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Posted by on Nov 15, 2015

Families and Faith: Helping Your Children to be Faith-Filled

Families and Faith: Helping Your Children to be Faith-Filled

woman-and-child-RenoirFamilies today are struggling with the challenge to fit in a day all the things they need to do. School, childcare, meals, commute, work, marriage, parenting, pets, athletics, extended family, finances, church, house, local and broader civic issues, friends, medical needs, and recreation all require thought and planning. Everyone wants their children to be happy and, for parents with faith, this includes wanting their children to be close to God, part of a community of believers, and to have a faith-filled life.

Parenting Styles

Usually families adopt some form of three parenting styles: Authoritarian, Permissive or Dialogue. The style used may vary based on situation and/or age of the child.

Some rules, such as “No running into the street,” start out as authoritarian with a very young child but with older children there can be a dialogue about the reasons. Brushing a two-year-old’s teeth is a decision from the top down (authoritarian). Later on there can be conversations about it. Permissive parenting, in which the children run the house and are allowed to break the rules or to not do the chores is usually never helpful. At times, when a child has exams, she can skip her chores or go to bed late, but that can be decided in a negotiation about the special situation. Going to church for parents with faith will be at the top of the hierarchy of choices about the family schedule. Hopefully the parents know that they need to be there — to hear the Scriptures, the preaching, or to receive the Eucharist. There may be exceptions, but being consistent will make the liturgy a natural and essential part of the rhythm of life. Church can also be a place for other involvements for children, such as religious education, roles in the liturgy, youth group, outreach, or choir. Making the liturgy more meaningful for children by providing a book to read or color can also help them engage in the Mass and enjoy it more.

But all of this will not necessarily help children to have a relationship with God or stay in the Church. A big help in this direction is if the parents have a living relationship with God, can naturally talk about it, and enjoy spending time with their children. The best approach is both organic to the parents’ entire orientation and planned strategies. Parents who know and experience God and the saints in their lives think, feel and do everything out of a spiritual orientation and discernment. In their adult relationships, home/family, work, and the world, everything hopefully is referred to God and what God is loving for them to love (even learning to trust him in little things like losing your keys). Feelings and actions that come from fear can be recognized and given to God (Discernment). If a parent grows in discernment and asks for wisdom and courage, God will give it and everything goes much better. Planning, conversations, and family problems — all are more productive. Everyone in the family can grow in peace, understanding, generosity and trust in God.

Stress and worry are a part of family life. Painful things will happen. Feeling loved by God will not prevent or remove all suffering. It will reduce anxiety and even anger. For the faith-filled family, unavoidable forms of suffering can be understood as a sharing in Jesus’ redemptive work in the world. (Mk. 10:44 ff.) We also know that he never leaves us. He asks us to lean on him and ask him for the grace to bear the heavier loads. Daily prayer — both talking to God and listening to God — can help parents to keep perspective and not take personally the problems that will come. (For work and faith ideas, see: Heroic Leadership by Chris Lowney, Loyola Press: Chicago, 2005. Excellent, well written.)

Protecting Children, then Letting Them Go

One of the biggest issues that comes up in child-raising is that of control. Parents are responsible for working through the process of protecting their children and then letting go of them. Parents pour love, energy, resources, and sacrifices into family life but do not “own” their children, who in fact are gifts from God. At some point, offspring will start making their own decisions and these may not reflect the values of the parents. They may have abilities and desires that are foreign to the parents. There will be a period of time when children are learning who they are and trying out many experiences available to them. If the child has been exposed to a healthy and holy way of dealing with decisions (e.g. trust in God and discernment) in the family from infancy, they have a very good chance of seeking what God wants for them.

Adults and children can develop an interior life with God in which they recognize when they are doing actions from fear, insecurity, laziness, and/or to impress others. Children encounter many negative things in their lives both in themselves and others. Bullying, cheating, and lying are all around them. There is no harm is letting them know about the influence of the Evil Spirit too when they are older. In middle school they will encounter many forms of social climbing and meanness right next to kindness and generosity. Parents can spend time by both listening to the child and talking about the fact that God will be with them as they make the choice to be friendly to an outcast or to own up to a bad choice.

Understanding the developmental stage of your child is important for both their moral understanding and experience of faith. The work of the religious psychologist Dr. James Fowler is very helpful. His work is summarized in an article entitled “How God Invites Us to Grow: the Six Stages of Faith Development” by Richard J. Sweeney, Franciscan Media, Catholic Update, No. CU1087.

Discernment as Part of Family Life

God dwells within us and will help us sort out destructive feelings from those of courage, strength, hope, and self-worth. If parents are doing this themselves day after day and sharing this at times with their family, the children will share their successes in being strong and discerning too. Listening to our kids, wanting to know their interests and worries, will help them to feel understood. The goal is not control. The goal is that we surrender to God our desires, worries, and problems and let him tell us how best to work with them. The prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola called The Examen is very helpful in going over each day what is working and not working in my thoughts and behaviors and what I can ask God to help me with. There are many modern versions of this prayer available. Children can be taught to do this little review without dwelling on the mistakes but simply asking Jesus to be there when I am feeling pressure.

It is not by accident that our present Pope Francis speaks constantly of dialogue and seeking understanding. According to Francis, we should never be frightened of being open to understanding those who disagreed with us. (Pope Francis, homily October 4 in the Mass opening the Synod on the family, St. Peter’s Basilica) To the pope that does not mean that we cannot condemn certain philosophies and behaviors, but it does mean that we must understand and love others no matter what. Once we surrender our lives and our children’s lives to God, we can expect and ask God to help us. (E.g. blind Bartimaeus, Mk. 10:46-52) In his encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis points out that in creating a new human ecology ​​in which we all nurture the Earth, marriage ​and family are a natural base for this kind of universal solidarity. The self-giving of marriage can be taught to children, who can learn to care for the Earth and share its resources with others. Parents and children can forge a strong bond while living these values together. Parents can communicate the ways in which God reveals his love in the beauty, mystery and rhythms of Creation.

Practical Suggestions

Some practical suggestions for family life are to selectively sprinkle in your talk how you react to problems or make decisions out of your relationship with God, find times for family prayer, and ask your kids individually how things are going. One time for prayer is before dinner. Take a little time to ask people at the table if there is someone or something they would like everyone to prayer for. This can also be a bedtime ritual. It is great if parents purchase appropriate lives of the saints and read parts to younger children each night, etc. Acknowledging to a child that you know they have a concern: an exam, tryouts for a sport, a difficult subject at school, a dance coming up and saying, “I’ll pray for you,” is a good thing if it is not constant. Children are very perceptive. If you are sincere and are seeking God, they will be too. But, if God is abstract for you, children will sense this. You might consider seeing if there is a spiritual director in your parish to talk to or a retreat center in the area where you can go on a retreat, spend a few hours, or see a spiritual director. There are also wonderful websites to visit regularly, even for just 10 minutes, that have articles, mini-retreats and music. A wonderful article on prayer,  “Never Lose Heart” by Robert P. Maloney, CM, for example, is found on the America Magazine website.

Discussion (or Reflection) Questions

1. Have I experienced God or the saints ?  In what ways?

2. Do I pray? What kinds of prayer am I familiar with? Speaking and listening?

3. Can I share my faith or thoughts about spiritual things in a natural way or is this difficult?

Image: “Woman and Child” – Renoir – public domain

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Posted by on Jan 21, 2015

Martin Luther King, Jr. — A Gift of One’s Self

Martin Luther King, Jr. — A Gift of One’s Self

 

January 19, 2105 is the Martin Luther King holiday in the United States. The first reading of the day in the lectionary is Hebrews 5: 1-10. Christ’s adherence to the will of the Father has led Him on a path of suffering, death and glorification. Dr, King took this path of God’s will to which we are all called.

“In the days when he was in the Flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” – Hebrews 5: 5-10

The Feast of Martin Luther King, Jr is not a feast of the Roman calendar, but it is a national holiday to celebrate a civil rights leader and a Baptist minister who advocated non-violence. Today is a tribute to all who work for human and civil rights for African-Americans and all people. Many of us are of an age to remember the Reverend King. The three television networks brought us live coverage in black and white of the marches, the sit-ins, and the fire hoses and police dogs that were part of the black struggle against white oppression. There was the famous “I have a dream speech” at the Lincoln Memorial. The haunting last speech before Dr. King was gunned down, “I Have Been to the Mountain Top” in which he saw the promised land of freedom, “I may not get there with you but I have seen it.”

Like all of us, Dr. King was an imperfect human being. Like all of us he was a sinner, but his redemption, like ours, is based in obedience to Christ, the source of eternal salvation for all. We know that precisely because Jesus is the Son of God, His will is perfectly aligned with that of the Father. Since Jesus was truly divine and truly human, his obedience came at a human cost. “In the days when he was in the Flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, AND HE WAS HEARD because of His Reverence.

In his work of announcing the kingdom, healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, Jesus did not shy away from doing the will of his Father. But he knew where his call was leading. It became more and more obvious that if he stayed true to the person he was — the Divine Word become human — that His hands that had been raised in blessing and healing would be nailed to the cross. With loud cries and tears he asks the Father to take this cup away, but he is true to his calling and the will of the Father. “Let not my will be done but yours.” It is through this obedience that Jesus goes to his excruciating death on the cross and to the glory of the resurrection. He WAS HEARD because of His Reverence.

For Dr. King, Mahatma Gandhi, all Christian saints and martyrs, and ourselves, this call to obedience is not only a question of observing certain commandments but a deeper call to be the person God created us to be, to be at one with God, to hear at one with God, to accept God’s truth about our mission in life to advance the kingdom of heaven.

There were many black leaders in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Dr. King didn’t need to have such a high profile in the movement. Yet it was something that Dr. King was drawn into despite all of the obvious risks to himself and his family. He was born and raised in Atlanta in a strictly segregated society. Dr. King knew what happened to black people who broke the rules. He certainly could have taken an easier type of ministry, but he heard the Word of God, the Will of the Father for his life and his death.

Most of us think that we are not called to such types of work. We are certain that God’s will for us involves something less “glamorous,” nothing so heroic as what Jesus and the saints like Mother Teresa and Dr. King did. But I wonder. All of us have that little voice within us to do something special, something only we can do, but we know that it will cost us. Dr. King used his gift of oratory, of speaking and preaching, to give voice to the prayers and aspirations of the millions enslaved and oppressed using the language, song, and rhythm that the Spirit had given them in their bondage and oppression.

Many of us see fewer years ahead of us than the ones that have fled so swiftly. The babies we held are now grown adults with their own babies. What are we called to do to announce the Kingdom of Heaven and to make it a reality? What can we do to end poverty, hunger, oppression, and violence? How do we draw closer to God and each other in prayer? How do we move toward reconciliation and forgiveness?

We can only do it if we take the time to be quiet and to listen — to pay attention to that little voice that comes to us or the massive cry that comes to us in outrage at the atrocities of the world visited upon the young, the poor, the defenseless. There is a price to be paid, and eternal life to be gained.

 

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Posted by on Jan 20, 2015

Why Do Children Suffer? Pope Francis Speaks to Filipino Youth

Why Do Children Suffer? Pope Francis Speaks to Filipino Youth

 

The video and the text are largely in Spanish, though a simultaneous translation into English is included. This is a summary of a small part of the Pope’s extemporaneous speech.

During a presentation to young people in the Philippines, the Holy Father set aside his prepared text to answer a question that had been raised by a 12 year old girl who had been rescued from the street. Tearfully weeping, Glyzelle Palomar, recounted the miseries of her life in a few words and asked, “Many children are abandoned by their own parents, many are victims of many terrible things such as drugs and prostitution. Why does God permit these things even though the children are not at fault.Why do so few people come forward to help?” In this video we can view the scene and the Pope’s compassionate embrace of the child.

What response is possible to the perennial problem of evil? Pope Francis did not try to evade the question with platitudes. He took the question head-on, educating about 30,000 of the faithful and challenging them. First, he noted the shortage of women among those making presentations and he emphasized the importance of the point of view of women. The Pope said that women pose questions which men could never stop trying to understand, that is, never grasp.

We can understand something, added the Holy Father, “when the heart reaches the place in which it can ask the questions and cry. Only through tears do we arrive at a true compassion which can transform the world.” Pope Francis described a common, worldly type of compassion as one in which we just take a coin out of our pocket. He added that if Christ had shown this type of compassion, he would simply have spent a little time with a few people and gone back to the Father. Jesus could comprehend our lives, the Pope said, when He was able to cry and did cry.

He notes, “In today’s world, there is a lack of crying. Although the marginalized, the poor, and the outcasts cry, those of us who do not lack anything essential do not cry. Only those eyes that have been cleansed by tears are able to so see things as they are.”

The Pope challenged the faithful. “Let us not forget (this young woman’s) testimony. She asked the great question ‘why do children suffer?’ crying. And the great answer all of us can give is to learn how to cry.”

 

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Posted by on Jan 20, 2015

¿Por qué Sufren los Niños? Papa Francisco a Los Jóvenes en Filipinas

¿Por qué Sufren los Niños? Papa Francisco a Los Jóvenes en Filipinas

 

El Santo Papa dejó su texto preparado para contestar la pregunta que le había puesto una niña rescatada de la calle.  Con lágrimas, gemiendo, Glyzelle Palomar contó en pocas palabras las miserias que había padecido y preguntó, “Hay muchos niños abandonados por sus propios padres, muchas víctimas de muchas cosas terribles como las drogas o la prostitución. ¿Por qué Dios permite estas cosas, aunque no es culpa de los niños? ¿Y por qué tan poca gente nos viene a ayudar?” En este video podemos ver el escenario y la compasión del abrazo del Santo Padre.

¿Qué respuesta es possible al perenne problema de la maldad? El Papa Francisco no trataba de evadir la cuestión con palabras blandas y dulces. Enfrentó la cuestión enseñándoles a unos 30 mil de los fieles y desafíandoles. Primero notó la escasez de mujeres en las presentaciones y la importancia del punto de vista feminino. Dijo el Pontífice que la mujer se puede hacer preguntas que los hombres “no terminamos de entender.”

Podemos entender algo añadió El Santo Papa “cuando el corazón alcanza a hacerse la pregunta y a llorar.” Solamente por lágrimas llegamos a la verdadera compasión que se puede transformar al mundo. El Papa Francisco describió una compasión mundana por lo cual solamente sacamos una moneda del bolsillo. Añadió que si hubiera Cristo demonstraba esa compasión, hubiera pasado unos momentos con algunas personas, y se hubiera vuelto al Padre. Jesucristo entendió nuestros dramas, dijo El Papa, cuando fue capaz de llorar y lloró.

Declaró, “Al mundo de hoy le falta llorar, lloran los marginados, lloran los que son dejados de lado, lloran los despreciados, pero aquellos que llevamos una vida más o menos sin necesidades no sabemos llorar. Solo ciertas realidades de la vida se ven con los ojos limpiados por las lágrimas.”

El Papa desafió a los fieles “No olvidemos este testimonio. La gran pregunta ‘por qué sufren los niños’ la hizo llorando. Y la gran respuesta que podemos hacer todos nosotros es aprender a llorar.”

 

 

 

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Posted by on Oct 24, 2013

Seeking God, Decision-Making and the Ignatian Examen

Seeking God, Decision-Making and the Ignatian Examen

three-candles-by Alice Birkin

Finding Peace and Freedom

We cannot find peace if we are arguing with God in whatever form we perceive the sacred. The Divine Reality loves us without reservation. We cannot find happiness and peace in any other place. Even non-believers will only find peace in the Reality that has created the universe and encloses all of it within Itself. God has given everything in the universe love and freedom. God’s love is total. It encompasses everything that promotes our growth and transformation. We have been created for union with this sacred reality, so we learn and experience during all our lives ways to be like God: to be knowing, understanding, wise, discerning, reverent, courageous and in awe of the transcendent. Everything in the universe has degrees of freedom. The nature of everything determines the degrees of freedom. I cannot flap wings and fly. I cannot breathe under water just as I am. I will always be a middle child. But, there are many ways in which I can determine my course in life, work with limitations or with strengths.

As I live my life I have many possibilities before me. I also have a certain amount of freedom. If I believe in the reality of God, I see myself in a relationship with God, a God who is close or distant. All religious and spiritual traditions have concepts of the relationship of human powers and divine powers. These relationships involve change, improvement, decision, freedom, human failure, consequences and divine intervention. The theological terms often used for these phenomena are: conscience or consciousness, grace, nature, discernment, acts, harm or sin and moral good, and judgment or karma.  If I am thinking about getting more money I have a number of reasons as to why I want more money, what I possibly want to do to get money, and what the pros and cons are with various options. I can look at the decision from many angles. I can line up my ideas and come up with what I think will work the best. I can talk to others or read various sources. I can also present this to God in prayer and say: “Please tell me what You see as best for me.”

This is not easy to do because most people feel that God does not think of my little side to things; God is only interested in the Bigger Picture and saints or martyrs. In fact, God is very interested in individuals. God as most Westerners conceive of God is a personal Reality who sees us fully and knows exactly what would make us happy. We are still not too sure about that because it sounds too mature for us. Attending to our health and saving money may sound difficult, so long term happiness planning may seem very hard. I am the first to say that buying something new sounds like fun. But, wanting to surrender to God as our source of wisdom and a guide is the only way to have peace.  We are also very rational in the West and often think God is so intangible or un-provable as to be neither reliable nor a reality with which we can have a two-way communication.

Time for Centering

Taking time each day to practice centering in God for the direction of our day and our lives is necessary. There are many ways to do this: journaling, walking a labyrinth, and having a spiritual counseling session are ways to think and pray through where I am in my life, where I feel drawn, and what God sees in me that I might benefit from.  Another way to have an experience of being counseled by God is the Ignatian Examen.

Very briefly, sit quietly and think of or imagine things you are truly grateful for. They can be big or small: Clean sheets, good food, your dog, ways you have been loved, accomplishments, a family member or friend, your house or job etc.  Tell God what you are grateful for. See, if God has given you things you are grateful for: a rescue in life, money you needed, safety, a trip you took.  Then think of the things in yourself or your life which you have chosen that have harmed you, undermined your well being, or side-tracked you.  These can also be big or small: being resentful, feeling superior, or not being willing to do something new that you need to do. Ask God to help you with these fears or hurts that have held you away from Him. Lastly, ask God how you can spend the next part of your day or life doing what is best.  You will get answers. You can surrender to what is best and see how much more peace-filled you are. I do this every day, sometimes more than once. I act on what I hear and I am much more at peace.

Image: Three Candles by Alice Birkin, public domain

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Posted by on Sep 19, 2012

The First Fruit of the Spirit is Love

The First Fruit of the Spirit is Love

Driftwood Flowers

Writing about LOVE is daunting. What can one say about it that has not already been said? How many songs and poems, plays and stories have been written about it?

But the hesitation about this is based on a false premise. The false premise is that our lives and thoughts are set and not constantly changing. Change scares us but change also frees us and gives us hope.  So, LOVE is always new in us. Everyday we grow and greet life with new thoughts and feelings. These may be negative, but even if they are, we are exploring new ways to reach for love, to know love, to experience love, to be angry at love.

Recently I was wrestling with the tremendous variety in love. From the Greeks forward we know the ancient spectrum of types of love: from pleasure to sacrificial spiritual love — pure altruism.  I have always considered the “ideal love” — the purely altruistic love — the standard against which I judge my feelings and actions. I put myself down for having “Mixed Motives.” I see that I often pursue people for double motives. I may want to help that person or validate that person, but he or she also makes me feel good or important or useful. Does that nullify my help to them? From the point of view of suffering, especially suffering from things such as depression or trauma, the love of things we enjoy, including relationships and sexuality, is rare and to be sought. Many people enjoy very little. If they could get pleasure out of a painting or a meal, it would be a good thing, possibly a very holy thing. So, love should not be interpreted as something free of my concerns or enjoyment. It is possible both to please God and others and also please myself.

Teilhard de Chardin, in The Divine Milieu, speaks of being both attached and detached at the same time. We should love what we do or enjoy but we at the same time must surrender control over the processes or outcomes. Love involves the risk of caring, of getting involved. But if an affinity or pursuit is taking us away from God, we have to detach ourselves from it. So, love includes the maturity of wisdom, of surrendering to what is best, not just to what I want.

Love is said to be generous. Paul in I Corinthians 13 presents a description of extraordinary generosity and lack of ego, patience and kindness. How can love be so generous and still please me? There is a double answer to this. First, we believe that everything is grace. The very ability to love without counting the cost to us, is a sign of God’s work in us. So, being able to do loving actions is a sign that God is close. Secondly, it is a very good thing to see ourselves as loving. We don’t need to feel like failures at life. It is not a prideful thing to know ourselves as happy, as someone who is doing well, or as someone who enjoys giving in appropriate ways.

Love requires discernment. When love is expressed as giving, it can be beneficial but it can also be harmful. Actions that seem to help people may actually be robbing people of their independence or need to do things on their own. Loving actions may be good in themselves, such as cooking a meal for the homeless, but not actually be loving because I may really need to use that time to do something else, such as study for an exam.  As we all know, sometimes the most loving thing is not to do something or not to say something. I cringe at the thought of letting my children make mistakes; but, not trying to control them or lecture them, now that they are grown, is a very loving thing.

Love is often a decision, not a feeling. Putting my mother in a skilled nursing facility was a very painful thing for me. It was the very best thing to do given her level of medical difficulty and my need to work full time. It was a loving thing to do especially since I had visited and researched all the possible facilities and knew my mother’s likes and dislikes. Every step of the way I had to be supportive and creative with my mother’s reactions to her new home, which turned out to be multiple. As she aged and grew more ill, I tried to find the best fit for her in residences. I met a number of people in the same situation who also were making hard decisions that nevertheless were out of love. For the last nine months of her life I drove 40 miles from work to where my mother lived just about every day. She was in pain and often unhappy. I could not fix her or her situation with my love for her. I decided to be there, listen to her and solve whatever problems I could. I wanted to take her off her cross. Oddly enough, that would not have been loving.

Real love always involves some suffering. By its very nature it involves attachment to who or what is loved and when that person or thing leaves, dies or deteriorates we suffer. That is not wrong, but it does hurt.

Love also involves longing. Built into our spirit is the desire to be united to what we love. We feel separation all the time. In developing our own identities we do so in relation to others who are separate from us. It is necessary and good to be our unique selves, but it is also taxing. We sometimes feel that we want to fall back into union with our mothers, or mother images of infancy so that we can get out from under all the responsibilities and worries of life. We also long to be truly known as we really are. We want unconditional love.  These feelings are in all of us and good in themselves. In this life our task is to become our true selves. We travel through a series of experiences which challenge and teach us. One of the things that draws us forward is the desire to be known and loved. God is in the midst of all these experiences — knowing and loving us. The more we see how God loves us into growth, the more we can love this way in our lives. This love can be both sensitive and harsh. If we mediate on the Gospels we can see these two expressions of love in the way that Jesus lived and how he related to people. We can see how he relates to us, to me.

This sense of God’s personal love for me is sustaining. Its gentle and challenging aspects make sense to me. In The Living Flame of  Love, John of the Cross, speaks of God wounding us to get our attention in order to purify and heal us. Love is not always pretty but it is the most important thing in life.

Public Domain image by Christina Spiegeland

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Posted by on May 1, 2012

Spiritual Growth and Discernment

Spiritual Growth and Discernment

 

We make hundreds of decisions every day.  Over and over we express our desires and choices.  In the process we are literally creating ourselves.  This is a very active and hopeful thing.  In the process of decision-making we may make decisions with reflection, deliberation and conscious intent or we may decide out of habit or in reaction to a feeling, without much thought.

Most people think they choose freely what they will have in their lives and what they will become.  I prove that wrong every time I get near most pastries or warm, newly-baked bread.  I am immediately consumed by an intense desire for these.  I really have to remind myself of my commitment to feeling better rather than to reveling in sugar and all that baked goods symbolize for me.  Simple carbohydrates make me feel terrible physically but they also temporally fill an empty hole inside my psyche.  When I chose not to eat them I feel strong emotional forces pulling me toward that class of foods.

Noticing the different feelings inside me and my thought patterns as I struggle to get past the Cinnamon and Almond Ring at Trader Joe’s is really revealing.  I’m a grown person but I become very little and whiny as I  crawl over to the vegetables and lettuce just beyond the bread and pastries.  After all, I work hard and deserve a treat!  I could just eat a slice and throw the rest away.  I actually could do that  (and I have in the past).

The desire to be closer to God requires letting God tell me what would please him.  That sounds very old fashioned and odd.  But, there’s no way around it.  Knowing God is knowing what is best — best for me and best for the world.  I cannot eat sugar and refined carbohydrates and feel good.  I just can’t.  I love that stuff!!  Knowing God and growing in holiness means that I would like to know which actions in my life would help me to be happy.  Discernment is the skill with which I can learn to evaluate what is the best choice at any juncture in my road every day, all day long.  There are certain feelings and thoughts that characterize good decisions and others which characterize poor decisions.

Learning those and applying them seems easy enough.  One of the problems is that most of us have been fooling ourselves for years about what seems best — because we all love a plausible excuse to eat coffee cake or to buy new clothes when we really don’t need any, etc.  And, some of us have been unconsciously choosing what we think other people want for us,  so we do not know how we feel about most things in life.  What if I dislike red sweaters but have been given a number of them because I look good in red?  What if I really dislike a timeshare at Tahoe but almost the whole family loves it? What if I want to go back to school but would have to inconvenience a lot of people?  There are ways to know the truth of what is best and to know the ways I postpone the truth and get in my own way.

Becoming mature in these skills, also called discernment, involves attention to our minds, feelings and imaginations.   I realized many years ago that my imagination can be both helpful and unhelpful.  My imagination can help me image myself as a happy person when I learn new skills or improve relationships.  My imagination can also tell me that facing someone’s anger will destroy me.  That frightening image is probably not true.  Someone’s displeasure at me does not have to harm me.  My imagination does not have to motivate me to do actions that are not necessary or helpful.  My mind can help me get to the truth of how I make decisions.  My mind can also help me slow down as I go through life.  I can become an observer and can use my mind to see what my usual processes in life are.  I can use my mind to consider my feelings and images.  I can recognize if I am peaceful or afraid.  I can also see if frightening images are being thrown up in front of me which are not true but set me back.

This reflection process sounds cold to me but in fact I find it an adventure.  When I know that someone is upset with me I automatically feel that any interaction with that person is going to be frightening.  But, I have found lately that not avoiding a conversation and instead standing my ground has been almost exhilarating.   Nothing bad happened.  The other person may have a point or may be wrong, but either way I am not overwhelmed.  I can listen to his or her words and make decisions in the midst of the confrontation.  I can observe myself wanting to run away and talk myself into being calm.  Wow, what an advance!

Everything so far applies to any situation in which I want to know what my unconscious mind is doing and also when I want to observe what others are doing.  In the midst of worry or upset, I can pray for the peace to see what the influences are: whether feelings, thoughts or images.  I can use this information to make decisions.

Of the three sources of information, our feelings usually provide the most important information for discernment.  Although I have in mind emotional feelings when I say this, I also believe that our bodies provide valuable information in their reactions to thoughts and circumstances.  If I make a decision about my job and do not sleep that night, I want to ask why that reaction happened.  In the morning I may feel terrible physically but still feel I have made the right decision.   It may be that my mind worked during the night to consider all the options once again.  If I decide to move to another city but feel inner turmoil which I try to shut up, I may need to dig deeper, beyond my conscious reasons for moving to see if I am also moving for another reasonable but destructive reason e.g. to please my mother.  The saints are people who became good at distinguishing between inner peace and inner anxiety or deception.

To use the example above, my mother may be lonely.  I may feel guilty for not visiting her or calling her. But, I may have a very good job which I love and so I should not move.  There are ways to work with the circumstances and feelings of guilt without moving.  Doing that work requires facing the truth and the possible displeasure of someone.  But, it would also mean that I am honoring my true self at this time.  I need help to do discernment.  I cannot have detachment from my feelings of fear or attachment to approval on my own.  I pray throughout the day.  I first ask for insight —  that I not be blind.  I want to see if I am avoiding anything.  I prefer to know what my reality is.  Secondly, if I have to decide about something, I ask for help to see what is best and to be able to do it.  This happens a lot with how I use my time.  I usually have a mental or written list of what I want to do in a day.  I ask God to help me know what is most important.  I usually see what is best, but I often argue about it.  I want to do it all.  I want to paint the front door when it is 50 degrees and damp outside.  I want to spend the morning sewing when I need to file paperwork and write.  I want to cook three different recipes when I should just get one done.

The discernment which is going to make me happier is going to be a process in which I see what my feelings, thoughts and images are.  It is going to require that I make a commitment to follow what brings me inner peace.  It is also going to require that I use strategies to counter negative thinking and pressure from others or the Enemy of our human nature.  The more skilled at countering this, the more likely I am to be at peace.  When I am ambivalent, I experience much more pressure than when I am clear that I am not going to be doing actions motivated by emptiness,  fear, or pride.

At some point we have to surrender to the truth if we want to be happy.  We have to follow the footprints of inner peace.  If an option before us brings us peace and joy, then we are on the right path.  If an option brings us turmoil or a feeling of shame, we are operating out of poor motives.  We need to go back to see what is driving us and pray for the strength to make the right decision.

“A Fork in the Path” – Image by K. Pozos

 

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