Monday, February 16, 2009

A Few Novel Approaches to Discernment

“Once at a conference of Benedictines,” writes Kathleen Norris, in her recently published bestseller, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life, (Riverhead Books: New York), 2008: “ I witnessed an impassioned response to a presentation a sister had given on using the ancient practice of discernment to treat mental illness in the present day. She defined discernment clearly enough, as fostering ‘our ability to do the right deed with the right intention or motivation.”

I, too, remember once attending a lecture and listening to a stirring presentation as well. Only this one was given by a visual artist as she described her work and process. She said it was so important to “plant” an idea on one’s mind and then to follow that creative impulse over time and notice how the idea “grows” and develops. How the subconscious appears to gather information the artist needs for the work from a wide variety of sources: from nature, from exhibitions, from books and publications, and even chance encounters with people. Provided, of course, that one is consistently alert and carefully attentive.

I’ve been experimenting with that idea myself lately with regard to the whole idea of vocational discernment: How do we learn to make good decisions? How do we know and trust the path we are taking? What helps and hinders us along the way? Instead of referring to the ‘usual suspects’ of Scriptural references, academic writing, and biography for help in this time, I decided just to “plant the idea” in my mind and pay attention to the results.

I’ve been doing this over the past several weeks now-- reading (and watching) things more or less at random to see what pops up in terms of approaches to vocational discernment Here are a few of the discoveries I’ve made that I’d like to share with you. I hope that this process may help to stimulate your own spiritual creativity and discovery. If you’ve made any analogous discoveries on your own that you’d like to share, let me know. Just send an email to: --ct

The Green Knight, by Iris Murdoch (Penguin Books, New York), 1993. One of the chief characters in this novel about a rather complicated upper-middle class family of friends in the London of the 1980s is a rather earnest young man named Bellamy. Still in his early 20s, Bellamy has made an impulsive and superficial conversion to Catholicism, after which he resolves to become a monk to boot. He leaves school and work, rents a tiny room in a rundown neighborhood, surrenders most of his worldy possessions-- including his beloved dog—all in the name of his recently embraced aesceticism. He starts to correspond with a monk, a certain Father Damien, who turns out to be a great deal wiser and more perceptive than Bellamy would ever suspect. The priest is friendly and polite, but also cautious and circumspect in his long-distance spiritual direction. He consistently offers very good advice about discernment which Bellamy consistently ignores or rejects. Sound familiar?

Towards the end of the novel, we find Bellamy—now a bit older, sadder, and wiser, going over his accumulated correspondence with Fr. Damien. From this pile of letters, he fashions for himself a rather breathless summary of Damien’s observations and advice over time: “You are deeply stained by the world, (the priest writes), the stain is taken deeply, as the years go by, you cannot become holy by renouncing worldly pleasures, you must not look for revelations or for signs, these are mere selfish thrills which you mistake for adoration, what you take for humility is the charm of masochism, what you call the dark night is the obscurity of the restless soul, by picturing the end of the road you imagine you have reached it, you cherish magic which is the enemy of truth, you think of the dedicated life as a form of death, but you will be alive and crying, the way of Christ is hard and plain, it is a way of brokenness, we seek the invisible through the visible, but we make idols of the visible, icons which are made for breaking, the agonies of that pilgrimage may consume a lifetime and end in despair, your wish to suffer is a soothing day-dream, the false God punishes, the true God slays, the evils in you must be killed, not as pets to be tormented, do not punish your sins, you must destroy them, go out and help your neighbor, be happy yourself and make others happy, that is your path, not that of the cloister, be quiet, humble, know that what you can achieve is little, desire the good which purifies the love that seeks it, pray always, stay at home and do not look for God outside your own soul.” (p. 464).

Father Damien gives it to Bellamy both barrels. Yes, he is rough on the young man, but he is also honest, direct, and generous. He attempts to break through the thick layers of adolescent self-deception and denial that Bellamy substitutes for authentic experience, reflection, and understanding. He insists that the young man can and must find his own path—but only by entering through the narrow gate of authentic relationship with others-- in both friendship and in service. It is difficult for Bellamy to digest and accept any of this. But finally, and only after much resistance and multiple failures, does the young man start to admit the truth of his life and search. It is then that his real novitiate into adult life begins.

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time, Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, (Penguin Books: New York), 2006. This bestselling autobiography describes Mortenson's transition from a professional mountain-climber to a humanitarian committed to reducing poverty and educating girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 1993, after an unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the second-highest mountain in the world (where he intended to plant a necklace in honor of his recently deceased sister, Chrissa), Mortenson descends the peak only to arrive at the modest village of Korphe. He is welcomed by the villagers and their mayor, Haji Ali, who helps Mortenson recuperate from the treacherous descent. In time, Mortenson is shown the village ‘school’—an open air site where the children gather year-round to study. He writes: “I felt like my heart was being torn out. There was a fierceness in their desire to learn, despite how mightily everything was stacked against them…. I knew I had to do something….

"Standing next to Haji Ali, on the ledge overlooking the valley, with such a crystalline view of the mountains he’d come halfway around the world to measure himself against, climbing K2 … suddenly felt beside the point. There was much more meaningful gesture he could make in honor of his sister’s memory. He put his hands on Haji Ali’s shoulders, as the old man had done to him dozens of times since they’d shared their first cup of tea. ‘I’m going to build you a school,’ he said, not yet realizing that with those words, the path of his life had just detoured down another trail, a route far more serpentine and arduous than the wrong turns he’d taken since retreating from K2. ‘I will build a school,’ Mortenson said. ‘I promise.’” pp. 32--33

Man on Wire (film, director, James Marsh, 2008). Frenchman Philippe Petit first captured the world's attentio—and imagination-- in 1974 when he successfully walked across a high wire between twin towers of New York's. World Trade Center. This documentary film explores the preparations that went into the amazing stunt as well as the event and its aftermath. The project was eight years in the making. In the film, Petit describes the genesis of his idea: As a 17-year-old boy, he finds himself sitting in the waiting room of his dentist’s office in Paris. He notices a newspaper drawing of the proposed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York and immediately envisions the possibility of traversing the space between the two structures on a wire: “ Suddenly I see something magnificent,” he recalls. “Now I need to have this little tangible start of my dream. Everyone is watching, but I must have that little piece of my dream….“Usually when you have a dream, the object of your dream is tangible—it’s there….it’s quixotic, but its’ there, you know, nagging you, confronting you.” Petit rushes out of the dentist’s office-- newspaper in hand-- determined to pursue an improbable, even impossible dream which would take him nearly a decade to realize.

A Gentle Path through the Twelve Steps: The Classic Guide for All People in the Process of Recovery, Patrick Carnes, Ph.D (Hazeldon: Center City, Minnesota). 1993, p. 111 “Access your own wisdom,” the author of this popular 12-step recovery workbook writes. “Emptying ourselves of distractions, preoccupations, and obsessions allows us to connect with who we really are. Henri Nouwen, the famous tehologican, described this early stage of spiritual life as the ‘conversion of loneliness into solitude,’ It means discovering what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, ‘the ground of our being.’ It is finding the sacred within us. When we are true to ourselves, we are most spiritual. That means tuning into our own authentic voice.

“How do we do that? Think of your own life experience. Think of the times you had an intuition that something was not going to work out, but you did it anyway. And when that turned out to be a disaster, you said, ‘If only I had listened to myself.’ Carl Jung talked about a larger consciousness that we can tap into with our intuition—if we would listen. This is called ‘discernment’—the ability to see clearly what is, especially in those situations when we have no rules, laws, or prior experience to direct us. This is where divine guidance and trusting ourselves meet. All heroes come to this crossroards where they do not know the outcome, but must act.

“To cultivate discernment, keep a regular journal, develp a daily meditation routine, listen to music that makes you feel like yourself, and read what helps your insight and sense of self. There is no magic about this process. If you work at it, your true voice—the one that is in harmony with the larger universe—will become clear.” p. 111