Tag Archives: discernment

My experience of Meeting for Clearness

I was teaching about Meetings for Clearness the other week – offering people the chance to try it out for themselves using a ‘mini Clearness process’ in which a small group takes it in turns to be the focus person – and that led me to notice and reflect on the extent to which I use my own experience of having a Meeting for Clearness in teaching. In particular, I try and give people the chance to have an experience of the process something like my experience. Even if I don’t, can’t, achieve that, it’s guiding my decisions about how to describe the process and how to introduce people to it.

It also led me to reflect on the fact that I haven’t come across detailed descriptions of individuals’ clearness processes. There are some sets of instructions around, but – perhaps because the process is both relatively unusual, and where it is used in its full form it’s mainly for very personal things, like ‘shall we get married?’ or ‘should I have major surgery?’ – not much in the way of accounts of experience. (If you know of a published account of someone’s Meeting for Clearness, please do let me know in the comments!) That being so, I offer my story here.

I asked for a Meeting for Clearness as part of a wider process of discernment. I was applying for funding to offer my PhD work in Quaker Studies as a workshop which would be free for Quaker Meetings. The funding application called for a ‘market research’ exercise with a Quaker meeting, which I carried out, and for references, which I had; but I felt that this process was a bit thin on its own. The formal demands of the funding application were, for excellent reasons, entirely secular, but the work I wanted to do felt like ministry, so I asked for a Meeting for Clearness in order to bring some spiritual depth to my process of deciding to apply.

I was serving as an elder in my local meeting at the time. I discussed my idea with some other elders – if I remember rightly, this was done informally, and didn’t appear in our minutes. One person agreed to act as a convener (although my impression is that I invited people, double-checked times, etc.). Another offered her house as a venue – my flat was too small, and I was very grateful to be offered hospitality rather than worrying about cups of tea and things on the day! The final group were all people from my local meeting, and included elders, at least one overseer, people with experience of clerking and minute writing, at least one person who had used a Meeting for Clearness for an important decision of her own, and a friend whose similar academic background helped him understand the specifics of the question I was facing. On the day, one person volunteered to write a minute at the end of the process.

I had read up about the process in advance, and talked to some people about it, but in the end we made some adaptions on the day. The one which stands out in my mind is that where much advice suggests that the focus person should listen to but not try to answer open-ended questions which seek to shed light on the issue, I decided to answer them as best I could. We had allowed plenty of time for the process, which made this possible. My answers didn’t lead to a discussion as such (although sometimes there was a bit of back-and-forth), but relieved me of the need to try and remember my responses for later, helped me to find out what I really thought and felt (on the spot responses can be much more revealing than later ones!), and enabled later questions to go deeper rather than working off assumptions about my responses to earlier ones.

We did follow the usual process in other ways. We used silence at the start, at the end, and between contributions. I, as the focus person, explained my question and why I was seeking clearness, uninterrupted. People asked questions which probed my feelings and approach, but didn’t try to relate the issue to their own problems or the needs of others. Perhaps the most powerful part – certainly the part I hope I can reproduce for those who try out ‘mini’ versions of the process – was the feeling of being the centre of attention in a wholly positive way, heard, accepted, lovingly challenged, and supported.

Potential problems and negative feelings were held tenderly rather than glossed over, and, unusually for me, I spoke extensively without going away afterwards thinking ‘I shouldn’t have said that’. (It’s not unusual for me to talk a lot, but I normally spend a lot of time in the middle of the night regretting things I’ve said.) In some ways, it healed wounds from previous Quaker processes where I felt important things had been ignored.

Most of the specific questions have faded with time – this was four years ago now – but one stands out in my memory. Someone (I remember who, I can still see her face) asked what I would do if I applied but didn’t get the funding. I said, roughly, that I would be disappointed, but that I would look for other ways to do the work. I have thought back to that answer many times since then, especially when the work is difficult or frustrating. The final minute says, “we are clear that Rhiannon is led to take this work forward in some way; and we are clear she is the right person to do it”. When I’m stuck with it – even now, well after the end of the funding which prompted the initial process and when the work is taking on new forms – I can come back to this and think: it isn’t just me. Other people, joining with me and paying close attention to pick up even the faintest signals from the Spirit, have seen that there will be a way forward.

As well as producing a minute, the Meeting for Clearness brought me closer to the five Friends who met with me, and offered a support structure for the work in the early stages. I’ve moved away from that local meeting and am no longer in regular contact with all of them, but for some time afterwards people would check in with me: how’s it going? how many workshops have you done? what next? Because they understood that much better what I was doing, they were able to ask more specific and deeper questions, which helped me to feel fully part of that community in a way that routine small talk never seems to achieve.

In Britain Yearly Meeting at the moment, Meeting for Clearness is routinely used in many Area Meetings for couples considering marriage, but rarely for other purposes. I found it so helpful that I think it’s a shame we don’t use it more. What could you benefit from bringing to a Meeting for Clearness? Have you had one before, and if so, was your experience similar or different to mine?

Reading Qf&p chapter 13 – to formalise or not?

Chapter 13 of Quaker faith & practice, Varieties of Religious Service, covers a bit of a mixed bag: concerns and the testing of concerns, writing minutes and financing work, travelling in the ministry, and some other forms of service – wardenship, librarians, treasurers, and chaplains for prisons and universities. Some of these situations need to be formalised – wardenship, for example, is often an employment arrangement, and as well as being clear for ourselves and in line with our ethical principles we need to be in line with employment law. Prison ministers are also formally appointed by government bodies as well as by us as Quakers, and treasurers have specific responsibilities so their role should be formalised (and they should be in membership).

However, some of the other forms of service in this chapter can meaningfully be offered which much less formality than is described here. Sometimes a concern needs testing through the channels described, but sometimes individuals report simply needing to act and can test this through less formal means. Even something which is tested using a Meeting for Clearness may not need other aspects of the support; I had a Meeting for Clearness before applying for funding for my ‘Or Whatever You Call It‘ workshops, but because the application was to another body, it never came before the Area Meeting as such. I think I can in some senses call that work undertaken under concern, but it didn’t automatically need the full weight of the processes described in chapter 13.

Similarly, the process of visiting other meetings can be ‘travelling in the ministry’ accompanied by a minute as described here, but I think it can also be fruitful without this. I suspect the clerk of my local meeting would be frustrated if I asked for a minute to take when I visit another meeting on holiday or when travelling to give a workshop or attend a committee meeting (perhaps the solution mentioned in 13.31, of giving a minute which lasts a year, would be easier – but we would still have to take the reports from all of our many well-travelled members…). I still find the process of visiting other meetings very enriching, though – both when it’s a one-off visit and when I have been able to participate fully in the life of several meetings as I’ve moved around the country over the years.

Other forms of service can also be usefully given informally. I am not now and never have been a Meeting librarian, but I recommend books to people as soon as look at them, and lend books if I have a chance. Do we need to think through which forms of service require formal support from a meeting, when it is optional, and when the service should be encouraged for everyone? Should we have a renaissance of travelling minutes? (Would my meeting be enriched or bored or both by an account of the other meetings I’ve visited over a year? I suspect they’d be bored, which is why I don’t ask for a minute, but I might be wrong.) Should we work harder to be ready and available to offer formal discernment processes, such as Meetings for Clearness,  to people who are making decisions about their lives including their paid and unpaid work?

Making Choices

How do you choose what to do?

Here’s a classic example: suppose you’re a bit lost in a forest, and come to a place where the path forks. You can go left, or right, or try and cut your own trail through the undergrowth. You don’t know whether either path will lead. (And you’re somehow completely ignorant about where you started, north and south, etc. It’s a thought experiment, too much detail could break it.)

How do you decide which way to go? Do you look around or wait for someone to ask? Do you just go on intuition, figuring that it’ll all come out right in the end? If the two paths look the same, do you suppose it doesn’t matter? If one goes uphill and the other down, do you choose the easy one or the hard one? Do you think that there is a right answer, or not?

Suppose you have to choose between something now and the future possibility of something else, maybe something better, with a risk of nothing at all.

Suppose you are writing cryptic blog posts and not getting on with making a decision! What factors do you take into account? What evidence do you trust and how much of a risk are you willing to take?

D is for… Discernment

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.