Last Saturday I spoke to a group of Philadelphia Quakers about spiritual discernment, a topic I’ve been writing about for nearly 16 years, though the longer I write about it, the less I think I know. In general, my message over the years has been this: There is a Divine Spirit that offers us guidance, though it’s not always easy to hear or distinguish from the other voices that can guide us, such as social pressure and our own ego-driven desires.

I still believe this, though during the last year I’ve been getting another message that seems contradictory. As I was wrapping up revisions on the book I got a letter from a former Pendle Hill teacher that I summarized in this paragraph, at the end of the section on discernment: 

Chris Ravndal, who taught prayer at Pendle Hill for many years, says that when he was young he asked God for yes-or-no answers, like should he do this or that. He got answers, he says, but now in his seventies he feels there is a danger in asking God to make our decisions for us. Not only does it “make us vulnerable to influences that are not God,” it can keep us from developing our own power of choice. “God gives us the tools and basic knowledge with which to build our structure rather than the architect’s plan,” he explains. “You must reach your own decision, keeping before you the basic principles and constantly seeking God’s assistance in arriving at your decision.” This builds in us the confidence and judgment to take responsibility for our own choices. 

Since getting Chris’ letter, I’ve heard other people share similar perspectives. One woman, who was praying over a difficult decision, heard an answer that said basically, “I don’t care what you decide about that, I just want you to love me.” Then a few weeks ago, I heard a Lenten sermon that included this passage from Barbara Brown Taylor, my new favorite spiritual author, from her book An Altar in the World. Taylor was in seminary and had taken to praying every night on a fire escape for guidance about her vocation, which was unclear to her:

Up on that fire escape, I learned to pray the way a wolf howls. I learned to pray the way that Ella Fitzgerald sang scat.

     Then one night when my whole heart was open to hearing from God what I was supposed to do with my life, God said, “Anything that pleases you.”

     “What?” I said, resorting to words again. “What kind of an answer is that?”

      “Do anything that pleases you,” the voice in my head said again, “and belong to me.”

       At one level, that answer was no help at all. The ball was back in my court again, where God had left me all kinds of room to lob it whereer I wanted. I could be a priest or a circus worker… Whatever I decided to do for a living, it was not what I did but how I did it that mattered. 

This passage seemed to speak to the people at Saturday’s talk where, with the encouragement of the same elders who accompanied me when I spoke at Pendle Hill in January, I shared more of my personal struggles and questions this time. My big question of the moment is what it means to belong to God and how one does that on a daily basis. As I prepare to grade 46 college research papers, it’s good to remember that it’s not what I do but how I do it that makes work holy.