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Discernment: How do we 'hear' God?

I've been on a bit of a journey with 'discernment'.

For much of my faith journey, trying to 'discern God's will' has felt like trying to throw a dart at a moving dart board. While blind folded.

It can feel scary - thinking about this universal, eternal, Creator God who can balance an infinite number of pro's and cons of any decision, and know every single ramification of every aspect of the decision... How could I possibly make decisions as wise as God? How can I make sure that the decisions I make are in line with this infinite, transcendent God? It can sometimes feel like God is sitting in the distance, almost like the Judges in The Voice, sitting in a big fancy Judge chair facing away, and I'm stepping gingerly onto the 'stage' of my decision hoping I'm about to be affirmed and not rejected!

Sometimes friends have made big decisions simply because they were certain that 'God told them'. Sometimes I've been dubious and doubtful of such certainty. Other times I've been rather envious!

In my sort of church tradition, I've noticed that the more dramatic or demonstrative the 'hearing from God' is, the more people seem to be certain that this was indeed God speaking and directing. Increasingly though, I'm not so convinced this is the best way of navigating God's speaking and God's will for us.

Who was Ignatius?

Over the last year I've been deeply impacted by contemplative spirituality in general, and the Ignatian tradition in particular. Ignatius was a 16th century soldier-turned-mystic. The story goes that he was pretty vain, and wanted to impress the ladies, and felt that being a soldier was the best way to do that. He sustained a terrible injury to his leg, and had to undergo a serious leg surgery (I guess all leg surgeries were pretty serious in the 16th century!). In his rehabilitation he lay in bed housebound. He asked for some reading to keep him entertained - he was after stories about heroic warriors. He was given a story about a heroic warrior - but one very different to what he expected. He was given the bible and read about Jesus in the gospels. This led to a dramatic transformation in the trajectory of his life.

He went on to become a mystic, helping many people walk in deep relationship with God. He founded the Catholic movement of the Society of Jesus - known today as the Jesuits.

For Ignatius and his friends, finding God meant noticing where God was already active in their lives. He believed that we can notice God not only in dramatic, peak moments, but also in the daily, mundane, ordinary moments where God’s presence is often overlooked. The underlying belief was that we are always perpetually invited to encounter the transcendent, universal God, in the imminent, concrete reality of everyday life.

“The spiritual journey can be understood as the movement from seeing God nowhere, or seeing God only way we expect to see him, to seeing God everywhere, especially where we least expect to see him.” Ruth Haley Barton

Christian contemplation, then, is learning to slow and quieten ourselves in order to notice, savour, see and hear God - the God that is not only transcendent, but who is always imminent. That is, literally closer than your breathe; One that sees from your very eyes. A 20th century Jesuit describes contemplative prayer as: “A long, loving look at the real”. Within contemplative spirituality, we are invited to explore finding God in everything.

So what is 'contemplative discernment'?

Contemplative discernment, rather than trying to focus on God who is transcendent, eternal and infinite, focusses on the God who is present, and already active in the details of our lives and souls, and is our deepest desire.

God has created us and designed us such that our deepest desire, behind all the other desires, is for union with God. The following quote is rather long but articulates my point perfectly:

“Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return...Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life. It is a dynamic centre, a creative Life that presses to birth within us.... It is a seed stirring to life if we do not choke it. It is the 'Shekinah' of the soul, the Presence in the midst. Here is the Slumbering Christ, stirring to be awakened, to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action. And He is within us all.”

— Thomas R. Kelley, A Testament of Devotion

You see, God is not sitting in the distance in chair of the Judge of the Voice, demanding or instructing from afar. God doesn't demand from afar; he draws from within. God doesn't instruct from afar, he invites from within.

So, if God is close, present and active in the midst of the crazy experience of being a human being, and if God has designed us such that we are drawn towards union with God, contemplative discernment includes learning to explore the inner world and the various inner movements of our soul. According to these biblical truths, and centuries of contemplative tradition, we can learn to use these 'inner movements' as a sort of compass, helping us discern what God is inviting us towards.

Ignatius used the language of 'consolation and desolation'. They're sort of like emotions, but they're also deeper and broader than just emotions. Consolation is a deep inner sense of moving towards God. It is experienced as a sense of growth, creativity, and genuine fullness of love, life and light. Desolation is a deep inner sense of moving away from God; it is a sense of hopelessness, of a lack of faith and love, and is usually experienced as energy draining.

The contemplative journey is an ongoing journey of exploring God in the midst of all of this - in the midst of even our deepest emotions and desires and inner movements. As we train ourselves to listen, we can discover there's much more than we knew to be heard...

Do you remember those old headphones - the ones from like 20/30 years ago? If you had a little walkman you might have had this sort of headphones. At the time, you could play a song and think you were hearing all of the music.


Compare that to listening to the very same song, on some modern £300 Bose over-ear headphones. You could listen to the same thing, but all of a sudden, a whole new world emerges. You realise that before you were just listening to tinny, fuzzy, treble. With these new Bose headphones you are introduced to these layers of base, and wonderful deep contours within the sound. And all this 'new' sound, was actually there all along...

We're all invited to journey with God, walking ever closer with him, and learning to contemplatively explore the deep inner workings of our soul. It's not fast or easy. But I think the music we discover is worth hearing.


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