I first arrived in Baguio City, northern Luzon, in September 2003, as a member of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, founded by St Frances Xavier Cabrini, best known as ‘Mother Cabrini’. After a six-month period of enculturation, I felt ready and eager to begin ministry, even though I knew well that I still had much to learn from my Filipino brothers and sisters. I was already involved in our ministry for street children and their families (Save Our Street Children Foundation, Inc, ‘SOSCFI’), but I still felt called to something more. It seemed to me that the Lord also wanted me to start sharing with others the gifts, experience and learning I had received throughout my many years in religious life. Why should I keep them to myself? Shouldn’t they be made available to a wider circle? One of these gifts was that of discernment. I had been assigned to Casa Cabrini, our House of Discernment in Baguio. I felt that was a nice name for the house, but not much was being done to make discernment real to others. I also felt that the Lord Sr Patricia Spillane MSC wanted me to ‘widen the circle’, go beyond the house and involve others – but my idea of ‘others’ was still fairly limited at the time – ie, women who would be interested in religious or missionary life. So with that original inspiration in mind, we MSCs started a pilot program called ‘Circles of Discernment’ (COD).
Three years later, I can say that despite my best efforts to stick to the original plan, the Lord ‘took over’ the idea and used it for his own purpose – a purpose much wider, more varied, diversified and broader than anything I had imagined! Circles of Discernment took on a ‘life of its own’ and I often felt, as our foundress Mother Cabrini would say, ‘I am just a spectator of the great and wonderful things that the Lord is doing!’ This is the story of that transforming journey.
In May 2004, I sent out fliers and posters for COD, visited groups and set a first meeting for young women to learn about and practice discernment. But the word got out. Men and women of all ages and walks of life kept knocking on the door and asking: ‘Can’t we come too? Don’t we all need to learn how to make good decisions? Don’t we all have to seek and find God’s will in our lives? Isn’t wisdom for everyone?’ I was both humbled and astonished. Something was obviously happening and the Lord was ‘taking over’ my narrow agenda.
Our first three years
In that first year, COD met in large groups, small groups and individual sessions, with men and women of different ages, backgrounds and education. We called the student group ‘Seekers’ and the older group ‘Sojourners’ to differentiate them, but there was great freedom in mixing and mingling. Together we learned much about Ignatian discernment – the necessary conditions for it to be effective in one’s life, what is meant by discernment of God’s will and discernment of spirits. We explored the spirituality and practice of discernment, as well as positive and negative experiences. We talked about what discernment meant at various stages in one’s life, how God had a purpose and a ‘vocation’ for each one of us and that we would only be truly happy and satisfied in that path of life. One of our favorite quotes became ‘I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans of peace and not disaster, reserving for you a future full of hope. When you seek Me, you will find Me, when you seek Me with all of your heart’ (Jer 29:11- 13).