Given at a Youth Retreat the Last Weekend of March 2017
I was blessed to participate in a youth retreat this weekend at Camp Washington in Morris CT, and I was asked to give a talk about discernment. Here it is.
“Discernment” is not a word many of us use in our day to day vocabulary. And yet we engage in discernment every single day of our lives. Discernment is simply a fancy word for the thought that happens before you make a choice. And hopefully the prayer, as well. We tend to reserve the word “discernment” for big decisions: where you’ll go to college, what you want to do with your life, whom you want to spend that life with. But we need not make such a distinction. Every choice you make in your life can involve discernment on some level or other.
Discernment happens when you take the time to let your mind, heart, and spirit mingle over a decision. Your mind brings thought and analysis; your heart brings passion and longing; and your spirit brings prayer and a connection to God’s dream for your life. Often decisions are bigger than any one of us, and so you talk to a friend or a parent or a mentor and hear their longing and dream for your life. Together and with God’s help, you discern your path out of the many paths that stretch before you.
It’s the “with God’s help” part that’s tricky. How does God help us discern? I mean directly, outside of blessing us with those friends and mentors and giving us minds and hearts able to be reflective. The only way I can describe God’s help is poetic. I call it “The Glow.”
I first felt the “Glow” when I stepped out of my parents’ car and onto the college campus at which I would spend four wonderful years of my life. Sewanee is nestled into the mountains of southeastern Tennessee: 13,000 acres of stunning vistas surrounding a central campus of beautiful soaring sandstone buildings that would look more at home in Oxford or Cambridge. I knew in a place deeper than normal knowing – that place of instinct – that this is where I belonged, that the path of my life stretched through these buildings. I felt the Glow, a ball of warmth in my chest, a feeling of utter rightness, of peace, despite the magnitude of the decision before me.
I was at Sewanee when I began discerning my call to become a priest. Once again, I felt the Glow, this warmth that told me I was in tune with God’s dream for my life. This time, many other people helped me test my call. And now, fifteen years later, here I am talking with you.
But the Glow is not always so readily instructive. I have wanted to marry two women in my life. One of them I did marry, thanks be to God, and she is radiance, far greater than glow. The other I met at Sewanee when I was not much older than you all. We dated for a little less than two years. I remember distinctly during our first year together that I prayed for her every night, I thought about her all the time, and whenever I did I felt that sense of rightness. I felt God blessing our relationship. I felt the Glow.
Then, ever so slowly, things took a turn. The distance was taking its toll during that second year. We weren’t as close as we once had been. The “I love you’s” were fewer and farther between. But I persisted stubbornly in feeling the Glow. I convinced myself that everything would be better once we were engaged. Thankfully, she was a stronger person that I was. On an incredibly painful night in May 2006 she ended our relationship.
Months later, I was journaling when I realized something about the Glow. Something frightening. The Glow can be manufactured. That’s the trouble with relying on yourself alone to discern God working within you. For those last few fairly dismal months of our relationship, I didn’t actually feel the Glow. Instead, I remembered feeling it. I forced myself to recall its warmth and light from an earlier time when it was really and truly present. I didn’t want the relationship to end, so I tricked myself into feeling the echo of the Glow.
So sometimes the Glow burns bright and strong and immediate, and there’s no mistaking the paths down which God is leading us. Other times, we know just what we want (no matter how God might be prompting us), and so we manufacture a feeling of rightness in order to take a different path. This is tricky, right?
Again, friends, family, and mentors can help us in our discernment. And so can something else, something I’m learning about even now in my old age. They’re called “guiding values.” Guiding values can help us check to make sure the Glow is real and coming from the best versions of ourselves, the ones God is shaping into being. No matter what choices we make, they will be guided by the things we hold dear, the things we value.
So if you value the allure of fame, for example, then the choices you make will lead you down the path towards always seeking recognition. You become the person who is disappointed that your friend won the award instead of you. You become the person who always has to tell the best story: “Oh yeah, that’s nothing; this one time I…” (We all know someone like this). But if you value friendship over fame, you choose to rejoice in your friend’s good fortune. You choose to listen to your friend’s story instead of trying to one-up them.
I recently read a book called The Book of Joy. It’s by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (you’ve heard of him) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (you may not have heard of him). Suffice to say, they are two of the most incredible spiritual leaders of our time. The Book of Joy helped me clarify my two most important guiding values, which are Compassion and Generosity.
Now every decision which confronts me, I look at it through the lens of these two values. Both of my guiding values turn me out from myself to encounter other people because my default position is to be a lone wolf. It’s my default position but not my best self, not the person God is dreaming into being. Now if I feel the Glow, I know it’s because God is stirring my compassion and generosity.
This weekend, I invite you to think and pray about what your guiding values are. How do you name what I call the Glow, the feeling rightness and peace? And please remember that when you are facing a tough decision, you have friends, family, or mentors who can, with God’s help, guide you to the right path.
I wrote a new blessing to use at my church after I read The Book of Joy, and I’d like to end by sharing it with you.
Many paths stretch before us
and we must choose which direction to take;
So may compassion be your compass
And generosity your guiding star.
And the blessing of God Almighty,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Be with you and remain upon you now and always. Amen.