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Sunday, March 4, 2012


Parting the Clouds
Discerning Your Way in a World Full of Questions
by Renée Miller

“When will God speak to me, and tell me what to do, Rabbi?” the young man asked.
“Our God, blessed be He, is always speaking to you, if you have ears to hear,” replied the Rabbi.
“I never hear a voice, Teacher,” he said quietly.
“Yahweh spoke you into being as Yahweh spoke creation into being; as Yahweh spoke the covenant to Abraham; as Yahweh spoke our fathers and mothers through the wilderness,” the Rabbi answered.
“But, why can’t I hear?” he almost whispered.
“When your heart becomes as quiet as your whispered question, you will hear the still, small voice of God. Blessed be God.”

Part of being human is engaging in the process of discernment. Discernment actually begins when we give voice to our longings for life in all of its fullness. Life in its plentitude is always presenting us with new and different options, to which we must give response. Searching for those right responses can be a messy and chaotic exercise, and we often come to the conclusion that it would be so much better if someone else (particularly God) would simply provide us with the proper answer. But such abdication of the practice of discernment, while attractive in the short-run, actually diminishes our humanity and lessens our faith. Rather than simply being passive recipients of easy answers, God has made it possible for us to be active participants in the discernment process; it is in the midst of that process that we reach that point of ‘equipoise’ where possibility and potentiality are waiting to be birthed. A look at the Biblical stories reveals time and again thatthose who embarked on a journey of discernment actually grew in ways that could never have occurred had God simply ‘stepped in’ and sent them a private message of what to do. Rather than abdicating to some objective entity, we, like those holy ones of old, are invited to step into the discernment circle that is filled with boisterous bedlam. There we find the embrace of holy energy that leads us to inner balance.

If you have ever flown in an airplane, you know that at a certain altitude, the clouds are far below and the plane is flying in the calm of blue sky that stretches farther than the eye can see. The cloud cover below looks like a wonderland of cotton-puff snow. As the plane descends, everything becomes unclear. A glance outside the window reveals nothing but the opaque moisture of fast-swirling clouds. It is as if the plane is caught in the womb of an immense fog. As the plane descends further, unfamiliar and vague shapes begin to emerge from below, until finally the plane enters that clear layer of earth’s atmosphere where the common world of homes and business, farmlands and rivers are clearly recognizable.

When we are attempting to discern some new direction or call in our lives, we cannot stay in the clear air above the clouds. Like the plane that must descend if it is to land, so too must we begin a descent into our inmost selves if we are to detect the subtle movements that urge us to make new decisions, new choices. A purely linear and logical exercise of listing pro’s and con’s for a particular decision may help us clarify the issues, but it is rarely an effective determining factor in a discernment process. We must bravely drop down, down, down through the dense and swirling chaos and inner confusion, the troubling indecision and annoying uncertainty.

This descent into ourselves is, perhaps, the most important element of the discernment process. It is in that descent that we come to understand more about ourselves – our motivations, our impulses, our growth edges. It even leads us to experiencing life anew. In the work of discernment we are catapulted out of our regular, regimented, routinized existence and everything is turned upside down. Discerning whether or not to accept a new position at work, for example, requires us to think differently about our current job. It wakes us from the stupor of deadened habit to an awareness of our current work and the possibilities presented by new work. If our discernment leads us to stay with our current position, we feel more kinship, even passion, for what had become so regular and ordinary. If, on the other hand, we decide to leave our current job to step into the new position, we are awakened to the freshness of new learnings, new relationships, new experiences. Moving too quickly to the ‘answer’ deprives us of the chance to experience the inner journey that awakens us both to the disparities and harmony between our desires and God’s voice. It is in the process of discernment that we actually discover that the journey itself is as important as the answer to be found at the end. As the poet C.P. Cavafy suggests in the poem titled “Ithaka”

“…Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
You will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.”

When we are in the throes of the fog – the ‘not knowing’ – we are tempted to give up the discernment process and simply return to what is remembered or familiar. But, if we can be brave and daring, we will find we can actually trust the presence of Christ’s spirit within us to lead us through the ambiguity into a place of comprehension and clarity.

When we come to the point of needing to discern something in our lives, we wonder if we will have all the right information, if we will have the wisdom to see which is the right course, if we will know which is the right decision. These anxieties can be relieved when we recognize the truth that discernment is much more than an individual exercise of decision-making. We do not go through the discernment process in a vacuum. God may not send us a ‘message in a bottle’ telling us what to do, but God gives us resources that can assist us in making a proper decision. One such resource is Scripture. As we let the words and stories of scripture seep slowly into our soul, we will find our hearts and minds illuminated by the teaching and discernment of those who have recorded their own walk with God. Likewise, when we bring our discernment to God in prayer, and make our heart as quiet as our whispered questions, we will faintly hear the spirit of God informing the longings that pulse within us. Then, if we can look objectively at the circumstances that surround our discernment and note the half-closed windows and flung-wide doors, we will see the presence of God’s hand at work in leading us to the space of openness and clarity. And finally, when we share our hearts with others in our lives that are important to us, we will hear in their response the very voice of God, God’s self.

The greatest surprise of all in discernment is that in the very act of considering the various options that God has given us, we begin to see that life is more about seeing clearly the presence and call of God than it is about making perfect and precise decisions. The grace of this process is the discovery that discernment renews in us this life of constant creation and awakens us to knowing that we are a part of the transformation of the world.


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