Updated: Mar 27
Have you ever been asked to do something and immediately said, “No!”? When asked why, all you can muster is something about being too busy? And when pressed, you realize that what lies beneath the “No!” is the certainty that you don’t know how to do what is being asked and you don’t want to say so? Or, have you said “Yes!” assuming that someone would tell you what to do, how and when, only to discover that did not happen, or worse, yet, others
thought YOU were the person who knew? And have you had the experience of doing the best you could, certain all along that if you’d known more, been shown more, been able to prepare, the outcomes would have been so much better?
This is how I am feeling about the practice of discernment in common, a foundation for synodality. I don’t know how to do it. I’m familiar with some of the language, but I’ve never really DONE it deliberately. And certainly, no one has yet explained to me what I would need in place BEFORE I participate in this significant practice. So, with gratitude to those who are so much further down this discernment in common road, especially the Society of Jesus and other religious orders for whom this is a lifestyle, here are 5 pre-conditions to practicing discernment in common. It's part of learning how to do this. And I for one am grateful!
1. Listening with head and heart
2. Recognizing the inner movement of the Spirit
3. Feeling free to speak, grounded in trust that those involved in this action are anchored in these notions: committed to following Jesus Christ, desiring the good of the other people and the organization and most concerned with discovering God’s will.
4. Being familiar with the steps/movements in the process
5. Practicing enough to become comfortable with the steps and the timing
Listening with head and heart: When I wrote this, I was away from my home, helping care for our grandchildren and giving the local grandparents a break from their turn. Once I'd been here all day for three days with a 13-month-old who communicates well, but without words, I began thinking about this deep listening. I think it’s a lot like what parents do for their children…they listen not just to the words or cries, but to everything that surrounds those utterances. They listen to the circumstances, the past events and to the needs of the immediate future. They listen to understand and respond with what is best for the littles (whether the little ones agree or not!) Parents (and caregivers and Mimi’s) listen with their whole selves, desiring nothing more than for the little one to know they are seen, heard, cared for and loved beyond measure. They are listening with head and heart. It’s time consuming, tiring (some days exhausting), imprecise and often fraught with big feelings and some chaos. But it is the way of love…and this is a precondition for discernment in common…the ability to listen, like this, even to people we do not like or with whom we disagree.
Listening to the interior movement of the Spirit. Some of you reading this know exactly what this means and others of you are uncertain. I fall in the uncertain camp. What is the ability to listen to the interior movement of the Spirit? In a nutshell, it’s the prayer element of attending to God with your entire self, then recognizing the Lord’s voice (different for each of us), and knowing that a response is required. For me, over the years there have been definite signs of the Spirit’s voice: a “thud” in my gut that is the response to a Divine Word spoken in my hearing; a clear vision of how to proceed once an idea is on the table, with that vision being anchored in the Scriptures; a literal burning sensation in my heart usually related to a hope, dream, joy or sorrow that I discover aligns with the Lord’s; and, an insight that when used, makes what was previously not sensible, sensible. Each of us has some signs of the Spirit. These have been mine. Perhaps you share them. But before you start this work, it’s important to know them. Pause here and start to figure out your “interior movements of the Spirit” and the signs that let you know that is happening. In the mean time, I am going to see if any other signs of the Spirit's voice are happening for me.
Being free to speak. I recognize when this is not in place when there’s a conversation or a full meeting after a meeting, where, in almost conspiratorial terms, folks will say what’s REALLY on their minds and hearts, owning they did not feel free to speak it in the meeting. What was missing? Trust that everyone in the room organizes their lives and thoughts around Jesus Christ. Trustworthiness…that each person there wants the best for the others and for the church. Unified purpose: that each person there is seeking to hear the Lord and to do what God wants, whether that meets their personal agenda or not. If these conditions do not describe your parish/diocese’s gatherings, then discernment in common cannot happen until it does. Why? Because these preconditions that make participants free to speak are not present.
Having a roadmap. This could be just me, but when it comes to spiritual practices that are going to lead me into the unknown, I am more open if I know the road we will travel. What will we do, see, hear or feel? When do we stop? What’s the time commitment for today? Is there an end? Who will lead? Can I stop if it’s too much? Who’s already done this,with what outcomes? It’s important that all who will enter into this practice be given a roadmap and time to comprehend it as a precondition. Don't start until there's a roadmap.
Practicing. Discernment in common is a practice to be used with important questions or issues. By important I mean the stakes are high, the potential outcomes critical, and the people involved beloved. That means that those involved in the discernment should have practiced the steps with low key questions or issues so they are familiar with the process and are at least reasonably comfortable in it. Trying to practice discernment in common over a critical issue without having become comfortable with it through other practice will not yield the fruit it should.
So there you have it: 5 preconditions for discernment in common to be able to happen. What’s your gut saying about your personal readiness for this work? Your parish leadership’s readiness? The People of God’s readiness? What do you need to begin to do so that this pillar is in place?
Need some help thinking this through? Help forming leaders? The Pentecost Vigil Project is here to help you “Unleash the Spirit of Syndodality!” Contact us! And we hope you’ll sign up to receive our blogs and share our site with others convinced synodality IS the way of the Church in the Third Millennium!