Challenges to discernment
Of course discernment of any kind is not easy. At individual level we know that. How to interpret our own movements of spirit, to test the spirits, to separate the wheat from the chaff, the promptings that lead to life and those that are death dealing. As we all know, we need good and wise spiritual accompaniment. That has been the wisdom from earliest times, from the early Church fathers. And if that is the case for individual discernment how much more so for groups. So, can it be done? Certainly mistakes have been made and there is a fair degree of scepticism. You hear some say: “Well, discernment happens all the time. We are Christians and we have the Spirit and we are always discerning. No need to make a fuss.” Others take the opposite view and say “True discernment that it never happens. The conditions are too difficult: amazing freedom; total transparency; lots of time for prayer; people who are saints”. Other problems are that there have been experiences where the issue at stake was not serious enough and discernment in common was trivialised. At the other end of the spectrum it was tried for difficult decisions, but it seemed to take so long that Major Superiors and those making decisions felt that it just was not practical. Can we avoid these extremes, learn from mistakes, launch again into the deep?
Experience at Jesuit General Congregation 36
However, there is a middle way, which I want to present, now, which we have been rediscovering in the Society of Jesus, especially since our last General Congregation. Like those of you here who lead other Congregations and orders, we have said many things since Vatican 2 and we have redefined or better said, rediscovered our mission. We have articulated that we want to work in an inter-religious way, we want to walk with the poor; we want to serve faith with creativity and depth; we want to work with the young. All of these were said. In that 2016 congregation, at a certain stage we found ourselves blocked. We were discussing ideas, dissecting documents. We had reached an impasse. And then there emerged the desire, the necessity to go back to our roots, to trust the Spirit rather than our own ideas, to engage in spiritual conversation, to risk ‘wasting time’ in prayer and group work.
With humility and after a certain amount of frustration, we realised we needed to find ways to listen to the Spirit. We realised that our mission is not a closed thing that we can define or grasp. We have not answered all the questions - we never will have. We need always to leave a gap where the Spirit has to enter and surprise us.
How to leave that little gap is the issue. Most of us want to close gaps; sort out things; be efficient; have timelines and deadlines. We want everything under control. As you know from your own lives that does not work very well in individual prayer and it has not been working, either, in the discernment in common. There is really no surprise there. Leaving the gap for the Spirit; that was the first lesson. The second lesson of course was when we also realised that in any case it is not our mission. What a relief, what a burden lifted! Collaboration and networking became key words. The need to work with others, not because Jesuit numbers are less but because we are not in charge, God is. God leads the way; we follow. And that means we discern. We have to learn to discern. Just as Ignatius found that God treated him like a patient but firm schoolmaster, so too we are having that same experience at a communal level. Thank God our God is patient! We have been slow learners.