I close my eyes I see myself on a mountain path. What a fascinating adventure, as I discover the beauty of creation, this place in which the Maker of all has left so many clues of His care for us.
With each step I take, trampling upon the loose gravel, I observe the pine needle sand the flowery meadow, where I can barely see where the path will lead. I am struck by the deep blue of the gentian flowers and the bright yellow of the alpine anemones.
A stag has walked this trail; I can tell from the hoof prints I see. And what are those holes in between the rocks? It’s the groundhog’s burrow. Everything speaks; and yet, a careless tourist could be clueless about the beautiful reality surrounding him.
At times our spiritual journey resembles this tourist: it is both distracted and clueless. The Church, as a wise mother, gives us a very precious instrument to navigate the interior life and recognize the signs that the Lord has left for us. “One form of discernment is exercised in reading the signs of the times which leads to recognizing the presence and action of the Spirit in history. Moral discernment, instead, distinguishes what is good from what is bad. Still another form, spiritual discernment, aims to recognize temptation so as to reject it and proceed on the path to fullness of life. With this in mind, the focus is on vocational discernment, that is, the process by which a person makes fundamental choices, in dialogue with the Lord and listening to the voice of the Spirit, starting with the choice of one’s state in life.”
Each of us should ask: Lord, what do you desire me to do? This is the most important question of life. And it is the type of question that we cannot ask only once, maybe when we are young, but rather every day as we face different decisions to be made. And yet we know that it is not that easy to ask nor to wait for an answer. A few days ago, I was speaking with Jennifer, who confirmed this very point “Sister, when I ask God what He desires from me I seem to be talking to a wall. He doesn’t answer. How can I understand? How can I recognize his voice?”
I thought about the young Samuel, whose story you can read in the Old Testament in the first Book of Samuel. The story of his call shows the difficulty of truly recognizing the voice of God. Only after three attempts does Samuel finally arrive at that true form of listening that is at the heart of any true discernment. It is then that He says “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” (1Sam 3:10).
In order for us to be able to pronounce these same words we must have the openness of heart which the master of discernment, St. Ignatius of Loyola, calls interior indifference. This availability requires first of all an attitude of trust in God, the good Father who provides for each of our needs, who knows us and loves us. After all, He created us and desires our good. Who better than Him can guide us?“LORD, you have probed me, you know me…You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb and your eyes saw me unformed; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be.”(cf. Psalm 139).
The Lord desires life and peace for us. Standing firm in this conviction we can truly open ourselves up to Him, putting aside our personal plans; not because they are wrong or evil, but because they might be limited and incomplete. When I presented this perspective to Andrew he replied: “Sister Elena, I am afraid that God will ask me the opposite of what I want and what I have always dreamed for my life. I cannot trust Him!”
How often do we share in Andrew’s fears, forgetting that God is a good Father! We fear that God takes advantage of our trust by asking always more. If you give Him your hand He’ll take your whole arm. It’s better to be safe and not to put ourselves too much out there. We end up pulling back.
Often though, when we do that, we are left with a feeling of loneliness, frustration and unhappiness. Sarah once told me:“I was very struck by the fact that God was essentially showing I was attached to many ideas I had about what my future was supposed to entail and what I would do in my life. There were many times of frustration because I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I realize now that I was struggling because I wasn’t trusting God; I was trusting the world.”
How can we truly listen to the Lord? How can we recognize Him? “The Spirit speaks and acts through the happenings in the life of each person, which in themselves are inexplicit or ambiguous, insofar as they are open to different interpretations.” (Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment).
The Holy Spirit is the interior Master that guides our every choice so that, in our journey through life, we may not get lost,become distracted, or lose our way. It is the gift we receive in Baptism and is confirmed in the Sacrament of Confirmation. When we place ourselves in the School of the Holy Spirit we walk surefootedly. “‘Interpreting’” desires and inner movements requires an honest confrontation, in light of God’s Word, with the moral demands of the Christian life, always seeking to apply them in the concrete situation that is being experienced. This effort leads the one who does it, not to settle for the legalistic logic of the bare minimum, but instead to seek a way to make the most of one’s gifts and possibilities, which results in an attractive and inspiring message for young people. The work of interpretation is carried out in an internal dialogue with the Lord, fully engaging a person’s abilities. The assistance of an experienced person in listening to the Spirit, however, is a valuable support that the Church offers, a support which would be unwise to disregard.”(Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment).
Having a spiritual guide is a precious gift that we can give to ourselves. Far from being a substitute to our freedom, he or she offers great assistance to our spiritual life, helping us to keep every movement of our heart oriented towards the Lord, and to recognize the inspirations that come from the Holy Spirit.
After a year of spiritual direction, Corbin once told me “Spiritual direction has helped me grow in many ways; however, I think the most impactful is in how it taught me to approach discernment. Before, I thought of discernment (for any decisions in life: career, vocation, etc.) as the pursuit of some set and optimal outcome or path that is the key to happiness and pleasing God. In my mind, this outcome was cloaked in the fog of future uncertainty and something that must be searched out. In Spiritual Direction, I learned that the very essence of discernment is simply developing a relationship with God. When one gets to know Him in a sincere way, He becomes the pursuit, and any path or outcome that is taken with knowing, loving, and serving God as the aim becomes optimal. This has been a tremendous help for me as I progress through college and prepare for the next stage of my life.”
This is Jesus’ model. How many episodes in the Gospels speak of a personal accompaniment: the calling of the disciples, the encounter along the road to Emmaus, the conversation with the Samaritan Woman, with Peter, with the woman caught in adultery, and with the young rich man. I recall the words of a beautiful Advent hymn by Fr. Marco Frisina that reads “You made yourself a companion on the journey, you are by our side and lead us through the darkness. Out of love you made yourself a pilgrim as you walk with us” This is truly so! He is the Emmanuel, the God with us, as we recently celebrated at Christmas.
We can therefore say that discernment is the art of recognizing the presence of the God who is close to us, who is within us. Like the person that climbs a mountain, we do not want to be distracted but rather keep an eye on the tracks that He left for us. This is then the time to look at our personal life and ask ourselves: is my gaze (both the interior and the exterior gaze) a superficial or an attentive one? Do I let myself be carried away by the world and by a whirlwind of activities or am I capable of stopping to listen?
“There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD—but the LORD was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake—but the LORD was not in the earthquake;after the earthquake, fire—but the LORD was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound.When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave in the presence of the LORD.” (1Kings 19:11-13).
May the Holy Spirit, whom we invoke in prayer, help us: “The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” (Rm 8:26).
At the start of this new year, let us surrender more intentionally to the Holy Spirit. Mary, Spouse of the Holy Spirit, pray for us.
Suggested concrete resolution:
I will commit to invoking the Holy Spirit’s presence at the beginning of each day, of each prayer time, and before any decision I have to make.
 “Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment: Preparatory Document” — Synod of Bishops [http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/synod/documents/rc_synod_doc_20170113_documento-preparatorio-xv_en.html].