The Lonely Call of Discernment

by Hilary Horn

 By Bill Borror

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

And in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed.                                                 Mark 1:9-13; 35


My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that
I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am
actually doing so…..

Thomas Merton


I once asked a wise spiritual director how can I know what God wants?  She replied God wants you in heaven, meaning God just wants you. Pressing her a bit more (because that could not possibly be all-right?)  I said,

“Well what I am I supposed to do?”  

She gently replied, “What would be your saint name?” She smiled at what must have been my bewildered look.   She continued “For instance, St Francis was Il Poverello; Juan de Yepes became St. John of Cross;   Therese of Lisieux was ‘the little flower.’   Think about what your name might be and we can discern more the next time.”

I never went back initially, because I was totally stumped.    It was not for lack of options in my lexicon; I was teaching Church History as well as pastoring at the time.  But I could find neither sign nor symbol to attach to my identity. I remembered a graduate professor once told me that my patron saint should be St Sebastian, mortally wounded thirty-nine times, but I think that was more of a commentary on my career than my soul.   

In spite of never returning to the director, I have kept her question like a zen koan close to my heart ever since.  And though I do not yet have a name (St. Bill the Perplexed?),  I know God’s desire for me is discovered in my identity and that my work is only vocation to the degree it leads me back to the love of God.   This seems to be part of what is going on in the Baptism of Jesus. His “commissioning” is God’s confirmation of his identity. And discerning this identity/commission leads him into the wilderness of testing and prayer.

I wonder how Jesus’s prayers of discernment were different than my feeble attempts?  What may even be more mind boggling is how might they be similar.   We too have to pray our way through the desert surrounded by graces and terrors, inner demons and our better angels.  

And at least once in the struggle, God was as silent with Jesus as God is on a regular basis with me (and perhaps you too).   

I think Jesus was lonely in this world.  Certainly this “a-loneness” was a function of his unique identity as the Incarnation of God.  But his being misunderstood by both friends and foe; his rejection by family and the “faith”; his embracing of the suffering of others; and the constant demand for him to give more; are isolating dynamics that most of us can relate to on some level.  Life is lonely and frequently the more sensitive one is to what is really going on in the world, that loneliness is intensified. Maybe this drove Jesus to lonely places to connect to the one he knew as Father.

In the process of discernment, it is as important to be present to where we are, as it is to ask where we are going.   It is possible that the Logos of creation found comfort in the beauty of a star-filled night and the hymns of the night creatures.  Points of isolation are pregnant with possibilities for insight; just ask Jonah. I think when Jesus went into the Judean wilderness or into a Galilean night, he was not only withdrawing from but moving towards something and someone.   

Discernment is not ultimately about finding life direction, but finding the One who is “the way, the truth and the life.”  The existential, emotional, and spiritual lonely place in which each individual finds themselves is what drives us to the Father as well.   This encounter with the Divine offers meaning, consolation, and comfort when felt; and when absent, the dark night tango of faith.

As Brother Merton’s prayer concludes:

…But I believe that the desire to please You
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for You are ever with me,
and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.


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Francine January 29, 2019 - 10:05 am

Profoundly encouraging… thaaaank you

Amy Blumberg January 29, 2019 - 10:25 am

I love the line ‘his embracing of the suffering of others. Not just understanding or emphasizing, but embracing, hugging it close, bringing it in, fully experiencing it. We have forgotten that THAT is what Jesus did to every unwanted, unloved, belittled, downtrodden, and misguided person that he met. I love your heart St. Bill the Gently Tenacious.

Cindy January 29, 2019 - 5:47 pm

Truly resonates with my feelings about my current position in palliative care…I can only do it because i need God’s grace and ongoing centering prayer in order to do it…God is selfish and if I did not do this job, my practice of going to God regularly would falter, therefore I am called to palliative care to love God and others perpetuately…

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