When I was in high school, I went on our youth group’s senior retreat. On that retreat each of us seniors was given a paperback New Testament in which a verse had been highlighted. They were given out randomly, with trust that the Holy Spirit would speak to us in some way through that verse. That sure worked for me, and I’ll never forget the verse that I received. It was Romans 12:2, from today’s second reading: “Do not conform yourself to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may know what is God’s will, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” I can’t tell you how often since that retreat I’ve gone back to that verse, praying for the transformation of my life and the renewal of my mind, because God’s will can sometimes be so hard for us to discern. But that is the great project of our lives, isn’t it?
I think Jeremiah, in today’s first reading, expresses the exasperation we sometimes feel when we are trying to discern that will. Sometimes we get to the point where we’d just as soon chuck it all and pretend it just doesn’t matter. But if we do that, we can’t expect even a moment’s peace. Listen to the prophet’s words again:
I say to myself, I will not mention him,
I will speak in his name no more.
But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart,
imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.
We all of us have to come to the point where we realize that what we want to do in our lives doesn’t matter so much as what God wants us to do. Because that’s the only way we’ll ever find true peace with God and true peace with ourselves. We can try, as Jeremiah did, to hide from God’s will, holding back from what we really feel called to do. We can give in to the fear that keeps us from becoming what we were meant to be. We can try to live our lives as if God really doesn’t matter to us. But then, eventually, we will become weary of holding it in. And then we have two possible responses: either give in to God’s will, or give in to despair and disappointment and accept that unfulfilled potential is what we were meant for.
Given that choice, I’ll pick doing Gods will, thank you very much! And in giving in to God’s will, we may well be duped, and yes, we may even have let ourselves be duped. Because God’s will is too strong for us, and we cannot overcome it. Just ask St. Augustine, whose feast we celebrated this past Thursday. He was well-off, intelligent, enjoying the pleasures of the world, and had no interest in the religion that his mother, St. Monica, lived. But eventually, through the prayers of his mother and the grace of God, Augustine realized he could not go on with the sham his life had become. In his famous Confessions, he writes of the beauty that he had missed by being so caught up in the things of this world:
Late have I loved you,
O Beauty ever ancient, ever new,
late have I loved you!
You were within me, but I was outside,
and it was there that I searched for you.
In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
Created things kept me from you;
yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.
You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.
You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
You breathed your fragrance on me;
I drew in breath and now I pant for you.
I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.
You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
Jesus lays this all on the table for us in today’s Gospel. We have to stop, like Peter, thinking as people do and start thinking as God does. And when we do that, it’s not going to be pretty. We’re going to have to take up our cross and follow Jesus, which is surely going to mean some suffering, and definitely some sacrifice. But if we would save our lives, we have to be willing to lay them down, to give them up, to be duped by our God whose wisdom is so far beyond our own understanding.
So how do you know if something is God’s will for you? This is the rubber-meets-the-road question for all of us in the life of discipleship. The art of discernment is something that takes a lifetime to perfect, and indeed may well be completely imperfect until that day when we meet our God in the heavenly kingdom. But until that great day, we disciples are called to practice. And so, here are some principles of discernment that work for me. They are adapted from various sources in the Church.
First, pray. Trying to discern God’s will outside the context of a relationship with God makes no sense whatsoever. If you want to know what God’s will in your life is, then ask him. And be ready to listen. Take the time to listen. Find a way to be silent, whether it’s by sitting in front of the Blessed Sacrament or taking a long walk. Pray, and then be silent.
Second, look to the saints. It is highly unlikely that God will call you to do something that hasn’t been modeled in the life of his holy ones. We were meant to look to the saints for inspiration, guidance and intercession – that’s why we have saints in the Church. So if a particular saint’s story has meaning for you, reflect on that, and see if God is calling you to something as a result of that.
Third, look to the Scriptures and to the Church’s Liturgy. We are a people meant to be formed by the Word of God and by the Sacraments. We are called as Christian disciples to live the Gospel. We are all sent forth in peace to love and serve the Lord. Our experience of worship is meant to inspire us and to lead us in being Eucharist in the week ahead.
Fourth, seek counsel from every wise person (Tobit 4:18a). Many people in our lives know us better than we know ourselves. Check with someone you trust spiritually to see if you’re on track or off base. Sometimes a pair of fresh eyes on our discernment can be so helpful.
Finally, be willing to be duped by God. Jeremiah complained about it, but ultimately he was willing – he let himself be duped. And so maybe what we’re called to do is something we have no idea how it will turn out. That’s okay. We aren’t always given the big picture. But being part of that big picture can be the biggest thrill of our lives. And as Jeremiah tells us, we can’t silence it anyway, so we might as well give ourselves over to it.
Clearly, our Liturgy today is calling us to open ourselves up to God’s plan in our lives, whatever that plan might be. We’re all being asked to move in some direction, closer to our God. It can be frustrating, even scary, to be searching in that direction. But the rewards are clear: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” May our quiet moments of the week ahead find us renewing our minds and searching for what is truly good and pleasing and perfect.