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I will never forget the day I called the Abbey of Gethsemani to make arrangements for a personal retreat that my friend and I wanted to make there.  I thought it would be the perfect place for a 4 day “discernment of vocation” retreat because after all, it had been the place where the famous Thomas Merton had experienced much enlightenment.  My call was received by a monk who introduced himself as “Brother Luke”.  I began to share my plan for my retreat which included the Ignatian Rules of discernment, a good spiritual director and my journal all which needed be housed in the aesthetic beauty of monasticism.  So, I asked Brother Luke if he would be able to connect me with a spiritual director at the Abbey, preferably one who could take me through some of the rules for discernment.   After an awkward moment of pause Brother Luke replied,  “Mam, we are Trappist Monks.  We don’t guide people in the rules of discernment.  We just want you to come and bask in Gods love ”.  At that moment, my fully stocked cargo for seeking direction in my life had derailed.  It would take me a while to see the contents of what I thought could enlighten me was more about my own egoic needs for certitude.  The irony that I would seek my future vocation in four days at a place where Merton penned umpteen books and journals about the ego is embarrassing if not hilarious.

I still booked the retreat and that day began a whole new way of seeing discernment for me.   Brother Luke was right.  My stay of silent meals in community, restful calm, long trail walks in the beautiful nature, hillside sunsets and praying the hours all had a way of inviting me to God within.  Those four days helped me cross a new bridge of trusting and knowing. I left that place with not even one hint of what my future entailed and yet I accessed a deeper hope, peace, trust and love, all of which were the true keys I would need to unlock whatever good life God had planned for me.  Being that I was still raw from having gone through a divorce two years prior, God knew my soul was barren and in need of healing before moving on with more of life.

There was an engraved hedge stone at the entrance of the Abbey that read, “God Alone”.  Funny but my whole experience there was more like God-Alone-With-Us.  By facing the valley of the shadow of my own death I experienced God with me and in me.  I felt so connected to the monks without ever talking to them.  I shared deep intimacy with those around me in the silence at mealtimes~ those otherwise strangers.  By the end of my time my soul felt like it had grown too large to fit into the car ride home and yet resembled a mustard seed.  Although I wished I could have stayed there forever I have to admit that I found a deeper Love at the Abbey and she came home with me when I left.  In some mysterious way, I took the monastery with me.

I know there are particular times when we need tools for discernment and as Ignatius would say, especially when choosing between two “goods”.  And yet, it occurred to me from the day I called Brother Luke that the best of tools for discernment only serve to take us to the center of God’s heart; to find the Divine within us.  To know oneself, is to know God and to know God breeds a benevolent life in whatever we do and yet we must experience this in order to truly move into our calling.  Interestingly, our calling starts with being our true self (Merton calls this our deepest calling). To see is to rest in God’s presence, to rest in God’s presence is to “not know” and to “not know” is well….

to know.

I will end  with some “tools” for discernment from those who learned the practice of unknowing, before they could know.

“Finally, I call consolation every increase of hope, faith and charity, and all interior joy which calls and attracts to heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul, quieting it and giving it peace in its Creator and Lord”.  Ignatius of Loyola                                                                                               
“Discernment is a life of listening to a deeper sound and marching to a different beat, a life in which we become “all ears.”  Henri Nouwen 
“The presence of discernment and detachment is manifested by a spontaneous thirst for what is good – charity, union with the will of God – and an equally spontaneous repugnance for what is evil. The man who has this virtue no longer needs to be exhorted by promises to do what is right, or deterred from evil by threat of punishment. “     Thomas Merton
“The great teachers are saying that you cannot start seeing or understanding anything if you start with “no.” You have to start with a “yes” of basic acceptance, which means not too quickly labeling, analyzing, or categorizing things as in or out, good or bad, up or down. You have to leave the field open, a field in which God and grace can move. Ego leads with “no” whereas soul leads with “yes.”    Richard Rohr
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Val Dodge Head

Val Dodge Head, M.A., lives in Grand Rapids, MI, and serves on the CenterQuest staff as the communications coordinator and a variety of other roles. As a spiritual director and teacher, she loves to build bridges between the good and bad and to envelop herself in various forms of contemplation, all of which have helped her see God in all things good, true, and beautiful wherever and in whomever it leads.

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