Choosing without seeing the path

I am trying to figure out the whole “answers to prayers” thing. Not the type of answers involving help or comfort in difficult situations, but more along the lines of guidance or direction when making big decisions.

It’s not been something I have worried too much about previously – I think that generally it doesn’t matter too much (in the grand, eternal scheme of things) what I choose. Even with the seemingly big decisions I’ve made up to this point, I’m not sure there was a “right” or “wrong” decision, though it’s completely possible that one choice was part of a more direct path to progress and happiness, while the other was more circuitous with a lot of unnecessary unpleasantness along the way. But, at least so far, the biggish decisions I’ve made have worked out alright in the end. I don’t look back at any of them and wish I’d made a different choice because I wouldn’t have learned what I’ve learned and wouldn’t be where I am now.

However….

I recognize that there are some decisions which are significant enough that the decision-maker would require, or at least really, really, really appreciate some affirmation of the direction in which they are leaning. Sometimes, when two roads diverge in a yellow wood, or anywhere else, if you’re really going to take the one less traveled by, or if you couldn’t care less which road is most traveled, but you think the road you choose will make all the difference, you want some reassurance that all that difference will be the positive sort.

As part of the decision-making process I have thoughts come into my head, sometimes as a result of connections to other thoughts, sometimes without any clear trigger. In my spiritual immaturity, I have yet to figure out how to distinguish my own thoughts from those which might be the result of the guidance of the spirit and inspiration from God.

I’ve been taught that things which are a good cometh of God. Maybe my “good” ideas, whatever they may be, aren’t just a result of my own cleverness and problem-solving skills, but they actually are a result of guidance and inspiration. That’s great for situations where the “good” choice can be fairly easily identified. But what about good, better, or best options? What if both roads could lead to continual goodness and love and service?

When all the thoughts and options bouncing around in one’s head are good ones, to some degree, that’s when it seems really difficult to figure out what guidance is being provided. There’s always a wonder – was that thought just mine or was that significant somehow? Did I just impose this feeling on that thought because it’s what I want to feel? Am I trying to convince myself that I’m making the right decision for the right reasons when really I just want to make it for selfish or stupid reasons? Does it matter what the reasons are if the result is a good one? But what if both results, to do or not to do, are good ones? Was hearing that comment from that person just now simply a coincidence? Is this thing just on my mind and now I hear about it everywhere? Am I creating a self-fulfilling prophecy so that I have external validation of something I want?

If I were to hear all this, as an external observer, I would roll my eyes at the indecisiveness – just pick one! Everything works out in the end. But I know that there are some decisions where waiting till things work out in the end just doesn’t seem good enough, or might even seem fairly terrifying. A lot of crappy stuff can happen before one arrives at the “end” where things work out.

Of course I know that if, when faced with a difficult decision, the best option was always clear, the degree to which free will plays a role would be greatly diminished.

Know this, that ev’ry soul is free
To choose his life and what he’ll be;
For this eternal truth is giv’n:
That God will force no man to heav’n.

He’ll call, persuade, direct aright,
And bless with wisdom, love and light,
In nameless ways be good and kind,
But never force the human mind.

Agency in the face of opposition or confusion is required or there would be no good or bad choices to benefit or suffer from. And then there’s that faith thing again…acting on hope for things (inspiration, guidance, and direction included) which are not seen. I had thought the big, big decisions typically came as a result of a little motivation-via-revelation, but maybe even the big decisions, those that seem so big even taking one step without at least some degree of inspiration feels like taking a truly blind, flying leap across a giant chasm…maybe those decisions just require chasm-size faith.

I loved to choose and see my path; but now…Lead thou me on!

Poetry and Piety

The closest I get to being a true appreciator of poetry is when I read, or more often, listen to the words of hymns. So, when I came across this sentence the other day (part of an essay called A Defence of Poetry, by Percy Shelley), I immediately thought of how it applies to hymns:

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar. 

When Shelley mentions the veil, he is probably not referring to the veil between this life and the next, but for me it’s an apt description of the way hymns help me to connect with the spirit, something I think of as being somewhat other-worldly. Lifting the veil isn’t just about seeing the world with new eyes, but it’s about opening or widening the connection I feel between me and the Lord.

At first the phrase “makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar” seemed wrong. I thought of poetry (hymns) as helps in connecting with ideas or feelings on a deeper level, increasing familiarity. But I think familiar here refers to regular, everyday, background “objects” which have lost any real sense of meaning because they seem so commonplace. The principles I have internalized and the beliefs I have come to as a result of singing/listening to hymns were not new to me, but they were made unfamiliar, extraordinary, and meaningful.

I love what John Wesley (founder of Methodism) said in the preface to a hymnal he and his brother Charles (a prolific hymn writer) put together:

I’ve taken Wesley’s advice in returning to the hymns over and over again as a source of spiritual strength. Through years of spiritual torpor and ambivalence I never stopped loving this music and I’m grateful for the role hymns play in my life as poetic vehicles delivering the spirit, confirming faith and increasing my love for God and man.

A Quiet Hour

After being out of town for a few nights, having minimal sleep, and slogging back home at 1:30am, I slept in and missed my 9am Ward. (I haven’t ever actually made it to my 9am Ward, but at least this week I had planned to make it.) The aforementioned factors, as well as some others had me feeling a little irritable and frustrated going into the 1pm Ward I attended, but I wanted to be there anyway because I was hoping for three things: to stop feeling tense and frustrated, to take the sacrament and erase the past week from my mind and heart, and to sing the patriotic hymns with a group of people rather than alone in my car.

Previously what I call the “formulaic approach” to all things gospel-related had not been one that worked for me, so I’m not sure that I really expected the tenor of my day to change dramatically as a result of going to church. And it didn’t. The things that were bothering me have continued to bother me throughout the day, I am still tired, and there was only one patriotic song on the program of the Ward I attended. (Seriously, on July 5th what Ward sings Choose the Right as the closing hymn?!)

But what I did feel was an hour-long break from the things that had been bothering me. I felt the spirit overtake other feelings as I took the sacrament. I recognized sentiments and similar experiences shared by others in their testimonies. And while it’s no Star-Spangled Banner, I did feel a sense of unity with the congregation while singing Choose the Right.

To me, the church’s current push around making the sabbath and the sacrament more meaningful seemed like an odd thing to focus on, but that’s probably because I hadn’t gleaned much meaning from either myself. Today I felt a little bit of the sweetness of the sacred day of rest in having an hour where no mortal care seized my breast. Going into the coming week I do feel like I’ve hit ‘refresh’ and had a renewal of my love and faith. I am grateful that I have a day, or at least an hour each week which is made for me to have these experiences.

Receiving

As I was doing confirmations at the temple today, for some reason I latched onto the words ‘Receive the Holy Ghost’. On the one hand we talk about receiving the gift of the holy ghost, so the words here are mostly seen as bestowing that gift. But there is a less passive side to receiving and that involves acceptance and utilization of the gift.

Today, because I had been given the gift years ago at my own confirmation, I thought more about my approach to receiving it. In other words, my need to pay attention to, be open to, and listen for the influence of the spirit. For any of that to be possible, dedicating time for listening and contemplating (the process of receiving) is necessary.

The human brain may be able to multi-task and receive lots of information at once, but while multi-tasking I’m not sure the brain can pay as much attention as is required to feel the spirit. However I am convinced that the heart cannot multi-task. It can feel one thing, it is focused on one thing.

Whether it means going to the temple or just putting my phone in airplane mode for ten minutes every day… Oh, may I always listen to receive him hour by hour.