When Discernment Meets Duress by Diane D’Angelo

Diane 16If you follow your heart, you’re going to find that it is often extremely inconvenient.” -Acharya Pema Chödrön

Like most folks of mystical bent, I spend countless hours trying to discern God’s will. It’s becoming second nature, as much a part of my life as walking and talking. I was late in coming to this effort; my youth and adulthood were marked by an avoidance of conflict born of both gender norms and outright necessity. Of the latter, suffice it to say that people-pleasing was a useful strategy to dodge the violence I lived with as a child. As an adult, however, it had the opposite effect, and after being rendered a doormat one too many times, it was suggested that I develop discernment. So I commenced regular meditation practice, hoping, like Elijah, to hear that “Still Small Voice” of Spirit lighting my path.

There was a spiritual honeymoon, when friends were happy to see my efforts, actively encouraging me. But then discernment led me to places I didn’t necessarily want to go, to actions that upset people. What to do when God leads us to boldness? How do we hear the whispers of the Divine over the criticism of others? Maybe it’s practice, maybe it’s following in the footsteps of those who’ve gone before. 

(Please note that the following story contains a reference to rape)


I met Cherie (not her real name) while working as a victim advocate for a local non-profit. She was about 40, married with three children. And she was obsessed with finding her rapist. Many years previously, Cherie was raped late at night in her own bed. The assailant struck while she was sleeping, blindfolding and assaulting her. In a split second, however, she saw his face. It was imprinted in her mind like a particularly grotesque tattoo.


So often we’re told to “get over,” to “forgive and forget,” to “let go and let God.” Often these utterances come from people of faith. If you’re anything like me, the notion of accessing spiritual “hearing aids” to take a shortcut to Truth is strongly appealing. Doing the socially acceptable thing can be a good substitute for authenticity. But believing in God and trusting God are often two different things. The latter is not always sunshine and daisies. It’s Abraham holding the knife over his son; it’s Martin Luther King, Jr., foreseeing his assassination, telling the congregation he’s not worried about not seeing the Promised Land. It’s working without the net of social approval, trusting that Still Small Voice, no matter what.


By the time Cherie walked into my office, she had been visiting police stations for years. Week after week, she perused mug shots. I’m sure they thought she was crazy. At the very least, her presence was an inconvenience to the mundane rhythms of their workplace. Her family and friends, although loving, were emotionally exhausted and skeptical of her efforts. She’d heard it all, but couldn’t let go. Lots of people encouraged her to get on with her life, her responsibilities. That is, until the day she saw his mug shot.

I accompanied Cherie to the trial. She testified — despite the suggestion that the ensuing years might have dulled her memory. Despite the horrid incredulity that permeates rape trials. She was unwavering and articulate.

The suspect took the stand. I glanced at Cherie to lend my support, but she was fine. I sat there, transfixed. He was a nondescript guy, not terribly bright. It took all of five minutes for him to confess to Cherie’s rape. Sighs of relief echoed through the courtroom. But then this man volunteered that not only had he raped Cherie, he’d also assaulted several other women. Turns out he was responsible for a number of unsolved cases. It was only through Cherie’s tenacity that he was stopped. He was sent away for a very long time. And Cherie? For the first time in a long time, she was free.


“Did you suppose there would be no hand to take yours when you reached into the dark?” – Clark Strand, Waking Up to the Dark

Over the years, through experiences good and bad, I’ve learned that the responses of other people have little to do with how right or wrong any particular actions might be. This is especially true when discernment leads to big life changes. Lots of times folks are just startled or, more charitably, concerned about what might happen when they decide to swim upstream. We mortals, longing for comfort (no matter how deadened that comfort might be) – resist mightily the opportunities to engage in blind trust in the Divine. How different would our lives, and consequently, our world, be if we gave as much credence to the Spirit within as we do the rabble outside?


Diane D’Angelo, MC, is a third-year MDiv student at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO. She is also a Gestalt therapist whose primary clinical and pastoral interest is recovery from religious abuse. She dances between Buddhism and Christianity, but everyone thinks she’s Jewish. And that’s fine with her.


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10 replies

  1. Wow. Very powerful and thought provoking article. Thank you.


  2. Diane, you hit the mark! Discernment can so often be a way of reaching peace AT ALL COST! We must believe each in her/his own holy spirit that calls forth from within us…for our own sake and and the sake of others! Thank YOU!


  3. Yes, you wrote a thought-provoking piece, and I’m glad Cherie (like Bill Cosby’s victims) was persistent. But do we need discernment to determine where that still small voice we’re listening to is coming from? Do we always need to follow it? Can we learn to become our own inner voice and follow our own heart and head?

    I hope you’ll write more blogs for FAR.


  4. I am moved for this reading. Being a survivor of sexual violence myself I understand Cherie. When I face suffering and despair in my life, no matter the kind, I have sometimes the same question: Why people tell me to let things in God hands when there is something I can do? along the time and the most I reflect on spirituality and what it has done for me, my conclusion is that the gifts that I have been given are awareness and resilence. And these both are tools I want to use in this world, with faith in a mighther power that guide me but without avoiding my active involvement in.


    • I think you hit on some important ideas, here, Vanessa. In a hierarchical, patriarchal culture, the notion of a woman asserting herself is a threatening one. When woman are passive, they are derided as mere “victims” (the contemporary definition of that word as a pejorative has disturbed me for years); when we become assertive and more confident, we are deemed “bitches,” and unworthy of male respect and attention. Both labels are meant to reinforce the hierarchy of gender.


      • Absolutely true and let me share with you a personal and recurrent experience in my life: I am always pointed as dangerous and difficult to handle for men because I “think too much” (outspoken, analytical) and I am “too passionate” as if being determined and straight forward was some way negative. I used to suffer a lot due to rejection and because I could not be a soft, quiet, devoted, victim assumed being, it took me a while to identify the effort of my partners to make me a “better woman” as emotional abuse. I think “Rape Culture” is so ingrained in our societies that gives authority to men not only to access the body of women with violence, but also to override our natural way of being to put us back in the track of patriarchy expectations that make of us women an artifact.


  5. If God is not omnipotent, then what she is telling each of us is to do our part to co-create a more harmonious world.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I was shocked to read in MS mag some years ago that most rapists are serial rapists. Raping is not something that just comes over a guy one night, it is a habit of mind and a pattern of behavior. All the more reason to catch them because they will rape again.


    • Thank you for your comments, Dr. Christ. I find it interesting that sainthood – both that formally bestowed by the Catholic Church as well as its secular counterparts – goes to women who conform to gender hierarchy. As a woman confirmed in the Church, I’m far more interested in those who echo the actions of my patron, Joan of Arc. Cherie clearly did.


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