November 22, 2017

In the Spirit, in community, with an ear well trained

Here’s another passage today from Henri Nouwen on the subject of spiritual discernment.

By dipping deeply into the well of our own lives, we can discern the movement of God’s Spirit in our lives. Careful discernment remains our lifelong task. I can see no other way for discernment than a life in the Spirit, a life of unceasing prayer and contemplation, a life of deep communion with the Spirit of God. Such a life will slowly develop in us an inner sensitivity, enabling us to distinguish between the law of the flesh and the law of the Spirit. We certainly will make constant errors and seldom have the purity of heart required to make the right decisions all the time. But when we continually try to live in the Spirit, we at least will be willing to confess our weakness and limitations in all humility, trusting in the one who is greater than our hearts.

At the same time, we practice our discernment not alone but in community.

The question is not simply, “Where does God lead me as an individual person who tries to do his will?” More basic and more significant is the question, “Where does God lead us as a people?” This question requires that we pay careful attention to God’s guidance in our life together, and that together we search for a creative response to the way we have heard God’s voice in our midst.

Likewise, spiritual discernment is based on a concrete and dynamic spirituality that demands constant, careful listening to the people of God, especially the poor. It does not allow for a fixed and definite theory that can be applied at all times and in all places. It requires great attentiveness to the continually new movements of the Spirit among the people of God. That in turn requires an ear that has been well trained by the scriptures and the church’s understanding of those scriptures. A constant dialogue is necessary between the “old knowing” of scripture and tradition and the “new knowing” of the concrete, daily life experiences of the people of God.

• Henri Nouwen
Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, pp. 170-171

Comments

  1. Discernment in Nouwen’s context implies a living Diety that consciously speaks to individual humans in a language that must be apprehended through lengthy time and attention, training of the spiritual senses, hits and misses and slow and steady growth both individually and communally. Based on the first post and this second post that’s what I have summarized thus far. Call it Christianity 101. The basic tenet of Union – my sheep hear my voice and they know me. “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” John 17:3 Am I missing something?

    • Chris, the only thing I would say that sometimes doesn’t come into view for non-liturgical Protestants is the physicality, the materiality of Christianity that is so helpful in training the senses, even if we don’t sense that training happening while we’re in the midst of it. This is primarily experienced in “The Sacraments”, but also in communal prayer, sign of the cross, kiss of peace, cleaning the church building – or the kitchen – serving others together, etc. etc. – in all the ways where the solidly material, including the human body, is the means of operating in the Christian life. This can actually help keep people from slipping into the two-storey, dualistic mentality and keep us focused on the One Reality. It can also help keep discernment communal by slowing the tendency to focus only on what *I* hear from God, or on *my emotions and thoughts* – again, as if what’s “spiritual” or “in the ether” is the only thing that’s important. Hope that’s clear.

      Dana

      • Thanks Dana. Yes that is clear and I agree. Perhaps I was defensive from the git go in my remark, expecting to hear a volley of criticisms to the effect that we can ‘never hear from God’. I think you’re right to point out the supposed “spiritual”. Body, mind and soul are necessary to discern His ways and community is critically important. I guess the individual part comes down to decision making. Finally, we alone must move forward at each juncture. No one can make the decisions for us. That is where a history of personal communion with the spirit of God provides fortitude.

  2. Burro [Mule] says:

    The question is not simply, “Where does God lead me as an individual person who tries to do his will?” More basic and more significant is the question, “Where does God lead us as a people?” This question requires that we pay careful attention to God’s guidance in our life together, and that together we search for a creative response to the way we have heard God’s voice in our midst.

    How i wish, wish, wish, wish. WISH this were true. Every day that goes by there is less ‘together’, less ‘people’ , less ‘us’, and more ‘where the #$!@ did all of these cretins come from?’ C’mon Henri, have you seen Rome these days? She’s turning into more and more of a granfaloon by the year, and what’s as bad, she’s dragging the East down with her.

    • I agree with you Mule. For Nouwen, in many ways this was easier since he was part of several intentional communities. The breakdown of community in daily life because of “progress” is one of the most significant changes I’ve seen in my lifetime.

      • Burro [Mule] says:

        No, Fr. Henri’s spot-on, unfortunately. An isolated man is no man at all, just a cipher or a part of a marketing demographic.

        My image of Hell is that of a vast bureaucratic labyrinth where the requirements for dealing with any situation are bound in thick volumes of what I call “policy prose”, and everyone is so sorry they can’t help you but it’s out of our hands, you know. I’m sure you understand.

        Kind of like Terry Gillam’s Brazil.

        I guess the Algorithm is where you HAVE to go when you don’t have Discernment, and you don’t have Discernment because you don’t have the Spirit, and the Spirit is a communal possession anyway.

        • “My image of Hell is that of a vast bureaucratic labyrinth where the requirements for dealing with any situation are bound in thick volumes of what I call “policy prose”, and everyone is so sorry they can’t help you but it’s out of our hands, you know. I’m sure you understand.”

          You should read (if you haven’t already) Niven and Pournelle’s homage to Dante, also called *Inferno*. The scene where the protagonists confront an infernal bureaucrat captures this to a tee.

  3. It is not just that life is not fair. It is also violent and not safe. Gary Haugen’s TED talk was “The Hidden Reason for Poverty”. And I believe it was spot on. And in relation to Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily LIfe”……it’s a cultivation of faith, hope, and love. Accepting belovedness and stopping the judging of ourselves and others, opens the possibility of others finding a place that is actually safe.