FROM LAMB & LION SPIRITUAL GUIDANCE MINISTRIES
WHAT HOLY HABITS KEEP YOU SPIRITUALLY SANE?
I recently returned from a personal retreat at St. Gregory's Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Three Rivers, Michigan (that is Episcopalian). I have been making retreats there for over twenty years and had been connected as a confrater (associate) for many of those years. During the retreat I was accepted by the monastic community as a novice oblate, having been a confrater and an aspirant for over a year and having lived into a personal spiritual rule of life for some time now.
I have found that a number of people that I companion want to explore developing a personal spiritual rule of life. Much of this is simply becoming conscious of the patterns that help keep you connected to God, others, and yourself in ways that are healthy and life-enhancing. Some people have personalized a spiritual rule that is outlined by a religious community for its associates, shaped around particular principles characteristic of the tradition--such as Franciscan or Benedictine. I found that since I am continually renewing my baptismal covenant I wanted to develop a rule that helped me consciously actualize the promises I make in that covenant renewal. Some people may be in a place in their life where the need is to be free from structures (often where structure--religious structure especially--in the past had been forced upon them without their desire or ability to adapt it) and so exploring a spiritual rule of life might not be what they are looking for. Their primary need may be to live into a spiritual relationship that focuses on the freedom and unconditional love of God. But others, who have a solid sense of this freedom and love of God in their lives, may wish to look at a way to give conscious attention to the development of their spiritual relationships in a way that honors the wholeness of their lives. A good personal spiritual rule of life might be worth exploring.
As I was working on articulating my rule I also realized that as a family we might explore what a communal covenant might look like. I drafted up a covenant structured around how my wife, son, and I assist and hold each other accountable to honoring the physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental health of our members and articulating what our ground-rules are for family decision-making. We each looked over the draft document and negotiated the final Family Covenant. We have been living into that covenant for over a year now and it has become a frame of reference in exploring the health of our family patterns of relationship-building.
There is much more that can be said about developing, living-into, and (when life circumstances and experience require it) revising a spiritual rule of life. But I thought you might like to know a little about my experience and I would welcome hearing from you about your own experiences in developing a personal or communal rule (whether in a shared living situation, family, committed relationship, religious community, or church).
Dan Prechtel, June, 1999
* * *
EMBRACING THE SPIRIT AND SOUL DIMENSIONS OF SPIRITUALITY
At the Chicago Men's Conference in February
of 1996 Bill Kauth gave a fine presentation on what he and others
(James Hillman, Thomas Moore, and Richard Rohr) call the "spirit" and
dimensions or polarities of life. The attributes he gave to each
pole were these:
Spirit: ascent, non-material, knowing, clarity, detachment, light,
transcendent, universal, perfection.
Soul: descent, material, unknown/confusion, mystery, attachment, dark,
immanent, particular, imperfection.
For a spirituality to adequately address life circumstances we should be able to have access to both of these dimensions. As Hillman pointed out in an article (which I can't find anymore--a "soul" experience for me!) our dominant culture has focused attention on the "spirit" side of life--being
goal and task oriented, success-driven, and seeking inspiration. But the "soul" experiences such as grief, loss, decline, decay, disease, failure, and confusion also need to be held as valid dimensions of human life--although our dominant culture shies away from this side of reality.
Too often western Christianity, and particularly American versions, echoes that more popular "spirit" side at the expense of the "soul" side. Religion, as that which ties things together (re-ligio), and spirituality should hold in sacred care both of those dimensions of human experience and
support an understanding that God can be met in both places but in different ways. Some elements of Christian spiritual tradition and contemporary theology do so.
Classic spiritual teaching often looks at prayer and spiritual life as being shaped initially by the kataphatic or via affirmativa "spirit" side, but then perhaps moving to the apophatic or via negativa "soul" side, and then perhaps back and forth. The "soul" side of spiritual life comes out in the apophatic or via negativa writers of the early church such as Gregory of Nazianzus and Pseudo-Dionysius who point to the ineffability of God, and in the 16th century Carmelites, John of the Cross with the dark nights of sense and soul and Theresa of Avila and the contemplative
dimensions of prayer. Ignatius of Loyola recognized the movements of spiritual oscillation between experiences of consolation and desolation in those seeking to deepen their life in Christ.
In contemporary writing John Dominick Crossan in The Dark Interval pointed to the task of myth (spirit-side) as creating structure in the world which gives us a sense of security and control and the function of parable (soul-side) as showing our structures as limited and leading us to the edges where the mystery of God might be encountered. Jesus, claimed Crossan, is the great Parable in his embrace of the cross and the mystery of Easter. Both of those, structure and anti-structure, myth and parable, spirit and soul, can be seen in interplay in the sacred stories of holy
In our own communities and with those with whom we interrelate it is important to be present to both dimensions of life and all the nuanced mixtures in-between. A vital element of the work of spiritual guidance and companioning with individuals and communities is the capacity to be present with others in their particular circumstances--whether they are experienced from the spirit or soul sides of life, and look with them for the signs of God's presence or wait with them in the times of felt absence.
The greatest challenge, of course, comes in being a faithful presence to those individuals or communities who are experiencing soul times. Both the external anxiety of our companions and our own inner anxiety born out of the expectation that we are supposed to make something positive happen must be faced and somehow befriended in order to be released into trusting the hidden Divine Mystery that we can neither control nor adequately communicate about but can wait upon in hope with our companions. In the very waiting in hope we may discover the creativity of God at work opening for us something new as a gift, something "infinitely more than we can ask
or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20).
Dan Prechtel, 7-31-99
* * *
INCARNATING THE WORD
What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son
takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself?
And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace and if I am not also full of grace?
What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son
if I do not also give birth to him in my time and in my culture?
This, then, is the fullness of time;
When the Son of God is begotten in us.
Meister Eckhart, 13th century Rhineland mystic
(from Meditations with Meister Eckhart, Matthew Fox)
As the Christian calendar moves toward the
of the Incarnation I find myself challenged to try to concretely embody
the holy Presence in my life and culture. In a recent Advent quiet day
with a church in the Chicago area we looked at the ancient practice of
"lectio divina" (holy reading) as a way of inviting the Word to become
flesh in us.
The generally recognized movements of this way of engaging scripture is fourfold: "lectio" (reading) engaging the passage of scripture in a formational way rather than simply informational--where we invite the divine Mystery to encounter us in scripture; "meditatio" (meditation) thinking/visualizing/reflecting about what the phrase or verse or scene from scripture has to say to me about my life and what I am to be and do; "oratio" (prayer) a gut/heart-level prayer about the real implications of my meditational insights where I engage with God as lover or wrestling partner or deep friend or whatever reflects a true no-holds-barred-getting-real relationship; and "contemplatio" (contemplation) as a sense of peace following the resolution of the above process and a graced resting in the divine Presence.
Robert Mulholland, Jr. suggests that the movements of lectio divina actually end with "incarnatio" (incarnation) because the process of engaging God through scripture has transformed us and we carry the word in our lives into the world in a new way. I think that this incarnational process is what happens every time we go through the risky enterprise of letting God reshape us through scripture or any significant life situation. The movements that we describe in "lectio divina," although not necessarily sequential and progressive, shape us differently as we try to respond faithfully to God's call to us through those events.
May you find the Word active within you in new and surprising ways, and may the new birthing bring Christ anew into our time and our culture.
Daniel Prechtel, Advent 1999
* * *
Council is a new group that meets with me as a council of
We had only been together once previous to this gathering and were
how we can sit together in a way that invites an awareness of God’s
I offered a report of Lamb & Lion Spiritual Guidance Ministries
to my advisers and we teased out questions that related to purpose and
direction in my ministry. An exciting shift had been going on in
the level of activity in the previous three months. After two
our meeting was drawing to an end and it was time to look at our
and set a date for our next meeting. I looked for my calendar–but
it wasn’t there! I felt embarrassed and confused. I was
I had taken my calendar with me.
Walking out of the Visioning Council meeting with one of my advisers, Liz Stout, we laughed as she asked me if God was trying to tell me something in my forgetfulness. I was struck by the irony of being very busy and then misplacing my appointment calendar. Going to my car I saw that I had placed the appointment book on the dashboard when I was gathering other material to bring to the meeting. Maybe Liz was right. Maybe God, through some humorous inner wisdom, was trying to tell me something about trying to do too much. You see, this was becoming a pattern.
Ten days before the Visioning Council meeting I was in a negotiation session with a men’s spirituality group which I had been invited to facilitate for a series of sessions. We had explored its history and how the group process was going to flow and then it was time to set the dates for its sessions. I looked for my appointment calendar only to discover, much to my embarrassment, that I had forgotten it.
I could have named these times as “senior moments” and attributed nothing to the occasions but forgetfulness. But there seemed to be something both mischievous and wise in this unconscious action. The day after my Visioning Council meeting I looked more closely at my appointment calendar and discovered that I was failing to schedule a day off for myself over the past several weeks and had not built any days off into my future schedule. One of the issues that I keep harping about to my own directees concerns self-care, including getting appropriate time off from work. It is so seductive to let other peoples’ agendas and our own creative interests related to work throw us off balance, especially when someone is self-employed or does not have stable business hours.
Borrowing a Native American term, I think that old Coyote was at work in those two experiences. My driven scheduling had been confronted by “Coyote time.” I then knew that if I didn’t respect what “Coyote” was trying to tell me I would get myself into serious trouble. Probably I would get sick and then I would have to stop. Pulling out my calendar the day after the Visioning Council meeting, and thanking God for the inner trickster energy that was intending my good health, I scheduled days off for the next several months and contacted my Benedictine monastic community of St. Gregory’s Abbey for a personal retreat in May.
Dan Prechtel, 2-28-2000
* * *
BEING SHAPED BY SPIRITUAL DISCERNMENT PRACTICES
Let's look at resources for building communities that practice spiritual discernment. There has been increasing interest over the past several decades related to recognizing what our spiritual traditions have to contribute to guiding us into God's desires as individuals and as communities of faith. In the Christian Church there has been a growing yearning for personal and communal spiritual guidance that has shown up in expanded requests for trained spiritual directors available to the whole church and to those who are outside church structures, and for competently led faith-sharing groups and group spiritual companionship. This has been the situation in Roman Catholic churches, Episcopal churches, and in some mainline protestant churches. Much individual discernment work is done in those intimate settings with a spiritual director or small group, and it is deeply satisfying to be with people who are earnestly seeking their deepest truths and the direction of the Holy One in their lives.
But in recent years there has also been an increasing awareness that as communities of faith we should go beyond the customary opening prayer in a church board meeting and an over-reliance on ordinary business practices and Robert's Rules of Order in order to seek God's guidance and call in our common life and developing sense of ministry and mission. We are learning from such sources as Quaker, Benedictine, and Ignatian traditions that certain practices help in creating an environment for ongoing spiritual discernment of church concerns. Major considerations such as the policies and mission of the church community call for modes of decision-making beyond majority-rule and legislative approaches. Spiritual discernment seeks to discover God's deep desire and direction for the community and calls for gathering all information with an openness to deeply listening to each other and an exploration of all the forces that influence possible directions. Seeking consensus rather than a win/lose majority rule model is more appropriate to such deliberations. Practices such as the use of prayerful silence, asking the kind of questions that have been formed from careful attentiveness to the signs of the Spirit's presence, recognizing cultural and spiritual forces that inhibit true spiritual freedom, inviting the emergence of images and guiding phrases from deep group meditation experiences, and seeking understanding of community questions through engaging scripture not only from historical-critical study methods but also from formational methods such as group lectio divina and guided imagery meditation enrich the exploration of issues affecting the faith community.
There are a number of fine resources available to communities seeking spiritual discernment. The Listening Hearts Ministry program (also known as the Christian Vocation Project), under the leadership of their executive director Suzanne Farnham, provides judicatory-level leadership training. Those who are thus trained can in turn train others in discernment skills and form local discernment teams available to individuals. Listening Hearts also produce excellent books (revised) and study guides: *Grounded in God* (for group discernment) and *Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community* (using the Quaker model of "clearness committee" as the basis for individual discernment). Listening Hearts Ministry now has a web site at http://www.listeninghearts.ang-md.org.
Some other books I would like to call to your attention are:
Discerning God's Will Together, Danny Morris & Charles Olsen
Discerning Your Congregation's Future, Roy Oswald & Robert Friedrich, Jr.
Transforming Church Boards, Charles Olsen
Sharing Wisdom, Mary Benet McKinney, O.S.B.
In a recent retreat led by Suzanne Farnham with our diocesan Listening Hearts group we focused on group discernment practices. One exercise we did together was search for scripture passages that seemed to relate to our situation as a group. After sharing those readings we explored creative ways of expressing those passages. I was struck by Isaiah 43:19 which reads:
I am about to do a new thing;
now it spring forth,
do you not perceive it?
In reflecting on the Isaiah passage I became intrigued by the quality of perception of something new that the Divine One is about to do. What might be some of the things I need in order to catch the movements of the sacred in the moment? The following prayer-poem came from that meditation:
God grace us with--
--the alertness of a hungry hunter:
quick to recognize the fresh new gift
that springs from you.
--the nimble imagination of a child at play:
dancing at the edge
of possibility and dream.
--the exploring vision of a spelunker:
eyes wide open, light keenly focused
on the rich dark mystery of your
Dan Prechtel, 5-20-2000
* * *
A CROSS AND A BONSAI TREE
It was in the season celebrating the resurrection that I first learned from my mother that a dear friend of my family had been diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s disease. My mother, as office manager, and Minerva, as a nurse, had worked together for many years for a physician and their close friendship had continued into their retirement years. Minerva asked for a visit and I was able to go back to my home locale about a month later.
I presented her with a bottle of my latest homemade wine, a white Bordeaux-type that was labeled “Easter Bordeaux” from the “Seminary Cellar.” Then we settled down to a morning together at her house. She told me about her growing lapses of memory and other indicators of the progression of the disease. She was making arrangements for her eventual living in a staged-care facility when she would no longer be able to live independently. It was important to her to select a place where she could continue her arts and crafts projects and where some clutter and messiness could be tolerated. Minerva is a collector of treasures and for her the world is full of interesting things. Creativity and freedom of spirit are deep values for her and the place that she would go would need to allow for those values.
As we sat together over coffee and later walked around her backyard she began to unfold the story of her life: The early years in foster care and then the grief of separation when she was reunited with her birth family. The turbulence of growing up. Strained relationships, and hopes of growing closer, and the gift of friendships. And underneath and threaded throughout these reminiscences, punctuated by our mutual tears and laughter, were the tentative expressions of spiritual longings and hopes, wondering about limits of divine love and grace. “Well, as you know, I’m not a church-type person. . . I don’t know if God listens to me. . .”
Minerva let me into her life as a spiritual friend when I was in seminary preparing for ordained ministry in the Episcopal church. For my ordination to the priesthood in 1984 she made me a beautiful sliver pectoral cross with silver intertwined leaves and a polished greenstone from Isle Royale in the center. It reflects her earthy and creative spirituality – “green and juicy” as St. Hildegard of Bingen might say. And that delight in God’s ongoing work of creation is something that strikes a deep tone within me, too. I wear that cross joyfully on the great feast days of the church year and on some other particularly significant events.
As our visit was coming to an end she showed me her collection of bonsai trees and asked me to select one to take back home. One of the little trees seemed to choose me, and so I have been caring for it ever since. It has been a continuing source for meditation. Bonsai trees have a particular beauty that comes out of severe limitations. They are given their miniature form due to austere pruning, the shaping of their branches, and restricted containers.
Hebrew and Christian scripture is filled with trees and vines as symbols of life and vitality. For example, there is the Genesis myth of the garden of Eden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. The great cedars of Lebanon were used in the construction of the Temple. Israel was sometimes likened to a great spreading tree, sometimes a fruitful (or endangered) grapevine. Jesus gave parables and warnings related to fruitfulness of grapevines and fig trees. And Jesus called himself the true vine and his Father was the vinedresser.
I wonder at the beauty of Minerva’s life that is lived courageously and creatively out of a mixture of limit, spiritedness, and no-bullshit freedom. Both the cross and the bonsai tree express that life paradox of severe limit and creative beauty. Both also point beyond themselves to the artist’s personality and the Holy One’s mysterious labor of love. As the limitations in life increase in Minerva’s life and in my own, my prayer is that we will both discover that God’s sacred crafting of us will continue to increase, and that we can be willing to let go ever more deeply to that artist’s hand in trust. The cross and the bonsai tree are truly beautiful works of art, but even more so is Minerva – reflecting the ongoing work of our creator who has always known her, and always will know her, as a precious treasure.
Dan Prechtel, with the permission of my friend Minerva, 10-9-2000
* * *
WHAT IS SPIRITUAL DIRECTION?
During a brief, introductory phone call, we set a meeting. On the scheduled day, the doorbell rings. I open the door and welcome someone new into my life. I am a spiritual director, and this is the first meeting with this directee. I invite her into the room in my home where I do spiritual direction. We settle comfortably into our chairs. Initially, I share with her what spiritual direction is.
"Generally, we meet once a month for an hour. This can change if it needs to, but usually once a month works well. The purpose of the meetings is for intentional times for reflection on your ongoing spiritual journey. As we sit together, we may do guided imagery or dream work, or other types of exploring the inner knowledge you have of the divine. I truly believe that you have the answers within your soul, and spiritual direction may facilitate sensitivity to your own inner authority and knowledge of God. All that you share with me, even your name, will be held in the strictest confidence. During the month between meetings perhaps you will journal, explore different ways of praying, meditate, read Scripture or other writings, or draw. You can listen carefully to your intuition and find new ways or use old, familiar ways to meet God."
After that opening, I check to see if there are any questions or concerns. I address these, and then remind her that this is an initial introductory meeting for which there is no fee. In future, she will reimburse me in an amount that she can afford. I then ask her to share any information she feels I need to know before we start seeing each other regularly. When she has completed this we will end our time together for this first session. Perhaps, we will pray, or sit in silence, or simply end. It is in the directee's hands to determine what she needs. I ask her to let me know if she would like to start meeting with me. If she does not know at the time, I ask her to give me a call to let me know. If I am not "right" for her I will gladly help her find a spiritual director who is. If she decides she wants to meet with me again, we set up a meeting time.
When she arrives for the next meeting, I again welcome her into my home and we settle into our chairs. I look at her and say, "Tell me your story." Then we begin a marvelous journey together.
People come to spiritual direction for many different reasons. For many it is a way to deepen an already vital faith life. Others have questions about their relationship with God, or may be struggling in their prayer life. Also, there are times when difficulties or trauma in life lead a person to question their faith.
Spiritual direction varies from person to person. Some directees may come with a specific concern, perhaps discernment regarding vocation or a need for support around a job or life transition. This may necessitate only a brief relationship of several months. OR, there may be a desire to explore changes in interior movement, becoming aware of new ways to approach God. This may be an ongoing process that may last years.
Often a parish priest or pastor will provide spiritual direction for a parishioner. There are also many lay spiritual directors who have received training through a program specializing in the area of spiritual direction. Some one seeking a spiritual director should feel free to ask about a potential director's background, training, and religious affiliation. Clergy and friends or family who are in spiritual direction might offer referrals.
Kit McCarthy, Associate Spiritual Director
Lamb & Lion Spiritual Guidance Ministries
April 26, 2001
* * *
FROM DISCORD TO DISCERNMENT
The basic metaphors that we use in Lamb & Lion Spiritual Guidance Ministries are--you guessed it--a lamb and a lion! The name of this ministry speaks of our desire to assist people and their social structures in movement toward God's "peaceable kingdom" which is alluded to in Isaiah 11 where predators and prey are dwelling together in a new relationship. Curiously, in Revelation 5 Jesus Christ is referred to both as the Lion of the tribe of Judah and the glorified Lamb that was slain, which we might think of in our time as the reconciliation and integration of the energies/powers of aggressiveness and gentleness. Central to the mission of Lamb & Lion Spiritual Guidance Ministries is the work of assisting individuals and their communities by supporting that work of reconciliation and integration through God's grace and their own growing response to that healing and empowering Presence--supporting the building of God's shalom.
The coordinated attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States by militant Islamic extremists and the multi-leveled retaliation by the U.S. government in a tenuous coalition with others is a powerful sign and current symptom of a world still in deep turmoil and in desperate need of reconciliation. For Christians the cross is a symbol of God's reconciliation and peace through Jesus Christ's death and resurrection--it is the emphatic statement of God's willingness to enter into human vulnerability and suffering and confront evil with the creative power of love. The cross bears witness to God's desire and intention for humanity's deliverance from evil and the breaking of the cycle of violence begetting violence.
Tension due to differences should be expected in human relationships and interactions. The differences often bring people into conflict, which is not necessarily something to avoid or fear. Conflict can be a graced part of the process of movement that can lead to a new, creative level of relationship. But when the differences yield a destructive or oppressive relationship the conflict has produced bitter fruit and shows the mark of sin. In the work of peacemaking and conflict negotiation it is vitally important to become aware that we have choices to make in how we engage in conflict. Some of those options move us to more hardened and entrenched positions with an increasing devaluation of the other, and some options move us toward greater freedom to make a creative resolution to the conflict with an increasing respect for the other as partner in the problem that both are facing. There is a spiritual discipline that is often unrecognized but can be a tremendous aid in the latter possibility--moving toward a stance of discernment, seeking to discover God's direction in the situation.
In a stance of discernment we might frame (implicitly or explicitly, depending on the situation) our conflict as a way of exploring these kind of questions: What is God calling us to be or do in this situation? Are we open to the possibility that a new birth might be received in this relationship? What kind of outcome will best produce a sense of mutual respect and honoring of each other's needs and interests? How can we stay open and expectant of God's creative work in this conflicted situation? Are there wounds that need healing and, if so, what can we do to seek that healing process? Are we stuck in a need for forgiveness and, if so, what might be the path toward that forgiveness? Is there a gift hidden in this situation that is to be revealed if we can be faithful to listening deeply and respectfully to each other's limited truths and to the Source of a truth deeper than our own?
I don't pretend to any easy answer to the complexities of international conflict or to organizational, church, or interpersonal conflict. However, our Christian spiritual tradition does provide an important resource in the way we approach conflict as occasions for discernment--and that approach can give shape to how we engage in conflict and what we might expect as possible from conflict.
Daniel Prechtel, 10-12-01
* * *
THE SPIRITUAL DISCERNMENT CYCLE
The “Spiritual Discernment Cycle” is a graphic representation of the terrain that typically must be traversed when an individual or an organization is seeking God’s direction for an issue or situation that has arisen that calls for making a spiritual discernment. The steps on the journey are not always sequentially followed. There can be movement back and forth between locations in the cycle, with an ultimate goal of making a discernment and testing the results. Reaching a discernment may result in the emergence of new issues or invitations from God for new discernment. This journey with God is lifelong!
Prayer, Meditation, Dreamwork: Awareness of Guiding Symbols. Located in the center of the chart and permeating the whole of discernment work is the prayerful dimension of living. There is a contemplative dimension to discernment where receptivity to God’s leading is valued and sought. We may move back and forth between the receptive silence, radical emptying, and holy mystery of the apophatic dimension of prayer; and the images, thoughts, and relational truths of the kataphatic dimension of prayer. Awareness of words that have power for us, phrases from scripture, visual images, music and lyrics, dreams, events that catch our attention, the way the sacraments shape us: these all hold the potential for being ways that God whispers to us of divine desire. A prayerful life cultivates an appreciation for the potential of God to guide us through symbol-language. It also calls us to make ongoing discernment within the process of discernment by exploring such questions as: What is the source of this symbol that has emerged and holds power for me/us? Is it life-giving even while it might be challenging? Does it bring us beyond our selves alone? Does it speak to our deepest sense of truth? Does it seem consistent with our best understanding of God’s great desires for humanity as revealed in scripture and in the wisdom of our spiritual teachings? Does it speak of the paschal mystery, the way of the cross and new life in Christ? By such questions we can test the symbol for its validity as a guide for us.
1. Listening for Emerging Issues and Invitations. Spiritual discernment is a conscious action and requires a stance of active listening in life, an awareness that the issues and experiences that catch our attention may include hidden within them an invitation from God for our faithful and deliberate response. Concrete life situations are the context for our discovery of God’s desires and directions for our life and the life of our communities. For one church community the emerging issue had to do with calling a priest. But underlying that issue were the invitations from God to own their grief and honor their healing needs, to become free to look at a variety of ways they can configure their ministry and common life, and to discover and articulate their deepest sense of who they are and what they are called to be prior to searching for a rector.
2. Framing Questions. The kind of questions we ask give powerful shape and direction to our inquiry and set limits on the scope of our discovery. In order for spiritual discernment to occur we need to frame our inquiry and structure our path of discovery in a way that makes the search for God’s direction central. So the kind of questions we ask makes a big difference! For example, if a church is experiencing a crunch in their budget it is one thing to ask, “What expenses can we cut and still maintain the highest quality possible in our church programs?” That question is probably familiar to many vestries, bishop’s committees, and clergy. But that is a management-oriented question. A spiritual discernment-oriented question might go like this: “How might God want us to handle our budget? What might God wish us to emphasize in our financial stewardship?” The discernment-oriented question may take the governing body down a path of examining their sense of the mission of the parish and how that is funded, as well as looking at the policies and assumptions that shape their understanding of stewardship, faith, and fiscal responsibility, and how they usually go about seeking God’s guidance in the structuring of their budget. It is much more likely that this kind of question will ground the exploration of the issue in a sense of God’s presence in the community, and become an opportunity to discover God’s desire for the community.
This phase of a deliberation is probably quite familiar to anyone who
creative problem-solving techniques. It is a time for
many possibilities, for brainstorming, for being open to the creative
new inspiration. Eventually the options are out in the open and
becomes time to narrow the possible directions down to a few that have
a sense of deeper merit. Next all the available data is gathered
for investigating the value and feasibility of each option.
Here is where the discernment tradition calls for something different than a business model or a decision based on a simple preference or inclination. The discerners are asked to pray for an inner freedom that seeks God’s deepest good rather than our own personal preferences. Results of the investigation of possible options are shared completely and weighed based on that inner freedom of discernment.
4. Discovering a Direction. Eventually there may be a sense of clarity or a deeper sense of peace around a particular option. Things may seem to converge and a direction has a special sense of rightness, of blessing about it. Sometimes it seems perfectly clear to everyone that this choice is the right one, that God has revealed this direction to us. But more often we go into the selection of a direction with a sense that this one option seems to be the best of our choices, but we could be wrong. And others may disagree. Which leads us to the next step in the dance.
5. Testing for
In community life, as well as individual life, some things are just too
important to ram through as a personal preference or have a majority
decide. The spiritual discernment traditions in various ways
the importance of group unity and cohesion and having a process that
win/lose types of decision-making. Major questions of policy,
development of a congregational sense of ministry, deliberations about
a church’s mission – these are questions that call for
Consensus does not necessarily mean unanimity. But it does mean
is a sense that everyone that is responsible for the decision has been
fully heard and their truth has been received.
In seeking consensus it can be helpful for the community to establish a policy (before attempting a particular discernment) about what percentage can be considered a minimum level of consensus or else the community clearly needs to do more discernment work – and probably go back to an earlier step in the discernment cycle. The consensus means that to the best of our ability we have tried to discern the will of God in this matter and the amount of people requisite to establishing a consensus has been met.
People can have serious reservations about a direction and still abide by the wisdom of the consensus. If strong concerns are shown, it is important to enter the reservations in the record of the deliberations. The concerns that are expressed may prove prophetic and the decision may need to be revisited in the future in further discernment.
In individual discernment the idea of testing for consensus is not as formal, but the principle still holds that even as a person seeks the views of the community (church members, family, friends, spiritual director) in exploring possibilities (step 3) so it is important to seek input from the community after the person has made a tentative decision (step 4). Does this direction seem to fit well with others’ views of you? If this decision affects others how might it impact them, and do they agree with your direction or at least can they go along with it? How many people do you need to hear concerns from before you consider that you may be on a wrong track?
6. Making a Discernment. Once consensus has been reached we can say that we have made a discernment. Hopefully the process has been done both with faith and with humility. Usually once a discernment has been made there is a sense of God’s peace, which does not ignore challenges, and a release of creative energy for living into the direction. However, sometimes there is still quite a bit of uncertainty. That does not necessarily mean we have made a wrong discernment. We have to live into the mystery of our human limitations and the mystery of God’s purposes. If we have made a wrong discernment we will probably recognize it later and begin a new time of discerning, for God does not abandon us.
7. Evaluating Results. As we live into the direction we have discerned, it is important to take note of and evaluate the results of the discernment. Is this path, this direction, into which we are living, producing good fruit? What kind of emotional and spiritual climate is being generated by this direction? Is it giving us the results we expected or is something else happening? If concerns were expressed by a minority, is a situation emerging that justifies the concerns? Are new issues, new invitations emerging from this path that is calling for a new round of discernment?
And so you have it – a journey into the terrain of spiritual discernment with God and with your fellow companions accompanying you. It takes you to questions that touch the deepest parts of you and your world, and a way of living with those questions with a freedom and trust that is truly graced.
Daniel L. Prechtel
(Excerpt from D.Min. thesis, “To Have the Mind of Christ: Symbol
and the Development of Communal Spiritual Discernment Processes for
Life, Mission, and Ministry,” Seabury-Western Theological Seminary,
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