We had a Hearts and Minds Prepared session about Discernment recently, so the topic is fresh in my mind – and it will be coming up again, as part of our theme for Yearly Meeting.
What is Discernment? It’s seeing clearly, or seeing what is the right part. It’s not what you desire, although it might sometimes happen to line up with what you want; it’s how you work out what you’re being led to do. Quakers, generally speaking, try and practice both individual and corporate discernment – seeking the will of the Spirit, the right path forwards, for ourselves and our communities.
I think lots of things can factor into discernment. In my own life, sometimes discerning the path forward simply seems like having no other option: on my feet to speak in Meeting because I couldn’t stay in my seat. Bigger life choices are more complex. Sometimes it seems there’s no real choice, or that a way has opened before you, that this is the best chance you have to use the gifts you were given, or that you have to do this to be true to your principles. (Starting the PhD, for example, felt like all of those.)
Sometimes individual discernment and our corporate discernings lie alongside one another – I went vegan at Yearly Meeting 2011 when Quakers in Britain made a formal commitment to sustainability. Sometimes what feels like the right path forward also feels impossible – I keep discerning a leading to go plastic-free, and finding that I cannot live up to this in practice.
Discernment isn’t just an internal process. Information is often needed and must be gathered. Everyone in a situation will have their own forms of discernment. Sometimes a random outside element can be helpful – runes, oracle cards, or the Tarot can provide this (or you can let Quaker Faith and Practice fall open). Sometimes straight up prayer – asking Deity a question and listening for the answer – is the way forward.
I think discernment is a bit like the process you use when you’re being led along a string trail. Have you done the string trail exercise? The string trail is just a string, which leads through a wood, having been tied around trees, over logs, under bushes, past a nettle patch, and so forth. You’re blindfolded and your team leader gives you instructions. You have to listen carefully to the instructions, and at the same time keep hold of the string and use your spare hand (and your feet) to feel for obstacles.