On discernment

forest paths by Jens Lelie, Unsplash

Our culture thinks it’s cool to be discerning, or at least, to be thought of that way.

Guidance on becoming discerning is everywhere. A recent article on Forbes.com counselled business leaders to seek discernment. News headlines pay homage to “discerning foodies” and “discerning shoppers” as well as “discerning investors” and “discerning audiences.” The lifestyle section of the newspaper offers horoscopes and advice columns for those who seek help in discerning how to live their lives.

Discernment for the Christian is different 

But for the Christian, discernment takes on another dimension, according to the essay by Frank Rogers Jr. titled “Discernment,” which is the eighth chapter of Practicing Our Faith. That’s because Christians believe that “God is present, hoping and urging, in the midst of all the situations of life.” In light of that, discernment becomes the practice “by which a community or an individual seeks, recognizes, and intentionally takes part in the activity of God in concrete situations.”

The Apostle Paul teaches us in his first letter to the Corinthians that there are some things that come from God that can only be spiritually discerned. But, as Rogers points out, “The history of the church is littered with the stories of people who have claimed guidance from the Spirit when the prejudices of self-deception reigned instead.”

So, it was out of a desire to deepen the practice of spiritual discernment in my own life that I signed up for a course by that name at McMaster Divinity College. I wanted help not just with making wise decisions and choices, but with rightly understanding the on-going call of God in my day-to-day life.

One of the required texts for the course immediately challenged me that the process of spiritual discernment must begin and end in prayer, for as Henri Nouwen writes in Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, “the discipline of prayer and being in God’s presence … is the starting and ending place out of which guidance emerges.”

Practicing the discipline of prayer

Prayer has come easier at some times in my life than at others. And I realized that unless I found a way to make prayer more of a discipline, then I would always struggle with it.

So one of the practices I’ve incorporated this semester is that of the Daily Examen. The Examen is an exercise developed by Ignatius of Loyola, who lived from 1491 to 1556. It’s essentially just a technique that helps to focus your prayers at the end of the day, such that you learn to better detect God’s presence in the day just over, and to anticipate God’s presence in the day to come.

It typically involves five steps, and need only take about five minutes. My course text book, The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making by Elizabeth Liebert, outlines the steps as follows:

  1. Give thanks for all God’s gifts and benefits: Jesus, you have been present today throughout our world … I rejoice in …”
  1. Ask for light: Be near now. Let us look together at my day. Let me see through your loving eyes …”
  1. Review the day: thoughts, words, deeds, desires, consolations, desolations*: When did I listen to your voice today? When did I resist listening to you today?”
  1. Express gratitude, sorrow, and purpose of amendment: Jesus, everything is gift from you. I give you thanks and praise for the gifts of today … I ask your healing in … I ask your forgiveness and mercy for …”
  1. Ask for the graces you desire for tomorrow: Jesus, continue to be present with me in my life each day …”

I don’t pray it perfectly.

Sometimes I forget one step or another, and sometimes I forget to pray the Examen altogether. But when I have taken the time to pray in this way, I’ve found it to be helpful.

I like to read in bed each night before sleep, and I try to remember to pray the Examen once I’ve put my book down for the evening, but before I turn out my light. (Praying with my light on helps to ensure I don’t fall asleep in the middle of my prayers.)

Just beginning my night time prayers with, “Jesus, you have been present everywhere in our world today and you have been present in my life …” focuses my thoughts and causes me to feel gratitude for his presence. That sentence has been a powerful reminder to me of God’s goodness and grace—daily to our world and to me.

And then when I reflect on my day, the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, I’m reminded again and again that He has been with me. I see Him more clearly when I pause to take the time to reflect in this way. Confessing my failings during the course of the day through this exercise also relieves my conscience, and helps me to fall asleep; it helps me to resolve to do better, to be more attentive to signs of Him “tomorrow.”

I’ve found that reliving my day in my mind—step by step—in a conscious effort to look for evidence of His presence and help has not only made me more aware of Jesus in my life, it has made me more alert to his image in others.

It has also given me a deeper sense of contentment, gratitude, and yes, joy, as I go about my days. That has been a surprising but welcome by-product of the exercise and of my quest to deepen my practice of spiritual discernment.

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* Note: according to Rogers, “Feelings of consolation are those that give rise to life, love, peace, joy, creativity, and communion. … Feelings of desolation are those that give rise to despair, confusion, alienation, destructiveness, and discord.”

Practicing My Faith, Part 9 – This post is ninth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

 

Honoring bodies

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When it comes to deepening my spiritual practices, asking the right questions matters; that’s one of the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve reflected on honoring the body—the first of the 12 overarching Christian practices detailed in the book Practicing Our Faith. And the question I’ve deliberately asked myself day after day, many times each day is: “What does it mean to me, right here, right now, to honor the body?”

Like the afternoon sun streaming through my window reveals dust particles dancing on air, my question has illuminated thoughts about how God made us and what that ought to mean for my life.

In all my years of seeking to follow Jesus, I’m sure that I’ve never deliberately thought as much about bodies as I have in recent weeks, except maybe when I was pregnant with—or nursing—each of my three children. Growing a new body within one’s own, nurturing a little body that is completely and entirely dependent on yours, has a way of heightening your awareness of all things physical. And when I was a young mother, I was highly motivated to honor my body as a way of honoring and respecting the little bodies that were relying on mine. It was a physical practice motivated by the intellectual and emotional desire to grow healthy children.

Spiritual practice

But honoring the body is, for Christians, also a spiritual practice writes Stephanie Paulsell in the book’s second chapter. It is a practice “born of the confidence that our bodies are made in the image of God’s own goodness.” And, she points out, even such simple, everyday actions as bathing and dressing are a part of how we honor our bodies.

I know I can do a better job of honoring mine; a recent bout of pneumonia, and a number on my bathroom scale that’s risen to dizzying new heights tells me as much. Still, I was heartened by Paulsell’s words because even I shower and dress most days. So that’s not a bad baseline. And if the practices are truly not a set of goals to be mastered but of gifts to be received, then my body could do with a boon.

It’s no secret that caring about the human body is deeply embedded in Christian theology. The body matters, Christians believe, because God made it. And, as Paulsell points out, He made it in His image and He called it “good.” In Jesus Christ, God honored the human body even further by taking on a body of His own. Jesus demonstrated His love for human bodies by feeding, touching, healing, and resurrecting them. And then, when Jesus’ own body was pulverized, crucified, and laid in a tomb, God raised it to life, thereafter giving all Christians hope that one day He will do the same for our bodies. Finally, God seals His love for our bodies by inhabiting them with His own Spirit, the Holy Spirit, whom, the Bible tells us, comes to take up residence within the bodies of those who welcome Him.

Yes, Christian belief has a lot to say about the beauty, worth, and goodness of the body. It can be heady stuff to think about. But what impact should all of that have on me, now, a Canadian woman living in 2019 who’s on the downward slope of middle-age? (Who am I kidding? Unless I live to 120, it would be more accurate to say that I’m on the slippery slope to old age.)

Taking action 

Coincidentally, I happened to read the chapter on “Honoring the Body” the night before my first “annual” physical exam in more than three years. (Sitting in a doctor’s office, talking about bodily concerns is one of my least favourite pastimes, and it’s been easy to find excuses to keep putting off my long overdue checkup.)

So, the next morning, as I sat in my doctor’s examination room, I asked myself, “What does it mean to me, right here, right now, to honor the body?” And when my doctor asked if I had any concerns, I decided the answer to my own question in that moment meant summoning the courage to answer hers—truthfully—mentioning every concern, no matter how embarrassing, or for how long they might have gone unspoken.

The desire to honor my body continued beyond my doctor’s office and resulted in renewed motivation for everything from packing healthy snacks for work, to flossing my teeth nightly before bed, even when I didn’t want to. Asking my “what does it mean” question provoked me to live more in the present moment. I tend to be a highly task-oriented person, always racing from one thing to the next. But reflecting on my question literally slowed me down at times; rather than racing across the icy parking lot at the train station, or up and down wet subway stairs, I found myself treading more carefully to avoid the potential for slips and falls.

Bodies, bodies everywhere 

It wasn’t just my body that I started to think about either, but other people’s bodies too. “Honoring the body is a shared practice,” explains Paulsell, “one that requires the participation of all. … When we honor the bodies of others, we are also drawn into God’s work.”

I’ve thought about that each time I’ve visited my 102-year-old mother-in-law in the hospital (recovering from a broken hip). I’ve tried to honor her enfeebled body with kisses, by brushing her hair, filing her nails, massaging lotion into her papery skin. I’ve thought about the fact that human bodies do not live forever.

“All bodies are reflections of God’s good creation, deserving of reverence and care,” Paulsell writes, and it struck me that my husband and I reverence and care for each other’s bodies when we prioritize intimate time. I thought about the fact that the brain is also a part of the body. And so, I realized, I can honor both my body and the bodies of others when I refuse to watch that Netflix show with gratuitous nudity—no matter how entertaining or well-written it might be.

My professor, Dr. Wendy Porter, says it is important to remain attentive to our lives, making small adjustments as we discern the necessity for them so that we’ll be equipped to discern and respond to the need for more sweeping changes when those needs arise.

In a column published in 2014, New York Times writer David Brooks observed that, “The human body is sacred. Most of us understand, even if we don’t think about it, or have a vocabulary to talk about it these days, that the human body is not just a piece of meat or a bunch of neurons and cells.”

My recent efforts towards thinking more intentionally about the human body, and the fact that it is indeed sacred, resulted in small but significant adjustments in my thinking and practice.

What about you? It’s time for me to ask you some questions: What are your thoughts on all of this? Do you agree that the human body is sacred? If not, why not? What does it mean to you—in your life and context—to honor the body? I look forward to hearing from you!

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Practicing My Faith, Part 3 – This post is third in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

 

 

 

 

 

Practicing my faith

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As part of my Master of Theological Studies program at McMaster Divinity College I’m doing an online course this semester on Spiritual Discernment. Of course, I am loving it; without exception, I’ve devoured every course that’s been part of my program. But a couple of weeks ago, our prof delivered a lecture on practicing the Christian faith that captured my imagination in a way that made me ravenous for more.

Using the book Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (edited by Dorothy C. Bass, published by Jossey-Bass) as one of her primary sources for the lecture, our professor mentioned that this book, which was first published in 1997, “spawned practically an entire discipline in itself of people—pastoral theologians, academics—who are contributing to this discussion of practices of faith.”

Practices are simply a means of connecting our faith with our living. I may be a late comer to the discussion, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued.

I’ve learned through my studies that Christianity is always shaped by its surrounding culture, but there have been times when I’ve wondered if my culture shapes me more than it should. “How is it,” observes author David Dark in his book Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, “that we’ve come to expect so little of people who call themselves Christian?” And twang goes my conscience.

As a person who like rules and boundaries—because they help to make life simple and clear—I’ve sometimes wondered if the way I live my faith, which seems to lack such rules with its emphasis on the grace of God, is “Christian enough.”

I know Muslims, who pray a prescribed number of times each day in a prescribed way. I know Jews who eat kosher and who faithfully honour the Sabbath and the high holidays. Such things are easily observed by someone outside of those faith groups like me. But what practices set apart the Christian life? My Christian life?

I’m not seeking a whole new “to do” or “to don’t” list. But sometimes, particularly as I ride the train en route to my part-time job, ear buds in, listening to the latest podcast, or scrolling news headlines on my phone surrounded by a sea of other commuters all doing precisely the same thing, I can’t help but wonder at the differences that exist in how I choose to lead my life from how my non-Christian friends and neighbours lead theirs. Outside of the hidden things—my prayer life, habits of Bible reading and study, personal moral choices, customs of church-going and charitable giving for example—would anyone who didn’t know me, be able to tell that I try to follow Jesus Christ just by observing the externals, that is, the practices of my life?

And again, Dark challenges me: “Will it turn out that you belonged mostly uncritically and unthinkingly to a particular cultural context? Did you wrestle with it or was your life one of automatic obedience, a series of unfortunate events in which you carefully ascertained what values you were expected to appear to have from one moment to the next and dutifully did so, aping along as it were along the path of least resistance?”

According to Bass (and the 12 authors who contributed to Practicing Our Faith) there are 12 “time-honored practices of faith, shaped by the Christian community over the centuries, yet richly relevant to contemporary experience.” The 12 practices are:

  1. Honouring the body
  2. Hospitality
  3. Household economics
  4. Saying yes and saying no
  5. Keeping sabbath
  6. Discernment
  7. Testimony
  8. Shaping communities
  9. Forgiveness
  10. Healing
  11. Dying well
  12. Singing our lives to God

What does it mean to live the Christian life in 2019? And am I living it well, as well as I could be? After a few days of pondering such questions, I ordered Practicing Our Faith and have begun immersing myself in its pages. Like sinking into a delicious tub filled with warm water at the end of a tiring day, it feels like I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time.

In a recorded lecture delivered at Yale Divinity School, Bass observed that, “What people are searching for is a way of life that adds up to something in the midst of the fragmentation and the multiple pulls that we experience as contemporary people.”

A way of life that adds up to something; this is my yearning, my deep desire. I suspect if you’ve read this far, that the same is true for you.

I hope to write about my learnings here on this blog as I deepen my understanding of the 12 practices in the weeks and months ahead. “Discerning the contours of a way of life abundant proceeds best,” writes Dorothy Bass, “when we give analytical, imaginative, critical, constructive, theological, prayerful attention to one practice at a time.” So that is what I plan to do. And I’d love for you to journey with me by reading along.

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