The Desert of Discernment

For a little over six years, I have been on a sabbatical of sorts. I began doctoral studies in early 2015 and defended my thesis in May 2019. Then I landed a book contract and became immersed for months updating research and making edits on footnotes (really, who knew there were so many styles of citations?)


In the meantime, I enjoyed teaching Old Testament and catechesis online to adults locally and abroad. I discovered that I really love teaching in this format. During all the lockdowns over the past year, it’s been a great grace.


But now I feel the Lord may be calling me to something new. And I’m a bit uncertain how to respond.


Discernment is both a familiar and perplexing process for me. As a theologian, I can easily spout forth the principles and steps of St. Ignatius’ method. As a spiritual director, I can often see how the Holy Spirit is guiding another. But when it comes to knowing how the Lord is guiding me? On snap the blinders and I am wandering in the wilderness.


The first step, according to the great saint, is to identify the decision to be made. To be honest, I don’t yet have all the information. And the decision is not completely in my hands. Others are discerning whether I am the best candidate. With regards to my vocation as a married woman, my husband too must discern with me. Is this opportunity a good fit for me (and us) at this stage of our lives?


Ignatius stresses that I should seek to be detached as much as possible from either outcome. So I question: Am I sufficiently detached? Where do I feel ‘compelled’ in one way or another?

It’s often difficult for me to become aware of my own emotions and obstacles. Perhaps I tend to act more with my head than my heart.


Because I teach Scripture, I often try to connect with characters in the Bible as a prompt for my own internal movements. For example, I suppose Moses and the Hebrew folk felt somewhat of the same trepidation as they left Egypt and headed into the vast wilderness of nothingness. Sure, God promised them a land of milk and honey. But that promise soon began looking weak and their circumstances bleak.


Admittedly I struggle with how God is going to provide. Granted, it’s not as if God has been sleeping in our lives financially. During my so-called sabbatical, we hunkered down a bit with spending. The pandemic helped certainly because we didn’t need that new car and weren’t buying gas. I didn’t need a new dress to wear in my home office when yoga pants and a fleece would do just fine.


Sure, I too face an ever-present battling of the idols. While I’m not about to meltdown my gold earrings and build a golden calf in the backyard, my idols get erected more in my own mind. False gods such as ego. Will this position get my name out in academia more? Will I get more acclaim for my research? Ego’s close companion, pride, tempts me to compare myself to those who were able to do their doctoral work at a much younger age and get on the tenure track. While I am grateful to God for all those past experiences in secular marketing, I realize in my mid-fifties that very few universities are going to bet on me when they can hire a freshly minted thirty-year-old with Ph.D. in hand.


That’s the crud that sits and festers.


I am reminded of the Scripture readings during the liturgical year related to charisms. Based upon a spiritual gift inventory conducted through the Catherine of Siena Institute and meetings with a mentor, I’ve come to recognize my own charisms: teaching, knowledge, and wisdom. I intensely feel the passion, joy, and awe when I am using them in service to God. Others too have affirmed these gifts in me.


The charism of administration did not rank as high on my inventory and yet it seems to be where I have often landed in previous positions in the Church. I don’t like to ‘manage’ things (and I chafe sometimes at petty human resource issues) but I somehow am able to synthesize the details to see the big picture and vision of where an organization needs to head. I can easily break down a project into smaller pieces. And I love finding new ways of using technology to simplify tasks.

Ignatius would tell me to pay attention to those things and seek positions where I can use those gifts in greater measure. For the greater glory of God, right?


I find it a bit comforting to recall that many great men and women in the Bible encountered doubts when faced with a call from God. Moses maintained that his tongue was tied. Gideon was skeptical of the obvious signs for which he had even explicitly asked. Esther wilted with anxiety as she considered how to approach King Artaxerxes to petition him to save her people. Jeremiah and Timothy considered themselves too young; while Abraham and Sarah, too old. Jonah, Peter, and Paul’s resumes reflected poor past performance.


So I am in good, if not imperfect, company. Just as the pillar and cloud led the Hebrew people through the wilderness, I ask the Holy Spirit to inhabit and guide my desires in the coming weeks. To take away the fears that I am not worthy. To provide clarity in the fog and abiding peace as I put one foot ahead of the other.

Tamra Fromm is an instructor in Old Testament for the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan, an adjunct faculty member at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit), and associate academic in the Bachelor of Divinity program at Maryvale Institute (Birmingham, UK). She is married and enjoys traveling, running, and entertaining. Her first manuscript "Pre-Evangelization and Young Adult 'Native Nones'", is available for purchase via both Wipf and Stock and Barnes & Noble.