Lent 1: Discernment and Dessert in the Desert

Discernment in the Desert © Jan L. Richardson

One day some years ago, taking a walk with one of my Franciscan friar friends, I asked him, “What’s discernment like for you?” I was in the midst of making some decisions and found myself curious to know how he sorted through the choices in his own life. Being a good Franciscan, David’s response included a couple of stories about St. Francis.

In the first story, St. Francis and Brother Masseo are on a journey and come to a crossroads. Not knowing which path to take, St. Francis tells Brother Masseo to stand at the center of the crossroads and spin himself around. When Masseo finally falls down, Francis and his dizzy brother set off in the direction in which Masseo had landed.

In the second story, Francis is trying to discern whether he should spend all his time in prayer, or whether he should also go out and do some preaching. He senses this is not something he should decide for himself, so he enlists Brother Masseo’s aid once again. He sends Masseo to two trusted souls, St. Clare and Brother Sylvester, to ask them to pray about this question. In prayer, they each discern the same response: Go and preach. When Brother Masseo takes this word back to Francis, he leaps up, saying, “In the name of the Lord, let’s go!”

As someone capable of making the act of discernment a loooooooong and involved process, I have found great companions in both the tales that David shared. The first story may strike us as a bit silly, but it reminds me that on those occasions when there’s no one path that’s obviously the right one to take, it’s often better to set off in some direction if the alternative means staying stuck at the crossroads. God knows how to make use of any path.

The second story reminds me of the importance of turning to those who can help me in times of discernment. Faced with a momentous decision, Francis realized the question was too big for him to find his way through alone. He sought the insight of those who knew both him and God well. When their mutual answer came, Francis trusted it to be the voice of God, and he moved forward without hesitation.

This Sunday’s Gospel lection, Matthew 4.1-11, finds Jesus on a journey of discernment. With the waters of baptism still clinging to him, Jesus enters the wilderness, where for forty days and forty nights he fasts and prays. His wilderness experience continues the initiation begun by the ritual of his baptism. Son of God he may be, but here at the outset of his ministry, he needs this liminal space, this in-between place, to deepen his clarity and to prepare him for what lies ahead. In this harsh landscape, bereft of any comforts that might distract him, Jesus comes to a vivid knowing about who he is and what is essential to his ministry. When the devil shows up at the end of his fast, Jesus is so centered and clear that nothing the tempter says can distract or entice him.

The root meaning of the word discernment has to do with sifting and separating. When there’s a lot to sort through, it can be, as Brother Masseo found, a dizzying process. The work of discerning one direction or choice from among many may require that we separate ourselves. Removing ourselves from at least some of our usual routines, for moments or for months, can shift the way that we view our life. It doesn’t often require taking ourselves to a literal wilderness in the manner that Jesus did. But his sojourn there reminds us there is wisdom in knowing when to turn toward a place, a person, or a practice that can help us see what we cannot always see under our own power.

This wisdom lies at the heart of Lent. These days challenge us to take on a practice, or give one up, so that we can look at our lives in a different way. As Jesus knew, going into the barren and uncomfortable places isn’t about proving how holy we are, or how tough, or how brave. It’s about letting God draw us into the place where we don’t know everything, don’t have to know everything, indeed may be emptied of nearly everything we think we know. And thereby we become free to receive the word, the wisdom, the clarity about who we are and what God is calling us to do.

Mercy, I love that the angels come to Jesus, there in that wilderness. I imagine them showing up with armfuls of bread and plenty of wine after the tempter has tucked tail and split. I like to think maybe they looked a little like Masseo and Clare and Sylvester.

So here I am, come to ask you the same question I asked David on that road a bunch of years ago: What’s discernment like for you? When you have a choice to make, when something needs sorting and sifting, what do you do? Is there a place, a person, a practice that helps you see what you need to see? Do you have someone like Clare or Sylvester who listens so well to both you and God that they help you hear God’s longing for you? Are you keeping your eyes open for the sustenance that comes in even the deepest wilderness?

Here’s a poem for your Lenten path.

Desert Prayer

I am not asking you
to take this wilderness from me,
to remove this place of starkness
where I come to know
the wildness within me,
where I learn to call the names
of the ravenous beasts
that pace inside me,
to finger the brambles
that snake through my veins,
to taste the thirst
that tugs at my tongue.

But send me
tough angels,
sweet wine,
strong bread:
just enough.

Blessings to you in all your sorting and sifting. I wish you angel-borne treats in these days.

(Prayer © Jan Richardson from In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season.)

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10 Responses to “Lent 1: Discernment and Dessert in the Desert”

  1. Rebecca Says:

    I took a class on discernment, FOCUS, in my church some years ago. I hate to say I dropped out – even though it was due to a death in the family – I nonetheless did not return.

    Discerning…..I struggle, I wrestle with it, I see all sides, I can’t choose, I pray, I ask friends and family, I read, I make a list, I agonize………but mostly I wrestle with it. Till suddenly (on those blessed occasions) when it just somehow suddenly becomes clear. Usually I end up speaking my decision “by accident” and somehow it just feels right. I think – Hey, I didn’t know I knew that! And afterwards the way appears clear.

    So discernment to me would be wrestling. I guess it really stems from wanting a clear answer to a question.

    (laughing) I recall a story from early in my career. I was working for a wonderful boss who assigned me many challenging projects. I would occasionally go to his office to ask him a question on how to proceed on some matter or other. We would sit and talk for awhile, I would walk away thinking he had answered my question. Only to find when I got back to my desk….hmmm, no he didn’t. I was embarassed to go ask again so I took the information and made my own decision. This went on for some time. Then one day after one of these occasions I turned around and stormed into his office and declared loudly “You didn’t answer my question! You always do that! It is just a simple question! Why don’t you just answer it!”. He looked up at me and laughed and said “I gave you all the information you need to come up with your own answer. You’ve been doing that perfectly well up to now. So just go do it again”.

    One of my biggest life lessons.

  2. SandyCarlson Says:

    Your poem touches me deeply. I have found in yearning for these things that I yearn for everything.

  3. Barbie Says:


    Rebecca wrote, “I guess it really stems from wanting a clear answer to a question.”

    As a young girl, I was a big fan of the “Magic 8 Ball.” Ask it a question, and it would give you an answer. So simple. But not really. In order to get a clear answer, you had to ask a clear question- the kind that could be answered “yes” or “no.” If you asked the Magic 8 Ball any other kind of question, it’s answer wouldn’t make sense. Maddeningly, even when you asked the question correctly, the Magic 8 Ball might still pop up with an answer like, “concentrate and ask again” or “better not tell you now.” This problem of receiving an unclear answer, of course, was easily solved by shaking it again until it gave you the answer you wanted to hear. How convenient.

    For me, the process of discernment involves a whole drawn out process of figuring out what my questions really are. I have so many overlapping questions, most of which are unanswerable because they involve the future, not the present. Oh, and they usually involve many factors over which I have little or no control. If I make this decision, take this path, what will that be like for me? For my family? What will it look like, feel like? So, I torture my family and friends and colleagues with questions that are related to, but not always at the heart of, my true questions. Often, their thoughtful responses help me to hone in on deeper questions than the ones that so easily distract me.

    I had a chance recently to sit beside a lake for a while. On the surface, the lake seemed perfectly still. “Be still, and know that I am God,” I heard the Spirit whisper. Beneath the surface of that lake, I know that it was anything but still. There was work and movement and life and death, all happening simultaneously. None of which depended on me. All that was asked of me was to be still. And listen. And in listening, know. So simple.

    For me, all the sifting and sorting ultimately comes down to this: Do I trust God with the future? Can I let go of the future enough to seek present clarity? Could present clarity be “just enough” sustenance? Am I willing to listen, like one being taught?

  4. Cathy Says:

    Often for me discernment means taking ‘the road not taken’ by another. In the knowledge of my uniqueness I am often looking for another way. When others might say ‘we’ve never done it that way before’ I find myself thinking ‘why not?’

    Listening and watching along the road for the reason I have been gifted with another way to travel, I often end up where I need to be, but with new insights on the journey.

    When I get to a corner in my car and the car ahead turns right – most often I will go left – just because…When I leave home – I know the destination – but seldom the journey to get there!

  5. Stan Hoobing Says:

    Discernment, I believe, comes with wrestling with challenge, issue or problem. It may take a long walk, sleepless night, or just come after hours of soul searching, but in God’s right time, the answer comes and one can move on.

  6. Kathryn Says:

    On the good days my morning prayers are open ended asking what my task or purpose for His intentions should be. I always need to ask for grace to fulfill His mission (because normally I am not a happy camper). I ask my guardian angel to support me in my mission to watch out for me and keep me from harm. I also ask my angel to tap the shoulders of all the guardian angels of my friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances to guide them to Christ and keep evil from them. Finally I ask the Holy Spirit to put the right words in my mouth, the right intentions in my heart and actions in my hand. After gathering my spiritual armour I feel ready to go to work as a allied healthcare worker.

    I keep three areas of work open for His bidding in hopes that He will call me to one of the other two that I am presently not able to work at full time. I liken this to Francis and Brother Masseo’s dizzying experience in hopes of finding the direction they were to follow. If my best laid plans are waysided I know that He needs me for a different purpose as I try to do His will and not mine. When the decision is right it fits in my life and it is a peaceful transition but not always an easy road. That is where my prayer groups help they are Claire and Sylvester for me.

    Each Tuesday and Thursday I “group” with 10 other women as we offer each other prayer support and friendship on our spiritual journey. This support has been invaluable to me this past year as I learn trust, and interdependence in my faith and journey through my humanity to Christ.

    Most of all, when I am listening, I hear His intentions in His Word reading the daily scriptures and meditations at the end of my day. This is when I am most aware of how well I have been listening.

  7. Bonnie Klatt Says:

    Your poem, Desert Prayer, from Lent 1: Discernment and Dessert in the Desert, touched me to the core. Thank you for your words.

    I recently signed up for the Image Journal e-newsletter. The recent issue had a link to your new blog. I had not visited your site for some time, so thought I would check this out. Since I recently decided to become a Benedictine oblate, the topical catagory “monastic stuff” caught my attention first.

    So what is discernment like for me? In a word…Alignment. That is, aligning my life with God. I have come to realize that the more I am able to stay in the present moment, the more I try to listen for God’s voice, the more I look for God in ALL that comes my way around me, then the more I am able to discern God’s will for me. Sometimes this seems easy, sometimes not. Most times it is not. For life, with all it’s good and bad, is always diverting my attention, causing me to doubt whether I made the “right choice”. No matter, though, for God will be with me on whatever path I choose.

    Grounding myself in Christ – spending time in silence, meditation, prayer, journaling, being attentive, talking with my husband (an ordained ELCA pastor), my dearest friends (who are kindred spirits and soul sisters), and visiting Shirley (an ordained UCC minister, massage therapist, healer, and my spiritual guide) – helps me to see more clearly the path I am to take. Those straight lines of the cross – “crosshairs”, if you will – help me to align myself with God, and in doing that I find the courage and the faith to discern.

  8. real live preacher Says:

    Discernment has no pattern, no reason that can be tracked. It is like sunlight or gravity. We live with it, but do not understand it. And God forbid that we ever should. It is the way of the artist, the math of God. We get it wrong half the time but the wrongness has its lessons and so proves right.

    Who can understand this?

  9. fcassis Says:

    I practice épée for 5 years now…4 of them I participated in local competitions around the country…and fencing has given me a good idea about discernment:
    it is through long hours of repetition of a movement, practising to listen to my own body and mind messages and at the same time intending to catch (like a radar) the situation “adversary” in front of me, that I have more self confidence to make one decision and GO without hesitation to usually score.
    Hesitation is the worst thing.
    If I hesitate I disciplined myself to not just go forward, I take few steps to retreat…just to SEE better the whole panorama and in that way try to take my time ( few seconds ) to find another decision.
    I like the metaphor between combat/adversary/movements etc because I felt many times in this society the urge to make quick decisions…and I believe that sleeping over a situation (a kind of retreat _retraite in French-) is a moment to see with calm, to elaborate a decision that we can afford.

  10. Sr. Andrea Westkamp, smic Says:

    Thank, Jan for this blog and thanks for all who responded on the discernment theme!

    As a member of a Franciscan congregation, I am intrigued that you chose two stories from the Franciscan way of life to expand on discernment!

    For Francis and Clare of Assisi, life and prayer were all about seeing and experiencing God’s Goodness in everything, through everything, with everything. They had such a sense of God’s overflowing love penetrating all of creation.

    Thus, as a Franciscan, journeying in Francis’ and Clare’s footsteps, discernment is the experience of God’s Goodness and Love. It is about noticing these in every moment of life. It is about feeling what resonates with me most.

    Discernment is an ongoing and lifelong process. God speaks to us through people, creation, life events. What is drawing me is to spot God in all of this and to respond to God’s invitation that lies in it. At times, I might need to discern my ministry or some next step in my life. It is my Franciscan stance of gazing, considering, contemplating, imitating (these are the four movement of Franciscan prayer) that guides me on this life long journey.

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