Be Still, and Let God Do Some Work

While many of our churches are praying for the eradication of COVID-19, healing and physical protection from the virus, I would add a different prayer for us—that we would notice and nurture what God is wanting to do within us during these strange and troubled circumstances.

For many of us, this pandemic has been a season of loss and disappointment, if only through the cancellation and postponement of many things that give us joy. In my own life, several major places where God appeared to be moving have now been put on pause; I’m left to wonder whether they’ll ever resume. The disruption in all of our lives has created in the absence of activities and outings empty spaces, which may be suddenly uncomfortable. Perhaps you’ve even noticed ways you’ve felt an urging to fill them, to help ease anxious moments or re-establish a sense of connectedness.

The movement of these events pressing on our lives today actually isn’t that unprecedented. St Ignatius of Loyola called “desolation” any interior movement that runs contrary to the increase of faith, hope and love—discouragement, disquiet, distraction. Above all, it’s a disorienting movement; the experience of faith, hope and love are no longer guiding us to follow the grain of God’s invitations. All of our senses betray us, because they no longer work as they did to give us joy and peace from pursuing God. As a result, desolation might find us stuck in despair of hope, not knowing where we can seek God’s face, or else flitting around too fast for despair to catch us, trying to manufacture our own consolations, which ultimately leads us further away. 

When you stop experiencing the movement of God, how do you respond? How do you notice you’ve responded to some of the empty spaces quarantine has created in your life?

Ignatius also says that there are several reasons why movements of desolation may come into our lives. Interestingly, only one of them has to do with anything we’ve done. The other two are about what God is doing. God may use desolation as a way to encourage us to seek God without the aid of joyful feelings or clear light to guide us, through dryness and darkness. It teaches us to desire God apart from God’s gifts, but more than that, it teaches us that we’re capable of being led without the aid of our senses; it helps uncover and develop a deep interior sense that responds to God even when we can’t see or hear or feel God. In short, through the “dark night” of desolation, God can and will work.

Where can you feel God pressing when you begin to get quiet and still? How might God want to meet you in those places?

So how do we respond in a time of desolation, when even if God is working, it feels like God isn’t? Ignatius gives several counsels, but he places this first among them: Don’t make any changes, and don’t make any new decisions. The idea is simply that consolation is a time when we’re thinking and discerning clearly—in the light of day, as it were. In desolation, it’s not merely dark (darkness itself isn’t bad in the spiritual life, especially when God develops the interior sense I mentioned)—we may also be discouraged and tempted to second-guess ourselves or doubt the direction we’d set off on but without anything trustworthy to guide us. It’s better we trust that what seemed good in the light of day is good even when the shadows distort our path and especially when discouraging inner voices tell us to turn back.

What may be some things the desolating movements of recent weeks have tempted you to go back on, give up on or change your mind about? If your past self from February could speak into your doubts now, what would they say?

Refusing to change our course in a time of desolation doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t make a mistake, but what it does is at least get us out of the way for God to work. Thomas Merton, addressing young monks who continually change their resolutions (according to the winds of desolation?) in misguided attempts to be certain of doing God’s will, wrote, “Be still, and let Him do some work.”

What might be the work that God wants to do in you, if you would be still in this season?

What have you noticed going on inside of you over these last weeks?

If you notice yourself filling up empty spaces with new activity, I encourage you slow down and take some long breaths in the quiet that’s been created. Consider whether God may want to speak or simply to be with you in silence in a way your life wasn’t affording before.

If you notice yourself pulling back from or second-guessing a direction you felt confident in prior to the COVID crisis, I encourage you, don’t be quick to change your resolve. Consider whether it’s being refined in this moment and whether the invitation is for you to recommit your direction without the benefit of comfort, certainty or consolation, trusting that what seemed right in the daylight is also true in the difficult blindness of night.

 

Feeling the Voice of God

Some time ago, one of my jobs was to ghostwrite for the company’s CEO—an authentic character of a man with a thick Buffalo and the patience of pitbull. I’d compose newsletters, emails, columns, even journal articles and book chapters, as him, usually from scratch. At first, I might spend as much as 15 minutes with him for a three-paragraph letter or the idea for an article. He’d brain-dump, and I’d record as much of his language as I possibly could before he decided the meeting was over. I’d cut and paste it, edit it, rearrange it and fill in the gaps. Then the drafts would go back and forth until I’d gotten his voice right.  Continue reading “Feeling the Voice of God”

A Song of Quiet Trust

Psalm 131

God, my heart isn’t lifted up
   my eyes aren’t raised too high;
I don’t occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me. 
But I’ve calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in God
now and forevermore.

A Song of Quiet Trust

For most of my Christian life, the Psalms didn’t leave any impression on me. The first encounter I can truly recall with Psalm 131, was in a long season of desperately seeking to hear from God and be comforted. The thought of not raising my eyes was upsetting. The idea of being a “weaned child” with respect to God (separated from the milk) was unsettling. Continue reading “A Song of Quiet Trust”

That Which is Done: The Art of Interiorization

‘Part of the secret of monastic living is moving the emphasis from the objective productivity of what is done to the subjective dispositions in which it is done.’
—Michael Casey, OCSO

Every morning I wake up, I nearly hit my head on a ceiling of all that I might want to accomplish. They accumulate at different heights. Hanging just above me as I sleep is the rent check I still need to deliver. At sitting-up height are two of the articles I could have written by now, which are in the shadows of all the articles I know I can and so probably should compose at some point. Looming on top are the books I want to publish one day. And filling the spaces between are the emails, the chores, the returned phone calls—and my daily devotional practices, to be generous. Continue reading “That Which is Done: The Art of Interiorization”

How We Discern, Part 2: Indifference and Freedom

Whether we’re discerning between alternatives or just discerning a way forward, whatever it’s about, the first thing is always to keep the first thing the first thing. That’s our initial step of identifying our principle and foundation (p&f), or, the big ultimate “why”—as in, “Why does it matter that we discern this well?”—or the big ultimate “what”—as in, “What do we want beneath everything else?” St Ignatius of Loyola identifies this as the core human vocation: to praise and serve Gød. You might personalize it further. Either way, we’re not done with Step One simply by identifying our p&f. We need to make it our p&f actually. That’s where a concept called “indifference” comes in, but it bears explanation. Continue reading “How We Discern, Part 2: Indifference and Freedom”

How We Discern, Part 1: Our Foundation

I’ve been frequently asked since beginning my journey in spiritual direction and as a spiritual director what “discernment” is. I’ll unthinking drop it into conversation as an assumed concept, or someone will spy the cover of some book I’m buried in about discernment. Etymology, the origin of a word, can sometimes provide us a blind lead about its meaning. But in this case, I always return to the root of “discernment” for its clearest explanation. Like all good English words (and there aren’t many), it’s based in Latin: discenere (dis [apart] + cenere [to sift]), literally, “to sift apart.” Continue reading “How We Discern, Part 1: Our Foundation”