Life Is a School for Discernment

Life Is a School for Discernment

Benedictine spirituality moved from theory to practice again for me this month during the first online School of Discernment. Dr. Kathleen Cahalan taught, accompanied by familiar members of the spiritual direction team, but this time twice as many participants came together as we explored what hope and practical help this tradition has to offer us, our families, and our world. As we navigate the pressures of pandemic, politics, injustice, and economic uncertainty, this year, more than at any point in my memory, life itself is a school for discernment.


Face Pressures at Pandemic Scale

During this pandemic we walk under the weight of constant discernment. Every single in-person interaction is a risk we must measure. Since stay-at-home orders began, we have also sorted our responses to the murder of George Floyd, vitriolic political ads, and the fears of economic uncertainty. All of this is beyond what we knew how to do nine months ago, when any talk of “discernment” might have seemed elementary by comparison. We have had to learn new ways of moving through the world – virtually and physically – at such a pace and without any degree of consensus that anything seems just shy of possible. It is difficult to tell our parents, “Please, please do not gather with others. Please do not come for Thanksgiving. We need you to understand that if you end up in the ICU, we will not be able to visit you.” We witness record setting deaths in a time we cannot even come together for memorial services. Every layer of discernment these days—individually and communally—is intense beyond what we once called ordinary. This year is bringing us face-to-face with limits that test the bounds of our normal spiritual practices.


Turn to Witnesses

Under these pressures, participants in the School of Discernment turned to Benedict as a witness to discipleship in hard times. Benedict was speaking out of the Roman Empire’s collapse, so those of us who have come after (and I’m talking about 1,500 years of generations) can confidently draw on his guidance as we navigate war, disease, and struggles for real justice. Since the 400’s seekers have looked to the Desert Tradition for hope and inspiration. This month a bath of pilgrims did it again. We turned to Scripture and fellow companions to practice discernment. I, for one, appreciate having a time-tested framework to as shoulders upon which we stand.


Practice Life

The sources of inspiration, among others, remind us that we are not alone. They do not pretend to relieve us of our challenges, but they do offer ways of interpreting and responding to pressures that seem unprecedented. Sources of inspiration have always had to work this way because we never really learn things like the art of discernment within a safe little bubble. Like all who have gone before us and all who will come after us, we must experiment with ancient truths and translate them into present circumstances. These tools have to be applied to the specific contexts in which we find ourselves—discerning how to lament injustice and work for peace, how to observe our grief and celebrate our rituals in virtual ways. In every time and place, we must choose the best ways to express concrete support and solidarity for those who are most vulnerable among us. Life itself, we have learned in 2020, is the real school of discernment.


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