“Kevin, you just don’t understand.”
It was twenty-five years ago, and I had just made a case for changing how we would reach out to the high school students at our church. After weeks of prayer and reflection, I had concluded that what we were doing wasn’t helping students to know Jesus. Even though several adult leaders disagreed, I could say to myself with certainty, “Actually, it’s you who don’t understand.”
The decision I made that day was pivotal, not only because it changed my involvement in the youth program, but because it also changed the way I approached life. Until that moment, I was mostly a “go-with-the-flow” kind of guy. But after reflecting on my relationship with Christ, the experience and teachings of the Church, and what I heard the Spirit telling me in prayer, I knew I had to take a different path. With permission from the parish leaders, I started a discussion group for students and began organizing retreats and mission trips.
Life is always throwing questions at us. Here are a few examples:
- “Why am I feeling sad or angry right now?”
- “How is my relationship with this person going?”
- “What should I do in this situation?”
- “Should I take this job or change careers?”
- “What would I do if I had a serious injury like my friend did?”
Life experiences invite us to reflect, but we don’t always pay attention.
As a junior in high school, I knew I wasn’t happy. I could have gone down any number of dark roads. But God used an unexpected friendship to wake me up. I suddenly realized that there could be another way to live life — one with purpose and meaning; with light and love. I was able to look outside the box I was in and began a search that led me to Christ.
God created everything, and He acts everywhere in human life. But we’re less likely to hear His voice or see His hand at work when we’re caught up with ourselves and day-to-day busyness. We need to reflect on life if we are to really see, hear, and understand.
All sorts of things can get in our way. Our experience and knowledge may be limited. We don’t know what we don’t know. We’re loaded with personal and cultural biases. Our emotions sometimes impede clear thinking. We subconsciously use defense mechanisms to avoid dealing with things that are uncomfortable.
The “How-To” of Reflection
How do you reflect on life? Here are four steps you can follow:
Take time for silence.
Periodically disconnect from your phone and other forms of electronic media. Go for walks. Sit and relax outdoors. Drive without listening to the radio or music. Set aside time for prayer and reflection every day.
While you’re creating space in your life through silence, make sure you don’t fill it back up with more of the stuff you’ve been thinking and doing all day long.
Begin by asking the Holy Spirit for help. Use the silence to become aware of your surroundings, experiences, emotions, interactions with others, and self-talk — that inner voice where we combine our conscious thinking with our beliefs and biases. What is God saying to you through this situation? In these past weeks?
Seek to understand.
Try to understand what lies behind your emotions, the way you handle yourself and your relationships, and the way you approach life. Doing this takes a kind of internal dialogue.
First, we dialogue with ourselves about our emotions, thoughts, and actions. We try to understand our motivations and look for deeper meaning.
Second, we dialogue with our social environment. What cultural messages or practices are influencing our behavior?
Third, we dialogue with God. God has gradually revealed himself to us through prophets, events, and His Son, Jesus Christ. We can tap into this Revelation through Sacred Tradition and the Sacred Scriptures. The Spirit of the living God also speaks to us in our hearts and through His Church.
One way to help this dialogue is through journaling. Use a notebook to write down your thoughts and what you learn.
As you reflect, recognize that there should be a coherence of truth. What you think you hear from the Spirit should agree with God’s Revelation and Church teaching. It should help you make sense of your experiences and cultural input. When dissonance remains, you need to keep praying or seek counsel.
The understanding you gain should lead to action. Perhaps it’s only a matter of expressing gratitude. Maybe you’re overly harsh with yourself and need to change your thinking. You might need to reconcile with a friend. The call to action kicks us in the butt when we would like to stay passive. Some people do the opposite and try to muscle life into going their way. It’s more productive, however, to use an interactive approach, recognizing that much of life is out of our control. We should courageously work to change what we can, but let go and give to God what lies beyond us.
We need to watch out for some pitfalls:
Avoid extremes. Pope Francis is an excellent example of someone who remains open to both God’s justice and mercy. Many of us tend to favor one or the other, leading us to become either overly judgmental or so tolerant that we’re unable to make critical distinctions.
Narcissism. If we reflect only on ourselves, we’ll inevitably fall into a self-occupied narcissism. We live in a real world with physical, social, and spiritual dimensions — created by a loving, all-powerful, and ever-present God. Ignoring inconvenient truths has its consequences.
Secularism. We can become overly influenced by our culture and what others think. Consider the horrors inflicted by political regimes like Nazism. How could so many people participate in such evil and never question it? They failed to dialogue with Tradition, and as the prevailing culture normalized hatred and genocide, they remained unaware of their actions.
Living a Reflected Life is the first in a series of articles on practices that promote psychological and spiritual health.