DISCERN is a word that keeps coming up lately in new contexts. It precedes deciding. It’s a patient, prayerful, humble process of separating out or teasing apart the various strands of a problem or situation in order to determine an appropriate course of action—not indiscriminate nitpicking but careful attention to those factors that might not be immediately apparent.
Quakers have “clearness committees” to help members of their community discern when they are facing big decisions. Each goes into a quiet, receptive place and sits with the others and then offers whatever insights, images, words, observations came to them in the quiet that might be pertinent. Often those who receive a thought or image don’t really know how relevant it might be, but offer it in trust that the one who needs it will know how to assess and apply it. It’s a generous process.
The word reminds me, whether I have the privilege of sitting with others in reflection or do it alone, to lay down the “pro and con” list, to let go for a while of my efforts to “figure out” or plan, to postpone the urge for closure and to listen inward for whatever comes, holding my concern with an open hand and an open mind, trusting that what I need will be given.
I don’t always take the time for it. When I do I can go down the path that opens with gladness of heart and confidence. Though this Lenten season is a busy time for me, or perhaps because it is, the desire to take time for discernment involves me in the paradoxical effort to take a step back when the day’s momentum urges me forward. It’s challenging.
It helps to think of the people I know who seem most discerning. They take their time; even small pauses before speaking seem to give their responses a weight and their conversation a spaciousness that seems generous and hospitable.
The image that comes to me as I think about this gentle process is brushing and braiding my little granddaughter’s hair, separating the strands, carefully untangling, trying not to hurt her, smoothing and finally binding the braid, putting in her barettes so loose hairs won’t fall into her eyes. I love the process. I enjoy the cornsilk feel of her hair. And when it is finished I love how she can forget about her hair and go play.
That, I guess, is where a good discernment process should leave me—able to lay down the burden of decision and go play.

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