Discerning Life Transitions
Listening Together in Spiritual Direction
Try as we might to get everything settled in our lives and snapped into place like Legos, there is no avoiding change. Health concerns surface that affect both ourselves and our loved ones, a long-held job becomes repetitive and gradually loses its appeal, forgotten interests resurface in ways that are hard to ignore. Whatever the reason, we all enter into periods of major transition that are best navigated with discernment tools created for listening to God.
During his adult life, Dwight Judy has become skilled in the practice of discernment. Not only has he personally experienced major shifts every 10 to 15 years, resulting in new career directions that at times required cross-country re-locations, he has spent the last decades as a spiritual director, helping facilitate discernment for others. His work with individuals and as a retreat and classroom instructor in spiritual direction has resulted in the new book Discerning Life Transitions, written for individuals seeking discernment as they encounter new phases, opportunities and challenges in their lives, and spiritual directors who accompany discerners on their way toward clarity. Judy's approach to discovering where our creative God is leading each of us takes into account all different areas of life—community service, family concerns, health issues, career directions, spiritual life, etc— approaching discernment as a way to respond to God's call to a new way of being in all aspects of our existence.
"This book is designed to help us search well and fruitfully for that next step of life, work, relationship or place, when the previous era is ending and the way forward is unknown," Judy writes in the book's introduction. Below we offer some of his thoughts on discernment and how we can best use it to find our true purpose.
First a clarification. Can you define discernment and outline the difference between discernment and decision making?
Discernment has been used in Christian tradition to speak of seeking God’s guidance for our lives. Decision making is something that happens many times per day. I suppose we might answer this question in a very simple way by asking if a decision we are facing is important enough that we need to surround it with prayer. I think of engaging in an intentional discernment process as being helpful when we are making major life decisions. Frequently such a decision may take several months to resolve and may require major investment of our time in seeking information and exploring various options. A discernment process opens us up to ask for God’s guidance while prayerfully considering a variety of options.
Is discernment appropriate for every area of our lives?
For major themes for discernment, yes, I would say that discernment processes are applicable to many areas of our lives: career and job choices; issues of geographic location; changes in our family relationships, concerns with spouse or primary life partner; responses to health challenges. Any arena in which we are considering a major life change is appropriate for working in a prayerful mode of discernment, along with the essential practical information gathering, financial and family considerations.
What are some of the signs that tell us we are entering a time of change, a phase when looking and listening closely and carefully will help us discern our path?
I use the image of Abraham receiving the message from God that he should “leave” his surroundings and go to a new place. One sign is our own internal voice. If we frequently hear ourselves inwardly saying, “I can’t do this anymore,” regarding a particular kind of task we engage regularly, it is a very important piece of information about our sense of life satisfaction. I like to use the image from nature of plants coming to life in the spring, moving into fruiting or full flowering in the summer, and then a harvest of completion in autumn. Our life energies function in similar ways. Whether we speak of a major phase in our career or the natural passage of our families as children are born and grow into maturity moving on from the family home, there will be times of completion.
One of our life challenges is hanging on to old patterns and habits that are no longer able to bring life to ourselves and others. So, we may find unconscious nudges springing up – we may be angry a lot for no apparent reason, we may have the keen frustration of that inner voice saying “I can’t do this anymore.” If we decide that this is not a time when we can listen to the voice, we are setting ourselves up for a period of major frustration. Usually, the people who are close to us will notice if we’ve lost some of our humor or are short-tempered or a bit depressed. Hopefully, they will ask us what’s going on and we can begin to see that a major decision is looming before us. A solution may be a major life change or it may be a major attitude change that is needed.
Every so often, studies are released measuring different populations’ degree of happiness, with some cultures scoring higher than others, oftentimes due to their expectations about life. How are we to determine if the root of our discontent is somehow related to misguided expectations, or if our unhappiness indicates a deep call to change some area in our life?
This is a difficult question to answer. In my work in discernment I want to steep our discernment in images from scripture, as well as sage advice from researchers in life stages and transitions. These writings will universally point us toward undertaking a major change process with careful deliberation, so we should pose this question to ourselves as a primary part of the discernment challenge.
I like to put this issue of personal expectations into stark terms by suggesting that to live fully we must make commitments in several of our life domains. I call these areas of “obedience.” I am utterly committed to my spouse, to the welfare of my children, to my own career path, to my wife’s career path, and to care for parents in their declining years. When we live in the creative tension of these absolute commitments, there will inevitably come times of seeming impasse. How can we care for our children’s needs, as well as our career if a move is required? How can life partners commit to full mutuality in their relationship and full support for each other in their careers, even if they seem to be required to work in different areas geographically? If we are to be at peace with God, I believe we will also need to grow in our capacity to care for others in our communities and around the world. So, giving attention to these many areas of care is a safeguard to seeking too simple a solution to our life decisions. Spiritual traditions in general, I believe, hold up enormous hope, perhaps a very high expectation of life satisfaction for us, but at the same time challenge us to care equally for the well-being of others.
A discernment process should pose enough of life’s important questions to us that we will be able to work through the question as you pose it – we should be able to determine if our expectations are misguided and adjust our expectations or if a call for change is truly at work.
We all go through natural stages in life as we age and as our circumstances and responsibilities change. How can discernment help us navigate those transitions?
I would respond by asking, how can awareness of life stages help our discernment? Each stage of life requires different skills from us. I use Daniel Levinson’s image of life structure as a primary resource in thinking about these concerns. Our life structure includes our economic, family, social, and career realities at a given time of life. These will be quite different for us in our twenties and thirties, as compared with our forties and fifties, and then into our sixties and beyond. I find it quite comforting to recognize that it is perhaps a life stage task of the thirties and early forties to question our first career decision, perhaps needing to decide to make a change. The people I see in spiritual direction in their fifties are frequently adjusting to a major expansion of career responsibilities, which require new skills and deeper spiritual resources. One of the helpful things we have learned from the past fifty years of research on adult life stages, is that there are what Gail Sheehy described as “predictable crises of adult life.” I like that! It helps a lot to know that I’m not alone in a particular life-stage adjustment.
Several times during your book, you quote Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s description of “the slow work of God.” When we become intentional about listening to God’s call, should we enter into the process knowing that our discernment will not come quickly?
Actually, I like to balance two images in discernment – this image from Teilhard of “the slow work of God” with an image from Meister Eckhart of a “quick emanation of the Holy Spirit.” The often quoted statement from Teilhard is in a letter he wrote to his cousin when she was in the midst of discerning whether or not to enter religious life. So, it’s a particularly helpful image to guide us in discernment. Teihard is saying, “don’t rush the decision,” but instead attend to how God is working within you. Sometimes discernment does take a while.
On the other hand, there comes a moment of decision, as well. A woman who recently engaged in a discernment process, worked on the decision for several months, but then she commented, “the decision just settled in my heart.” So, yes, we need to be prepared to put forth effort (perhaps over several months’ time) into information gathering and exploration of multiple options, while also listening inwardly to how our own inner spirit may be changing during this deliberation. Then, however, there comes the moment to act when there is a “quick emanation of the Holy Spirit,” and we “just know.” Hopefully, we’ve done our discernment with enough deliberation, that once we’ve made a decision we actually come to a sense of deep peace about it.
What is your advice to those of us who are used to instant gratification and want to get started now on living out God’s creative purpose for our life?
Instant gratification does not have much to do with discernment of a major life transition. If we are living out God’s creative purpose for our life, I believe that inevitably there will be times of profound difficulty for us. Life with God, in my personal experience, doesn’t have much to do with instant gratification. It does have a lot to do with feeling deep satisfaction that we are making good use of our own creative impulses, talents, and life skills; and that we are able to be joyful in everyday living. However, sometimes fulfilling a sense of deep life calling can be very demanding. Hopefully, we balance these times of struggle with a daily appreciation for small pleasures, as well. We need to remember that Christian tradition speaks about times of wilderness and crucifixion, as well as the joy of resurrection and new life. Instant gratification doesn’t play much of a role.
Your book deeply honors the individual’s journey, stressing that answering God’s call can lead us down many different paths in life. How can we tell that the path we choose, the decision we make, is right for us?
I address this issue by balancing the individual call with the call to engaging meaningfully in family and social commitments. So, a “right” decision, for example, may be quite fulfilling in the communal aspects of our life, while we make accommodations with a less than satisfactory job situation. If we examine these decisions and make peace with them in our own hearts, that’s a right choice. This is a place where taking the long view of our life is very helpful. We can make adjustments! We don’t have one life structure configuration for all of our adult life. The point is to keep listening for the balance of meaningful career, family life, and contributions to our greater community.
Often our past keeps us from living into the person that God would have us be, either because of hurts we have inflicted on others or damage others have done to us? Would you comment on why our history of hurt is such a hindrance for moving forward?
I pose this theme with the challenge of Jesus that we are to be “salt” and “light” to the world. I believe that God wants us to be as fully available for creative life giving service to the world, as we can be. We are to be salt and light. That means it’s important from time to time to examine whether our self-esteem has been damaged or whether we may be suffering from lack of trust in our own abilities and these concerns may be causing us to settle for less fulfilling careers or relationships than we might have. A time of entering into counseling may be called for. A time of working in spiritual direction for healing of memories may be important. We may be stymied within the capacity to make meaningful life transition because we need to attend to our inner hurts and wounds in order to be able to embrace a wider view of life.
Discernment involves asking yourself numerous revealing questions. What if the answer that keeps surfacing is, “I don’t know”?
It may be that we are not asking the questions in the multiple domains of our life. I use the image of a kaleidoscope with multiple areas of life interacting with each other. Frequently, we just can’t know for example what life holds if we or a loved one is in a very difficult health crisis. We may be in a time when we really have to live day to day and we can’t entertain major changes. It may be that we are neglecting to bring the right conversation partners into our discernment. It could be that the real issues are not the ones that we are asking.
I close the book with a discernment process based on the Annunciation story of Mary. I ask the reader to create two choices of outcome (although there may well be more choices). Then I ask the reader to list under each outcome all of the factors you can consciously name; exploring each option for emotional reactions; and then to note responses in your body to each response. After accessing these responses, then you are asked to invite a symbol or image to emerge. Often, those images are incredibly revealing. Often in such discernment I’ve gotten a red light and a green light; sometimes I can see myself open armed or in a severely constricted posture. In these cases the answer is fairly obvious. But, there is another stage. The final stage is to take these two symbols to Jesus or another Wisdom Figure meaningful to you in prayer. In praying with these symbols, often I’ve discovered that other factors are revealed that I had not thought about.
I’ve come to deeply trust this process in my own decision making, because it invites all of our being into the process – intellect, emotions, physical sensations, and prayerful imagination. After considering many options, taking a formal time for this kind of prayerful discernment can be very meaningful.
Then, we must check any emerging decision with all people particularly affected.
Is it possible to discern one’s path alone?
No, it’s not. Our decisions are inevitably communal decisions. We live in relationships at work, at home, in friendships, in church and community. One of the great resources to us individually is the wisdom of persons who know us, as well as the changing needs of our work environments. I hope this work in discernment encourages employers as well as employees to see our interactions in a vast web of connectivity in which a creative process is always at work. I identify this principle by saying that the “Holy Spirit needs time to work on our behalf” in a discernment process. Because of the multiple interactions at work within any single life, changes are frequently taking place in other persons’ lives that could change the possibilities within our life decisions. As I ponder the changes that have occurred through my career, this has always been the case! Because someone else made a shift in their career or an organization shifted job configurations, a possibility opened for me, frequently one I had not myself even thought to pursue. We are connected at the most fundamental level. We are not alone.
Do the paths we discern that take us closer to God most often require that we become less engaged with those around us?
Not at all. I take quite seriously the great commandment of Jesus, “love God with all of your heart and mind and soul and strength; and your neighbor as yourself.” An image that I find quite helpful comes from a book by Ernest Boyer, Jr. He wrote of two forms of spirituality: life at the center and life at the edge. We do need times of going to the edge in order to be alone with God. That can sometimes take on the form of being less engaged with those around us for a period of time. In a decision process we may need some distance from others in order to inquire afresh into our own inner sense of life calling before God. But, this is only temporary if genuine, because ultimately our callings will involve us in meaningful connection with others, what Boyer called life at the center – the center of family, the center of communities, the love of neighbor. God is as much in our relationships as in private prayer.
What if the path that we feel called to take seems impossible, either because of our own fear or because of some outside limitation?
Well, it may actually be impossible. This sense of impossibility may be a correct leavening to perhaps overreaching on our part. So, we should take these road blocks seriously and inquire again in prayer and with our discernment companions about this sense of calling. But, we also have the compelling narrative in the birth stories of Mary and Elizabeth, that “with God, nothing will be impossible.” How I hold this issue is that for some people there will be exceptional callings for service which seem to push us beyond what is currently possible either in a practical sense or with our previous preparation. What the scripture narratives suggest is that if this is a true calling, a way will be made for it to manifest. In other words, others will begin to help this come to reality. Over and over again I have heard this kind of story from people in the midst of career change in mid-life. For some time a new life dream was emerging; it was not clear, there seemed no way it could be accomplished; then circumstances began to change; people emerged to assist.
At that point when the way began to open, often fears of achievement have surfaced to be directly addressed.
I would point again to the “slow work of God” or to the “Holy Spirit needing time to work on our behalf.” I certainly can’t explain why this process has happened for some people and does not seem to happen in an expeditious way for many. I try to point to the need for us to cultivate a heart of wisdom that will both exercise our own effort in such times of change, as well as being open to surrender into changed opportunities that may present options in ways we had not been able to envision.
When we open ourselves to discernment should we expect a radical re-ordering of life as we know it?
Well, I’m not sure we should expect it. However, it may well come. I am deeply devoted to the image of life in the Spirit as described by Jesus in the encounter with Nicodemus, reported in John 3. There the new life into which Jesus invited Nicodemus to be born is described as life in the Spirit. A play on words takes place in this story, which English translations cannot adequately convey. The same word in Greek, pneuma, is used to describe “Spirit,” “wind,” and “breath.” So the image is that the “wind (Spirit) blows where it wills. You hear the sound of it but you do not know where it is coming from or where it is going. So with everyone born of Spirit.” Spirit is like the wind. Sometimes our discernment process may only give us a slight shift of focus like a gentle summer breeze. Sometimes change is profound, the radical re-ordering of life you suggest. In these cases the Spirit has acted like a fierce wind of change.
I hope we enter each life transition and each life stage with the willingness for God to act with us, open to either way the winds of change may blow. We may come through the discernment process with little changed in outward circumstances but with a new inward spirit of peace, joy and compassion. We may have found a new avocation or volunteer commitment that has balanced our life in a new way. We may have discovered the need to answer a call to move to a completely new setting.