Do you want your dreams for your life
God’s dreams for your life?
Well. Really. That’s not the sort of question you expect to be asked in the confessional. The deal is that you go in, confess, get a penance to help point you in the right direction, pray the Act of Contrition, hear the prayer of Absolution, and head back out.
Unless the confessor thinks you might benefit from a bit of counsel.
Which left me sitting with a kindly priest faced with a pretty blunt question. And, in truth, after nearly a half century on the planet I’m slowly moving to the place of wanting God’s dreams for my life. (The obvious “right” answer is that I want God’s dreams. The more honest answer is that I often put my dreams ahead of God’s.)
If you’re like me, answering that question correctly only raises others. Most specifically, how do you discover God’s dreams for your life?
The Bible is full of stories of angelic visitations and divinely inspired visions. While that might seem to simplify the question, I doubt that most of us are actually prepared for that level of openness and directness in our relationship with God. So, we must find other ways to discern what God dreams for us.
Ironically, I think the key lies exactly in seeking a relationship of openness and honesty with God. It involves being vulnerable and willing to listen and take in what God is trying to communicate to us. Blogger Will Duquette puts it this way:
For me, listening to God means sitting and pondering about things: my problems, a scripture reading, a book I’m studying, the weather, or what have you. And as I ponder, I need to pay attention to the ideas that occur to me, and follow the threads to see where they go. It’s about testing the conclusions I come to, to see if they are consistent with what I know about God’s word, and God’s character, and that involves more pondering. And the essential thing is that when I sit down to ponder, I invite God to come along and I make Him welcome.
This sounds like solid advice, but as before, it still raises that next question; even if you’re determined to invite God to communicate, how do you do that? Fortunately, there are some good folks who have already walked this path and sent back field reports to point us in the right direction.
St. Ignatius of Loyola starts with the idea of a personal relationship with God. A structure for achieving this is laid out step-by-step in the Spiritual Exercises. One of the key elements of the exercises is prayer. Makes sense. After all, if you’re going to enter into a relationship with someone, you have to talk to them. This also helps with what St. Ignatius calls the orientation of your life. Are you trying to stay on the right path? Are you trying to live a decent Christian life?
With that as a starting point, you can begin to listen to “the movements of your heart.” What do you feel when you pray? What are the thoughts that come to mind then and throughout the day? Test them to see if they are consistent with what you know of God.
One of the interesting things that St. Ignatius pointed out is that these movement (he called them “spirits”) change depending on where you are in your spiritual journey. William A. Barry, SJ, puts it like this:
Now let’s take up the orientation of most of us, who are trying to live honestly and uprightly to the best of our ability. In this case, Ignatius says, the good and bad spirits act in ways opposite to how they act with those turned away from God’s path. The bad spirit raises doubts and questions that cause inner turmoil and self-absorption, while the good spirit tries to encourage us and to increase our peace, joy, faith, hope, and love.
If you are trying to live as a good Christian, you might have thoughts like these: “Who do you think you are—some kind of saint?” “Everyone else cuts corners in this office. What’s the matter with you? Are you holier-than-thou?” “God doesn’t have time for the likes of you.” “Most people, even if they believe in God, don’t try to live the way you do.” Such questions and thoughts have only one aim, to trouble your spirit and keep you troubled and questioning. Moreover, you will notice that all the questions and doubts focus on you, not on God or God’s people.
The good spirit, on the other hand, might inspire thoughts like these: “I’m genuinely happy with my decision to make amends with my estranged sister.” “I wish that I had stopped drinking a long time ago. I’m much happier and healthier now, and easier to live with.” “God seems so much closer to me since I began to take some time every day for prayer, and I feel less anxious and insecure.” I hope you can see in your own experience how these two spirits have led you.
Sometimes, that spirit that wants to distract you from God’s will comes dressed in pious clothes. It’s easy to get distracted by that voice and decide that God doesn’t have any big dreams for you. It’s safer and easier just to sit quietly. Along the way, Ignatius tells us that we will likely experience Spiritual Consolation and Spiritual Desolation. These, too, are part of that journey of understanding God’s dreams for us.
As a practical matter, you can take St. Ignatius’ road map and put it into practice with a low tech tool; a notebook. Over at www.godinallthings.com , Andy Otto outlines a simple practice which involves jotting down your thoughts and feelings during the day and reviewing them regularly to see where God might be speaking to you.
Like they used to say, “Knowing is half the battle”. Once you know (or have a good idea) you can begin to seek out ways to cooperate with God in bringing about his dreams for your life. You might be surprised by what you discover. The theologian Parker Palmer understood that when he said:
Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice out there calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice in here calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.