Henri Nouwen is one in a constellation of Christian mystics who speaks of the sustainable, centered, cohesive way of life that is present to and oriented around the God we can discover in Jesus. With each paragraph saturated in humility and vulnerability, Nouwen offers us permission to be nothing more than human beings who are sorting out the complexity of life and are in pursuit of both the Creator and the created. Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life is one of his posthumous works compiled by former students who sought to allow Nouwen to give voice to his own discovery of discernment, to highlight why it mattered to him, and to invite us to experience the nearness of God through it’s daily practice.
As is always his style, in Discernment, Nouwen narrates his experience of the Divine, this time through the practice of discernment, with a conviction that God is lovingly alive, present, and invitational within every corner of the cosmos. Accompanying that conviction comes a second one: namely, that every moment of every day is saturated with both the presence and power of God and, therefore, the potential for transformation and restoration. Each of these previous convictions suggests a third: by the Spirit, God affirms our belonging to Godself, sharpens our understanding of our identity as the beloved, and affirms and/or adjusts our sense of purpose. Discernment, according to Nouwen, “is a spiritual understanding and an experiential knowledge of how God is active in daily life….so that we can fulfill our individual calling and shared mission” (Nouwen, p.3). Within the pages of this book, Nouwen invites us to proactively pursue intimacy with the Divine through the practice of discernment within the mundane, painful, meaningful, and unusual of our everyday.
Rather than pursuing answers to our questions, Nouwen understands discernment as the means by which we experience intimacy with the Creator and gain clarity on whose we are (belonging), who we are (identity), and what is ours to do (purpose). Within my own practice of discernment, be it in the form of Scripture, stillness, and solitude, wilderness wanders within my neighborhood, or curious conversations with trusted confidants, I’ve noticed how frequently I hover in the “What’s mine to do?” space as the allure of productivity and relevance are strong. Experience tells me, however, that when I first actively wait for the Spirit to reinforce that I belong to the Creator and the created, the pours of my soul are opened to the reality that I-who-belong am also the beloved. It is once I’m reminded of my belonging and my belovedness that I am able to discern more accurately not only what’s mine to do for today, but how my purpose is a participation with the Divine. Discerning belonging, identity, and purpose is the liberating antidote to the toxins of self-rejection and relevance-seeking that lead to our haphazard wondering and wandering. Thus, the interconnectedness of discerning these three (belonging, identity, and purpose) cannot be understated as they draw us nearer to a more accurate understanding and intimate experience of God, self, and others.
The most significant critique I offer in relationship to Nouwen’s framing on discernment is that, from my perspective, he provides an approach that is far more individualistic than communal. Being that the gist of his argument is that we can and must become women and men who train our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds to an everyday awareness to and experience of God, I understand why he’s positioned his suggested practices and environments for discernment as he has. That said, the individualized practice of discernment that is void of a community of discernment who listens with and on our behalf seems dangerous. Paying attention to my own preference for an individualistic approach, I’m recognizing that I default here most often because I do not prefer to face the possibility that what I may be discerning is more a manifestation of my personal preference than the presence and invitation of God. What’s more, my addiction to efficiency too frequently seduces me into an uninterruptible pace that cannot be slowed by the slow-baked process for communal discernment. Because the tuning of my ears to the frequency of the Spirit is a life-long pursuit, I’d be wise to slow down and error on the side of communal discernment, especially if and when the indicators of my life reveal that I’m untethered, unhealthy, and/or fatigued. Thus, I would expand Nouwen’s concept of “acitve waiting” to “active and communal waiting.”
The doctoral pursuit in leadership that we’ve embarked upon provides us a remarkable opportunity to shape and refine a lifestyle of discernment. This is a new environment with soon-to-be friends that offers us the chance to pursue not just expertise in a given subject, but a deepened experience of belonging to God and one another, a greater certainty of our belovedness, and a focusing and celebration of each others’ unique Kingdom contributions. Through copious amounts of reading and reflection, hours of conversation, and immersive experiences, we, together, can choose to try new approaches to individual and communal discernment. For, knowledge alongside our ability to carefully and consistently discern whose we are, who we are, and what’s ours to do, will significantly season our leadership.
As it pertains to our upcoming advance, I’m impressed by how the practice of intentional displacement invites me to sharpen my senses, awakens my imagination, and opens me up to new possibilities. My intention is to enter our time together in London and Oxford committed to walking at the pace of trust, listening longer, and actively wondering about what God might be saying to me and to us. I intend to identify what lures me from being fully present that I might more accurately discern the presence of the Divine within the mundane, painful, meaningful, and unusual experiences of our time together. Alongside you, I will not simply seek intellectual enhancement, but, in Nouwen’s words, “a spiritual understanding and an experiential knowledge of God” that I might take one step closer to my “individual calling and shared mission” (ibid. p.3).