Tracking or Discernment

Have you ever had the experience of hearing the same thing said by several people in the course of a few days? Or the same person mentioned? Or the same issue raised? Sometimes when that happens to me, I hear it as a call from the Holy Spirit to pay close attention, for repetitions are always important. Or at least that’s what I’ve come to believe. When the Holy Spirit taps on my shoulder repeatedly about an issue, or a person, or an event, or a piece of scripture, or an image–when something gets repeated at least three times, I stop and listen. The “three times” rule comes from an old book called “The Christian Secret to a Happy Life,” by Hannah Whitall Smith (amazingly still in print, at Amazon, for about $6.00) But the rule of three is a nice one.

The phrase, or versions of a phrase, I’ve been hearing lately is this: “find God’s will and do it.” And it comes up in the strangest places. About a week ago, I heard someone express his deep desire to find what God wanted from him, so that he could respond. Then at a board meeting for our local itinerant drop-in day center (Grace Center, Inc.) someone spoke about finding God’s will and doing it with regard to our various congregations. And then, two nights ago, watching Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music” with my granddaughter, I heard it again, “find God’s will and do it.”

Another of my favorite spiritual books comes from the 17th century, by Jean Pierre de Caussade, called “Abandonment to Divine Providence” or in another translation, “The Sacrament of the Present Moment.” Pere De Caussade’s instructions for surrendering to God and to the reality one is presented with in the “present moment,” in the immediate context of one’s life, has been an invaluable guide for me, especially when it comes to figuring out what is God’s will. Usually for me, it’s deceptively simple: learn to love more thoroughly, God and neighbor. One of my own spiritual directors, James Keegan, who was the former Director of Gonzaga, on Eastern Point, in Gloucester says, God’s will is “to choose well and wisely in companionship with Jesus.”

Great discernments, that is, the directions of one’s life for the long term, come from small daily discernments. And often, it isn’t until one looks back, in reflection and prayer, that one can see a trajectory, a line along which one has been proceeding. I realize this is a may seem too confident an assertion, but it comes of long experience, again from my own perspective, of discerning daily where the Spirit leads. It’s a biblically sound assertion, for often, those who followed the call of God didn’t know where they were going, as the collect says, but went in faith. They traveled on a promise.

Sometimes Jesus gives people very direct spiritual direction: like the rich young man who came in search of eternal life. The first thing Jesus did was suggest he knew it already–that the young man needed to follow the commandments he already knew. But that wasn’t enough for this young man, so Jesus gave him directions for total surrender: sell all that you have, distribute the money to the poor, then come and follow me. That is a teaching in the kind of renunciation we pledge to do in our baptismal vows. A teaching on total commitment.

For me, discernment happens one day at a time, reading signs, like a person tracking an animal. I learned to pay attention to forest and field signs when we lived in rural Maine. Moose tracks are easy, but smaller animals leave tiny signs. Sometimes the Spirit leaves small signs. And since God always seems to be slipping around the corner, or the bend in the path, or even bend in the river, I just follow the signs, each day. I don’t usually know where they are leading, only that they will lead me to love more deeply, more justly, more wisely, and in the end, God will be there, and is there, to meet me, having shown me the way.

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