Discernment Defined

In a darkened room, we gradually “discern” what is there by using the little light we have. We see by means of light, which means that light is always around us. But how often do we actually notice the light and how it is working? Usually we need the help of an artist or photographer to help us see the light. When we're in the dark about the meaning and purpose of our lives, the spiritual practice of "discernment" can help focus our attention on the light: the presence and action of God in our lives, using practices of prayer, stories from our faith tradition, and guiding questions.

Begin Where you Are: Basic Questions to help with Discernment

Here are some basic Questions  designed to guide a group through several stages of discernment, especially about our calling to be Christian disciples in the world, "wherever we may be" (as the Episcopal prayer book puts it).


The "PROFILE" Question: What do you "do?" How do you answer this question at a social gathering (how do you describe your professional or "public" identity)?

The "PURPOSE"Question: What is your "real work," or, to put it another way: what do you most enjoy doing: what is it that, when you are doing it, makes you feel that you are most fully and truly "yourself." (Work or activity where you lose yourself in the “flow” – lose track of time etc.?)

The PASSION Question: In the world of work, community, relationships where you find yourself, what do you feel must change? Where in your daily life or work do you want to shake your fists and cry out in frustration, "SOMETHING must be done about _____?"

The PRAYER Question: How do you pray? Where in your daily life and work have you been most often or most clearly aware of the presence of God? How do you respond to this awareness?


The PEOPLE Question:  Who are your people? Where do you go for spiritual support, prayer, people praying for you?  Who are your personal saints (i.e. people who have inspired and/or supported you (in particular you name a lay person in your life who played this role for you? How did they understand their vocation?)

The PRACTICE Question: What activities or "practices" do you engage in to help you live a life that matches your deepest values about time, money, relationships, the needs of others?

The “BIG QUESTION” :  Dreaming with God:  What seems to me to be “God’s Dream” for the particular place in life where I am living and serving right now?  What is God doing here?  What is my piece of the work? (Notice this is about participation in God’s work rather than “finding my own work”- what difference does it make to you to see it this way?)

These questions invite thought, prayer, reflection. Spend some time with them and see what comes out of this exercise. Which question was hardest for you? What did you learn from this exercise? use of my sense of spiritual identity?) 

VOCATION, I would suggest, is what God is doing with the answers to ALL of these questions together.  What insights come to you from the process of reflecting on these questions?  What can you learn by discussing our answers to these questions with trusted friends?

Workshop on Discernment using these resources

I'm pleased to know that some of the material on this site (as well as other material that will appear here soon) was adapted for use at the diocesan convention in Chicago this month. Read a report about it here.

Praying God's Dream for Our Lives

One of my favorite prayers for the church turns up at several key places in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and tells us something about who we think we are as a Church, a gathered community of faith. The prayer goes:

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
(BCP, p. 285)

I think this is a prayer that speaks across denominations, to many aspects of the Christian life. It is about transformation, about “the Church,” the community of faithful people, as an agent of transformation, and about the people in the church – ourselves – as being called to transformation. Those who use the Book of Common Prayer will encounter this prayer in the Good Friday service, right after we have offered the “solemn collects”, praying for the whole world, in all its brokenness and suffering. The series of prayers culminates in this one, with its declaration of hope that “things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.” It also appears in the service for the Great Vigil of Easter, right after we have re-told the whole history of salvation, and right before we baptize new Christians and renew our own baptismal covenant, in anticipation of the Easter feast. And it is offered at ordinations and other events around the mission and ministry of the Church.

At the heart of this prayer is a petition for ongoing discernment and revelation: Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new. The prayer for the church reminds us that we are a part of something that God is doing. The heart of Christian faith is the belief that God works in and through human beings, bringing life out of death, and empowering us to do Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.

I like to begin with this prayer whenever I introduce a group to the practice of “discernment” in Christian community. It offers a “big picture” approach to the search for meaning and purpose in our lives. We are asking “what am I here for? What should I be doing with my life? What is unique about me? What do I have to offer? But we are always asking these questions in the context of a shared story and a vision of wholeness and reconciliation that the Scriptural tradition calls “the kingdom of God.”

Dreaming With God

Brian McLaren has suggested that in our own time, “kingdom of God” language doesn’t really speak because we don’t have kings and kingdoms. Even “reign” of God suggests a kind of authoritarian control that we chafe at (See his article Found in Translation . He writes: “The call to faith is the call to trust God and God’s dreams enough to realign our dreams with God’s, to dream our little dreams within God’s big dream.” A favorite author of mine, Verna Dozier, also speaks of the "Dream of God" when she is talking about how God calls all people to serve and cherish the world that God loves. (I have more to say about Verna Dozier here)

Most of us have more of a sense of the Dream of God than we realize: We look around us and we see overwhelming brokenenness, ugliness, suffering and injustice, and we say “This is not the way it is supposed to be.” Seeing the brokenness is a first step toward recognizing our call to be a part of God’s work of transformation and reconciliation, a first step toward discerning our piece of that work.

So the deep question we’re asking, when we begin to think about the meaning and purpose of our lives and work, is really “What do I think God is trying to do in the part of the world, the culture, the family or community that I inhabit, and what is my piece of that work?”

Dreaming with God - a prayer-exercise

Here's an exercise that might help you to begin "praying the Dream of God" for your own life:

Find a quiet place, bringing a notebook or sketchpad or other means of expression. Or find a trusted friend and do this exercise in conversation, listening to each other.

Sit quietly, focus on something beautiful – or a candle or other symbol of the divine presence, and remind yourself of God’s love for you, as you are. Rest for a few minutes in that love: breathe in the love for you; breathe out any thoughts that distract you from resting quietly in the presence of the One who made you and desires your flourishing.

Now, using whatever imagery or language feels most natural to you, ask God to look with you at some difficult or broken aspect of your life in the workplace, family, church, or other human relationships. What does God see that is broken here? Don’t think in terms of what YOU think is “fixable” or not, but what is broken. What would this situation look like if it were true to God’s dream for us as human beings? Even if you think this transformation is impossible, or cannot imagine how YOU could make change happen, try to describe both the brokenness you see now and what the transfigured situation would look like: God’s dream for this aspect of your life.

For this exercise: simply describe the dream; not how to get there: that may not be clear at all; in fact this whole exercise may feel very unrealistic or “idealistic” from the point of view of practical program: but the challenge is to see this aspect of your life through the eyes of a loving God who desires that things should be different. It is an exercise in hope.

When you have the “Dream” clear, offer it as a prayer. If you can, write down the highlights of the dream and/the prayer, or draw it or represent in some other way that you might be able to share with a small group. Or add a comment here!

"Showing Up" and "Paying Attention" - Spiritual Practices to Sustain Discernment

There are lots of resources available about spiritual practices that have nurtured people as they seek to listen for God's presence in their lives. A particularly good list and account of these practices is at online at spirithome.

Spiritual practices help us find balance in our lives, so that there is room for a sacred dimension -- so the effort to listen for God isn't walled off from everything else -- so we keep our truest priorities straight.

Irenaus of Lyons, one of the earliest writers on Christian Spirituality said "the glory of God is the human being fully alive". Spiritual practices, as I look at them, include the ways that we embrace with gratitude the good things in our lives, including our physical health and well-being and the people and activities that give us life. Part of a balanced spiritual life is knowing what makes us feel most fully alive, and learning to recognize God's love in that part of our lives. When am I most fully alive? Is an important question for the spiritual life. So is "what gets in the way of fullness of life, for me?"

No one is a Christian alone; we are connected to communities and relationships of love and caring, and as we grow spiritually, we find ourselves reaching out and caring more and more, as we grown into the Love that calls us. So a full and healthy spiritual practice also includes ways that we reach out and connect with people and communities beyond ourselves.

Showing up for God in a regular way; Paying attention to a sacred dimension in daily life; caring for body and spirit so that we are fully alive, and reaching out to others, in our relationships and in our caring for those in need -- all of these are spiritual practices that make us more available to the "call" of God in our lives.

Feel free to use the comments page here to reflect on the spiritual practices and disciplines that have been most important to you.