Growth in the Spirit: Walking in the Woods

I had just entered the world of ministry and my desire to serve was deep. Because I wasn’t married or with children yet, I remember devoting every minute to the people of God. I treated myself as a missionary, but that decision led to an unhealthy place. Sitting across from my spiritual director, I remember clarity opening in me as she said something so simple to me:

“Stephanie, you do not have to accept all of the things. You can reject words and ideas that are not from God.”

Like walking into an open field when I had been living among the clutter of trees, the light and freedom rose in me. The spirit of peace lifted me from the gloom and dread. 

The people of God, those I am graced to accompany on their journey toward God, like trees, were beautiful and interesting and blooming with joy. The first years of ministry felt so overwhelming, though. I wanted to spend hours, days, and weeks cultivating. With a lack of balance and a tend to please, I sought an open field for rest. 

My desire to serve and please God was confused and manipulated by my own misunderstandings as well as the movements of others and the false spirit. When I looked below my feet, I saw no path and no tools to again find the path. This was decades ago, but I still remember the freedom in spiritual direction knowing that I could sift through my life and discern “what is of God” and “what is not of God.”  In St. Ignatius’ discernment, I found tools to find the path that God had created for me. Though I had entered a complicated place in the trail, I knew, with steady practice of these tools, I would find my way back to the path God had created for me. 

Like physical exercise, spiritual exercise has its ups and downs. There are times in which we are very committed to our prayer time and awareness as God moves in our lives and other times in which we struggle to pray and be aware. Too, like physical exercise, spiritual exercises strengthen and allow for healthy movements in your life. The spiritual exercises of discernment edges away freedom and allows space so that joy might rise!

St. Ignatius’ discernment gave me a sense of joy. The questions “what is leading me toward God” and “what is leading me away from God” gave me a feeling of groundedness so that I could move myself out of the woods that had given me darkness and hopelessness. I think of Thomas Merton’s prayer when he says speaking to God:

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.

This desire should be purified like gold in fire as we live our life. In my spiritual lethargy, including lack of prayer, journaling, and therefore awareness, I had forgotten the direction of my desire. The direction of my desire is God. This desire sometimes gets cluttered. Straightening the path toward God is discernment. 

One of my fellow spiritual director friends and I were speaking recently about the process of discernment. Before I trained in the Ignatian Way, I thought that discernment came and went depending on big decisions. Discernment is a constant pattern of our life. Like walking in woods we are constantly adjusting ourselves to remain on the paths God presents to us as we live our life. We are always, in a way, walking in the woods. I think about one of my favorite books by Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods:

Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views & leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in the woods and you only sense it. They are vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive (90). 

Even though the woods may appear dark and looming, the trees of our life are our companion as we become all that God has called us to be. I can think of really looming trees in my life that, in my discernment away from them, led me to a place of light and mission. I have trees in my life who have been great arrows pointing and demonstrating love of God too. 

This Easter, as we begin to take  initial steps out of what has felt like a long Lent connected to the coronavirus, I feel, like many, these untended feelings of discernment crowding in on the path that God might be calling me to. The path feels a little blurry or crowded. Many of us are shifting through ideas and thoughts to clarify “what is from God” and “what is not from God” as the world patterns itself in new ways. If you are a serial people-pleaser, as I am, this can make you feel lost in the woods with no solid grounded path to follow. We know, though, that God never abandons us. God is the Good Shepherd and we know God’s voice. God  will lead us with a clear voice.  We need only to tend to our spiritual life to tune our lives to the voice of God.



Going Deeper: 

  • With structured prayer, we can again become grounded on God’s path, thoughtfully listening to the Shepherd’s voice drawing us through our life. If you have lost your daily ritual of path, recommit in the Eastertime to a regular, daily prayer experience.  Creating a Spiritual Plan may be a tool to help create a space for daily prayer time. 
  • Take time to journal when you are able. Journaling is a tracking system that allows you to see God’s movement in your life.
  • If you are particularly lost, consider doing a longer Annual Examen of your last several months or year.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on

Stephanie Clouatre Davis graduated from Loyola University New Orleans. Stephanie speaks to adults and teens around the nation at parishes, high schools, and dioceses in various venues including retreats and conferences. With humor, joy, and stories, Stephanie not only fully engages her audiences but also inspires them to challenge themselves and build a stronger relationship with God. She lives in Covington, Louisiana with her husband Michael and two girls Emma and Abby.

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