictable—places I still want to visit, renovating my kitchen, finishing the new garden bed, books I want to read and becoming more proficient in Polish (which is connected to the aforementioned travel—I have a dream of living in Poland for at least a few months after I retire. It is the country of my ancestors, and I love the feeling of connection I have when I am there).

All of these, though, are desires, and I think I could let go of them.

What do I still need to do?

This question gets more to the heart of the matter. Like the bees, I, too, have a job for which I was created. Have I done it? Am I doing it? Am I as determined to fulfill my personal mission as that bees?

After one of my earliest retreats, I read a book about extending the benefits of retreat time, which suggested asking these questions when making decisions:

Is this what I really want?

Will this matter tomorrow? In ten years? At the end of my life?

What do I think? Feel? Need? Want?

It can be easy to get caught up in the daily activities of life, but this pandemic has stripped away much of that casual activity and I am left with a great deal of solitude.

What do I want out of my life? What really matters?

The words from Micah 6:8 come to mind.

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It is both simple and challenging.

What are you pondering during this time?

Telling our stories

I had a dream the other night that I was facilitating a writing workshop, and I woke up remembering a workshop I facilitated about fifteen years ago called Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography. I enjoyed doing it, but I only did it once. Why is that? And why am I dreaming about a writing workshop now?

As I enter 2020, and get closer to retirement age, I am thinking more seriously about my next act. Is my dream offering direction? Is facilitating writing workshops part of my next act? Does the dream have something to do with my own writing?

God-mindfulness-story

The thing about my dreams is that they are not usually as clear as when an angel appeared in Joseph’s dream and told him to flee to Egypt. My dreams usually need some unpacking; the message is in there somewhere and it is up to me to figure it out.

I used to be in a dream group, and I loved sharing my dreams and having others ask probing questions to help me suss out the meaning of my dreams.

Now when I am trying to figure out the meaning of a dream, I imagine what probing questions my dream group members might ask, and I try to look at my dream through their eyes to see if I can get a different perspective.

I believe dreams carry messages for my waking life, and I try to honor my dreams as part of my spiritual practice, as much as I do prayer and meditation.

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So, about writing.

I have been writing this blog for close to seven years, sharing my story in bits and pieces and gaining clarity about what parts of my story are most important to me.

I know my writing has themes, and that the stories I tell and retell have a message and an invitation to me. Those are the stories that I need to hear because those stories hold deeper meaning and healing for me.

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Each of us has a story to tell, and each of our stories holds healing messages. Sharing our stories helps others to get in touch with their own blessings and brokenness and to gain insight into their own healing.

What invitation do your stories hold for you? How are you sharing your story?

Telling our stories

I had a dream the other night that I was facilitating a writing workshop, and I woke up remembering a workshop I facilitated about fifteen years ago called Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography. I enjoyed doing it, but I only did it once. Why is that? And why am I dreaming about a writing workshop now?

As I enter 2020, and get closer to retirement age, I am thinking more seriously about my next act. Is my dream offering direction? Is facilitating writing workshops part of my next act? Does the dream have something to do with my own writing?

God-mindfulness-story

The thing about my dreams is that they are not usually as clear as when an angel appeared in Joseph’s dream and told him to flee to Egypt. My dreams usually need some unpacking; the message is in there somewhere and it is up to me to figure it out.

I used to be in a dream group, and I loved sharing my dreams and having others ask probing questions to help me suss out the meaning of my dreams.

Now when I am trying to figure out the meaning of a dream, I imagine what probing questions my dream group members might ask, and I try to look at my dream through their eyes to see if I can get a different perspective.

I believe dreams carry messages for my waking life, and I try to honor my dreams as part of my spiritual practice, as much as I do prayer and meditation.

God-mindfulness-story

So, about writing.

I have been writing this blog for close to seven years, sharing my story in bits and pieces and gaining clarity about what parts of my story are most important to me.

I know my writing has themes, and that the stories I tell and retell have a message and an invitation to me. Those are the stories that I need to hear because those stories hold deeper meaning and healing for me.

God-mindfulness-story

Each of us has a story to tell, and each of our stories holds healing messages. Sharing our stories helps others to get in touch with their own blessings and brokenness and to gain insight into their own healing.

What invitation do your stories hold for you? How are you sharing your story?

Live radically

Planted in my heart early in life was a desire to live the Gospel as the early Christians had, to live in community and share my possessions. This early Christian way of life was different from what I saw around me, radically different.

For a few years after college, I was affiliated with a congregation of Catholic Sisters, thinking I might become a nun. But when I decided not to enter the community, I was unsure what was next for me.

At the time, I was working for a small nonprofit, matching volunteers with people who have developmental disabilities for one-to-one advocacy relationships. It was important work that had a big impact on the people who were involved, but it did not feel radical enough for me.

Living in community as the early church had (or as a nun might) shaped not just work hours, but every hour of the day, and I wanted that—for my life to be wholly lived for God, to have God be the number one priority in my life. I wanted to invest every day in my God relationship and to be submerged in the spiritual, like a fish in the ocean.

During my garden year, I was continually led to pray with Matthew 25:31-46, the Final Judgment, and I gained greater clarity about how Jesus inhabits vulnerable people so that what we do for “the least” is what we do for Jesus. I remember replacing the word “for” with “to,” and seeing Jesus as the person who is hungry, thirsty, naked, ill, a stranger and imprisoned. “I am doing this (or not) to Jesus,” I would say.

That realization affected how I interacted with every vulnerable person. If I walked by a homeless person without at least saying hello, I knew I was bypassing Jesus, being rude and unfriendly. If I let an opportunity pass to visit someone in hospital or another institution, I knew I was neglecting Jesus, and I imagined Jesus tsk-tsking at me for my lack of concern.

It was not just some poor person I was neglecting; it was Jesus himself; I was deliberately choosing to ignore Jesus.

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After a year of discernment as to how to live Matthew 25 in the most radical way, I moved to a l’Arche community, which seemed pretty radical. Then, perhaps even more radical, I lived and worked with Mennonites.

And what I learned from four years of trying to live some radical way of life was that no one way of life is more radical than another and no one way is better. I had left everything familiar only to discover that the outer structure of my life had very little to do with my interior spiritual journey.

It turned out that the nonprofit work I had been doing was radical enough.

I realized that what helped me live the Gospel most radically was to make God my priority and to spend time in prayer every day; and I could do that anywhere.

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Spiritual experiences

During a recent radio interview, an author talked about a spiritual experience he had when he was eleven years old, and the interviewer asked if it wasn’t “unusual” for an eleven-year-old to be thinking about spiritual things.

The interviewer’s question and tone startled me. The word unusual translated to weird or odd for me, and all I heard was judgment. I thought, “Just because it didn’t happen to you does not mean it is unusual!”

In that moment, I remembered the times I have been called some version of unusual because of my spiritual experiences and how my fear of judgment made me resistant to sharing anything about my prayer life or my relationship with God.

The courage of some people to share their spiritual experiences has always amazed me. But I have not been that courageous. When I got the “isn’t it unusual…” response, I shut down.

I always wanted to fit in—not stand out, so I learned to keep my “God things” to myself, pondering them in my heart but telling only a few people.

Now, though, I am ready to own what others might label unusual. I have finally stopped worrying about fitting in—or at least stopped letting my worry silence me—and want to share what God has shown me. I have been so blessed by my relationship with God and my spiritual experiences; perhaps sharing them will bless others.

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This week I was in Philadelphia, the city where I spent most of my adult life, and I visited some old friends. I tested the waters of my newfound courage by speaking about some of my prayer experiences with friends who have known me for a long time but with whom I had not shared many of my spiritual experiences.

I told them about a particularly intense time of prayer that I call my garden year. This was after college, a time when I was uncertain about my future and was discerning what to do with my life.

During this year of prayer and discernment, I had several visions, including this one:

I saw myself in an old, stone cathedral, the kind with thick walls and no pews. I was lying prostrate on the floor and could feel the hardness of the floor and the coldness of the stone on my face and arms. Then the floor began to shift, and I was being raised up. The floor became a hand, lifting me and supporting me. “I’ve got you,” God said to me.

Reflecting on this vision, it seemed that God was telling me that no matter what kind of work I chose or where I chose to live, God would always be with me—holding me and protecting me. It was a great comfort to me during that time of uncertainty and anxiety.

In the years since my garden year, I have often recalled this vision and the message of God’s personal care for me. God’s love in that moment still comforts me.