The Practice of Discernment
by Christopher Sammond
The practice of discernment is at the core of our practice as Friends. It is fundamental to our authentic practice of worship, of worship with attention to business, in our personal leadings, in our clearness committees, and in grounded committee work. Discernment is essential to the Quaker distinctive of continuing revelation. It is not an exaggeration to say that without discernment, we would have little to define us as Friends.
In short, it is how we make all important decisions which affect our individual lives and the life of our community. It’s not a rational or discursive process or we would call it: Making a decision; or Having a discussion; or Figuring it out; or Assessing the situation.
What, then, is it, and how do we access it?
Discernment is seeking to know God’s will, or, expressed in other theological languages, to be in the flow of the Universe, to be in harmony with Truth, to be in accord with Gospel Order, to be in step with the movement of the Divine. Wade Wilson describes discernment as “...going to the place where God makes things clear.” Discernment involves accessing a place within ourselves which is beyond our rational ideas about a situation, and our emotional attachment to a particular outcome. To find that place within myself, I need to get to a state where I care more about being faithful than I do about the consequences of a given decision or action. Michael Wajda says discernment “… is 99% spirituality and 1% process. Discernment is where prayer and action meet.”
Stages in the Discernment Process: I have found that there are distinct stages in the process of discernment, whether that be in individual or corporate discernment. Sometimes all are not distinctly present, but usually they are, at least in an abbreviated form. First, there is information gathering. Do I know all of the circumstances around a particular decision? Do I need more information in order to fully grasp the matter at hand? If we don’t have critical information, we can spend a lot of time in fruitless weighing of the matter. It is also easy to get stuck in perpetual information gathering, a good way to never come to a decision. Then, there is a need for emotional venting. On an individual level this can be fear, astonishment (“You want me to do what!?”), resistance, desiring a particular outcome, etc. If we can’t get past our emotional response, we really can’t access the space where things are, by themselves, clear. It is important to let ourselves (or our meeting, in the case of corporate discernment), have the space to vent for a bit. It enables us to then move on. If we don’t vent, we often can’t get past our emotions. Then there is a phase of letting go, letting go of our attachment to outcomes, to our ideas about why we might be led to do something, to our emotional responses, positive or negative, seeking to get to that place where all we really want is a clear sense of the will or movement of the Divine, and to be in harmony with that. Finally, then, we are ready to be in a place of discernment, to be in that “place where God makes things clear.” If we do the first three stages well, the answer is often right before us.
What I have learned is that different Friends have different capacities for discernment, but that all of us can strengthen whatever capacity we have. It is like musical ability. Some of us are born with perfect pitch. Others of us are tone deaf. And most of us are somewhere in between. And for the vast majority of us in between, we can get better by practicing with some instrument. It is the same with discernment; almost all of us can improve our ability with practice.
Another metaphor I use is that of exercising a muscle; it gets stronger with use. Here are some ways of strengthening our innate capacity for discernment: Prayer, worship, and meditation all help us to increase our ability to access this part of ourselves, the part where our temporal self meets the Divine within. Seeking God’s will in small things, as best you can. Many Quaker journals from our foremothers and forefathers stressed the call to be faithful in small things, on a daily basis, and how that prepared them to be ready to discern well in larger, more daunting circumstances. One example is John Woolman being guided as to which bolts of fabric to buy to have in his dry goods store, and how when he followed that arcane guidance, how it always turned out well.
Following nudges and paying attention to what happens. Most all of us get nudges from time to time which seem beyond our rational understanding. Most of us, myself included, don’t always follow them. I am busy, the nudge is inconvenient, or might be emotionally embarrassing, or it seems irrational. One friend of mine keeps a journal of nudges she gets, and then what happened when she followed them.
Listening to our inner sense of knowing. This can be recognized as coming from our heart, gut, inner knowing, body sensation, image, inner voice, hearing the truth in our own voice, hearing the truth in another’s voice.
I have found that doing these things radically increases my capacity to find a place of discernment, to find that frequency where I hear clearly, to where I just know. And I have found that just like with exercising a muscle, that this increased capacity does not sustain if I don’t keep up the exercise. And I have fallen away from intensive practice more times than I can count. It’s hard to do just as an individual. At their best, our monthly meetings can be our exercise partners in this vital practice, serving each other as examples, inspiration, holding each other accountable, sharing experiences, and witnessing each other’s growth in strength. To read Christopher’s article on Corporate Discernment, visit nyym.org.