Cultivating Discernment in Community: Another Chapter
Today’s post is by Lois A. Lindbloom
This is a season of grieving for me and throughout the college town in which I live. Jennifer, a beloved campus pastor, died at the age of 47. She was wife, mother of two young children, daughter, sister, friend to neighbors and colleagues, active supporter of children’s activities and concerns for the care of the world in addition to having a listening ear, prophetic voice, and liturgical grace on the campus. A year and a half ago she learned that an aggressive, cancerous tumor had established itself in her brain. That is what took her from us.
A few days before her death, I saw a health care provider in our community. Through her own tears of grief she asked, “Do you know Jennifer?” “Yes, she and I and two other women have been in a small group together for more than nine years, a spiritual direction group. We meet for three hours once a month.” Then the tears rolled for both of us.
Toward the end of her life Jennifer lost her ability to speak. In our last meeting less than three weeks before she passed, her remaining word was “ya.” She understood everything we were saying and offered her one word at appropriate times. Our moments of silence together that day were some of the most profound I have ever experienced. It seemed as though the rest of us were joining her in the silence that now was the only option available to her.
My grief is mixed with gratitude for these companions on my spiritual journey, each a unique manifestation of the Love of God in the world. Our purpose together is spiritual discernment: paying prayerful attention to one’s own life in order to be clearer about and more cooperative with God’s activity. We each invite one another to listen prayerfully to the part of our lives we want to share; then we hold what we have heard in silence, observing what comes to us — what we notice, appreciate, wonder about — all to underline and encourage that which seems to be of God. We offer aloud what came to us, and we hold one another in prayer.
We have asked ourselves what makes the group work or what is unique about it? Gathering with the clear intention of spiritual discernment is one response. Prayerful listening is another. Willingness to speak honestly about one’s own life and concerns. Refraining from advice giving or fixing one another. Holding one another’s stories in confidence. Allowing the holy ground of silence to nudge us away from “knee jerk” or “off the top of one’s head” reactions. Continually honing our perceptions to pay attention to “that of God” in our own and one another’s stories.
These conversations are confidential; the content is not talked about elsewhere. Thus, a startling part of this week of grief has been the spontaneous responses about the group experience from others. For instance, the husbands of my three friends have each referred to the importance of the group as an anchor, a safe place, a place of growth for their wives which in turn has had an influence on them.
Early on in our group Jennifer noted that her prayers were being widened. She began by praying for each of us but found that her concerns were expanded to include all who were dear to us, whatever people and situations we talked about, the needs in the world that touched each of us. Yes, the group is for us, and not just for us.
Somehow this all sounds very serious. In fact, humor, laughter, and birthday cards are important ingredients as we walk together and hold one another’s stories. For my group, all of that is particularly cultivated during the first movement of each meeting — lunch together, provided in a rotating fashion which we call “lead and feed.” The person who brings the lunch also brings an opening reading and guides us through the process, step by step.
I am enormously grateful for the anchor and place of transformation this group is for me. I am also enormously hopeful that this process, group spiritual direction, can continue to be a transformative container for many other participants and groups.
If you are interested in experiencing group spiritual direction within a prayerful community, Shalem is offering a Group Spiritual Direction Workshop Sept 21-24 in Lexington, Virginia. Deepen your contemplative grounding and expand your capacity to listen to God on behalf of others. Click here for workshop details.
If you are looking for an ongoing opportunity to practice group spiritual direction, consider joining a Sacred Listening Circle. Gather with others to practice deep listening, actively receiving the wisdom and deep stirrings of the Spirit in each person. We do this for ourselves, each other and on behalf of every person and our planet. A Circle is starting this fall, and will meet regularly in the Shalem library in Washington, DC.
Lois Lindbloom first experienced group spiritual direction with Rose Mary Dougherty and others at Shalem (www.shalem.org). Learn more from Rose Mary’s books, Group Spiritual Direction: Community for Discernment and The Lived Experience of Group Spiritual Direction and Lois’ booklet Prayerful Listening: Cultivating Discernment in Community, all available at the Shalem store. Lois’ booklet is also available via email@example.com.