Thursday, January 13, 2022

It's OK to say "no" to a good thing (even when it's about the spiritual life)

There comes a time in everyone's life when he or she will have to pick between a few options that all seem good. In fact, many of us are fortunate to face this dilemma several times throughout life; instead of having to pick between a good thing and a bad thing, we have to pick between a number of wonderful options. This can be a difficult process (you can't rule anything out immediately-they're all so good!), but we usually simplify it by deciding what aligns with our priorities and/or what seems to be the greatest good for us. We make a choice, commit, and go on with life. As we go through this process repeatedly, it becomes easier, especially when an overthinker like me realizes that not every single decision is worth deliberating over endlessly. 

However, we can seriously struggle when it comes to practices and programs that pertain to the spiritual life. After all, this is about one's soul, so everything--from the smallest Lenten penance to the biggest prayer program--suddenly grows larger and larger, and we begin to fear that we can't say "no" to anything. It's about God, so naturally, we say yes. We also may be afraid that we'll look like a "bad Catholic" if we don't do every single devotion that "all the Catholics" are doing. 

So, we decide to Do All the Things. 

Sometimes, a devotion or practice we've picked up unenthusiastically (believing that "everyone online is doing it, so we will too") unexpectedly grabs hold of us and we discover new and beautiful ways in which God is helping us grow. 

Yet, other times, we look around and wonder why we are so busy, so stressed, and so overwhelmed when we're doing countless holy practices to grow closer to God. Confused, we may decide to add a novena to our whole list of things as we beg God to give us some small amount of peace. 

We may have heard the term "discernment" before, in relation to praying about what vocation God is calling each of us to, but we've also decided that we don't want to become "over-discerners" who endlessly discern and never seem to commit to a decision. Plus, we're afraid of what will happen if we "discern incorrectly" and wind up choosing a prayer practice that doesn't really touch the needs of our souls. Better play it safe and Do All the Things, we figure. 

But, my friends, there is value in a level of discernment when it comes to the spiritual life. We don't have to sit and discern every single prayer and devotion we do, but when it comes to certain prayer regimes or programs, there can be enormous benefit in praying about whether or not we should commit to something. 

I find myself thinking of this topic every single year around this time, as countless men prepare for the Exodus 90 program (a ninety-day program that focuses on prayer, asceticism and fraternity while meditating on the book of Exodus). The program is well organized, intentional, and has born a lot of good fruit in the lives of many people-including those who are seeking freedom from certain lifestyle choices and/or addictions. 

The program has become so popular that different programs geared toward women have sprung up, since some people claim that "ladies shouldn't do Exodus 90" (I find myself wondering if St. Mary of Egypt, St. Paula, and all the other female ascetics of the early Church would agree with that statement, but I digress). These women-only programs have been growing in popularity as well, and it's beautiful to know that so many people are making the intentional effort to conform their lives to Christ as they begin the new year. 

However, I've noticed that there's a tendency in some circles for these programs to become a fad, a current craze. "Everybody is joining them," so when a friend asks if you want to join his or her group, you immediately jump right in. You figure that "everybody's doing it," so clearly, if you want to be a "good Catholic," you believe that you need to do it, too.  


What if that particular program is not actually what your soul needs right now? What if God is moving and working in your heart in different ways? What if you need to focus these other ways instead of whatever program your friends are doing? 

Some people really do benefit from these programs, especially if that's what their soul, marriage, and/or family life needs right now. And it’s that “if” that gets me. I don't think we should sit around and judge whether people who sign up for any of these ninety-day programs “need” that regime or not. It’s for each person (and his or her spouse, in the case of a married couple) to discern and figure out. But, we do all need talk about the necessary discernment. Even the official Exodus 90 website states that "Exodus 90 is not for every man at every time of his life."

Yet, when so many friends, parishioners, or people online are choosing a good program (that pertains to the spiritual life!) we sometimes neglect to do that discernment. We can't see how--or why--we should say "no" to something that seeks to help people grow in virtue. 

The spiritual classic Unseen Warfare, by Lorenzo Scupoli, edited by Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, and revised by Theophan the Recluse, touches on the topic of discernment when adopting spiritual regimes. It discusses the ways in which the devil 

"urges us to undertake excessive and untimely efforts for spiritual perfection, in order to cast us down into the abyss at the moment when we imagine we stand on the summit" (195). 

It details various extremes that we can be tempted to fall into, and the reader is advised to "use good judgement in undertaking feats of physical asceticism, when there is a need for them." It concludes that 

"Therefore a moderate and orderly mode of life, controlled by reason, which takes into account the requirements of the soul and the particular constitution of the body, together with its state of health, are less dangerous and more useful for both the soul and for the body" (197). 

Discernment is good for the soul, and even if we do not have a spiritual director who personally guides us in discernment, we still must avail ourselves of prayerful, thoughtful decision-making.

I recently went through this very process. A woman from my parish reached out to some other ladies and I, inviting us to join one of the ninety-day programs for women. I researched the program, and it looked beautiful. It had great reviews. I thought about these Very Cool Women from my parish, and I knew that I would love an excuse to do this program with them. Even as I realized that I didn't want to overextend myself, and that I didn't really want to put a long-term commitment on my calendar at this time, the FOMO was strong.

Then I realized: I already have a spiritual classic that I’ve been wanting to slowly, prayerfully work through this winter and spring. I also have a stack of other spiritual books that I've been eager to dive into. Why should I push those things aside and do this other program instead?

Plain and simple: because I didn’t want to miss out on something that "all the cool Catholic ladies" were doing together with their beautiful, glossy books. 

I thought about how my very worn, used copy of a spiritual classic by St. Ignatius has been sitting on my bookshelf for months. It’s one that I really feel drawn to, and think will truly help my spiritual life. I thought about the other spiritual books that I've been longing to read and grow with. I thought about how I'm trying to deepen my own personal prayer as well as my prayer and dialogue with my husband. These are actual goals and objectives I’ve thought about, prayed about, and need to keep working on—and if I cast them all aside to join this other program, what am I actually accomplishing?

I am so excited to start off the year with Catherine Doherty!
I'm only a couple chapters in, but I am loving it so far. 

For the sake of my soul, I decided not to join the trendy program at this time. Not because the program is bad, but because after prayerful, thoughtful discernment, I've realized that it's not what best fits the needs of my soul and life right now. 

There is a time in my life when I would have automatically said "YES! Sign me up, I want to do All the Things. If it's about God, then it absolutely is what my soul needs right now!" Over the years though, especially as I've worked through therapy, grown in my relationship with God, grown in my relationship with my husband, and birthed a few babies, I've realized that discernment about these types of commitments is important. I've also been learning that it's okay—even good—to do what will benefit your particular spiritual life. Even if it’s not the program that “everyone else is doing.”

“I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)


  1. Yes! I especially think this discernment is important in the season of raising kids (our primary vocation) because it can be easy to want an escape, or even a "program", or as you said some "cool Catholic", to drive our spiritual lives forward...when in reality God provides a lot of that in our vocation as just doesn't look as fun or pretty and it's pretty relentless and monotonous, haha! That being said, I love stuff like this! I'm just choosy like you because I know I need lots of margin and few commitments in this season of life.

    That being said, I'm currently considering Well Read Mom with a couple friends...have you heard of it? Sounds sooooo good...Catholic in origin...but definitely need to think through the commitment.

    1. Thank you for sharing all that, Laura! I love how you bring up what God already provides us in our vocation and leaning into that...I think in some ways, perhaps offering up those daily hardships and inconveniences with deep joy and love can be a bigger than some gorgeous and inspirational program (even if it does involve a lot of asceticism and prayer). This is one of the (many) reasons why I'm grateful for my formation in the Domestic Church movement, because that's been one way for my husband and I to grow spiritually with a small group, but everything revolves around our marriage and family life, and commitment-wise it isn't anything extreme (since all the commitments are things that we all, as Catholics, should be doing anyway).

      Well Read Mom is amazing! It definitely seems like a program that would be right up your alley. I did it a few years ago and loved it. Unfortunately, the group I was in kind of fizzled out towards the end of the year (right around the time that Dante was assigned haha!), and I haven't gotten involved in another group because all the local ones are not super close to me (that I know of, at least) and it's hard to motivate myself to drive to the opposite side of the metro in bad traffic sometimes :P But perhaps one of these years I'll get motivated to jump back in-I do appreciate that (at least when I was in it) it was only one book and meeting a month, which is a lot more doable than many other classes or groups (when I was in the group I didn't buy any of the supplemental membership stuff and only read the book and came to the meeting to discuss). And a lot of the books are already on my TBR list. So, I highly recommend the program if it's something that fits well with your life!

  2. SO MUCH TRUTH HERE. Love this, AnneMarie. I've felt the tug to join in these programs before, but I've always known they weren't right for me at the time.

    When it comes to books, I've given up my prideful need to read particular books or finish the ones I'm reading. I've taken up the practice of letting the Holy Spirit guide my studies completely. I read what I feel called to read, when I feel called to read it. I turn to whatever page I feel called to turn to (whether it's the beginning or one at "random"), and I read until I feel called to stop. It's especially awesome to do this during my weekly holy hour because my parish's chapel has a ton of great Catholic books that I wouldn't normally have access to.

    This method of study has born incredible fruits in my spiritual life. It's given God the opening to speak to me in whatever way I need to be spoken to, in the language that most easily gets through to me (the written word). I highly recommend it!

    It sounds like we are a lot alike, so I want to recommend a book that has been helping me SO much lately. It's tiny and really easy to pick up, read a little section, and put down. But it's super powerful. Here is the link:

    I've also been praying the Litany of Humility every day, and that has been helping me a lot as well. I no longer care as much if I am praised or esteemed, which is part of why I always wanted to read the books everyone else is raving about. It's so nice to just let that go.

    Thanks for this post! I can't wait to get together again and chat. We have a lot of catching up to do!

    1. I am so glad that you liked this, Tiffany! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and about your recent practice-I think that's beautiful and so important and awesome that you are seeking to be attuned to what the Holy Spirit desires of you to read and pray with. And thank you for sharing that book! I have added it to my list, it looks amazing! I also love and really appreciate you bringing up the Litany of Humility-I used to pray that all the time, and somehow fell out of the practice but you are the second person this week to plop it back in front of me, so I am going to make sure I bring this back into my life :) I didn't wind up talking about humility in this post because it was already mega-long and I needed to get to bed, but I definitely think that for me, doing something because "Good Catholics do it" can really point back to my lack of humility...people are probably not sitting around judging me and thinking that I'm a "bad Catholic," but even if they are, I need to embrace humility and confidently follow God's call, even if others are judging me for what I'm not doing.

      Anyways, you are very welcome for this post, and when I remember to check the calendar with Jacob, I will get back to you about when we can meet up again! It's always so good to talk with you <3

  3. I really appreciate this timely post! I think I need to check out Unseen Warfare--powerful food for thought! A lot of the stress in my life right now is due to diving into a lot at once, and somewhat for the reasons you mentioned.

    1. I'm so glad this reached you at a good time, Lianna. I will be praying for you as you work through all the stress and commitments that you have.

      Unseen Warfare is EXCELLENT, though I should mention that it was originally written by a Roman Catholic in the 16th century, then edited by a Greek Orthodox monk of Mount Athos, and later revised by a Russian Orthodox bishop in the 18th century--so some aspects of the book seem very much directed to monks/celibates, and the prose is not quite as approachable as, say, Fulton Sheen or something by a modern author. But, it's really, really good, and I personally love the fact that it brings together both Eastern and Western Christian thought :) I hope you enjoy it if you pick it up!

  4. Anne Marie, thank you for your prayers! I'm actually interested in learning more about Eastern Christian thought, so this could be a good read for me! Thanks for the info!

  5. Absolutely. Something is only going to be spiritually enriching and good for us if it is a good fit. And there is room for so many different practices and commitments and ways of becoming a saint within our faith! This is how I feel about various Lenten commitments, too. There are so many devotionals and programs out there people push, but what's the point? To KNOW and LOVE God more, in the circumstances he current has us in. Knowing that and choosing devotions accordingly makes for a much deeper spiritual life.

  6. I have totally joined church things because i liked the other people participating! It has led to some great friendships. I do understand what you mean, especially as a mom with limited time. Most of my joining of things was in my single days. Our first commitment needs to be to our family, right? (In terms of time and energy). If i do the basics that the Church asks for, i know that's a huge step forward towards holiness. The other things are icing.

    1. Ellen, I love how you bring up the contrast of what we do as singles vs. what we do as married women and moms. That's such a good point! Come to think of it, my "Do All the Things" phase coincided with my single time, too-when I got married, life actually got very peaceful in many ways because I dropped so many previous commitments; I really wanted to devote my time and energy more to my marriage.

      I also think it's so neat that you made some great friendships through joining groups. Good friendship is not something we should take for granted, so that is definitely something worth considering when we balance what to do and what not to do.