No Footsteps in the Snow: Discerning the Right Path

Let clothing be given to the brethren according to the circumstances of the place and the nature of the climate in which they live…  Rule of Benedict

“A monk once replied to a woman seeking advice about which spiritual path she ought to take by indicating a field blanketed with snow. Just follow the path he said, to the other side. Seeing no footsteps in the snow she asked where the path was. ‘Exactly,’ he answered. ‘You have to create your own.’” – William Reiser, SJ, Seeking God in All Things: Theology and Spiritual Direction

As a teacher, Sr. Andrea Giltner, OSB, counseled students on matters ranging from their study habits to quarrels with one another. Drawing on the principles of discernment in her advice, Sr. Andrea – who has been retired since ___ - sought to encourage the students to find their own answers. Although most such matters amounted to minor and forgettable teenage woes, one incident stands out yet today.

“A young woman told me she was furious with her parents,” Sr. Andrea remembers. “They had chosen an all-women’s college for her, and after attending our all-girl academy she said she simply wouldn’t go there. I suggested she take time that night – it was a Friday – to write a list of pros and cons for her top choices as well as for her parents’ choice. Then I told her to set aside the list for a day, and to get it back out on Sunday to scratch off the pros and cons that really didn’t matter after all.

“I predicted that by Sunday study hour she would have made a decision, and sure enough, she came up to me that evening. By reflecting on her options in a quiet and unthreatening context, she had made a decision that was hers, and not her parents’. She decided to go to the all-women’s school!”

Prayerful decision-making

Practicing prayerful decision-making, or discernment, is a key element of religious life but can work for anyone. It’s the natural result of being in relationship with God, and of seeking God in all things. It’s the natural result of prayer.

“Prayer is the most fundamental of the spiritual practices that cultivate mindfulness of the divine presence,” Columba Stewart, OCB, writes in “Prayer and Community.” “Benedict presents a simple theology of prayer: ‘We believe that the divine presence is everywhere.’”

At church, in nature, in the workplace. Sr. Rosemary Murphy, OSB, remembers many encounters at St. Mary Academy that reflected God’s hand.

“We used discernment in faculty meetings all the time,” she remembers. “We shared what we knew and felt, and listened with an open mind to what others needed to share. Eventually, we would come to consensus.”

“Discernment can be a subtle process,” Sr. Andrea says. “To some extent, people use it everyday without knowing it. It doesn’t matter how mundane the decision is, although we tend to use it formally for the bigger questions.

“Discernment sounds like a big psychological and theological term, but it’s a common, ordinary process that involves being in relationship with God. It involves talking about your concerns with others. It  involves  listening to what others say, and prayerfully reflecting on all of the input you get.”

Seeing with the eye of the heart

St. Ignatius of Loyola developed formal “exercises for the discernment of spirits” in the 1500’s, the object of which were to help people grow more aware of God in their own lives, and thereby of God’s desires for them. Although such formal and lengthy spiritual exercises are still used by the Society of Jesus or Jesuits – the religious order Ignatius founded – you can practice discernment in less formal and less time-consuming ways.

“Discernment is … a gift from God, a way of life, by which one gradually becomes more attentive to the will/word of God,” Johnette Putman, OSB, has written from her community in Atchinson, Kansas. “Because discernment is seeing with the eye of the heart, it is more than reasoning. To arrive at discernment, we certainly make use of our faculty of reasoning, but we go beyond that to wisdom….

“(Discernment) implies insight or understanding with sympathy, compassion, or intuitive perception. It is a decision made in the context of our relationship with God … it is the choice which is in harmony with God’s drawing us to new life.”

Discovering your new path

Being drawn to new life may mean being drawn in an unexpected direction. Perhaps, for example, instead of taking this job rather than that, you will discover an unrelated path to which you are drawn.

“Good discernment tends to reach different conclusions from those of everyday common sense,” David Lonsdale writes in his book, “Listening to the Music of the Spirit.” “And that is because it has to do with allowing our deepest attitudes, aspirations, values and relationships to come to the surface, so that it is they which give shape and direction to our choices.”

Being drawn to a new life also can mean being drawn, as Sr. Andrea notes, in a subtle way.

“Discernment … does not mean treating all decisions with equal seriousness,” Lonsdale writes. “If I am trying to live in the Spirit as a son or daughter of the Father and brother or sister of Jesus, as I consciously recognize and accept these fundamental relationships, they begin to have an effect on me from within, so that even my spontaneous desicisions are progressively shaped by them. For those who are in touch with God day by day, the music within shapes the whole dance.”

The steps

Although there are many methods available for discernment, they all hinge on prayer. The following steps are taken from the election process used by members of the Federation of St. Benedict. Whether you are trying to decide between a good and a not-so-good choice, or among equally good choices, adapting these steps to your needs will help.

1. Create a climate of personal readiness that is quiet, prayerful and comfortable. Open your mind and your heart to whatever God may be calling you to do.

2. Gather information from all sources, including friends and family. Make a list of pros and cons.

3. Reflect prayerfully upon what you have learned so far. Sort, sift and distinguish information in the light of your values and deepest desires.

4. Test your thoughts out on friends and family, and listen to their wisdom. Sift through your list of pros and cons, and discard those that no longer apply.

5. Return to quiet, prayerful reflection. What are the themes emerging from the process? How are your feelings changing?

6. Repeat the process for as long as it takes to come to a decision that gives you peace. If, at the end of the process, you feel uneasy with your decision, begin the process again. Be patient. Discernment is done in God’s time.