I’ve been thinking about the topic of discernment again lately (longtime readers know that this is a big area of fascination for me). How do I know what God wants me to do in this or that situation? If I have a bunch of good options in front of me, which one do I choose? This is the sort of thing I ponder when I’m loading the dishwasher.
Of all the stacks of books I’ve read on this subject, one vignette keeps coming to mind: the famous story of St. Francis of Assisi receiving the message from God in the church at San Damiano.
The more I think about it, the more I believe that this story contains the key to discernment.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the life of St. Francis, he was the son of a wealthy merchant in 12th-Century Assisi, Italy. After living a life full of worldly pleasures, he walked away from it all to pursue holiness. One day he was praying in the dilapidated church of San Damiano, and he heard the voice of God say:
Francis, rebuild my church, which, as you see, is falling down.
So Francis went to collect stones for this church. He gathered them wherever he could find them, even begged for them. For a while after that, he dedicated himself to the simple task of hauling stones.
Every time I come across that part of the story, I always feel like shouting, “No, Francis, you misunderstood! God meant capital-C Church!”
Francis lived in a time when the Church at large wasn’t in great shape. In his part of the world especially, corruption and apathy were big problems. And, as we now know, Francis did end up turning it around through his preaching and his radical simplicity. He was arguably the greatest reformer the Church has ever seen. Far be it from me to question the discernment of a saint, but…ya know…it really does seem like God meant Church, not church, in his message at San Damiano. It seems like Francis misunderstood.
Let’s contrast the way he responded to that message to the way someone like me would heed the same call:
Francis: [Gets up, walks out of the church, and gets to work gathering stones.]
Jen: “‘Rebuild my church’? What church? This one? Or did you mean my home parish church? And what did you mean by ‘rebuild’ — are we talking a symbolic spiritual renewal or physical renovation? If the latter, exterior or interior? Or both? Or, wait…did you mean capital-C Church?!”
Basically, I would have analyzed it, thought about it, talked about it, and done whatever the 12th Century version of blogging about it was. And I would have taken no action until I felt like I had perfect clarity on it — which means I probably never would have done anything at all.
Contrasting my way of discernment with St. Francis‘, it becomes clear that mine is all about control: I feel like it rests entirely on me to get it right. The weight of the world is on my shoulders alone. I act like God is powerless to work things out without me interpreting his call with 100% accuracy. Yet again, my mentality is, “IT’S ALL UP TO ME!!!”
But St. Francis got it right, even if he did misunderstand that message. He understood that the secret to discernment (and, really, the secret to pretty much everything) is humility. He knew that it’s better to get a message wrong and proceed in humility than to get it right and proceed as if it’s all up to you.
I’ve had some big discernment issues come up lately, mostly regarding the next steps for the book now that it’s almost ready to send off. There are a few different directions I could try to go, some of which will close off other options if I pursue them. None of the options are perfect, but none are terrible. They all have drastically different pros and cons. I’ve been saying a lot of hand-wringing prayers, feeling frustrated that I don’t have perfect clarity about which path to choose.
But now, the more I look to St. Francis’ example, the more I see that knowing the mind of God perfectly isn’t necessary for good discernment (not to mention the fact that it isn’t even possible). As long as I am not blocking out God’s voice through intentional disobedience or sin, as long as I am sincerely seeking his will, that’s what matters. Even if I misunderstand some message in prayer and end up taking the “wrong” path, the Lord will work it out, as long as I stay close to him. I pray that I might follow in the footsteps of St. Francis in my discernment with this situation as well as any others. After all, through his humility, God indeed lead him to rebuild the Church…after he rebuilt the church.
I went to confession tonight; well, I tried, anyway. It was one of those big pre-Easter sessions where there were hundreds of people and about a dozen priests. By the time I got in one of the lines there were at least 30 people in front of me, and after waiting a while I decided to go home and try again tomorrow.
But as I was waiting I looked around the building and noticed something interesting. Since it wasn’t a Mass and took place at the end of the day, most people were in their regular street clothes, which made the cultural and socio-economic differences between everyone much more striking than usual.
As people filed in and out of the building I saw pretty much every walk of life represented. I saw some of our parish’s new immigrant families, recently here from Africa and Mexico and the Philippines; I saw women with perfectly coiffed hair and two-carat diamond rings in the same lines with sunburned construction workers with callused hands; I saw young and fit people holding the heavy doors open for people with disabilities; I noticed uniforms of all types, from medical scrubs to fast food shirts to police uniforms. In one of the most amusing juxtapositions, I saw an older gentleman in a pressed white dress shirt and slacks standing next to a young hispanic teenager with baggy pants that included an airbrushed panorama of the life of Tupac down one leg.
Just as I was about to leave, I saw the door at the other end of the church open. A man walked in whom I’ve seen around a couple times before. He always has a kind smile though he looks quite disheveled and wears clothes that are in much need of repair; I think I heard someone say one time that he might be homeless.
As I saw him take a place in line next to woman in crisp business attire, I thought of how different things would seem if I ran into him outside the church. If I passed him on the street, I would certainly think of us as two very different people. I would definitely presume my circumstances to be much better than his. Would some hidden part of my mind slip in the thought that I am somehow better? I hope not; but the mind of a sinner does strange things sometimes. But tonight, here in the church, all of us in line for confession, the truth was clear. St. Francis put it best when he said:
Here is one of the best means to acquire humility; fix well in mind this maxim: One is as much as he is in the sight of God, and no more.
This quote rolled through my head all night. You are what you are in the eyes of God, and no more. Never is that truth more clear than in line for a confessional.
The group of us spanned the range of the socio-economic spectrum in our city, and if you saw us outside the church we would seem to be divided along lines like powerful and powerless, rich and poor, immigrant and native. By external indicators it would seem that the people with jewelry and expensive clothes were in a much better position than the folks in threadbare shirts and muddy workboots. But to look at us all in the warm glow of the church and remember why we were all there was to remember that our differences in terms of anything that really matters are very few, and that the differences that you can see by external appearances matter not at all. Every one of us would end up on our knees in humility before the Lord that night. We are all sinners; we have all fallen far short of the glory of God; we are all in desperate need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. And, most importantly, as each of us would be reminded at the end of our confessions, we are all forgiven, and we are all dearly loved.
- Lies and confession: The case of the stolen pacifier
- Confessing my sins to a priest
- A first confession, Part I
Earlier this week, I had a falling out with a relative. We haven’t spoken since. I’ve been praying about this (though my prayers are admittedly along the lines of “DID YOU SEE THAT?! I am NOT going to apologize. I did not do ANYTHING wrong…”), and I keep getting this nagging feeling that I’m supposed to do something here, and it’s not whine about it more to my husband. As much as it galls me to admit it, I think I’m called to humble myself and re-initiate conversation, even though some pretty bizarre/rude/untrue insults were said to me and it’s my opinion that the other party is 100% in the wrong.
Interestingly, about a month ago a similar situation played out with this same person and I was actually able to immediately call them and offer an olive branch, even though, once again, it was my opinion that I’d been gravely insulted for no reason. The person admitted that they were just upset about something else and we had a beautiful, love-filled conversation about how much we cared about one another. But that was back before the spiritual dry spell. Now my attitude is that I have checked the “forgiveness and humility” box once and now I’m over it. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work? We turn the other cheek once to prove to God we’re serious and then he’ll prevent annoying things from happening to us forever more?
Anyway, every time I try to forget about the whole thing and go back to sulking, this quote from Mother Teresa keeps coming to mind:
It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start.
I’m sort of a living testament to the first part of this quote right now. I would happily go on a mission to feed the poor, to spread the Gospel in hostile territory, to state unpopular opinions for Christ, give gobs of money to charity (if I had it), defend the truth of Christianity to a group of atheists, write and talk and think about how great God is…anything, anything but actually showing love to someone close to me who is on my last nerve.
I think this is yet another manifestation of the “start by carrying the crosses you already have” lesson, one that Tienne was talking about recently. To act in humility, love and charity when you don’t want to, when it’s not fun, when you don’t even feel God’s presence there with you…that’s hard! That’s painful! That’s inconvenient! …And that’s Christianity.
My post from Friday about St. Frances of Rome was supposed to be up on Thursday.
After a fun but completely mentally and physically exhausting day, Thursday afternoon I put the kids down for their naps and flopped into my desk chair for my daily quiet time. It was like a taste of heaven itself to sink into the comfy chair and experience the placid silence of the house. All the cares of the day melted away as I opened up a new document to share yet another way in which God has worked in my life. As usual, the practice of putting the words together, meditating on truth and beauty, almost instantly made me feel prayerful and relaxed. And then –
I had not even finished the first sentence when the silence was shattered by loud banging at the door and then repeated ringing of the doorbell. I jumped to my feet and ran to open the door, only to see an empty porch. I heard giggling somewhere off to my right. Furious, I shut the door and went back to my desk. I couldn’t believe they were doing it again: the kids next door had been ringing the doorbell and running for the past couple of days. The day before I had gone to their house and kindly asked them not to do it anymore, and they assured me they wouldn’t. And here they were, doing it again. I muttered something to myself about it being a good thing they didn’t wake up the children, and went back to typing (although a whole lot less prayerfully than before). I still had a good hour of naptime left, I thought, so it should be fine. And then –
From upstairs I heard a quiet whining. They’d woken up all three children. As I heard the symphony of moaning work up to full-fledged crying, I realized that my coveted quiet time was now gone. Instead of enjoying a peaceful oasis of prayerful reflection, I now had three overtired, crying babies to tend to. The mental downward spiral began. Rather than see it as an ordinary childhood prank, I got myself all worked up about the idea that this was a personal attack, that they had done it solely to ridicule me and make my day a little bit harder.
I eventually caught the neighbor kids outside and went to talk to them. I was mostly civil, but that has a lot more to do with my non-confrontational nature than any sort of cooperation with the Holy Spirit. Once I was back inside, when I would catch glances of them through the window I would look upon them with scorn. I sent my husband an email that described them uncharitably. I couldn’t wait until their parents got home so that I could see to it that these kids got in lots of trouble. I indulged in vengeful thoughts, thinking of how satisfying it would be to hear that their parents got really mad at them.
At some point God gave me the grace to take a step back and look at myself, and what I saw wasn’t pretty. I realized that if I were to put into words the feelings that went through my mind every time I saw the kids whisk by my window on their scooters, it would be something like, “You little jerks! I was trying to have some quiet time for prayerful reflection to write about how we can show Christ’s infinite love to others even in non-ideal circumstances, and you punk kids ruined it!”
Ah, spiritual maturity.
So often I hear about inspiring spiritual concepts, and when I ponder them from the safe confines of the pages of a book I am on fire to make them a part of my life. I thought of St. Frances of Rome as I started writing that last post and thought, “Yes! I too want to show Christ to the world! I want to let God work through me to show love and beauty to others through my actions!”…and then, when the books were put away and I was back in real life, as soon as it got a little bit painful for me, I was out. I wanted to show Christ’s love to the world on my terms, when I could see the situations coming and prepare for them — perhaps by volunteering at a soup kitchen or giving more money to the poor or making my husband’s favorite meal for dinner. But I wanted nothing to do with that whole showing Christ to others thing when I had been the victim of a prank that pushed me to my mental and physical limits by making me deal with a situation that I was not prepared to deal with.
It would have been painful — really, really painful — to truly die to myself in that situation and look at my little neighbors through the eyes of Christ, to ask Mary to lend me her heart and look upon them as if they were my own beloved children. But how might the situation have been different if I had? What kind of big impression might it have made on those kids if I had thrown some cookies in the oven and invited them over so that we could get to know one another better (perhaps even sharing stories from some of my own childhood pranks), instead of just glaring at them through my window? Since I opted for the less painful option (again), we’ll never know.
When I went back to my desk the next day to finish the post, I shook my head and smiled when I read St. Frances’ biography. Talking about St. Frances of Rome had been something of an afterthought, a seemingly random topic that just popped into mind because I wanted to update my blog but couldn’t think of anything else to write about. I’d seen her story before, but the only thing I remembered was that she was an example of someone who truly brought God into her marriage and selflessly loved others. That was the only point I was trying to make in the post.
But given the way that day had played out, it was like God hitting me over the head with a 2×4 when I re-read her story and saw that probably the most salient aspect of her life was that she selflessly followed God’ will even when it was very painful, even when it was not her will. When I saw the question her confessor once asked her that marked a turning point in her life, it just about jumped off the screen at me:
Are you crying because you want to do God’s will or because you want God to do your will?
I thought of myself the day before, just about crying over being derailed from supposedly doing “God’s will” through quiet reflection and writing, and felt like maybe I needed to look over my shoulder in case Jesus was standing right there. God could not have made himself any more clear to me had he been there in person to tap me on the shoulder. Point taken.
It was stunning to see why St. Frances of Rome had come to mind seemingly out of the blue the day before. God had a message for me, delivered through her. I smiled when I got to the end of her biography and saw the recommended prayer for her intercession. As I said the prayer aloud, I felt the warmth of knowing that she was looking out for me that day, praying for me and for anyone else who’s ever lost sight of what it really means to do God’s will:
Saint Frances of Rome, help us to see the difference between what we want to do and what God wants us to do. Help us to discern what comes from our will and what comes from God’s desire.