facing discernment

I returned yesterday from a weekend at Ignatius House, for the closing retreat of my Contemplative Leaders in Action (CLA) program. For the past two years, our CLA group has met monthly for leadership development, community building, and faith formation rooted in Ignatian spirituality.  I began the retreat with a specific intention of “courage in discerning next steps,” and, in addition to usual retreat-gifts of copious food/sleep,  I also experienced much consolation in finally deciding to commit to a new round of vocational discernment. Courage, indeed.

Making this commitment to the discernment process is something I’ve been actively avoiding for a while now. Naming that I’m struggling at work might lead me to big changes, and I’m too busy with wedding planning and I’m transitioning into marriage and I can only do one big change at a time and yeahyeahyeah. Fearing something uncomfortable and new, I figured I might hear a call that I’m not ready to answer; or that God might require something of me I’m not sure I can give. Alas, the “day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom,” and I’m choosing to take seriously this call to looking deeply into the realities of how my work life is less than what I want. After a few months of some pretty impressive avoidance tactics, I’m finally letting myself ask a question: how is God calling me to serve, now?

One catalyst for this turn towards discernment was our first-ever “F. Family State of the Finances,” and the very real limitations of newlywed finances (hashtag adulthood, hashtag ugh, hashtag momoneymoproblems). More important, though, was the second catalyst – that my struggles with my work situation have been slowly growing towards a tipping point.

Since I began work as a therapist almost two years ago, I’ve consistently experienced an ambiguity about building my practice. While I value greatly the creativity and flexibility allowed to me, as well as my actual clinical work with clients, I’ve always felt unsettled by the lack of structure and the reality that as clients come and go, so does my paycheck. Additionally, being a good therapist requires a constant self-reflection and commitment to doing my own work; being a depth-oriented therapist requires a willingness to go into the absolute darkness with clients and hold the undying belief that there is light on the other side. Some days I’m not so sure I’m capable of being that kind of therapist. This is not the type of job in which I can show up and punch the clock. It requires vulnerability, courage, and a long-term view; which is, of course, both what I love and fear about this work. Combined with less than ideal client quotas and not being busy enough? Cue ambiguity.

In discerning marriage to J., my process most resembled what Ignatius called the First Mode of discernment: “when God so moves and attracts the will that, without doubting or being able to doubt, the devout soul follows what is shown to it, as St. Paul and St. Matthew did in following Christ.” (Spiritual Exercises 175). When J. and I began to first think about marriage, this knowledge (that we were to be married) simply felt like a gift to be received. Through no efforts in decision-making or active discernment process of my own, I experience a certitude and deep peace in this vocation.

However, knowledge of my work/career vocation – rather, how I will serve – has consistently felt more like Ignatius’s Second Mode of discernment, that is: “when sufficient clarity and understanding is received through experience of consolations and desolations, and through the experience of discernment of different spirits” (Spiritual Exercises, 176). More a process over time than a one-time gift, this mode is characterized by ups and downs, closeness to and distance from God. I currently feel myself deep in the muck of sorting through my consolations and desolations in my work life – always doubting, rarely certain.

On retreat this past weekend, our group completed two exercises in particular that lead me back to a place of trust, a new freedom to say that I want what God wants for my life.  First, our leader had printed out copies of our initial application to CLA – in short, why we wanted to join the program. Second, our group completed a communal timeline of the past two years and noted places of consolation and desolation. In both of these exercises, I could see clearly that God had been working, whether I thought so or not. I realized that in the midst of my work-related desolation, I had tunnel vision – lacking the long-term perspective, seeing only what was immediately in front of me, thinking each event was isolated from the others. Through those retreat exercises, I felt the grace of new eyes – to see that the things that I was once so certain were my vocation (ministry, service, creativity, community) are still the things I feel God calling me towards today. Was my heart not burning within me on the road, even when I couldn’t see it?

Yesterday’s reading from Romans drove this point home for me: “In the same way, 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. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will” (Romans 8:26-27). God not only hears those inexpressible groanings I couldn’t communicate, but God has been using and working with those unspoken desires. Both of us work together to co-create these next steps; right now, my role is to get attentive.

Grant me to see everything now with new eyes,
to discern and test the spirits
that help me read the signs of the times.
-Pedro Arrupe, SJ

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