Have you ever received brutally honest advice that at first infuriated you but later became sage wisdom for your life journey? Several years ago, I was hit in the gut by just such a cannonball of advice.
I had recently retired from a stressful bureaucratic career and had been led by the Holy Spirit to an internship in spiritual direction. This was something placed before me by God, not something I had planned to do in my retirement years. The entire two-year process was a time of discernment: Did I really hear God calling me to this? Did I really have the God-given gifts needed to be a good director? Could I deal with the rigorous training? By the time I completed the internship, I had a clear sense that I was where God wanted me to be. I even felt a sense of certainty that God had been leading me to this ministry all my life, through life experiences and people in my life. My ultimate confirmation came when I was invited to serve as spiritual director in a parish on a college campus. I wore several hats on staff, but my primary ministry was spiritual direction.
I was working in a vibrant parish with a pastor I greatly respected and getting to use my gifts and training to help others deepen their relationship with God. I gave retreats and taught about discernment of spirits. This was my dream job! I’m sure St. Ignatius must have felt similar feelings at one time – he was on the king’s court, had an active social life and was a military leader. What a life! And then the battle and the cannonball to his leg. BOOM.
My battle began when a full-time campus minister was hired. This person was specifically trained in campus ministry. Most notably, this person was young. Age and life experience have their place, but youth on a college campus trumps everything. Being young meant you had access to students where they were: dorms, frat and sorority houses, football games, etc. Youth also meant you had non-stop energy and a presence on all social media. And so, even though retreats and spiritual direction were popular with the students, the availability of a campus minister attracted lots of attention. I didn’t realize there was a battle brewing (at least in my mind) until one day when I saw the campus minister post a bulletin board on her office door inviting students to sign up for appointments to talk about their faith one-on-one with her. BOOM.
Wait a minute, wasn’t that MY job? Wasn’t I the trained guru of the spiritual life around here? Does this person really think she is qualified to talk about God with students? This was war!
I marched my self-righteous self into my pastor’s office, shut the door, and proceeded to give him a piece of my mind. He listened to me longer than he should have and when I was done, I sat back expecting him to take my side. Instead, he looked at me and quite calmly said “This parish ministers to students, so of course, any student is welcome to talk with any staff member about their faith.”
That statement had the same impact on my ego as the cannonball did on St. Ignatius’ leg. It was brutally painful, nor did I see it coming. I remember walking back to my office and shutting the door to minister to my wounds. I later realized that what happened next was a fork-in-the-road moment. I had been hit with a cannonball of advice and it was up to me to discern what to do about it.
And so I sat alone, deeply wounded and trying to triage the damage. I started down the first road of pride. “How dare he say that to me? I have a certificate in this ministry. I know I can minister to these students. THIS IS MY MINISTRY! Anyone else will do it wrong. I’ll quit, that will fix them.” I stayed on this road for a good while. But then came the grace of God – the discernment of spirits.
I began to notice that the more I travelled down this road, the more agitated I became. I sounded illogical and self centered. It was a dark, twisted road. I kept hearing myself say “my ministry, my gifts, my training, my office. But wait a minute, this is not what ministry is about. Don’t go down this road, try the other way.
And with God’s grace I did. This road was not smooth either, but it offered room for reflection instead of anger. The more I asked God to help me process the advice, the lighter I felt. I began to put it in perspective and to see that I was not living my belief that God is the source of my gifts and talents. I am called to use them for God’s greater glory, not mine. I began to think of the positives of cooperating rather than isolating. A young campus minister could be someone the students could more easily relate to. Outreach and availability of ministries could be expanded. There were lots of students to be served and lots of ways to serve them, not just through spiritual direction. I noticed my mood lightening. I could see possibilities and hope. This new staff structure could be a win-win for the students. This was the road I wanted to take.
So the next time you receive unsolicited or harsh-sounding advice that hits you like a cannonball, be aware of which road your feelings are taking you down. Discerning the spirits can put you on the right road, the road of God.
Here are some suggestions for discerning in this type of situation:
- Give yourself time to process, don’t make any sudden moves.
- Take a few deep breaths and call on God to lead you through this with an open heart.
- Feel your initial feelings. If it’s disappointment, anger, fear, or whatever it is, recognize it.
- Try to determine where the feelings are coming from. Do you feel threatened in some way? Misunderstood? Pray to get clarity on the source of your feelings.
- Talk with God about your feelings. Ask God to take away the negative feelings and make room for a positive attitude.
- Accept that you may have had unrealistic expectations to begin with, ask God to help you see the other perspective.
- Realize this can be a time of growth. St. Ignatius experienced a huge conversion from his cannonball experience, and so can you!
Photo by Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash