Discerning God’s Dreams: The Fourth Sunday of Advent (and Christmas Eve) 2017

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Women and men around the world find solace in Mary, the Mother of God. Our prayer to her cuts across cultures, lifestyle and age. I know many people who would say they do not practice faith, yet so often when someone close to them gets sick or dies, they grab a rosary and start a simple prayer.

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There is comfort in the simplicity and rhythmic pattern of the beads. Perhaps it gives them peace at a time when worry comes so naturally. We place great hope in Mary’s intercession in our lives or in the lives of those close to us. Why do we relate so naturally to her?

I think we get a glimpse of that from the Gospel of Luke, the excerpt used for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. We hear that Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel was one of perplexity and wondering. She pondered the words from the visitor, so much so that the Angel reminded her to be not afraid.

Mary is a surprised and confused young woman. At first, she is overwhelmed and reluctant. Perhaps we recognize ourselves in her initial response to the Angel Gabriel.

Mary eventually said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.” But that wasn’t the initial response; it only came after pondering and reflection.  Mary was discerning the dream of God for her life.

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What is God’s dream for me? Acceptance of it may take careful pondering. Reluctance and hesitancy are common for many young people today who are searching for the right path for themselves. There can be a reluctance to commit to a permanent relationship, to a career choice or even a choice of specialization in university.

It’s too easy to say that this is a new phenomenon, brought on by the realities of twenty first century life and culture. Mary’s example shows that it’s a part of growing up and maturing. We grow into a sense of our path.

Jesus was 30 before he had a sense of his vocation. I have no doubt that it was strengthened by the 40 days he spent in the desert. Ignatius of Loyola spent several months as a pilgrim and experienced an intense period of retreat in a cave in Manresa, Spain. Even after that, he had to continue to discern God’s desires for him.

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I’ve offered a lot of spiritual direction in my years as a Jesuit. I don’t want to reduce discernment to simple categories, but I’ve seen three kinds of ways of making a decision. Saint Ignatius summed this up in his Spiritual Exercises. He named three ways of making a decision.

The first is when someone has no hesitation about the path for their life. I’ve had the experience of dealing with young people who know beyond a shadow of a doubt the path laid out for them. We’ve all met them. They can frustrate those who are more uncertain.

The second type is the person who needs to discern the various movements of consolation and desolation. Most of us fit in this category. We need to discern the various movements, to make sure we look at our possible path from as many angles as possible. What are the advantages and disadvantages?

The third type of person is not moved strongly in either direction. Ignatius describes the person as being in a state of tranquility. He has several suggestions for guided imagery, designed to get movement within us, questions such as what we would have hoped for our life as we approach death.

All three need to be open to new factors coming along. That’s even true of the one who has no hesitancy in knowing her path.

Take a young woman who just knows that she is called to be a doctor. But events in her life and the world might mean that after several years of successful family practice, she recognizes a vocation within her vocation. She is a successful physician, but she is not being challenged.

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Her knowledge of a medical crisis in the Global South is urging her to pack up and travel as a volunteer with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). Her life and career have changed irrevocably.

Advent and Christmas are times to look to our desires and God’s dreams for us. What invitations from God cause me to be fearful or reluctant? Is that fear really an invitation to ponder and move to a new level of trust in God?

 

Philip Shano, SJ has many years of rich and varied experience working with Ignatian spirituality: teaching, writing and using it in his ministry. He resides in the Jesuit community in Pickering, Ontario.

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