Things I’ve Learned in Spiritual Direction, Part 1: Notice What Draws You

After several years of regular spiritual direction, I’ve come more and more to realize the beauty of this relationship with someone which consistently serves to strengthen and deepen my own relationship with God.

I’ve grown so much from the grace of accountability, of someone else’s wise perspective, of her gentle guidance to help me navigate my own interior life, and most fundamentally, someone to listen—really listen—with attentiveness and total receptivity, not just to me but also to the Holy Spirit as He unveils to both of us the deep wounds, longings, gifts, and healing and illuminating movements of God in my soul.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on some of the things the Lord has used our time together to bring to my awareness.  These insights may be nothing earth-shattering, but what should be obvious is often so buried under busyness or sin or other filters we simply can’t see it.

In a series of posts, I’m going to share some of the spiritual lessons I’m uncovering and embracing in this season.  So, here we go.  Number one is:

Notice what draws you.

As I wrestled out loud with choices between good things and discernment about how to determine my calling and use my time, agonizing over how to make my “yes” mean “yes” and my “no” mean “no” (Matt 5:37), my director would put her hand up, stop me, and ask, But what draws you?

I knew in theory what she meant: what are the deepest stirrings of my soul?  What reawakens the desires inside of me that were placed in my center by God?  What invitations and opportunities echo the fundamental call of the Creator in my life?

But, honestly, I wasn’t sure anymore what it felt like to be “drawn.”  I knew I had been drawn to marriage and motherhood.  I had been drawn to write like I was drawn to water when I was thirsty.  But otherwise, I had no idea.  I was so numb from the constant stream of noise in my life, and left without any reserves from the too-frequent withdrawals from my emotional bank account, that I had to relearn how to listen to myself, and even more, to the voice of God.

There were times when even my physical body was literally crying out for me to pay attention, to rest, to breathe, to simply be—and I was not listening.  I needed to relearn stillness, to quiet my life—and then, sure enough, the clarity came.  It rose to the surface like a beautiful bubble, a soft sphere of what was most sacred—the will of God for me. And when something moved me in that holy place, my soul said pay attention and I could actually hear.

This was crucial because things sometimes seemed like great opportunities not to be missed, or last-chances that should be jumped at, grasped, clutched.  They appealed to me.  Or they just felt like I should say yes to them.  But while on the surface, they may have looked right, in my depths, there was a hollow sound.  Something would be ‘off.’  A vague feeling of uneasiness.  A slight whisper of doubt that made me feel tired.  A sense of urgency that made me a little anxious. In Second Rules, 7, St. Ignatius of Loyola describes these seemingly good suggestions of the enemy as entering a soul “sharply and with noise and disquiet.”  Yet often, this “disquiet” was so subtle—almost imperceptible—that if I had kept on with my usual frantic pace and the blur of inner and outer activity I never would have noticed.  If I had followed these promptings—good in theory but not from God— I would have suffered, my family would have suffered, and the work that God had truly called me to (most fundamentally my own holiness) would have dissolved in my disobedience.

What I would have sought as a means to sanctification would in fact have been a threat to it.  “…as for Satan, he does not hesitate to encourage superficial success, if he can by this success prevent the apostle from making progress in the interior life: so clearly does his rage guess at what it is Our Lord values most highly.  To get rid of a diamond, he is quite willing to allow us a few sapphires.” (Jean-Baptiste Chautard, O.C.S.O., The Soul of the Apostolate.)

Satan tempts us with handfuls of sapphires.  God holds out a diamond.  We have to choose the pearl of great price, the one thing necessary.  But oh, those sapphires can be very lovely…

For example, I love women’s ministry.  I have led a parish study group for women for years.  I write and speak with women’s spiritual lives in mind.  And I had an idea to devote even more of myself to it by starting an organization that would offer workshops in personal vocation and discernment to parishes and women’s groups.  It was an exciting thought—the opportunity to lead, teach, and develop content.  I drew up a plan and shared it with trusted people, all of whom were fairly supportive and encouraging.  But these positive thoughts and ideas were tinged with something else—a slight sense of stress that disturbed me and pressed against my peace.

Because my spiritual director had made me more aware of this sense of being truly ‘drawn,’ I could stop and ask myself where this desire was coming from.  I had to admit, in the end, it was not from that deepest place where God speaks without words in my heart. It came in cunningly and coaxingly and seemed on the surface so complementary to my call.  But it was the well-disguised voice of the enemy of my soul, who would have enjoyed seeing me dilute myself in a huge undertaking that was not my real vocation.

In contrast, a short time after I had shelved the workshop idea (at least for now), I “happened” to discover a spiritual direction formation program.  I had, for a while, mulled over the idea of becoming a spiritual director myself.  It had a gentle sense of rightness about it, but for several reasons, including my state in life, I had not yet become certified.

But the moment I began to read the description of the courses on my computer screen, I literally began to cry.  What is happening? I wondered as tears splashed on the keyboard. I felt like laughing with joy, too.  Laughing and crying at the same time.  Something I could not name welled up from my innermost self.  It felt curiously like coming home. This, I realized instantly, is what it feels like to be drawn. 

After more prayer and discernment, I applied and was accepted into the program and began with enthusiasm.  Then doubts began and I wavered.  This was going to be hard.  Was I ready for this?  Maybe I should take an easier path.   But there was still an undeniably strong pull within.  If I was really honest, I had to admit: There would be no true peace if I didn’t follow this desire.  It felt like an act of obedience to continue, and that always brings with it the deepest kind of consolation.

There was something else about being ‘drawn’ that I had to work through with my director.  Somewhere along the way, I had picked up a message that had me second-guessing myself and God at just about every turn.  A message that made me feel guilty for even having any desires at all, that warned me about being drawn to ANYTHING.  It went something like this: “I desire (fill in the blank).  And I know it is a good thing.  But God, who would like me to be stripped of everything but Him, who invites me to suffer, surely doesn’t want this for me.  It would make me too happy.”

Whoa, right?  What a lie.

Because yes, God allows our suffering and uses it for good.  Yes, He wants to be first in our lives.  And He certainly does not grant our every wish like a vending machine, we know that from experience.

But He not only planted desires in us when He created our hearts;  He sanctified and purified those desires on the Cross when He redeemed them.

My heart and my longings are not impossibly corrupted.  When I was baptized, I was not only redeemed, I was recreated in Christ and that includes my desires.

I have to—we all have to—be very careful and discerning.  We have to cultivate lives of listening, of silence, of learning to hear the very quiet but very distinct voice of God.  But what I had to accept was that I don’t have to be suspicious and self-condemning every time I feel a stirring within me.  I don’t have to stifle every slight longing.  I just have to submit it to Him, stay in a place of hope, and joyfully accept whatever His will is.

Sometimes, some beautiful times, His will and my desires are in total alignment.  And that is an incredible and freeing realization.

Image (modified) courtesy of Unsplash.

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