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An Excerpt from Discernment by Henri Nouwen


Embracing the Practice in Solitude and Community

“We ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord.” —Colossians 1:9–10 NRSV

Discernment is a spiritual understanding and an experiential knowledge of how God is active in daily life that is acquired through disciplined spiritual practice. Discernment is faithful living and listening to God’s love and direction so that we can fulfill our individual calling and shared mission.

Definitions are a good place to begin, but let me sketch out some of the core affirmations and practices necessary to discernment. When I was living in a Trappist monastery as a temporary monk, seeking to discern whether I was called to live the contemplative life or a more active life of teaching and ministry, I remember walking through a building where I hadn’t been before. I came across a reproduction of Hazard Durfee’s beautiful painting The Flute Player framed with an old but familiar text by Henry David Thoreau:

“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

As I studied the quiet, concentrated face of Durfee’s musician, I realized that discernment is like hearing a different drummer. I remembered that one of the books about Thomas Merton is called A Different Drummer. Merton stepped away from the active, academic life and chose a contemplative life. I wondered if I was called to make that kind of move myself.

When I reflected on The Flute Player, I knew myself as restless and searching. I felt I was stumbling over my own compulsions and illusions way too often. During my time at Genesee, I began to understand that when we listen to the Spirit, we hear a deeper sound, a different beat. The great movement of the spiritual life is from a deaf, nonhearing life to a life of listening. From a life in which we experience ourselves as separated, isolated, and lonely to a life in which we hear the guiding and healing voice of God, who is with us and will never leave us alone. The many activities in which we are involved, the many concerns that occupy our time, the many sounds that surround us make it hard for us to hear the “still, small voice” through which God’s presence and will are made known (1 Kings 19:12).

Living a spiritually mature life requires listening to God’s voice within and among us. The great news of God’s revelation is not simply that “I am,” but also that God is actively present in the moments of our lives at all times and places. Our God is a God who cares, heals, guides, directs, challenges, confronts, corrects. To discern means first of all to listen to God, to pay attention to God’s active presence, and to obey God’s prompting, direction, leadings, and guidance.

I stepped away from my teaching to slow down for a time in intentional community. It was hard for me to see God at work in my life when I was running from class to class and traveling from place to place. I had so many classes to prepare, lectures to give, articles to finish, people to meet that I had come quite close to believing myself indispensable. Still I was frightened of being alone and having an unscheduled day, even as I longed for solitude and rest. I was full of paradoxes.

When we are spiritually deaf, we are not aware that anything important is happening in our lives. We keep running away from the present moment, and we try to create experiences that make our lives worthwhile. So we fill up our time to avoid the emptiness we otherwise would feel. When we are truly listening, we come to know that God is speaking to us, pointing the way, showing the direction. We simply need to learn to keep our ears open. Discernment is a life of listening to a deeper sound and marching to a different beat, a life in which we become “all ears.”