Michelle Schmid, Service Corps Member 2016-17, reflects on her weekend on retreat with the Franciscans of Atonement in Garrison, New York.
Before me lies the famed Appalachian Trail, weaving down between trees and the sloping folds of hills. Sun beams through the trees creating a tapestry of browns, golds, and bruised blues in the February air. In the late afternoon, the smashed leaves that mark the path are hard to distinguish from the decaying foliage of the forest. Sometimes, the path completely disappears to a layer of disintegrating snow; I don’t always know where to place my feet or exactly where the path goes. My eyes seek the trunks of trees for the white trail markers or I search through the chaos of the ground for stray footprints from others before me. When there is nothing, I guess.
I love nature. I love the raw beauty of the earth and how the busyness of work and the everyday disappear in a moment, swept away by the vigor of the wind and the hollow cacophony of silence. I love how the realness of the earth becomes the perfect analogy for the present. I had come to this land on a retreat centered on discernment, that weighty word meant to capture the individual’s quest for defining purpose and direction in life. The land itself became the environment for understanding my own discernment.
Discernment is a scary sounding word. Years of listening to people throw the word around in hushed whispers whenever an acquaintance or relative had decided to look into becoming a priest or nun has indirectly given the word a negative aura. Not that it is bad to become a nun or a priest, but the word has only been used to refer to that type of decision in such a way that suggests scandal or the taboo. For so much of my life, discernment has remained a hushed-up topic. However, the word has so much more to offer.
When I think of discernment, I am automatically reminded of the Latin word ‘discere,’ which means ‘to learn.’ It is the same root for the word disciple, those who follow a specific teacher or leader. As a result, my understanding of discernment starts with learning. Learning what to do with my life, what I need to direct my attention to, and how to enhance my daily life are broad reasons for choosing to participate in a discernment weekend. Learning requires openness.
The Franciscans of Atonement are situated on extensive grounds with beautiful views of the surrounding hill region and the Hudson Valley. Wandering on top of the hill, I encountered views of the land and the clear dome of the sky opening around me. This is the descriptor of learning: a mind willing to receive.
I am struck by how much I have to learn. From serving students who have monumentally different backgrounds from me. From living and communing with young women who come from all over the country. From diving into my own understanding of the spiritual. Learning is an interconnecting bond of growth. I always get caught up with how connected every person is: every person I know knows at least one other person I don’t know who knows even more people I may never know or come into contact with. Yet somehow, we all share the same earth, the same air.
In a way, I see the service, spirituality, and community of my year of service similarly connected. Each one relates back to revealing more of who I am. The more I serve, the more I learn about how I love and care for others. By interacting with my community, I learn about how I build relationships. Spirituality becomes the place where I recognize the connectedness of my life with the lives of those around me. In a way, community fosters service and service fosters community. And everything is bound by the spirituality of human existence.
I am brought back to a statue that I found while exploring the grounds of the Franciscans. The statue depicted the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion, with three women mourning beneath the cross. Overhead stretched the bare branches of trees that I’m sure in warmer months, bear beautifully colored leaves. However, I was struck by the expansive blue sky revealed just above, making the scene stand out even more to me. Here, there is a man who has served so many other people in various ways. In ways that encouraged others to learn and become more themselves. Here below are women gathered together from different paths of life, some of them inspired to serve the dying man on the cross. And all of them united in the human spirit of mourning. Even in a hard scene of death, I am reminded of the mysterious beauty of community, service, spirituality.
Coming back to Buffalo after spending time to retreat and really consider everything going on around me, I realize that while I walked the Appalachian Trail, I had no clear sight of the end. The trail ends so far from where I walked, it is almost laughable to think about seeing the end. My discernment does not concern knowing exactly where I am going. Maybe every once and awhile, I will experience certainty about a decision I make. But for me, my discernment lies in the small parts of the path at hand, finding where I am going today and taking the steps I need to keep on the trail.