//Discerning Together: Levels of Engagement

Discerning Together: Levels of Engagement

The recent letter of Fr General (Sept 27, 2017) calls us to make ‘On Discernment in Common’ “an instrument of our apostolic effectiveness” in our mission and governance. This article attempts to operationalise it into practical methodologies.

Levels of Engagement
For any Ignatian discernment detached indifference is a sine qua non. The whole process is premised on this, or it could well be misleading and obfuscating. This of course must be an ongoing endeavour of self-examination that must be renewed all though our lives especially for an effective process of discernment, lest we lose the plot along the way. Three kinds of methodologies are involved at three different levels of engagement.

The first level is discussion to clarify ideas in an intellectual exchange with appropriate inputs to clarify ideas and broaden perspectives. To be meaningfully participative it must be a dialectic process that involves reading one position (thesis) against another (anti-thesis) so that a new synthesis emerges.

This requires reciprocity of perspectives: seeing the other person’s point of view from within his/her perspective and not from one’s own on the outside, and then interpreting it from within his/her frame of reference and not one’s own. In other words, we need to understand the person as s/he wants to be understood. We must assume a position of emotional and intellectual neutrality, remaining ‘tatastha’ and listening to the other from his/her own pre-judgments, and not reading our prejudices, apprehensions, and doubts into it. We must get out of our own mind-set, not be dogmatically or emotionally trapped in it, with an empathetic understanding of various points of view and interpretations even when one disagrees with them, otherwise the discussion only ends in a fruitless debate.

This further helps us to a deepening of insight and a sharpening of ideas. All too often we are more ideologically than intellectually driven, especially when sensitive and divisive political and social concerns are involved. As a result the clarity and incisiveness it effects may well bring difference and division into the open without necessarily reconciling or integrating them. As such, it may a useful but still a first step in a constructive group encounter. But discussions can get so polarised as to be unable to proceed any further usefully.

The second level is one of dialogue. Here the method is open communication in a conversation to understand each other and ourselves more comprehensively and inclusively; not merely intellectually but at a more human and personal level: an Ignatian ‘spiritual conversation’ means “listening attentively to others and knowing how to communicate one’s own experience and ideas” in “an atmosphere of trust and welcome” (ibid.). Differences need not be simply bracketed away but rather sifted to find common ground from which we can move on to higher ground together.

Thus differences must not just to be accepted and respected but become ever enriching and even celebrated together. For in dialogue we come to understand not just the other but ourselves; not just our ‘self’ in the other but the ‘other’ in our ‘self’ as well. Such an open and equal, trustful and trustworthy dialogue attunes us to our inner voice, a necessary foundation for Ignatian discernment.

A fruitful dialogue demands a careful preparation. We all have our baggage of suspicions and apprehension and so a measure of introspective self-awareness is a necessary condition for truly open communication. However, open communication without some clarity and comprehension of the issues that we are dialoguing about can only lead to a sharing of ignorance, not to a real understanding – or worse – to misunderstandings. A fruitful dialogue demands careful preparation. Dialogue is best seen as an on-going learning process inviting us into ever deeper sharing. The mutual understanding and self-discovery that such a dialogue results in becomes the basis on which contentious issues can be resolved and acted upon.

The third level is that of discernment – to follow the inner voice of the Spirit. Here the method is of listening together to this inner voice in our conscience, the Antaryamin, which enlightens our minds and touches our hearts. Listening requires us to be silent in order to hear that ‘Other’ voice from within and thus to focus our distracted minds to see the light, to calm our disturbed hearts to follow where called. This Antaryamin as our inner Counsellor and Advocate with the Father, can be best heard in the silence of our hearts, and his touch most felt in the ‘gentleness of the breeze’ that blows where it wills and we know not where it comes from nor where it goes. Such listening is a spiritual experience and may well be counter-intuitive as when it leads to a prophetic call to witness even when our practical experience urges caution.

These are complex and complicated issues beyond any clear certainties and yet demand a response. Confronted with such human ambiguities and uncertainties, we reach the limits of our own abilities and must seek the guidance of the inner voice of the Spirit to make a prudential judgement and act. The Spirit does not substitute for human endeavour but meets us on the way to guide us along. Hence, group discernment must follow, not precede a dialogue in open communication. This dialogue in turn must be first enriched by a discussion that leads to a clearer understanding and wider comprehension of the issues involved.

Movements of the heart
All through this process we must test the movements of the heart, that centre of our being. There our inner voice speaks and we experience the movements of the Spirit, that Ignatius calls ‘consolation and desolation’ – a calm inner peace against an uneasy disquiet. This helps us to distinguish between alternatives and choices on offer, to find our inner freedom where our most basic choices are made, our decisions confirmed or repudiated. It is more than a rational weighing the pros and cons to reach a conclusion; for the heart has reason which reason knows not of. It is through the heart that the Spirit guides us to find the will of God and then motivates us to make a final decision.

Discernment in common is not meant to bring about unanimity or uniformity, but rather a consensus on which a collective decision can be premised. Then before its implementation we await the inner voice of the Spirit confirming our discernment with ‘consolation’. However, conclusions cannot be artificially forced from outside the process. To listen to our inner voice we must listen patiently; to follow where the Spirit leads we must wait for the Spirit to show the way. Only when we are completely detached from other preoccupations and distractions will we hear this voice, and only when we are totally committed will we see the path.

Finally, a reflective process of discernment must become a continuing praxis of action–reflection–action in our lives, and be replicated and taken forward in all areas. This is the integral path of the Jesuit way of proceeding, divesting ourselves of all self-love, self-will, self-interest so we can seek God in all things and all things in God. This is the very definition of Jesuit spirituality.