Following the Unbeaten Path: My Personal Reflection on the Risk of Discernment

At the end of the day, when classes are done, books are closed, and the laptop is charging, I lay on my pillow and exhale a sigh of relief. Lingering yearnings and uncertainties in my heart seem to agitate inside of me. Where am I headed? Is this where I am supposed to be? To what end are my efforts aimed? These fundamental questions pierce to the very core of my being and I am dissatisfied with a simplistic answer involving some sort of professional occupation or career choice. These are questions about discernment, the intermingled relationship of the career choices I elect, and the ultimate fulfillment of my life. 

Discernment, in the Catholic sense, is the prayerful process of judging between alternative options with the objective of accomplishing God’s will, leading to a decision.

There is a distinction that must be made between the processes of discernment and decision-making. Decision-making is the process of choosing between two things. For example, you decide whether you should choose to take the Theology of the Body class or the Philosophy of Love class as your general elective. Discernment, in contrast, is a profound process that transcends an action causing decision. It is a movement toward existential fulfillment that enjoys internal and external congruence. Discernment always includes two good alternatives; one does not discern about doing something wrong.

I want to share with you a reflection on my personal process of discernment which led me to leave the religious life and come to Ave Maria University.

1. Risk

Tradition has it that the ancient Celts had a difficult time grasping the image of the Holy Spirit as a dove. The tame and gentle symbol of a passive dove seemed contradictory to their personal experiences with the Holy Spirit. For them, the Holy Spirit sounded a lot more like a wild goose than a gentle cooing bird. There is a wildness to the Holy Spirit, an undomesticated nature of the mysterious, third person of the Trinity that resonated with the Celts for centuries.

I think I have to agree with the Celts on this. The unrelenting nature of the Holy Spirit has been an important element in my process of discernment. I have had to break away from the ideology of a controlled and structured path for my life and learn to take the risk of embracing the sporadic and creative movements of the Holy Spirit on this journey.

I entered the religious life when I was 19 years old, joining the congregation of the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit, where I spent the most amazing four years of my life as of yet. Discernment (and life) seemed pretty straightforward to me during that time: you were to make an election (marriage, priesthood, religious life etc.) and enjoy living out God’s will. However, I discovered very quickly that in making the initial choice to follow God, I had signed up for an adventure. 

The systematic, formational stages of the priesthood gave me the impression that I knew the concrete path I was walking on. I quickly discovered, though, that there was no path at all. The more I learned about myself and grew in my relationship with God, I realized that I had very little knowledge of where Jesus was leading me. I quickly discovered that love constantly generates new paths and it was my vocation to follow them.

Discernment requires taking the risk of releasing control of your life. It requires surrendering the ideological structures that we hold fast to, and adopting the untamed and loving invitations of God. Only this can lead us to the ultimate fulfillment of our desires and plans. 

2. Love

Being part of the religious life, I had amazing experiences that helped me to grow in my capacity to love. Living in such a community helped me to enter into profound personal relationships with people from many different backgrounds. The spiritual formation with the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit was the best ground to grow in my relationship with God, especially the daily communitarian adoration and celebration of the Eucharist. The time I spent in ministry to others opened my heart to experience true compassion and solidarity. Through serving the sick in the poorest hospital in Los Angeles, to ministering to the small faith communities in rural Alaska, I grew so much as a person.

So, why did I leave? That’s where the wild goose comes in. 

I remember sitting in the adoration chapel during my fourth year of formation begging the Holy Spirit to leave me alone because it was constantly bugging me to grow even deeper in my capacity to love. I realized that with my personality, my drives, and yearnings, there was a fundamental dissonance in me that clashed with the particular mission of the Congregation. God was calling me to a different vocation; to be immersed in the world, on the front-lines. He called me to serve Him in a different way, and I knew I had to answer.

Discernment is an invitation to remove all of the obstacles in life that hinder us from loving and being loved to the maximum in this life. 

3. Act

I did not even attempt to figure out how to proceed along this path on my own. Instead, I consulted my formation director at the time, my spiritual director, and my community. Each of these people accompanied me both formally and informally in my process for nearly a year. In addition to this, I consulted a psychologist, a Servite religious woman, who helped me to make sure that these inspirations were not simply unresolved issues from my life that inspired my dissatisfaction. 

With this great team of helpers, I received many confirmations that the inspirations that I felt to leave the congregation were coming from God, which was His way of leading me to a more profound realization of my personal mission here on earth. There were no logical syllogisms that lead to my decision or helped me along the way. Instead, I had to pull away from the limitations of my logic and hold on tightly to God in faith.

Leaving the religious life was the most frightening leap I’ve ever taken, however, God continues to demonstrate His confirmation of decision over and over. This encourages me to keep holding on - to keep trekking on this unbeaten path and to follow closely behind Him. 

Discernment entails congruent actions to the internal motions and inspirations of God, in order to test whether these inspirations indeed come from God and lead to doing His will.