What is to discern?
The English verb “to discern” comes from the Latin “discernere” which means to be able to distinguish, to separate. When someone starts considering the possibility of religious life as God’s call, God’s will for her, she usually is in much need of this ability of being able to distinguish and separate what is in her heart and mind. If she dares to look inside, she may find a variety of feelings and thoughts in a rather messy state that do not let her see with clarity. So now what?
Who is this coming up from the desert, leaning on her beloved? (Song 8:5)
Most young women today who start pondering a religious call feel themselves in a kind of desert: Is this truly happening to me? What happens with my own plans and projects? With whom can I talk about this? Questions and fears pile up as the images of “women in veils” (as someone told me once) start populating her mind.
If you are brave, you may start asking God in more or less these terms: “Do you really want me to be a nun?” You love Jesus. You have learned that in his will is our joy and peace, but still… If this is what he wants – you think to yourself – he will have to tell me very clearly. Maybe an angel or two?
A spiritual desert is a place where we lack our usual resources. It is difficult to keep a sense of direction; everything looks much the same, and we know we cannot be there for too long before we die of hunger and thirst. Not a pretty picture, but the good part – and this is the sense and the experience of the desert in the Bible – is that there we can learn to rely on another. In the desert God taught his People how to rely on him alone. These are the first lessons of discernment: trust and humility.
When we are not in control, when we depend on another, we learn to be humble, to be like the children to whom the Kingdom belongs (Mt 18: 2-3). God is a loving Father, we know that; but we still worry, we still want to provide for ourselves. Now he gives you the opportunity to discover this as reality in your life: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Mt 11: 28-30)
Discerning is not so much about finding the right answer, but about learning to lean on our beloved, Jesus. Trust in him!
Acquiring the mind of Christ
St Pauls tell the Corinthians: The spiritual man judges all things, but he himself is not subject to anyone’s judgment. “For who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (Cor 2:15-16) This is what we need: the mind of Christ! We need to see and feel things as he does; this is the way to true peace and joy. Christ can make you whole, so that your heart does not go one way and your mind another.
You may feel like the apostles asking Jesus to increase their faith (Lk 17:5), or like the man in the gospel cried out to him: “I do believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24) Spending time with Jesus is how we learn that he is trustworthy, and little by little we become more and more like him. The method is much more simple than we sometimes think:
- Take part in the Eucharist as often as you can. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. “(Jn 6:56)
- Frequently receive the sacrament of reconciliation and put in Jesus’ hands all that may have separated you from him.
- Spend time in prayer, before the Blessed Sacrament or in a quiet place; pray to the Holy Spirit to open your heart and say: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (1 Sam 3:10)
- Listen to his Word. Take time to read the Bible. Don’t go anxiously looking for answers. This not like preparing for an exam. Ask him to give you the attitude and desire of just wanting to learn from him, like Mary of Bethany seated at his feet.
- Make silence. When Jesus came to us for the first time, there was no room for him in the inn (Lk 2:7). We can be the same when we are full of noises and busyness. Turn off your phone when you pray and try to do some fasting from the things that are major distractions for you (social media etc.). Only in silence can you discover your true-self. There is where God’s Word will resonate.
- Find a spiritual director or a person experienced in the spiritual life. We can talk about so many things during the day, but how often do you speak about your relationship with Jesus? Find a person with whom you can do this. It can be a priest or religious, or any other person who has lived his or her faith with fidelity for some time.
- Develop true friendships. “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Mt 18:20) We are with Jesus also when we are with those who are Christ- like. There is so much we can learn from others and about ourselves when we cultivate healthy relationships.
- Entrust yourself to Mary. No one like our Mother to teach us how to pronounce her “Fiat”. Put your discernment in her hands. She will surely show you the way to her Son’s heart.
- Contact a religious community. Some time along this process taking the leap to write or to speak with a religious sister will be necessary. She will help you get a more accurate idea of what religious life is really about. Visiting would be the next step.
If with humility, patience and simple love you faithfully utilize these good tools for discernment, little by little, the confusion will dissipate. You will be truly discerning, if you are leaning more and more on Jesus, and if he is becoming more and more the one whom you love and trust. You will be coming out of the desert with a new mind and heart, ready to say: “May it be done to me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38)
For those seeking to learn more about our monastic vocation, we suggest initial contact by letter or email, followed by a visit to the monastery. Our discernment process usually includes several short visits to the monastery, followed by a longer stay within the community before any commitment is made.
Single Catholic women between the ages of 20-40 are invited to write to:
Our Lady of the Angels Monastery
3365 Monastery Drive
Crozet VA 22932-2116