My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself.
And the fact that I think I am following
your will does not mean that I am
actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please
you does in fact please you.
And I hope that I have that desire in all
that I am doing.
And I know that if I do this, you
will lead me by the right road
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always
though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death, I will
not fear, for you are ever with me
and you will never leave me
to face my struggles alone.
— Thomas Merton
Discernment presumes a relationship with God with some level of intimacy. And it is a desire to make choices in my life, to build my life, according to this relationship. The word “discernment” comes from the Latin word “discerne,” which means to distinguish, to sift out, to sort, to separate. When we speak of spiritual discernment, what we are sorting out is what is true to my relationship with God, and what is not.
Discernment is a process of listening to “inner movements” of my heart and spirit in order to make a choice for what will most lead me to a deeper faith, deeper love, deeper hope – in a word, a deeper relationship with God and my truest self. We are all a mixture of pure and impure motives. We all carry baggage into our relationship with God that sometimes keeps us from being free to choose what is best for the relationship. “Inner movements” can be feelings, insights, hunches, a sixth sense, a knowing in your gut, a knowing in your heart.
Discernment means listening for God’s voice among the many millions of voices that crowd our lives. And to learn to hear God’s voice can be like learning a new language. A Spanish Language teacher once explained that a person needs a minimum of 2000 hours of listening time to “get the basics” of a new language. Two thousand hours equals 83.3 days; 83.3 days equals 11.9 weeks; 11.9 weeks equals 3 months. If one were to make commitment to spend one hour a day learning a new language, 2000 hours of listening would require 5. 5 years. Learning to listen to God’s voice is a commitment to no less than this kind of listening. Commitment to a life of prayer, the kind of prayer that nurtures listening, is essential to living a discerning way of life.
There are limitations to the process of discernment: time, the limits of decisions that are sometimes made for me, the need for confirmation of my decisions by a community of faith (e.g. the Church, parish, family, religious community, circle of friends), the reality that other people involved in the decision may not be “in the same place” I am, insufficient information, etc. Discernment is, therefore, ongoing and lifelong. At any given time we discern as clearly as we can, and make the best choice in that moment.
We have a most powerful statement in the incarnation – in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – of who God is, and who we, as human beings, are called to be by God. Discernment presupposes a willingness to allow our lives to be shaped by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. If I am willing to let my life be shaped by God’s life in and around me, I must be willing to die, and half dying won’t do!
Discernment is a community process. In an age and culture when individualism is promoted, it is important to remember that the covenant that God makes with us is a covenant with a people, not a person. Together, we are the Body of Christ. And God’s Will for us is revealed in the community of faith. We need to listen in the context of our community of faith: our family, our parish community, our circle of friends, our religious community. The Spirit of God is present and speaks in all of the members of the community.
Discernment is not…
Barry, William A. Paying Attention to God: Discernment in Prayer. Ave Maria Press, 1990.
William Barry wrote this book to help people to pay attention to God who pays attention to us. He offers helps for us to be more attentive to God’s encounters with us, to engage in direct relationship with God, and to recognize some of the barriers that are obstacles to a more intimate relationship with God. Paying attention helps us to discern how God is leading us as individuals and as a community.
Conroy, Maureen. The Discerning Heart: Discovering a Personal God. Loyola University Press, 1993.
Maureen Conroy explains how St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Rules for Discernment from his Spiritual Exercises can help individuals understand their personal relationship with God. Conroy shows how the Rules describe what happens to people when they relate to God in a personal way, and offer guidelines for daily living.
Hauser, Richard J. Moving in the Spirit: Becoming a Contemplative in Action. Paulist Press, 1986.
Richard Hauser’s book is a practical manual for recognizing and responding to the Spirit in daily life. He brings together a New Testament theology of the Holy Spirit with the Ignatian principles for the discernment of spirits and finding God’s will.
Lonsdale, David, SJ. Listening to the Music of the Spirit: The Art of Discernment. Ave Maria Press, 1992.
Listening to the Music of the Spirit is a book about spiritual life as a matter of making choices in everyday life. David Lonsdale shows how the regular practice of discernment – listening to the presence of the Holy in our experiences, gifts, desires, feelings, ideas and inspirations – can place us more in harmony with God and with one another.