Where Are You in the Arc of Your Life?

by | Sep 7, 2023

Teach us, Lord, to number our days, so that we may set our hearts to wisdom.
Ps. 90:12

Group shot of Bishop Mariann and attendees of the Practicing Discernment event
I’ve spent part of these early September days preparing to address a gathering of EDOW young adults on the topic of “Practicing Discernment: A Conversation about Life and Faith.” What a gift, as the pace of life picks up, to reflect on how we make the truly important decisions in life, not to mention the myriad of small ones that establish habits and shape our character.

Discernment is a word with religious overtones yet it has wide secular usage, for it simply means “the ability to judge well,” or more intuitively, “the ability to perceive, understand, and judge things clearly, especially those that are not obvious or straightforward.”

The spiritual dimensions of discernment come into play when we seek divine guidance as we struggle to perceive things that are not obvious or straightforward and, more specifically for people of faith, to act in accordance with God’s will when faced with decisions large or small. “Thy kingdom come,” we say whenever we pray as Jesus taught us, “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Discernment takes on urgency when we’re faced with a particular decision with weighty consequences and we aren’t sure how to proceed. We’re praying all the time then, whether we realize it or not, as the Apostle Paul aptly describes, “with sighs too deep for words.” (Rom. 8:26)

My favorite definition of discernment comes from Urban T. Holmes, an Episcopal priest and theologian of the 20th century:

The ability to intuit God’s will by casting a particular question the Christian faces in a given situation before the judgment of the deeper self.1

The “deeper self” is that place within us where the Spirit of God dwells, and, Paul also assures us, is praying on our behalf. Think of it: God’s spirit praying with our spirits as we struggle with the questions before us.

“The result of discernment,” Holmes writes, “will be a willingness to risk decisions and take actions whose surety is enigmatic at best.” In other words, once we have come to a discerned decision, we have greater capacity to act in the face of uncertainty and a willingness to fail in the service of what matters most.

A helpful place to start when facing an important decision or attempting to make wise choices is to locate ourselves in the arc of our lives, or in some aspect of life. When we’re in our twenties, for example, we’re in a very different place than we were in our teens, or will be in our forties or fifties. When we’re in the early stages of a relationship or a vocational arc, the tasks and possibilities are unique to that moment. So, too, when we’re in the middle, or sense ourselves toward the end of an arc. While some of us may wish we were somewhere else, it’s always a good idea to begin where we are.2

Thus, when speaking with the young adults this week, I’ll ask them to take stock of where they are now–in their work and sense of vocation, in their relationships (or their longing for one), and in the realization of whatever hopes God has placed on their hearts. As the psychologist and author Mary Pipher once told her niece who had lost her way home, “You can’t get from there to here if you don’t know where you are.”

I’ll also ask them to identify the constraints on their lives now–the realities they cannot ignore–and the opportunities they feel are beckoning them. Equally important, I’ll ask what brings them joy.

Then, having named where they are now as they hold a particular question before God and their deepest selves, I’ll invite them to listen for whatever insight comes to them. Is this a time to make a change, or to stay where they are; to start or continue on a path toward a goal years in the making, or to tend to what life asks of them right now; to accept what they cannot change or strive to overcome the obstacles before them?

We’re rarely given answers to such questions quickly, for discernment takes time. But when we locate ourselves, as best we can, where we are now, we minimize the consequences of one of the great missteps in life, which is attempting to rush ahead of ourselves or to hang on to what is no longer possible or a phase of life that is, in fact, over. Then as we place the questions we face before God in prayer and seek divine guidance that resonates deep within, we can rest assured that, no matter the outcome, we are taking the next faithful step.

May God give us the grace to live fully where we are now and guide our discerning, this September and always.

1Urban T. Holmes, Spirituality for Ministry (Cambridge: Harper & Row 1982), 152.
2Mary Pipher, Women Rowing North (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019), 99