Some things have happened in my personal world recently that require reflection and reconsideration of the way ahead. I won’t share details at this point, except to say that a fog has descended, obscuring the road that stretches before me.
I’ve learned enough by now to know that it might be wise to pull over at the nearest rest stop, get a cup of coffee, check the weather, talk to some other drivers who have negotiated the geography that lies ahead, and figure out if it is wise to proceed apace, stop until the conditions are more friendly, or find another route.
So I’m pulling off the road for a bit. I will be setting aside some usual commitments for about a month or so. My wife and I will take a weekend to get away to think, talk, and pray together. I would like to schedule a personal retreat at Gethsemani or some other place conducive to solitude and silence. I’m compiling a list of people in my mind that I may or may not talk to in order to get other perspectives.
And, I will try to tailor my reading during these days so that I can access the words of some authorial mentors who can be trusted to share the wisdom of fellow travelers. I’m starting with two books that will be my constant companions over the next few weeks.
One is part of a series of posthumous books that were composed using Henri Nouwen’s coursework, journals, and unpublished writings in order to put together a picture of his teachings on the spiritual life. (I reviewed the volume on spiritual direction here.) The final book in the set, the one I’ll be taking up now, is called, Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life.
The foreword by Robert A. Jonas notes an important distinction Nouwen kept:
Henri emphasized that Christian discernment is not the same as decision making. Reaching a decision can be straightforward: we consider our goals and options; maybe we list the pros and cons of each possible choice; and then we choose the action that meets our goal most effectively. Discernment, on the other hand, is about listening and responding to that place within us where our deepest desires align with God’s desire. As discerning people, we sift through our impulses, motives, and options to discover which ones lead us closer to divine love and compassion for ourselves and other people and which ones lead us further away.
The situations I face in my life (and you in yours) will, of course, require decision making. That’s all well and fine. However, the older I get, the more I see the difference Nouwen urges us to recognize. As described, making a decision involves choosing a course of action; answering the question, “What shall I do?” Discernment may include that, but goes deeper than making a determination about what I should do to ask, “Who shall I be?”
Before God, for myself, and for others — “Who shall I be?”
* * *
A second book that will accompany me in days to come is Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.
Rohr observes that many of us have been unaware that there is a further journey to be made in the second half of life, should God grant us the years. Furthermore, many of us do not realize that it is a different journey than we make in the first half. Most of our culture is preoccupied with what happens in our earlier days, when: “We are all trying to find what the Greek philosopher Archimedes called a ‘lever and a place to stand’ so that we can move the world just a little bit.”
There is, however, a “further journey,” as Richard Rohr calls it. Like Nouwen, he believes it is more about “being” (or “becoming”) than “doing,” though he likewise stresses our active participation in the process. This further journey involves becoming mature, bringing our True Selves to full flower.
Whether we find our True Self depends in large part on the moments of time we are each allotted, and the moments of freedom that we each receive and choose during that time. Life is indeed “momentous,” created by accumulated moments in which the deeper “I” is slowly revealed if we are ready to see it. Holding our inner blueprint, which is a good description of our soul, and returning it humbly to the world and to God by love and service is indeed of ultimate concern. Each thing and every person must act out its nature fully, at whatever cost. It is our life’s purpose, and the deepest meaning of “natural law.” We are here to give back fully and freely what was first given to us—but now writ personally—by us! It is probably the most courageous and free act we will ever perform—and it takes both halves of our life to do it fully. The first half of life is discovering the script, and the second half is actually writing it and owning it.
Before God, for myself, and for others — “To act out my nature fully, at whatever cost.”
* * *
Excuse me while I pull over and stop for a little while. We should think about the next part of this journey before we proceed.