Discernment Update, About A Month In

Stuffed with busy events, some days find my interior awash with the same clutter. I have another small group discernment meeting tonight. As I reflect back on the past two weeks, I see I have done little or nothing to discern. True, allergies and a round of low-grade flu have swept through the house. One doctor visit for the young  miss today ruled out a long, drawn-out H1N1 thing. The doc seems to think a minor flu coincided with fall allergies. Our daughter is usually quite healthy; I can’t ever remember four days in a row home from school for her.

My wife had an appointment with a different doct0r, and one of our cats was off to the vet–all three visits within two hours before lunch. The clouds let it rip for most of the morning, too, and my wife gets nervous driving in puddles, so instead of my getting back on the horse with my usual hours at the parish, my own work today was delayed until the afternoon. I lost my temper for a moment this morning, so to make partial amends, I fixed a baked chicken lunch while the cat (escorted by my wife) was getting poked and peeked at in the animal hospital.

The women of the house like when I do homemade gravy. Gravy was a struggle for a long time. I was on the wrong track for years making a white sauce, but back in 2004 I think, I had no milk, so I tried to add chicken broth directly to the roux (butter + flour mix). That made all the difference. Today I added some cream cheese to the gravy to give it more richness.

I think I mentioned that I’ve been making my way slowly through Thomas Merton’s The Sign of Jonas. It’s been sitting idle for about two months–since before I began the Called & Gifted process. One of the things about the book–a journal of Merton’s monastery experiences from about 1947 to 1952–is his own struggle with writing. Despite the success (or likely, because of it) of The Seven Storey Mountain, he seems awash in anguish over it. His abbot insists he continue. Merton wants to go off and pray. The notion or writing continues to surface, and as a reader, I can’t escape my own annoyance at reading it. If you want to pray and be a hermit, I think, just write about that aspiration and spare the churning on to-write-or-not-to-write.

So I’ve returned to the book and will watch my reading of it lensed through the discernment of writing.

In discernment, my guides advise me to look for a pattern. Here’s what I see so far:

In some writing, I really struggle. If I don’t have a clear grasp of the content, it can be really difficult. I have a small essay on adoption hitting print next month. (November is National Adoption Month.) It was a real struggle for me. I needed to do research and I found people less than willing to be forthright with their comments–with only two exceptions. My editor really worked the piece over good. Twice. She improved it a great deal, but I felt a bit guilty about it. This publication has higher standards than my regular liturgical venues, so maybe I’m just used to having (and sometimes complaining) about getting a free pass. As it is, for a non-headline piece, I was wondering if it was all worth the struggle. My editor is probably too polite to suggest she spent more hours on it than on their mainstream essays. I’ll link when it gets published and you can decide.

I had an idea for a scholarly article–I would have to do some research in Latin and Greek, which are respectively, very rusty and non-existent in my brain. A lot of work for an article that sparked just one note of interest and not even a real commitment. Should I justify cracking open another new horizon in writing when I could be working on other things? Four months after the initial pitch and I still haven’t typed word one.

On the other hand, composing has come very easy these past few weeks. One new piece for my musical done and a second song has been polished up. I spent some good time last week reordering my binder and taking out finished songs, setting aside old ideas to reexamine. I had forgotten I had done a draft on the spoken text in between songs. Amazingly enough, I did that five years ago and put it aside to be forgotten.

All while this has been going on, other patterns have emerged in ministry. Some of them seem to be guiding me away from writing. In my last two parishes, I wrote weekly for the bulletin. Eight years of columns, but that idea hasn’t been picked up at my new parish. There’s a move away from heavy bulletin content here. The students tend not to read it–or even pick up bulletins on the way out of church. Old habits from adolescence, I suppose.

I did get an affirming e-mail from a parishioner, who, I suspect, reads this blog. I got another e-mail from someone else who said when I tried to explain myself in a recent exchange of e-mails, she got more confused. I also take seriously those on the Catholic Right who say I’ve alienated them. But it doesn’t wash away my doubt of the testimony. It all might be colored by the generally sorry state of communication in the Church these days. I’ve tried to stay away from echo chambers of my own making. While I’m sure I annoy the heck out of people who just wish I would go away so they can have their brand of Catholicism to enjoy in peace, I’m far from the worst offender in terms of insulting people. It’s a tricky discernment: do I trust the echo as one voice or as many? As I said, like the positive input I’m getting, I lump this in the category of doubt, wait-and-see.

The workbook Discerning Charisms is wise when speaking of eliminating charisms:

You need to identify a pattern of personal indifference or distaste for the activity; of mediocre or poor results; of merely polite, bland, or negative responses from others before you can rule out a charism. Obviously that cannot happen in two weeks! It may not happen in six. In fact, it could take several years, depending on the breadth and depth of your experience.

Well … I knew that.

More for the pattern: a parishioner with experience in marketing and media approached me with some ideas on putting together multimedia pieces for students, alumni, and parishioners. I was feeling a tide of excitement as she talked about some ideas and I offered a few of my own. Some of these are exactly along the lines of my thinking at the parish over the past several months. Some of them would involve prominently that mixture of music and writing I’ve been exploring. And it wouldn’t be composition, necessarily, but other sorts of combinations. Doing things no other parish or student center is doing: that was a real tickle, let me say.

Sunday I head off for a week at St John’s University. My new pastor tipped me off to the Conversatio Retreats offered there for ecclesial ministers. Listening. That will be an excellent theme for the week. Originally, I chose that session because over the years, I had felt I’ve grown lazy with my listening skills. I used to think I was a good listener. But I worry I’ve gotten soft on it. More likely, I’ve had room to continue to grow as a listener, but I haven’t taken advantage of opportunities.

It’s been a bit more than two years since my last serious retreat, so this time away is long overdue. I will have uninterrupted time in a monastic/university environment to listen to the Spirit, to reflect with Lectio Divina on the charism of listening. And while I’m not planning to master the entire discernment workbooks, I will be leaving the week open to as much of an unencumbered experienc eof prayer and openness as I can muster in my clouded head and heavy spirit.

I think you can expect no blogging from me at all next week. I leave things to Neil if he wishes to offer something. If not, there are plenty of other good blogs out there. Come back on the 7th and see how an intense period of discernment has turned out for me.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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3 Responses to Discernment Update, About A Month In

  1. Kevin in Texas says:

    Great and very sincere post, Todd, and one which expresses many thoughts to which I can relate.

    FWIW, I consider myself a traditional or orthodox Catholic in terms of my beliefs and my practice, although I am by no means a Rad Trad (i.e., EF Mass-only) or a Republican (regarding political issues), but am rather completely faithful to Church teachings in all regards. Politically, then, neither the Republican nor Democratic parties compel me, so I am a registered independent who votes on issues in light of Catholic teaching, not on candidates’ political party affiliations. I know you are a Catholic progressive and a political liberal yourself, so clearly there are many things on which we disagree.

    I read your blog for a while as it was linked from Inside Catholic.com, a site I read daily. I found the comments from readers and even from you to often disturb me deeply on a spiritual level, so for a while I stopped reading completely. Nevertheless, I enjoy much of your writing on liturgical issues (when not addressing political aspects of it or the “liturgical wars”), and I especially enjoy your posts on family and non-political issues, and I often glean a lot of great ideas from those, so I read your blog sometimes, but I avoid any posts that I know will involve secular politics or conservative vs. progressive Catholic issues. That seems to work for me, or else I would simply avoid reading and commenting from time to time.

    Hope you keep writing about those non-political, non-liturgical war issues, Todd!

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Todd,

    I’ll keep you in my prayers next week. I’ll most probably put up a few posts.

    Best,
    Neil

  3. Your comments ARE valued. I find it increasingly difficult to be a Catholic woman and measured voices like yours are helping me break though this wall I have hit.

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