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October 2019 Vol 58 No 4
Towards a Discerning Church

Discernment as a Work of the Church

The spiritual pathway that traces its origins to St Ignatius of Loyola has sometimes been presented as if it had a monopoly on discernment. Yet, as Pope Francis repeatedly stresses, discernment is a gift of the Spirit to the whole Church. Here moral theologian Nicholas Austin considers what happens when discernment ‘goes live’ in this setting.

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Ecology, Evolutionary Anthropology and Discernment in Deep Time

In recent years Christians have become increasingly aware that their faith needs to address the environmental challenges facing the whole of humanity. However, it is not clear how this can be done most effectively. Celia Deane-Drummond, Director of the new Laudato si’ Research Institute in Oxford, suggests that looking back towards early human history is one useful response.

Understanding the Experience of God with St Augustine

St Augustine argued that God is ‘more inward to me than my innermost self’, and several of his writings explore the implications of this idea. Edward Howells considers what this means for our attempts to understand more fully our own experience of God, concluding that this experience is by no means simply an intellectual matter.

Decision or Discernment?

For centuries, Jesuit schools have been the largest single, coherent international education system in the world. It takes constant renewal to maintain this position, and here Adrian Porter, the British Provincial’s Delegate for Education, describes how a renewed emphasis on discernment is influencing the current generation of teachers and pupils in these institutions.

Ten Rules for Ecological Discernment

In the course of his Spiritual Exercises St Ignatius offers a number of sets of rules or guidelines to help retreatants continue to live out what they have experienced in prayer after the retreat. Taking inspiration from these, Walter Ceyssens suggests ten such practical rules that could be of use to those wanting to respond to present-day ecological concerns.

Toward a Greater Sense of Reality: Ignatian Discernment, between Spiritual Life and Mission

Patrick Goujon seeks here ‘to sketch out the three actions involved in discernment: to feel; to pray and to decide; to act’. He insists, however, that this process can only be understood from within the movement of everyday life, and shows how the Jesuit Constitutions provide worked examples of how this can operate.

A Workshop on Vocational Discernment

As well as its main papers collected here, the conference at St Beuno’s that provided material for this special issue of The Way had a number of practical workshops. In the one described here, Ruth Holgate invited participants to consider how people (especially young adults) working to discern their basic vocation in life can best be helped, with the assistance of trained guides.

Accompanying the Young in their Development

David Cabrera has long experience of offering psychological and spiritual accompaniment to young people. In this article he considers what is distinctive about this, recognising dialogue and companionship as key elements. This also has implications, traced here, for anyone who would seek to provide such accompaniment.

Spiritual Discernment: The Horizon That Is God

Far from being a rarefied, esoteric experience, Mark Rotsaert suggests, discernment is a process that is as old, and now as universal, as humanity itself, a fundamental capacity that we all draw upon. It always takes place within the context of ‘the horizon that is God’, with consequences that are investigated in this essay.

Discerning with Others (Christian Or Not) for an Integral Ecology in Action

Most people today live in highly complex societies facing large-scale, seeming intractable, challenges. For discernment to be of use here it needs to move beyond being regarded as simply individual, and has to develop a collective dimension. In doing this, the virtue of detachment comes to the fore, as Cécile Renouard demonstrates here.

From the Foreword

I N MARCH 2019 around sixty people, including both academics and practitioners, gathered at St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre in north Wales for a conference entitled Towards a Discerning Church. This was seen as one response to Pope Francis’s insistence that ‘today the Church needs to grow in discernment, in the ability to discern’. The papers from this conference form the core of this special issue of The Way. One concern that repeatedly emerged at the conference was the need for discernment in dealing with the current environmental challenges facing the whole of humanity; another was its importance to young people as they find their way in the world.

Discernment is sometimes presented as if it were some esoteric process, only able to be practised by skilled adepts. On the contrary, Mark Rotsaert argues, it is a normal human way of pondering and reasoning, as old and as widespread as humanity itself. Nevertheless it can only really be adequately understood against ‘the horizon that is God’. Edward Howells follows St Augustine in looking inwards for this horizon, discovering the experience of God in tracing back from our experience of ourselves. Nicholas Austin set the scene for the conference as a whole, and here he looks at what it means to be a discerning Church, and what happens when this moves from being a theoretical idea to a lived reality. In his contribution Patrick Goujon also emphasizes the need for discernment to be rooted in the experience of everyday life, showing how the Jesuit Constitutions provide worked examples of this in practice.

The presence at the conference of a number of speakers and delegates whose daily work is as trained spiritual guides and directors ensured that the practical side of discernment is well represented here. Ruth Holgate’s focus, which provided the foundation of a conference workshop, is the accompaniment of young adults attempting to discern their own basic vocation in life. This sits well alongside the essay by David Cabrera, translated from our Spanish sister journal Manresa, which speaks of how dialogue and companionship take on a particular importance at this stage of the life journey. Adrian Porter demonstrates some ways in practices of discernment are being applied within the context of Jesuit education, particularly among teenagers in schools. And Walter Ceyssens follows the lead of St Ignatius himself who, in writing the Spiritual Exercises, included a number of sets of guidelines for those wanting to continue living out what they had experienced in their retreat when they returned to their everyday occupations. Ceyssens outlines ten practical rules to guide discernment in relation to ecological concerns.

In recent years what once seemed like individual problems, such as climate change, species extinction and soil degradation, have coalesced for many into a pervasive sense of a looming environmental crisis. Faced with this crisis it is easy to feel powerless, as if nothing I, or even we, can do will make any difference. This, then, becomes a test case for discernment. Is it possible to discover the will of God even here, and draw from that practical conclusions as to how to act and respond? Two of the contributions in this issue concentrate particularly on these questions. Celia Deane-Drummond takes a perhaps surprising approach, drawing on our developing knowledge of the earliest stages of human history. Cécile Renouard argues for a more collective dimension to the discernment process, one which, she believes, will bring to the fore the need for the spiritual characteristic of detachment or indifference.

Paul Nicholson SJ

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