Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Art of Discerning - Part II

In my last post I wrote about some of the lies we confront when discerning. In this post I wanted to look at some practicals.

Sometimes I feel a little bit bad when I go into schools and I ask Year 12 students "so, what's the plan for next year?" I mean, I remember when I was in school, I didn't have a clue! The truth is though, those questions are getting incredibly hard to answer. Consider this (from the Herald Sun):

JOBS for life are a thing of the past, with the average Gen Y worker holding four positions before they're 30.
The employment market is changing so dramatically that most of the jobs they’ll hold in their 40s haven’t been created yet.

I'm already up to my fourth position and I just turned 23! Discerning a vocation was never easy,  but the world is changing so much that even just figuring out your next job is becoming increasingly difficult. So, how do you discern in an ever shifting, always moving world?

Tip # 1 - Discernment isn't a solo gig!
Don't go it alone! This seems obvious, and it's pretty standard advice to get a Spiritual Director, Mentor or support person/people. But there's a  further step to take within this tip: too often we internalise the discernment process and we think in terms of "my calling". We need to shift this thinking a little bit because actually, it's God's calling. Put simply, vocation is the way to best live your life to serve God and to love others. Vocations arise out of the needs of the community, God calls people to serve those needs. Discernment shouldn't only be about soul searching or naval gazing! While we do need to understand ourselves to best respond to the call, true discernment looks out to the community and looks up to God to find its inspiration. 

Tip # 2 - The grass will always look greener on the other side if you're not taking care of the grass on your side!
OK, this tip has a long title, but I've seen it in many discerners (and even in myself) when more time is spent looking at other vocations than the one you're meant to be discerning! You can't serve two masters, neither can you discern two vocations at the same time. Discernment is about cutting away, not adding to the discernment load! For me, discerning priesthood meant I had to put all my energies into that discernment process. I had to spend more time praying about priesthood and less time daydreaming about marriage and children. Focusing on the formation process for priesthood helped me see that priesthood wasn't my calling, without having doubts about how engaged I was in that discernment process.

If you're discerning - stay focused!
Tip # 3 - Take the Leap!
That gorgeous girl sitting across the classroom or at the other end of the train carriage will never become your wife if the closest you ever get to asking her out is in your dreams. Likewise, you'll never know if you're meant to be a priest or a religious or single if you don't do something about it. You won't hear God's calling unless you put yourself in a place to hear it.

Tip # 4  - If you ask, then ACTUALLY LISTEN!
Too often when I say my prayers, I don't actually stop to listen and hear what God is saying back to me. It seems obvious, but listening with a discerning ear means seeking God's voice in every situation: how does God speak to you through the people around you and through the events of your life? God's call doesn't always come in signs or like a voice in our head: do you listen to God calling through the person who doesn't have a house to sleep in at night? Or through the single mother working three jobs to make ends meet? Or through the elderly parishioner who needs a lift to get to Mass on Sundays? The call doesn't always come in the way that we expect; and we're certain to miss it if we only listen to the call that we want to hear.

Really, what all these tips come down to is being intentional. We see those words a lot in Christian dating advice, but its a mind frame to adopt for how we approach the whole of life. Be intentional because every word and every action has the potential to change yours or someone else's life. When your intention in life is to love God and serve others, that's when discernment becomes real. 

The world is constantly changing, but one thing that doesn't change is that the world needs love. God is calling YOU to bring that love. Will you respond and how? This is what we discern.

Monday, 28 October 2013

The Art of Discernment: An Insider's Perspective

I've been reading lots of really great blog posts and articles recently about how discernment has become trendy (see here or here). I think it is true that often discernment is used as an excuse to not make a decision about life (i.e. the Perpetual Discerners), however I think there's a lot of stuff we need to battle with during the discernment process. In this post I wanted to share an insider's perspective to discernment, from my time discerning priesthood in the seminary and now as I discern what's next for my life.

Young men discerning their next step on the VOCadventure Fiji Program

I want to start with an analogy though. See, I think our lives are like a story (I know, cliche right?) and our vocation is the part where our story gets wrapped up into history/His-story. Discernment is the bridging chapter, the part where our plot line gets drawn into the plot of salvation history. I think the problem a lot of people face when discerning is that sub-plots can arise; sub-plots which are often distracting, destructive  or restrictive. These sub-plots can take our focus away from the main plot.

What are these sub-plots? Some of these sub-plots are things we need to work through before making a deeper commitment: family breakdowns, past relationship hurts, abuse, trauma, even all of the above. However, there are a lot of the sub-plots that come up that are lies or perceptions which just aren't true. These are blockages to discernment that need to be removed. Let's take some time to look at these lies.

Lie # 1 - "But, what if I'm called somewhere else?"
Before I went to seminary I used to ask the question, "but what if I go to seminary and I'm called to married life instead?" The grass always looks greener on the other side! The word discernment actually comes from the Latin "to seperate apart". We discern to cut away options, either I am called to this so I don't need to discern anything else; or, I'm not called to this so I can cut this option away. My time discerning priesthood became far more fruitful when I focused in on that vocation. Now I can say peacefully that I discerned that vocation well and was able to cut it away. Instead of asking "but what if I'm called elsewhere?" ask: "but what if I am called here?" It's a far better question.

Lie # 2 - "My family and friends will think I'm crazy!"
Another big road block in discernment is how our family or friends will perceive our decision. These are important relationships and a decision shouldn't be made without considering the impact on these people. However, we shouldn't be off-put by their potential disapproval. Remember, even Jesus' family thought he was crazy (Mk 3:20-35) and while he was teaching one day they came to take him away! Often, families and friends disapprove because they don't understand (especially in the case of priesthood or religious life). We can help them to understand by involving them in the discernment process: explain to them about why we feel drawn to a certain vocation. They might not come around immediately, but give them time. There are many great stories of families and friends growing more supportive as they saw their loved one grow in their vocation.

Lie # 3 - "I owe it to God or to the Church, it's my duty."
I come from a culture where the eldest son has a lot of responsibilities, the idea of duty resounds strongly within me. So when I began to grow in my faith and I began to fall more in love with the Church, I began to feel strongly a sense of duty towards the Church and I thought this had to be as a priest. But, as someone pointed out to me once: a) you don't owe God or the Church anything, they'll be fine with whatever choice you make; and b) if you're so passionate about serving God and the Church, you'll fulfil that duty as a priest, religious or lay person. Now, this isn't an excuse to not discern priesthood or religious life! Rather, I highlight this lie because it frees up the discernment process. When I realised that God didn't expect anything of me, it allowed me to discern freely. It took away a lot of the pressure I perceived and I was able to be excited about a life of service to God, however that may look.

As someone said to me when I decided to apply for the seminary: "Discerning a vocation is an exciting time in one's life. Enjoy it!" The discernment period isn't just a means to an ends, but is an experience in itself. It can be an interesting time full of self-revelation, when one's faith and knowledge grow substantially. It can be a time of figuring things out and letting things go. Some days it can seem clear where God is directing us, other times you just don't know. It is always a time of grace: when God becomes more present in our lives. 

Dare to ask the question: "God, what do you call me to do?" More importantly, dare to listen to the answer. God only knows where you'll end up.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Bad stuff happens

Well, that was ironic. Last night I had my last uni lecture for the semester. I was riding a high: it had been a great class and I had (at least I thought I had) delivered a great presentation to the class on "why bad things happen to good people". As I was driving home in my little yellow granny car, I heard a snap and a rattle coming from under the bonnet, followed by a whining, followed by puffs of black smoke coming out of my exhaust..........My car broke.Why do bad things happen to good people (or bad people or people in between, for that matter)???

It's an age old question, isn't it? And I think it stirs so much passion because it's not just an issue for intellectual or theological debate, but because it effects real people and it touches our lives. Bad stuff happens. A lot. That causes a dilemma or tension: God is love, but bad stuff happens. If God is all loving, why does God allow it to happen? If God is all powerful, why doesn't God stop it from happening?

To be honest, I don't want to know all the answers. If I could know why bad things happen, then I could just explain them away without feeling compelled to do anything to stop them. So my car broke down. It's annoying and frustrating and it's going to cost a lot to fix and I don't get to go to the school I was meant to speak at today (sorry Marymount!!!) At the end of the day I know there are people in the world who are bearing a greater burden than having to get their car fixed. I know because I've seen it: in Cambodia, in the Philippines. Heck it's not even just a third-world problem, look around your neighbourhood/school/work place and you'll see people battling with stuff. Bad stuff.

Here's the thing that gets me: The kids I met in Cambodia, my family in the Philippines, those battlers around you; they don't give up. There's a dream of a life without those burdens. We don't have to live with a lot of the bad stuff in the world. Call it faith, call it hope, call it wishful thinking, but perhaps the best explanation of why bad stuff happens is because it doesn't have to happen. Perhaps the answer to why bad stuff happens is our own efforts to stop it happening. To have Christian faith is to be compelled to love. A love that I believe could alleviate the bad stuff our brothers and sisters around us are burdening.

Love doesn't fix a car (if only). Nor does it stop an earthquake. But love does heal wounds, it does draw people into relationship, it does restore faith.

So, heart broken (and I'm sure soon to be savings account broken) I'll endure the burden of having a broken car, because I know there a people who will go through much worse today. And I hope. I don't know why God doesn't stop bad stuff from happening, but part of me feels like God must also be frustrated (remember, bad stuff happened to Jesus too.) I might not be zipping around in my little yellow granny car today, but it's a reminder for me to be aware to the burdens of those around me. Maybe, I can do my bit today to ease the bad stuff going on in someone else's life.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Jesus was up himself

Well, someone had to say it: Jesus was up himself. Seriously, check this out:

"At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here.”

In Australia we're not very sympathetic of tall poppies, we tend to cut them down. Bragging, showboating, skiting: none of it sits well with us. Should we know someone who excels we tend to cut them down, pay them out or give them some form of grief over it. Tall poppy syndrome is part and parcel of Australian culture.

I learnt this pretty early on in school: don't stand out. That rule keeps you out of trouble in the school yard, but it makes faith pretty difficult. I perfected the art of looking bored and disinterested during Sunday Mass, just in case anyone else from school was watching. The problem with focusing so hard on the positioning of my facial muscles in the shape of a frown meant that I missed most of what was going on. I even avoided the monthly youth Mass just in case I was asked to help out. It was safer for my rep (and any chances I had of ever having a girlfriend) to just fit in.

So when I read Jesus' words, you can see why I think he's a bit full of himself. I mean c'mon Jesus, you multiplied wine, you walked on water, you fed five thousand, you healed lepers; do you really need to brag about how great you were? He had to, because the people were asking for a sign. Apparently multiplying wine, walking on water, feeding five thousand and healing lepers wasn't definitive enough. 

My point is this: actions aren't enough. Yeah, actions speak louder than words; but actions with words speak louder than actions speak louder than words (did you follow all that?) As Christians we often drop that line about "preaching the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words". As I once heard a wise man say: words are necessary. Not using words is a cop out, because it means we can do the "God thing" without drawing attention to ourselves, without engaging the world.

Jesus calls himself "greater than Jonah" not to brag, but because his signs alone weren't enough for the people. They didn't get it, they needed interpretation. That's because his signs were counter-cultural and challenging and the people needed to be told what they meant. Actions need words, they need explanation and reasoning. That might mean sticking your neck out a little bit, because the world today doesn't get the Gospel. It's all well and good to act rightly and justly, but if you don't tell people why than they'll never understand why.

I'm not saying we need to stand on milk crates in the middle of the street proclaiming the Gospel, or to brag about how good and holy we are; but there are always opportunities to share our love, faith and hope. When someone asks what you did on the weekend, say that you went to Church. If someone asks you why you're so happy, say that your life is blessed. To quote Fr Morgan Batt: "Don't miss an opportunity to evangelise!"

I lived in a discernment house for a while, and throughout the house there were signs blu-tacked on to the walls with phrases and words of wisdom. I can't remember exactly where in the house it was, but one sign read: 

"Why fit in when you were made to stand out?"

I know it's tempting for me to let my actions speak about the type of man I am, because they do. But if I don't ever say why I act the way I do, then no one will know I do it for Christ. Our history is part of his-story, let our actions speak that.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

I will be light

Sit back
And in these days 
Remember my ways 
Oh will I get out of my cage? 
Yes I am a slave 
Searching for some freedom 
Searching for some freedom 

As I'm sitting back racking my brain for an idea for this this blog, I have Matisyahu stuck in my head. Cue inspiration. Dude is a musical prophet, and if you haven't heard him before I insist you check out his stuff. But back to those lyrics: Searching for some freedom. What am I enslaved to? Too often, I'm enslaved to unimaginative, limited, black and white thinking. Stuck in how things should be done instead of how things could be done. I'm talking about the way I look at the world; you know, that whole cliche about "the present is a gift" and what not, but am I really making the most of every opportunity? Heck, do I even recognise every opportunity? Yes I am a slave, a slave to the boring, flatline existance offered to me by society.

So intend to sing them 
Songs to spark, memories 
What is a man with no history? 
Where am I ? 
Who am I ? 
What is this place?, 
We're just spinning in space 

What is a man with no history? What sort of question is that? Yet, sometimes I live my life ignorant of the adventures that have brought me here in the first place. I squander away minutes living a comfortable life, but it was going out of my comfort zone that got me so far in the first place! I'm just spinning in space.

I will be light 
I will be light 
I will be light 
I will be light 

Have you ever shone a torch in an already lit up room? Its pointless. And it looks silly. Shine a torch in the dark and you might find something. Something uncomfortable, confronting or challenging. If I'm going to be a "light" it doesn't make sense for me to spend all my time in a metaphorical lit up room when I can be a light to those who dwell in darkness!

Time will continue without you 
So in the end 
Its not about you 
What did you do? 
Who do you love besides you 
Beside you, many died in the name of vanity 
Many die in their mind's eye, for justice 
We die for you 
And still do 
So I say to you 
This is nothing new

Time will continue without you. Too often I get caught up in "what I'm going to do with my time?"...But time isn't mine. In fact, my life is just a blip in the whole existence of the world. I'd like to think people will remember me and talk about me after I'm gone. Or maybe they'll find some stupid selfie from my instagram. In the end it's not about you. Who do I love besides me? Or is my life just about expanding the membership of the Adam Burns Fan Club and increasing my number of friends and followers on Facebook/twitter/instagram/this blog?

I will be light 
I will be light 
I will be light 
I will be light 

To whom and for what? It's all well and good to say "I'm going to make a difference in the world" but how and where and whose life will be different because of yours. Because surely getting to Heaven is more than living a morally good life and ticking all the boxes. Remember the Rich Young Man?

Its one tiny moment in time 
For life to shine, to shine 
Burn away the darkness 

You've got one tiny moment in time 
For life to shine, to shine 
To burn away the darkness 

one tiny moment in time

I've written posts before about getting over yourself, about living to your full potential and about how we view the world. I know for me its easy for a "tiny moment in time" to get passionate, to write a blog and feel like I'm saving the world, but then slip right back into living comfortably until the next tiny moment. Living a meaningful, God-inspired life is challenging when the world makes it so easy to just exist. All I can do is to keep trying to make those "tiny moments" last a lot longer.

Oh, and here's the song:

Friday, 4 October 2013


During most of my upbringing, Brisbane was in a constant state of drought. Grass was perpetually brown, garden hoses were teasing reminders of glorious days now gone; and children's heads weren't filled with nursery rhymes, but rather with the stinging, nagging tunes of "TURN THE TAP OFF WHILE YOU BRUSH YOUR TEETH!!!" Think about it, until the drought was broken, there was a whole generation of children who did not know that a fountain could look like anything other than this:

Imagine, there was a whole generation of children who would have only seen moldy  giant, concrete things scattered all over the place. 

Here's where I connect the abstract image to an actual realisation about life: there are "drought times" in my life where I have been like the empty fountain, not fulfilling my role, empty and taking up too much room. Those "drought times" are the times when I have been too passive to care, too lazy to move, too reactive to make an impact. A fountain is meant to be full to overflowing: the way water shoots up into the air, cascades over edges - it's glorious. An empty fountain is pitiful.

My life is meant to be the "full fountain". Does that mean I need to do as many things as I can possibly do? Not necessarily, I think to "be full" is to push myself. I could sit here behind my computer all day typing blogs, or I could get out there and meet young men who want to be priests; I could settle with the one unit I'm doing at uni or I could push myself to expand my mind. It's easy for me to hear others tell me I have potential...but how often do I actually use that potential?

I guess what I'm getting at here is that there are times in my life when I'm an empty fountain, or even just a half-full, barely pumping fountain. The problem with living to our full potential is that is frigging hard!!! It's hard because it challenges us to be accountable to God for the gifts he's created us with. Right now for me that means working harder than I ever have before, and I don't know how much that will affect my beloved leisure time.

Here's the crunch though: a fountain has no say in if it's full or not. I do have a choice to embrace more, to live a full-to-overflowing life. It'll take prayer and mentoring and discernment; but God has placed a calling on my life (and yours): I came that they may have life and have it to the FULL (Jn 10:10).

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Ignite 2013 - The Call

This past weekend the Vocations Centre was at the Ignite Conference. It was uber cool to join with thousands of young people, priests and religious as we explored the theme: The Call. Rather than explain it in words, have a look at our Ignite experience in pictures.