Listening with the Heart

Lynne Smith, OSBLiving in Community, Spiritual Guidance, Spirituality Articles, Women Exploring Community 8 Comments

What are you doing after you graduate? I disliked that question when I was in college. I didn’t know for certain what I was going to do after graduation. There were so many choices and so many things I was good at and wanted to do. It was hard to settle on something. I wasn’t sure how to decide or who could help me sort out what to do. Two things I did know. I wanted my life to make a difference in the world, and I wanted to please God.

Through the years, I have learned that this kind of decision making or discernment, as it is called, has to do with listening with one’s heart. When I was discerning my call to the c ommunity to which I belong, Benedictine Women of Madison, Wisconsin, my journal was full of questions I thought needed to be answered before I could make the decision whether or not to come to the community. In the process of discernment, I discovered that figuring everything out with my mind was not as important as was listening with my heart.

As Frederick Buechner has wisely affirmed, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  (Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC) The key question to ask yourself in discernment is what is your heart’s desire? What gives you deep joy?

The call to community or to a vocation of any kind comes through the heart more than through the head. Listening with the heart means attending to your feelings. How do you feel when you visit the community or the work place you are considering? Does it feel life-giving or does it feel oppressive? Our heads can easily be swayed by thoughts of money, prestige or someone else’s opinion. Our hearts are a truer guide to our deepest desires. How do you feel when you tutor a child or design a webpage or work in the garden? Does it give you a deep sense of joy or is it just something to do?

It can be helpful to look back over your life to notice the kind of activities you have been drawn to or to find a common thread that runs through the various things you have chosen to do. One woman, after attending a Spiritual Spring Break retreat at our monastery, realized that her passion was for bridge building. That is, she liked building relationships among people. As she reflected on her life, she discovered that she had often been a mediator between family members and friends. That could have its downside. She sometimes got caught in the middle of relationships. But the positive side was that she loved bringing diverse people together.

Some of my passions are worship, teaching, music and being outdoors. These passions come together in my life as a Benedictine sister in a inclusive Christian community. The first time I visited Benedictine Women of Madison, I fell in love with the liturgy. We pray the Liturgy of the Hours three times a day and sing the Psalms together. The liturgy speaks to my heart, and music sings in me throughout the day.

My life here also includes teaching women who come to join the community and working in our gardens and restored prairie. I love being outdoors and working on the land.

In discernment, it is also helpful to have a trusted advisor, a friend or spiritual guide who knows you well and will give you honest feedback and ask difficult questions. One of our sisters thought she wanted to be a missionary after college. Her parish priest who knew her well told her he couldn’t see her doing that because family was so important to her. He asked her if she had thought about what it would be like to be thousands of miles away from her family. To be a missionary is a wonderful calling. But when being close to family holds a special place in your heart, living overseas may not be for you.

On my first retreat at Holy Wisdom Monastery, when I experienced the common prayers and the daily rhythm of the community’s life, my heart said to me, “This feels like home.” I spent many months in the discernment process praying and talking with the sisters and people who knew me well. I journaled about my experience. I looked back at how the Spirit had
brought me to this point. I asked many questions. But the most important question was, “What does my heart say?”

Every time I visited Benedictine Women of Madison, it was my heart that kept drawing me back. I have found my home with a community that is life-giving, where I can make a difference.

At Holy Wisdom Monastery, we offer retreats that help people listen to their heart’s desire and find God in their lives. We welcome women and men on the spiritual journey who bring questions and are discerning God’s guidance.  Visit the group retreats section of our website to see what retreats we have coming up.  For women who want to explore monastic life we offer Ever Wonder? retreats. Our next one is in June. If you are interested in meeting with a spiritual guide, you may contact one of us through that website page to make an appointment.

God wants us to use the gifts God has given us in service to others. God also wants us to find deep joy in using those gifts. If you follow your heart’s desire, you won’t be far from God’s will for you.


Comments 8

  1. Oh yes, listening with the heart…it is easy now (at age 64) But as my own life evolved after college, in the early days my mind and society’s notions of ” success” frequently interfered with listening with my heart, leading to unhappiness, missed opportunities and confusion. As I learned to listen with my heart, (and learned to trust God) I go now without hesitation into new ventures and service to my community, never questioning or worrying if I can so it. As trite as it sounds, the good Lord will never lead you to anything you cannot do, you will always have God’s love and guidance to make it through. I had three successful careers, none of which matched my college major and none were planned. All were things I fell into, entered with great trepidation, and all worked out well. Take that leap
    and trust in God, think outside the box and listen with your heart.

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      Cheryal, thanks for sharing your story of learning to listen with the heart. Indeed, society does not nurture this kind of listening. I agree it is a learning process and learning to trust God is part of the process. The blessing is that God is faithful. Even when I have failed to hear the first time, the opportunities to hear keep presenting themselves, often through the people with whom I live and work.

  2. I found myself smiling and feeling very happy as I read this article. Like Cheryal, I find that I have a lot more respect for my heart leading the way as I live in my 60 plus years. There is a lot in our society that mitigates against listening to our hearts, but there are increasing numbers of voices that reinforce heart-centered action. I am reminded of the Institute of Heart Math which does research on the intelligence of the heart. Among other things, they consult with corporations to teach their managers and employees to do a group heart meditation before proceeding with more head-centered decision-making. I went to one of their workshops years ago, and had forgotten about their mission to use the power of the heart. Thank you, Lynn, for the inspiration and reminder to converse with my heart. It’s just what I needed to hear today. (I must have been listening or I wouldn’t have happened to read your article in such a timely manner!)

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      Phyllis, thanks for your comment. The Institute for Heart Math sounds interesting. I have to say, I’m still growing in to listening with my heart. It’s one of the aspects of Benedictine life that I appreciate so much. It calls me back to my heart again and again.

  3. As a 17-year-old girl reading these words and searching for my place in this world, I feel a calling to join a monastery. I know this is not a decision that I should take lightly, and that I have years ahead of me to decide. However, this is something I have had an inclination towards for quite some time! My heart knows that it wants to give itself entirely to God. I’ve always planned on going to college, though. What would anyone here recommend majoring in? How does a college degree fit in with monastic life, if at all? Thank you so much, and God bless.

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      Rachel, thanks for sharing your thoughts and questions. Each woman coming into religious life brings her personal gifts and background, and you will find a wide variety in most communities. Your college years can be an important time to develop those personal gifts, and that could really mean any kind of a major – in science, religion, education, music, math, political science – it really depends on your gifts and interests. Continuing to grow in your personal faith and prayer life throughout your college years is certainly important as well. If you would like to come to Holy Wisdom Monastery for a visit or a personal retreat and/or would simply like a chance to talk about your sense of being called, please contact me directly at or 608-831-9305. I would be happy to talk with you. Blessings on your journey.

  4. I’m 18 and in college. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of being a nun or sister, but as a Lutheran, I didn’t see how I could. Then, I stumbled upon this website. This has really spoken to me and shown that I don’t have to be a Catholic be a nun. I’ll be giving this vocation some serious thought and prayer as I explore this life more. Thank you for the wonderful information on this site!
    God bless!

    1. Molly, I’m glad you found our website. I was excited, too, when I learned that I could become a Benedictine sister and remain Presbyterian. We are the first ecumenical Benedictine community in the US. You might want to check out the Volunteer in Community pages and the videos posted by previous volunteers. Blessings on your studies and exploration!

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