I picked up Discernment by Nouwen a few weeks ago with a dual interest: I was eager to read the next book in Nouwen’s spirituality trilogy and I was beginning to experience new turbulence within my workplace which created desire for wisdom in navigation.
What I received was very helpful, very formative guidance in the practice of listening.
There wasn’t much that was profound, per se, in Nouwen’s writing this time, but this is his genius writing on discernment. Discernment isn’t wisdom from the sky that enables you to connect the dots toward fulfilling your dreams. Instead, discernment is becoming awake to the Voice of God that we read recorded in the Scriptures and which speaks to us in the same way through friends, experiences, and desires – all which are things that re-member the words we’ve previously read from the Bible.
The goal, Nouwen wrote (and I paraphrase) is to be formed in the likeness of Christ, and to thus participate in God’s mission of redemption, right where God has us. So again, the practice of discernment is the practice of listening; it’s more an act of submission rather than discovering the route of more control.
Early on, Discernment writes out a theology of discernment that illumines a true intent for discernment (what I paraphrased above).
The remainder of the book takes an memoir-like stroll through Henri’s life as he teaches the practice of paying attention to God. These journeys are like journal entries that unpack an earlier statement in the book:
“I can see no other path to discernment than to be committed to a life of unceasing prayer and contemplation, a life of deep communion with the Spirit of God. Such a life will slowly develop in us an inner sensitivity, enabling us to distinguish between the law of the flesh and the law of the Spirit.” (p.24)
My “take-away” from the book is the reminder that to be truly discerning of God’s will and desire, one must be immersed in the words and ways of God that are most vividly revealed in the Gospels and the rest of Scripture. Familiarity with God’s Voice will make it easier to hear and follow God’s will and desires, things that will always end up looking like (and forming us to be like) Jesus.
This means that discernment will be hard to receive through a simple trick or through a short stint of prayer, no matter how earnest. A well discerned and well lived life will be the Spirit’s gift through a disciplined immersion in the Scriptures, in prayer, in community, and in the presence of the poor.
[Final Note: Discernment, like Nouwen's Spiritual Direction and Spiritual Formation are post-humous collections of Henri's thoughts and words taken from class notes, journals, and books. Friends of his have collected these and placed them into a book format that feels quite seamless. They must have known him quite well.]