In July this year I completed an eight-day online Ignatian Retreat during one of my city’s Covid-19 lockdowns (we’ve had four challenging stages – still in stage four…). It was a beautiful retreat and a blessing for me during a time of personal struggle since the pandemic began in March 2020. I was (and still am) missing Mass, friends, activities, and freedom. Most of all, I was angry, frustrated, and felt abandoned and wounded. What I thought would be the start of a better year was turning out to be a huge disappointment. Allow me to backtrack for a bit…
I have longed for practical answers to big Catholic existential and theological questions, but did not want to enrol in a long, intellectual theology degree to find solutions. Before the pandemic hit my country in mid to late March, I had started a course at a Catholic university but ended up dissatisfied with it and the institution. In a way the lockdown to come was a blessing that allowed me to escape. Still, I was unfulfilled. During my retreat it was as if I became even more aware of my starvation and desire for more, and while I could see the banquet of heaven, I did not know how to reach it. Nothing satisfied me and I sank into depression.
For those of us who are fortunate to have access to such things online, my Ignatian retreat fueled a growing hunger to dive deeper into my faith. I also had a long-held desire for a more personal relationship with Christ but, like many of us, I didn’t really know how. Sure, I was going to church and trying to be a good person, but I was mostly filling my time with study, work, and general busyness. Truth be told, I was living on the surface most of the time, and in quite a negative space.
Although I knew about St Ignatius of Loyola my entire life and grew up in a Jesuit-run parish, I found Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises too daunting and complicated to get into after a few attempts. The heavy stuff is not something you do alone. My internal nudges were the beginnings of something I knew I had been avoiding or unable to dedicate myself to for a very long time. The retreat also drove me to ask more profound questions about myself at a time of global crisis: “what does God want of me?”, “what is my true vocation?”, “how can I know Christ personally?”, “how can I best use my time?”, “what will I do after this crisis?”, “will I be single forever?”, and so on.
So I went hunting online. I could see some virtual Catholic conferences (gratefully free!) and vocations awareness gatherings for those discerning the religious life, but nothing catering for lay people of all ages and callings. I decided to poke around and “put out into the deep” by asking a Daughter of St Paul online if there was anything coming up for the laity to discern their vocation too. Not long after, one of the sisters tweeted about the ‘God Adventure Awaits‘ online summit on Stacey Sumereau’s website (held on 1-3 August 2020). I could have done cartwheels right there. Fantastic! It was just what I was looking for.
Upon seeing ‘God Adventure Awaits‘ I knew that God was sending me a humungous ‘wink’ after several signs during my Ignatian retreat. I also kept seeing videos and golden nuggets of information that resonated strongly with me about the very topics and Scripture passages my retreat director was giving me as homework, or other questions I had been secretly praying about (finding spiritual direction, how to read the Bible, etc). These graces and gifts were ringing major bells for me and I felt the sweet, gentle presence of Christ the entire time of my retreat. It is amazing how God communicates when you give Him the time and attention. I wanted to tell everyone, and was filled with a beautiful, peaceful joy.
I quickly signed up to watch the ‘God Adventure Awaits‘ presentations, then noticed further information about an extended option to complete the ‘True North’ course. This course would be about discerning your vocation (not just for the religious life) and making life choices generally. I liked what I saw. But more about the course later.
As a cradle Catholic I had always thought and grew up to believe that discernment was only for people called to the priesthood or religious life. Even now to say that one “has a vocation” still implies only to the religious life. I therefore automatically assumed that any vocations discernment wasn’t for lay people like me. My biggest task was to get through school, University, obtain a degree, find work, go to church, and be a nice person. I ticked off all those boxes (the nice person bit is always a work in progress!), but as the years have passed it never ever felt enough. I always knew that I wasn’t really fitting in anywhere. I was just going through the motions. My identity was in pieces, fulfilling various roles as a daughter, sister, friend, worker, parishioner, and church singer, but that was it. I was always yearning for more about WHO I was supposed to be in this life at a deeper level. I was always watching other people fulfil their dreams. I was more than a little envious of those who were going through a proper discernment process, finding the ample help and mentoring they needed to get closer to God and establish a strong personal relationship with Him. I have always wanted that relationship, but did not know how to ‘get it’.
As a single person I also felt like an outsider while others were getting married and doing the things society sees as ‘normal’. But what did God think of me? What did He want for and of me? What was His plan for me? Why did I feel left behind? It is only until very recent years that I realised how I never actually asked God what my vocation was or should be (apart from the universal call to holiness which is everyone’s vocation). I prayed, but never deeply invested in my spiritual life nor made more time for God. Whenever I did so via short courses or longer prayer, it was somewhat hurried, begging, or like making a deal with a CEO. I felt worse rather than better. I didn’t surrender.
So here was the ‘True North’ course staring at me in the face. While I was initially hesitant (because such courses are usually aimed at teenagers or young adults starting out in life) I was assured by the True North Course description (see below) and instructor that it was for anyone and all were welcome. I am so pleased that I signed up. Now having completed the five-week True North course by Stacey Sumereau here is my review.
While I won’t disclose everything in detail (long articles are boring right? You’ll have to check out the course yourself!) the five modules, videos, worksheets, and opportunities you get are well worth paying for. You get lifetime access to the course, which is a wonderful benefit because you will need to return to the topics covered several times and as you grow and change throughout your life (at least I know I will!). Don’t be put off by that if you are an older person and feel that the book of your life is closing or that it is “too late” to discern what God wants of you. You are not a waste of time or space to God. One of the tenets of the course is that you are not finished – God has more in store for you. As long as you are breathing you can grow; there is something in this course for everyone of any age to savour and learn.
From Stacey’s website, the course features:
“Decision-making skills for ANY life choice.
5 modules, 3-4 videos per module (self-paced).
Worksheets that translate insight into action.
Personalized guidance and goal-setting.
Bi-weekly progress coaching.
If you wonder:
How can I build an authentic life I love?
How do I synthesize the life advice I’ve received?
How can I stop going in circles?
How do I know I’m on the right path?
How can I make decisions stress-free?
Then True North is for YOU!
True North is rooted in rich Catholic tradition and the wisdom of the Saints so you can make every life decision with clarity and peace.”
That pretty much just about describes all of us at some stage or age, right?
The metaphor of fixing your compass and charting your true course is a beautiful one. You begin with goal-setting and receive prudent tips and tricks along the way. You are challenged to take responsibility for your life, think about deeper issues, and are encouraged to be proactive. You are not bombarded with complicated theory, but are gently guided. The course reoriented my thinking away from the current darkness in our world, to remember who I am and why I am here. Most of our time as Catholics is about remembering what is truly important and who we are in God’s eternal plan, rather than focusing on temporal things as our ultimate destination.
A word of ‘warning’. If you are going to invest in yourself by diving into this course, do be prepared to actually put the work into the worksheets provided. You don’t want to be a passive observer by watching the videos and then doing nothing. Don’t cheat on yourself. You owe it to God, yourself, and the time you have been given on this earth to put the effort into your responses to the activities. While journal writing with good old pen and paper is great, I completed the worksheet questions in Word documents on my computer and ended up writing many pages, diagrams, tables, etc. I never regret putting in the work and will continue to refer back to them as time passes to better understand the material and concepts.
Also, perhaps don’t expect to complete the course in five weeks but give yourself time (Stacey allows for this and this is more than okay – it is a pleasantly gentle process). While some people finished the course in that period, you may need more time on some modules than others. I kept up with the pace of the course and coaching calls, but made time to dwell on some modules more than others. I will also go back to review and pray about many things.
If you do this, like me, you may also find that there will be some icky moments when you face the shadows or darkness within yourself. Stick with it. You need to bring these things out into the light! I found this during Module 3: Your True Self. I was fortunate in that while completing the course I had a spiritual director for the first time in my life (my Ignatian retreat leader) so was able to discuss the course with that person, who also gave it the thumbs up! I know that finding a good spiritual director is hard (it took me fifteen years on and off), but persist if you can find someone to talk to about your own journey. Alternatively speak with a priest, religious sister, or other knowledgeable holy friend. This is also discussed in the course.
For me the sign of any good faith-based, self-development Catholic course is that it dives deep, is sound theologically and Scripturally (big tick), is filled with great quotes from the ages (I LOVE quotes!), is encouraging, fun (see Module 4 for that one!), motivating, practical, relatable, and uncomfortable when it needs to be. Say again? Yes, a course that develops you has to challenge you and enable you to compassionately face your true self, warts and all.
You also get to sign up for two group coaching sessions at a suitable time for you to discuss the course modules progressively. This was easy for me to do from the southern hemisphere to the United States. Stacey is a friendly, open, personable, down-to-earth person who welcomed all questions and interactions. She even went overtime to talk when I turned up (to my horror!) at a later time on the other side of the world! The videos and her live sessions are like speaking with a good friend over coffee (or hot chocolate?).
I loved everything about the course and especially the simple, practical, instant steps I can apply in my life to improve my relationship with God, prioritise Him first, help myself, my mind, identify my strengths and weaknesses, aid my earthly relationships, encourage self-compassion and the overall process of discovery. It is truly worthwhile doing if you want a more authentic life based on the wisdom and richness of the Catholic faith and what God desires for you. My only wish is that this course had existed in my teens and twenties but taking my own advice, it is never too late to start something new and grow your life. God’s got your back. So get to it and head in the only direction that matters: True North!
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