Unravel the mystery of your call
Our calling may not always be clear to us, but we can lean into it through prayer—that is, our own unique language and relationship with God. (Photo: Bangkit Ristant, Unsplash)
SINCE YOU ARE READING this article, chances are you’re in a significant moment in your life. You are wondering how God is calling you and how you want to be fully alive and fully yourself. Perhaps you feel that little stirring within you, that magnetic draw to follow your heart, but also that oh-my-God-is-this-for-real-cold-sweat fear that stops you dead in your tracks.
No worries! It is well with your soul when you have these feelings of both excitement and terror. It is what philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto named as mysterium tremendum et fascinans. (You know it’s legit when it’s in Latin!) Mysterium tremendum et fascinans can be translated as “fearful and fascinating mystery” where we are both attracted and fascinated by the mystery unfolding within and around us, but also fearful, even terrified, at the awesomeness and overwhelmingness of that mystery.
I have always found the simultaneous presence of these two things—tremendum et fascinans—to be a good indicator that I’m in the discernment zone. Often, as I have discerned things in my life, these feelings come unbidden, sneaking up on me until I can no longer bear to pretend that everything in my heart is normal! I have to stop and calm myself and say, “Oh yeah, I know this feeling,” and then I can take steps to discern. Other times, I know a big moment is on the horizon, like when I graduated from university. I knew that it would be a huge transition for me, and I was aware that I wanted to take each step with God. Still, tremendum et fascinans, fear and attraction, accompanied me like a couple of good buddies that wanted the best for me.
Whether you intentionally enter into discernment or it sneaks up on you, discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit who leads us to be aware of and attentive to how God is moving and calling us in our life. It is a “method for seeking to find God’s will in concrete situations,” writes the Jesuit priest Father Jules Toner, S.J. in Discerning God’s Will.
Breathe and relax
The very first step of discernment is to take a deep breath and relax into the presence of God. This is about your relationship with God, the one about whom the psalmist writes, “You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb,” (Ps. 139:13). Discernment begins with drawing close to this God and allowing ourselves to be embraced lovingly by God. Remember this is a relationship, a sharing of hearts with the One whom we love and who loves us dearly.
Take this first step to prayer, asking God to show to you God’s love and affection for you and to help you in this journey of discernment.
Sort what hinders or helps
The second step of discernment is to open ourselves to God and to sort out the things in our life that might be hindering our relationship with God and those that are helping in our relationship with God. It’s kind of like a spring cleaning of the soul where we finally clear out all those boxes—unwanted stuff for the thrift store and strange random parts that belonged to something we no longer even own. Afterward we have more spaciousness within which to move, think clearly, and make new choices. We also may discover hidden treasures—my old, tattered copy of A Wrinkle in Time that I loved literally to pieces, a cross pendant from a now-deceased, dear friend that says, “Behold, I am with you always” (Matt. 28:20)—things that remind us of who we are and whose we are and continue to support us in our life journey.
Be active in this mental and spiritual sorting out, and continually move toward that which frees you to be you and to draw close to God.
Lean into God
The third step of discernment, now that you’ve got some spiritual spaciousness to move around, is to ground yourself in God, to look at your life, your path, and your choices in light of God’s will. Clearly a good idea, eh? Well, yes, as long as your definition of clear is “clear as mud!” Knowing “God’s will” is rarely, if ever, a crystal-clear process. It is more like bike riding at night where you can only see 500 feet in front of you, with successive distances coming into the light only as you move forward. Everything else remains shrouded in darkness.
But we have to remember that God’s will is not some unknowable secret that we either pass or fail. God’s will is more like God’s deepest desire for us, a desire to see us flourish and to love God and love others, including all of creation. How that desire manifests itself is really about how best it works in your life.
God’s will may not always be clear to us, but we can lean into it through prayer—that is, our own unique language and relationship with God, especially as God has drawn close to us through Jesus, called Emmanuel, or “God with us.” We have many other things to help our discernment too—the scripture and tradition of the church, the saints among us and those dwelling now in light, and God’s revelation all around us and within us. It is also important to find someone who can serve as a spiritual director, a kind of mentor in discerning God’s movement in your life.
Choose “helps” that bring light along your journey, and always be open to the little surprises of grace in unexpected places!
Avoid “analysis paralysis”
The fourth step of discernment is to not allow yourself to get stuck in “analysis paralysis.” We’ve all been there. We think about, pray about, obsess about, and talk about something so much that we end up freezing because it feels like there are endless options and perspectives. When I would get stuck like this as I was discerning a call to become an IHM Sister, my spiritual mentor and friend, Margaret, would quote Frederick William Faber’s book, Growth in Holiness, or the Progress of the Spiritual Life:
Now is the time for courage, now is the trial of our real worth. We are beginning to travel the central regions of the spiritual life, and they are, on the whole, tracks of wilderness…. The soul I am addressing … [is] greatly inclined to sit down and give the matter up as hopeless…. For the love of God do not sit down. It is all over with you if you do.
It may feel like we are getting absolutely nowhere, Faber says, but keep going on and trust your feet on the ground and the horizon in the distance. That horizon, of course, is the Holy Mystery of God, which beckons us forward and is with us every step of the way.
Do not be afraid, then, to act, to take a step forward, to move out of your comfort zone and into a space of possibility. Do not sit down but keep pursuing God even while God is pursuing you.
These, then, are some of the basic steps of discernment, ones that easily overlap one another and are not necessarily sequential or “one and done.” Discernment is more like an art and it should be free-flowing, creative, and as unique as you are. These steps are time-tested guides along the way that have enriched many.
Be assured of my prayers and the prayers of the many people who love you and desire that you live fully alive and fully as yourself.
A version of this article first appeared as a presentation in the NRVC webinar series “Religious Life Today: Learn it! Love it! Live it!” Find more about the series here: nrvc.net/webinars.
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