January 23, 2021

Pausing to Consider the Journey


Some things have happened in my personal world recently that require reflection and reconsideration of the way ahead. I won’t share details at this point, except to say that a fog has descended, obscuring the road that stretches before me.

I’ve learned enough by now to know that it might be wise to pull over at the nearest rest stop, get a cup of coffee, check the weather, talk to some other drivers who have negotiated the geography that lies ahead, and figure out if it is wise to proceed apace, stop until the conditions are more friendly, or find another route.

So I’m pulling off the road for a bit. I will be setting aside some usual commitments for about a month or so. My wife and I will take a weekend to get away to think, talk, and pray together. I would like to schedule a personal retreat at Gethsemani or some other place conducive to solitude and silence. I’m compiling a list of people in my mind that I may or may not talk to in order to get other perspectives.

And, I will try to tailor my reading during these days so that I can access the words of some authorial mentors who can be trusted to share the wisdom of fellow travelers. I’m starting with two books that will be my constant companions over the next few weeks.

One is part of a series of posthumous books that were composed using Henri Nouwen’s coursework, journals, and unpublished writings in order to put together a picture of his teachings on the spiritual life. (I reviewed the volume on spiritual direction here.) The final book in the set, the one I’ll be taking up now, is called, Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life.

The foreword by Robert A. Jonas notes an important distinction Nouwen kept:

NouwenHenri emphasized that Christian discernment is not the same as decision making. Reaching a decision can be straightforward: we consider our goals and options; maybe we list the pros and cons of each possible choice; and then we choose the action that meets our goal most effectively. Discernment, on the other hand, is about listening and responding to that place within us where our deepest desires align with God’s desire. As discerning people, we sift through our impulses, motives, and options to discover which ones lead us closer to divine love and compassion for ourselves and other people and which ones lead us further away.

The situations I face in my life (and you in yours) will, of course, require decision making. That’s all well and fine. However, the older I get, the more I see the difference Nouwen urges us to recognize. As described, making a decision involves choosing a course of action; answering the question, “What shall I do?” Discernment may include that, but goes deeper than making a determination about what I should do to ask, “Who shall I be?”

Before God, for myself, and for others — “Who shall I be?”

* * *

A second book that will accompany me in days to come is Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.

Rohr observes that many of us have been unaware that there is a further journey to be made in the second half of life, should God grant us the years. Furthermore, many of us do not realize that it is a different journey than we make in the first half. Most of our culture is preoccupied with what happens in our earlier days, when: “We are all trying to find what the Greek philosopher Archimedes called a ‘lever and a place to stand’ so that we can move the world just a little bit.”

There is, however, a “further journey,” as Richard Rohr calls it.  Like Nouwen, he believes it is more about “being” (or “becoming”) than “doing,” though he likewise stresses our active participation in the process. This further journey involves becoming mature, bringing our True Selves to full flower.

Falling-UpwardWhether we find our True Self depends in large part on the moments of time we are each allotted, and the moments of freedom that we each receive and choose during that time. Life is indeed “momentous,” created by accumulated moments in which the deeper “I” is slowly revealed if we are ready to see it. Holding our inner blueprint, which is a good description of our soul, and returning it humbly to the world and to God by love and service is indeed of ultimate concern. Each thing and every person must act out its nature fully, at whatever cost. It is our life’s purpose, and the deepest meaning of “natural law.” We are here to give back fully and freely what was first given to us—but now writ personally—by us! It is probably the most courageous and free act we will ever perform—and it takes both halves of our life to do it fully. The first half of life is discovering the script, and the second half is actually writing it and owning it.

Before God, for myself, and for others — “To act out my nature fully, at whatever cost.”

* * *

Excuse me while I pull over and stop for a little while. We should think about the next part of this journey before we proceed.


  1. CM,

    Do you practice listening prayer as a spiritual rhythm?

    • Sean, I’m not sure I do much specifically in the way of disciplined practice, at least with regard to traditional forms. But I would say that most of my praying is listening and that it takes place most frequently in such settings as when I engage in corporate worship, read, write, and travel about in my car between visiting hospice patients.

  2. Bill Garrett says

    One of the things I’ve respected about you most and all the writers at IM is that what you write is deeply personal and honest. There’s no attempt to rant for the sake of ranting or question just to question. The Holy Spirit is very present here and you will certainly be in my prayers!

    P.S. Thanks for leaving us with a little more to think and meditate on and be edified by before your “rest stop”.

  3. Mike,

    Your decision to “listen to your life” as you discern what the Spirit may be inviting you into is a good one. I appreciate your analogy of “pulling off the road into a rest area.” I don’t know if your ongoing journey includes regularly meeting with a spiritual director; if not, I would encourage you to consider this. A spiritual director can be an important support for us, if we are in a transition, especially the one into the second half of life. Over the years, God has used my spiritual director in helping me to gain a deeper awareness about my own journey – truths that I might have missed or ignored otherwise. Shalom.

  4. Reading Nouwen, beginning some 15 years ago, absolutely ruined us to blind participation in the dissipations of the Evangelical Circus. He confronted us with the previously suspected concern that we had been well trained in creating false selves. And then came Rohr…

    When I understood what Rohr was saying in Falling Upward I was “delivered” from the “forever young” wish-dream. But, I still like Grateful Dead, mind you!! ;o)

    The distinction between “decision making” and “discernment” is vital. Thank you for reminding me/us of that.

    My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.

  5. I am reminded of a story about Henri Nouwen:

    he was becoming very famous and well-known among the great Ivy League Universities and was in demand as a speaker, but he felt, in the midst of all this adulation, a sense of needing ‘more’.
    And he found it, leaving all the fame behind him, he went to work for Jean Vanier at L’Arche, a retreat for severely handicapped people.

    There Nouwen worked for years, caring for the needs of severely disabled and retarded patients, bathing, dressing, feeding,
    and being taught by them those lessons of the Spirit that don’t get heard when you are famous and living amidst the world’s adulation.

    So it was there at L’Arche, that Nouwen found peace and renewal in the Holy faith of Christ,

    Christianity is a strange religion. It calls for us to leave the ‘world’ and follow Our Lord to the source of living water. Nouwen did just that, and was refreshed.

    • I think he wrote a book about his experience with one person there who greatly influenced his life in his later years. It might be called Adam, I read it a few years ago, that book along with certain other experiences and influences came to change my focus and view point with regards to the Kingdom and Church.

      I am happy and impressed Chaplain Mike that you are taking time to to consider the journey. May God’s will be done.

  6. “Christianity is a strange religion. It calls for us to leave the ‘world’ and follow Our Lord to the source of living water.”

    We think that Christianity is not really a religion, at all. Since it is not about (finally) what ‘we do’ to ascend to the Divine, or to make ourselves right with or acceptable to the Divine.

    And it doesn’t call us to leave the world…but rather it frees us (from the spirituality project) to live in the world, freely, for the sake of the neighbor.

    Seemingly a bit different, but leads to a radically different walk of faith. One that is not at all focused inward…but totally outward, and free.

    Thanks, Christiane.

  7. “that a fog has descended”

    I’ll quote Evelyn Underhill, of course largely known for Christian mysticism. And I believe this quote is a direct translation to her reading of “The Cloud of Unknowing”. Luther was influenced by the German Dominican mystical tradition and I acknowledge that the reformation, in many ways, downplayed mysticism.

    “And if we intentively pray for getting of good, let us cry, either with word or with thought or with desire, nought else nor no more words, but this word “God”. For why, in God be all good. Fill thy spirit with the ghostly bemeaning of it without any special beholding of any of His works- whether they be good, better, or best of all- bodily or ghostly, or to any virtue that may be wrought in man’s soul by any grace, not looking after whether it be meekness or charity, patience or abstinence, hope, faith, or soberness, chastity, or willful poverty. What recks this in contemplatives?….they covet nothing with special beholding, but only good God. Do thou….mean God all, and all God, so that nought work in they wit and in thy will, but only God.”

  8. David Cornwell says

    I grew up along the Ohio River in an area where fog could cover large areas until mid-morning or sometimes almost noon. Once when I was 19 years of age, early in the morning, I had to drive from where I was to another location. The town was a strange one to me and I didn’t know the streets that well. The fog was thick and I could not see much beyond the hood of the car. I thought I knew where to make my left turn, after which II would be driving up river to my intended destination. I was driving based on experience, and faith (?).

    But, all at once the river was in front of me. I mean the street I was on went to river’s edge. And now it was just a few feet from my car.

    I hope this is not stretching an analogy too far. But… the fog makes it difficult to see ahead, and can scare the hell out of a person. But there is a way ahead and in time the fog will lift, maybe suddenly, or perhaps it will take longer. When it lifts all will be clear. Until the next foggy day.

    Take care Chaplain Mike. I have the feeling that there is a lot of love around here for you. You are not alone.

    • I was thinking of some of my own “fog” experience, David. Anyone who’s been to San Diego or San Francisco knows the thick fog can stick around most of the day, keeping the temps in the 50s and 60s even during the heat of summer. But drive just five miles inland, and suddenly the skies are clear and the air is warm.

      Not sure if that is analogous to anything you’re going through, Chaplain Mike…but maybe there’s a nugget of wisdom to be found in nature’s truth.

  9. When I read “the fog has descended” I too thought of the “Cloud of Unknowing” – one of my favorite Christian mystical books. I also read about the cloud in the Old Testament daily reading for today in 1Kings 8:1-7;9-13 (I do a communion service a few days a week because of the Priest shortage).

    But I am not sure this is what you are talking about CM. I glean from your posts that you have always been intuitive enough to know when its time to pull over when you can’t see what is before you. I pray that you will be shown a path. In my life sometimes the path is not clear and I am left wondering if I chose the right way, it seems the fog obscures my sight but it also sometimes obscures my judgment as well. And sometimes there is risk involved and having entered into my 50’s now I am just not as enthusiastic about taking the risk or going on the road less travelled since it can be down right exhausting.

    Hang in there Chaplain Mike and if I see you by the side of the road I’ll stop and offer donuts and coffee.

  10. It’s good to pull over and get out a map or talk to people, have coffee, figure out who you want to be when you grow up.

    But your mention of fog has put Carl Sandberg in my mind:

    The Fog:

    The fog comes
    on little cat feet.

    It sits looking
    over harbor and city
    on silent haunches
    and then moves on.

    Carl Sandburg

  11. CM, with most people here I assume we are heading in the same direction, as I have with you. Today the fog thinned enough momentarily for me to catch a glimpse of you on the path next to me, definitely heading in the same direction for sure. I give you a quick wave, a thumbs up, a blessing, and the fog closes back in. This ain’t easy. Thanks for the books. Godspeed!

  12. My heart is full as I read this post and the comments following. To see that there are others of like heart and mind on the journey is comforting, indeed. And go forward we must, even if the way is not clear. There is no true turning back. “Where else can we go?” So as we follow on to know The Lord, the support, affection and caring of this community is life-giving.

  13. Chaplain MIke…you will be in good company with Nouwen and Rohr’s writings to guide you. I love them both very much. I wish peace and light to you and your wife as you engage on this “time out.”

    You wrote, “This further journey involves becoming mature, bringing our True Selves to full flower.” May your flowering be as bright as a sunflower, as fragrant as a rose and as beautiful as a morning glory. (Though tiny flowers are great beauties, too, and surprise and delight us when found in hidden places.)

    Peace to you and yours.

  14. Great post, thank you for sharing. I really appreciate your distinctions between the first half of life and the second. Living in our youth obsessed culture we often lose heart in the second half when actually it holds the promise of being the richest time of life. The lessons are harder but deeper. Not that I am that far into the second half, mind you, but I am just beginning to see and accept the differences here. Kyrie eleison.

  15. The California coast gets plenty of fog; this furnishes the bulk of the moisture the redwoods take in as they grow to be the world’s tallest trees… The “tule fog” of the Central Valley can be so thick you can’t see beyond the front of your car; it arises from the rivers that water farmland producing an incredible quantity and diversity of fruits and vegetables…

    The Lord is with you, Ch Mike, esp in the pauses and struggles.

    “There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say, ‘Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.’ And if the conflict grows fiercer say, ‘Lord, help!’ He knows very well what we need, and he shews us his mercy.” (Saint Macarius the Great, 300s)


  16. Two quotes related to this subject that I often reflect on for comfort and help are:


    The Merton Prayer:

    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. 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.

    ~Thomas Merton from “Thoughts in Solitude”


    Enough Light for the Next Step

    Often we want to be able to see into the future. We say, “How will next year be for me? Where will I be five or ten years from now?” There are no answers to these questions. Mostly we have just enough light to see the next step: what we have to do in the coming hour or the following day. The art of living is to enjoy what we can see and not complain about what remains in the dark. When we are able to take the next step with the trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go. Let’s rejoice in the little light we carry and not ask for the great beam that would take all shadows away.

    ~Henri Nouwen


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