A Spirituality of Discernment: When God Grabs Your Attention

By Kathy Keary

Our full series in the Contemplative Prayer Video Series is here.

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Part 3 of 4. Find all the articles in the Discernment series here.

When Henri Nouwen was discerning if he was being called to live the contemplative life of silence and solitude or a more active life of teaching and ministry, he discovered a poster of “The Flute Player” by Hazard Durfee that included a quote by Henry David Thoreau, the subject of the painting, which reads:

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Nouwen came to the realization that discernment is like hearing a different drummer. He realized that when we listen to the Spirit, we hear a deeper sound, a different beat. He described this great movement in the spiritual life as going from deafness to a life of listening. We no longer feel isolated but enjoy a life where we hear the guiding and healing voice of God who is always with us.

Have you ever been captured by something like Nouwen was attracted to The Flute Player knowing to your core that it holds greater meaning for you than what a surface glance offers?

God uses these enticements to grab our attention.

Be Not Afraid tapestry
Be Not Afraid tapestry

The “Be Not Afraid” tapestry is that for me. The moment I saw it I was hooked. It now hangs in my home, and God continues to speak to me through it especially in challenging times or when he is calling me to lend a helping hand to another.

As mentioned in our article, Contemplative Prayer: The Five Steps of Visio Divina, God has used this artwork as a communication tool in multiple ways over the years. Visio Divina, sacred seeing, can be a fruitful way to discern the whisperings of our Maker.

Another way God speaks to us in our environment is through nature. One day as I started a walk, I half kiddingly said to God: “Where are you?” As I looked up in the sky, I had in mind the face of a father figure. To my surprise, a cloud was perfectly formed in the shape of a dove. This was God saying to me, “Look no further. I am right here.”

God’s message revealed through nature was clear following a weekend retreat that my team led at a prison. Many of us had long drives home. The sunset was gorgeous that evening. The fall leaves had grown in vibrancy over the weekend. The scene was utterly breathtaking. God’s handiwork stood as a celebration rewarding our weekend. Creation was singing: “Job well done.” Yes, God spoke to us through the gift that surrounded us.

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The patterns of the seasons hold divine messages as we go from winter to spring to summer to fall. As Easter people, this cycle often speaks of hope as we witness death being transformed to new life. As the Paschal Mystery plays out in our lives, the sacred promise can be heard: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

“The Flute Player” by Hazard Durfee with a quote by Henry David Thoreau.
“The Flute Player” by Hazard Durfee with a quote by Henry David Thoreau.

It is not unusual for God to speak to us through the people in our lives. Have you ever prayed about something and then later in the day someone utters words that speaks to that very issue? This goes way beyond happenstance. This is the Holy One at work in your life.

Several years ago an opportunity appeared that was of interest to me. I set it aside with the intention of slowly mulling it over. Then someone invited me to seize the opportunity. I told them I would continue to prayerfully discern the possibility. I really did not give it much thought until a few days later someone else suggested that I entertain this pursuit. It was then that I realized that God was speaking to me through these people.

Sometimes the words that speak to our heart are found in Scripture, a commonplace for me to go when I am discerning God’s guidance in my life. I refer you to our article on Lectio Divina, sacred reading, for the steps of this prayerful practice.

We all have our favorite authors. God has clearly spoken to me through the words of Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr and many others. Their inspired words have helped shape my spirituality and who I am in the world.

Sometimes the words that influence us rise up from the depths of our soul. Just the other day I was pondering the significance of a dream when clear as a bell I heard God say with the ear of my heart, “I am inviting you to a deeper place.”

I will leave you today with the wisdom of Henri Nouwen:

Paying attention to the signs in daily life provides a starting place for a deeper and more systematic discernment and spiritual reflection. When we ask, as Merton did, “What of God is being revealed in this book or in this experience?” we are led to new insight and to ways of saying yes to God’s direction in our lives.

[Kathy Keary, spiritual director, holds a bachelor’s degree in education, a master’s degree in theological studies, and completed Sophia Center’s Souljourners Program, an intense study of spirituality and spiritual direction. Kathy believes that the Divine is present and active in all of life and encourages others to be awakened to the God in all including the Divine within. She enjoys accompanying others on their journey to wholeness discovering the person they were created to be.]

Image is a copy of “The Flute Player” by Hazard Durfee with a quote by Henry David Thoreau. It is part of a poster series, Great Ideas of Western Man, commissioned by the Container Corporation of America and printed by Darien House in 1969.

This article was originally published in The Contemplative Life Series on August 10, 2020.

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