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Discerning Life TransitionsListening Together in Spiritual Direction
By DWIGHT H. JUDY
Morehouse PublishingCopyright © 2010 Dwight H. Judy
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIntroduction: Laying the Foundations for Discernment
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to [God's] purpose. —Rom 8:28
Spiritual direction sessions take on many different patterns. Over time, an individual usually settles into a particular rhythm. Often in my experience as spiritual director, directees present an overview of life issues that have occurred since the previous meeting. In one spiritual direction session Todd begins with this kind of overview of his life concerns. Todd is married, in his mid forties. He has worked as a consultant for ten years. In the spiritual direction session, he discusses different aspects of his work, prayer life, and relationships. With modest probing, he begins to relate options for a turn in his career. Suddenly, the energy of the conversation shifts dramatically. The air is almost electric or is it the presence of the Holy Spirit? Together the two of us sitting in holy conferencing realize that change is imminent. There will be a major turn in Todd's career. Many options open to him as possible ways to live into a calling that is more fully attuned with his current life vision. We have encountered what Meister Eckhart described as a "quick emanation" of the Holy Spirit. It is a thrilling moment. We recognize God at work in our midst.
Much remains unknown. Many options are yet to be explored. Many consultations are yet to occur with his family and supervisors. Yet, we peer into the certainty of new life dawning. This moment comes after almost a decade of a life well lived, with clarity of call in his present career. This moment comes after seasons of conversation exploring dreams and hopes and creative impulses. It does not stand alone, but on the foundation of several years of searching for true calling, listening for divine inspiration, prayer, and conversation with significant people. The "quick emanation" rests on what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called trusting in the "slow work of God."
For Charlene, her discernment issues are quite different from Todd's. She keeps probing more deeply into her sense of life calling. Charlene has been divorced for five years and has two grown children. As she approaches the age of fifty, she's ready for more stability or a major change in her work as a health education consultant. She has often undertaken new jobs with great difficulty. She seems almost destined to move into demanding situations, requiring major personal sacrifices. Even when work flourishes, her supervisors do not seem to see a way for her to advance in her career. Over years of these difficulties she continues to pray and listen and discern. Her lack of external vocational clarity seems to make sense only as a path for deeper discernment of God's presence in each day. The "slow work of God" provides a continuing discovery for new opportunities. Our discernment task may be like Charlene's, finding new adventures in daily life in the midst of uncertainties.
This book is a resource for us to listen together for the "slow work of God," listening for that "new spirit gradually forming within us," and to help us recognize when the time is ripe for transition, when a "quick emanation" of the Holy Spirit is upon us. Images from nature can be used to describe this waiting and this time of change. "Throughout nature, growth involves periodic accelerations and transformations: Things go slowly for a time and nothing seems to happen—until suddenly the eggshell cracks, the branch blossoms, the tadpole's tail shrinks away, the leaf falls, the bird molts, the hibernation begins. With us it is the same." As a resource for people in the midst of a major life transition, this book explores themes and offers exercises to explore more fully the decision process. As a resource for spiritual directors and for those in spiritual direction, this book offers a way to help us listen together for the movement of the divine creative impulse coursing through our life story.
In his book, Transitions, William Bridges differentiates "change" from "transition" and points to the common interchange of the two terms in ways that are not helpful. We can make changes in our life without making a true transition. Change for Bridges is about the externals of life, it is "situational." In his view, transition is about internal understandings, it is "psychological." Transition is "the inner reorientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life." We will utilize the term, life transition, in a similar way. We are seeking to understand external changes in our lives, but we are also seeking an understanding of inner transformations. We will point to the inward spiritual dimensions of the transition process as well as to practical realities involved in a major life transition. The very term discernment implies a stance that is multifaceted. We will work with biblical images of persons heeding a mysterious call to make changes in external circumstances of work, family, or location. While attending to this call, biblical characters often found that both their self-understanding and their understanding of God were also deeply impacted. In short, there is little sense of "change" apart from "transition" in the biblical stories. If we seek to follow God, we will be transformed in our very sense of self, in our relationships with others, and in our understanding of God. This task seems to be Charlene's present spiritual path. In spite of complexities in her career, she has clearly embraced the way of transformation through this time in her life. As Todd lives into the external changes he has begun, no doubt his inner resources will also be called forth.
As we look for the present focus of our life transition, Joseph Campbell's model of the hero/heroine's journey will be a key element in helping us understand the seasons or cycles of our life journey. Based on Campbell's model, we will give prominence to seeking a primary life calling that is broad enough to encompass many different aspects of life. His model shows us that we tend to live with a primary sense of focus or life vocation for a period of time, often for several years. After this call's fruition, there may well come a time of boredom and restlessness, from which can arise a new sense of life direction.
Let us turn to Jeff's story to illustrate what Campbell described as finding a new "call to adventure." In midlife, struggling with his career as a parish pastor, Jeff decided it was time to reclaim a central part of his vocation as an artist. He discovered a position a thousand miles away, which would allow him to incorporate both his present career path, as well as his life as an artist. In spite of many obstacles, he sought out this job. Although he did not get it, making the decision to explore this possibility brought him great freedom. Jeff was able to reclaim his ministry from a different perspective and also find ways to renew his life as an artist.
Often, our discernment brings about similar surprises. Jeff's process of listening deeply within himself for clarity would well illustrate the path of inner life transition. Entering seriously into discernment will frequently bring a fresh perspective to our sense of inner calling. Vocation will be understood in our work in discernment in its broadest sense—from the Latin word, vocatio, a sense of "voice," of listening to the inner voice or inner calling and finding our own voice of expression and meaningful service for our present time of life.
As we look both to external changes and inner transformations, we will also seek to illumine multiple aspects of our relationship with God. Are the current structures of our faith adequate for the new sense of life calling before us? Does this new season of life purpose also require new perspectives on our spiritual life? A change in our faith or prayer life may itself become the catalyst for changes in other aspects of our lives.
The call to Abraham and Sarah helps us to recognize times when we vaguely know a period of life has ended, yet the pathway to a new beginning is not yet clear. How do we discover the new sense of life calling or the new "call to adventure"? There is a magic moment in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. As Indiana Jones nears the grail cave, he finds himself standing on a ledge, thousands of feet high, with nothing below. He recalls an image from his father's diary, and summons the courage to step off into nothingness. But he lands on a bridge, enabling him to walk across the chasm. There are times when we too must step out before the path appears. This issue of trust is well described in the message God gives to Abraham, "Leave." There is no clarity of destination when the time for leaving is first revealed.
I first experienced such risky leave-taking in my mid-thirties. I had enjoyed parish ministry for almost a decade when suddenly tasks that had been meaningful became empty. My inspiration had departed. I described this time saying, "My soul has left and I need to find it." I had to step into the unknown. I did not do it very gracefully at that time. But, I did step forth and found a new life. And I prayed that I'd be able to observe times of such completion and the need for new life direction more clearly in the future. As we work with people in spiritual direction, we often need to assist them to leap with care into unknown circumstances. As discerners of our life process, if that call to change is summoning us, it is an important time to reach out for companionship in spiritual direction or to journey together in a covenanted group into the unknown.
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. Usually, there is not a ready source of external support for thinking through such issues. Our Western culture is so externally focused that it is very difficult to find conversation partners when we are wrestling with major changes. It is even more difficult to find places of support and safety to discuss those inward transformations that may be pushing through to our awareness. It is a rare joy, then, to be able to companion one another through the spiritual direction relationship during such times of inward and outward reorientation.
Attending to our Commitments, Limitations, and Hopes
We each live in a vast web of relationships and commitments. These commitments are to be honored and further revealed in times of transition. I prefer to examine these relationships and commitments with the challenging term, "obedience," because it puts our commitments into very sharp focus. All of us have made both conscious and unconscious vows to certain individuals and to particular core values for our lives. We live in obedience to these significant vows. During those times of life when we explore major shifts in our life stories, these commitments often come into conflict with each other. In working through the themes of this book, we will seek to clarify our vows of obedience to spouse, if so partnered, to family members, to our own soul's callings, to society, to place, to friendships, and to God. When the stirring for new life begins, we will need to reexamine these ultimate commitments. How can they move us toward new life, even if we perceive some of them to be in deep conflict with one another? By taking these conflicts of commitment seriously, we are able to examine the tensions from which new life will emerge.
An assumption I bring to this work is that, as we honor all of our commitments, there will inevitably come moments of impasse when it does not seem possible that a way can open. I am equally committed, however, to the premise that by leaning into these deep challenges a creative way can open for us. This kind of impasse may well bring us to the humility of spirit in which God can most effectively offer us breakthrough possibilities. Particularly in times of impasse, we may need to discover new ways of waiting for revelation. New resources of prayer and companionship may be required of us. Neither rush the decision process nor hold back when clarity emerges. Attending to all domains affecting our decision process is critical. Having the hope that clarity will emerge is essential. Having understanding companions with whom we can share these hopes, dreams, and difficulties is invaluable.
We will draw on Daniel Levinson's understanding of "life structure" to assist us. Most of us experience sustained periods in our lives when these multiple commitments work well together. Levinson describes these times of stability as "advancement within a stable life structure." We can readily understand this concept when we think of the period of child rearing as a family. Hoping for stability during the time of our children's movement toward maturity, we minimize the number of major moves so ties with friends, community, schools, and family can be established. In such periods of stability, we also hope for sustained productivity within our careers. These are the times when our creative spirit is well used, when our careers and finances advance. Yet, we know that different life patterns and commitments will arise when children move onward with their own life journeys. Perhaps coincidentally with less attention needed on the home front, it is time to consider career shifts or changes of location as parents of grown children. In seeking to understand our current creative urges for new life, we have the benefit of much research on life transitions and adult life stages. It is often clarifying, when we are confused about our life purpose, to ask how many of our difficulties are ours alone and how many of these struggles are the result of a predictable pattern related to our current life stage. Life looks very different from the perspective of making the first important career choice of young adulthood than it does with a midlife career shift or the quest for life purpose after retirement. Each life stage brings its own challenges. We are beneficiaries of more than a half-century of reflection on life stages as well as their unique impact on women and on men. Our reflections will work with the unique life stage themes for young adults, midlife adults, and senior adults.
We each also have limitations. For some people, there are limitations with conflicting commitments to self and to family. For others, there are severe limitations of financial resources. The global economic and environmental crises in recent years have thrust many people into a period of examination of vocation and living circumstances. These undesired predicaments may serve as catalysts for entering a period of discernment regarding life goals, vocation, and living arrangements. Sometimes such external crises can bring us face to face with hopes for our life purpose, which we have been neglecting. Sometimes, there are limitations from deep struggles with self-confidence. A time of attention to issues of inner healing or forgiveness may be necessary before we are free to listen deeply for our life calling. For most of us, there will be times when external social or economic forces present major obstacles. We may believe that we are clear regarding next steps in our life, yet external reality intervenes. A promised package for retirement does not materialize; the family home does not sell; there is a disruption of health; death comes to a close family member. At such times, we must return to the foundation of our discernment process: What are we ultimately seeking? For the work of discernment, a particular Scripture has become bedrock for me. In the concluding section of the book of Philippians (4:4–7) St. Paul writes:
Farewell; I wish you all joy in the Lord.
I will say it again: all joy be yours.
Let your [generosity] be [known] to [everyone].
The Lord is near;
have no anxiety,
but in everything make your requests known to God
in prayer and petition with thanksgiving.
Then the peace of God,
which is beyond our utmost understanding,
will keep guard over your hearts and your thoughts,
in Christ Jesus. (NEB)
Excerpted from Discerning Life Transitions by DWIGHT H. JUDY Copyright © 2010 by Dwight H. Judy. Excerpted by permission of Morehouse Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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