Sunday, February 3, 2013

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Just recently I was introduced to a businessman facing a real crossroads in his life. On a mission trip to Central America, he had encountered poverty and deprivation worse than he ever could have imagined. This experience opened his eyes, touched his heart, and made a profound impact on him. After he returned home, he just couldn’t forget the sights he had seen: The squalid shantytowns with their tumbledown shacks, and the gaunt stares of barefoot children in their ragged clothes.

In response, this person has been volunteering for a Catholic relief agency which sends food, clothing, and other supplies to the places he visited. However, he feels a compelling desire to do more, but is unsure as to what he can or is meant to do. And so he asks questions. Is this merely a "phase" he’s going through, as suggested by his supportive but apprehensive wife? Or, at the other extreme, should he uproot his family, move to Central America, and serve the poor there in a more direct and committed way? He’s undecided, and he continues to pray. He knows that God has a plan for him, but he’s still trying to figure out exactly what it is.

In today’s first biblical reading, we heard how God had called Jeremiah to be a prophet, even before his birth! And in the gospel, Jesus explained that it was his special mission to preach good news to everyone- Jews and non-Jews alike. God has special plans for each one of us, too. But sometimes it’s hard to know just what those plans are. However, there are several things we can do, in order to discern God’s will for us.

First of all, in order to hear God’s voice, we need to identify and tune out all the other voices that compete for our time and attention. Love of money is certainly one, as is a selfish desire for status and power. Other distracting voices include strong feelings such as fear, anger, and lust. For instance, maybe we fear the consequences of making a particular decision. Or perhaps we’re afraid of what our family and friends say. Sometimes anger at a boss or co-worker can lead us into making a rash or unwise decision about job. And certainly lust can affect our ability to make a fair assessment of a relationship we might be in.

However, once we have discounted those voices which aren’t God’s, what’s next? Will we see a sign in the heavens? Maybe; and it is certainly acceptable, when facing a major decision, to ask God for a clear sign, because sometimes he does give them. But most of the time, God is often far more subtle. Because of this, Saint Ignatius Loyola offers us some helpful suggestions when seeking God’s will.

To begin with, he says that we should formulate a clear statement of what needs to be decided. For example: "Should I change careers?" "Should I get married to so-and-so?" "Should I join a particular ministry in my parish?" "Does God want me to be a priest or a religious?" "Should we have another child?" "Should I vote for candidate Y or candidate Z?" And so forth.

Second, we should honestly and objectively reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of every possible alternative. And as we do this, we should be as creative as possible. For instance, there may be more options available to us than just quitting or continuing a job or relationship. Perhaps it’s possible for us to continue in a job or relationship but work toward- or even demand- some definite changes.

We also need to consider how each alternative fits into the flow of our lives up to this point. God sometimes invites us to a task that differs entirely from our present work. In that case we should be able to recognize that our special abilities and life experiences are in some way preparing for this new calling. Furthermore, we should always solicit the wisdom of another person, be it a wise friend, a trusted relative, a spiritual director, or a prudent fellow Christian, because we can so easily deceive ourselves, and because God very often speaks to us through the voices of other people.

Third, we should offer up all of the available options to God in prayer, seeking that which consistently gives us the greatest sense of God’s presence, peace, and joy. As we do this, we may experience a gut feeling or hear a little nagging voice at the back of our minds- and that may very well be the finger of God at work!

While we pray, Saint Ignatius suggests that we make two imaginative exercises: First, we should consider what advice we would give to another person faced with the same situation. Second, we should picture ourselves standing before God at the Last Judgment and consider what decision we then would like to have made. In other words, we should ask ourselves that popular question: "WWJD: What Would Jesus Do?" And we should never forget that God’s will isn’t always the easy option. Each one of us has a cross to carry.

The next step, once we’re at peace about a particular option, is to make our decision. If we have the time, we should rest with our choice for awhile, especially if we’re impulsive. But finally, after having asked the Holy Spirit for strength and courage, we need to act on our decision, because we can’t sit on the fence forever.

On occasion, with the passing of time, it may become clear that we’ve made a mistake. Yet this shouldn’t discourage us! Discernment of God’s will is an art learned through trial and error. If we make a mistake, God helps us to learn from it and he invites us to try again. What’s more, God doesn’t demand that we always be right; he only asks for our honesty and sincere best effort. And we can be assured that doing our best is always a part of God’s plan.

(My book of daily meditations for Lent is now available from Ave Maria Press: It is available also at Amazon: )

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