Monday, December 21, 2015

Advent and Discernment: How Are You Being Called to Discern?

by Father Tom McKenna, C.M.

Father Tom, left, leads discussion at a Daughters of Charity
Advent Discernment Retreat in St. Louis.

In a conversation with someone who was trying to figure out what she wanted to do in life, I asked, "What is it you're doing to find out?"

She answered, "I'm listening for something, something my insides sense is there but hasn't quite come." Not a bad depiction of the inner moods of both the season of Advent and the process of discernment.

Advent, because it features expectancy. All its images cluster around the experience of waiting for something to happen—maybe better, someone to come. The star calling the travelers ahead in the night, the Baptist's insistent "prepare ye," Mary's deep pondering of what's ahead, Joseph pulled into the future by his dream—stories filled with prompts to be alert to what's out there and coming toward us. There's something real arriving, but it's not here yet. It's on the way, and all strain to hear its first stirrings.

Discernment, because it too tilts a person's attention toward the future. Picturing radio waves traveling across a dark ocean, the discerner is like someone sitting in an off-shore tower trying to tune into those signals just about to arrive. The listener is confident they are coming, but doesn't quite know the right frequency on which the reliable ones will come. She also has to work to discriminate the sounds from the static. Like Advent, it features a certain "listening forward," an expectancy of something good and solid on the way. And like Advent, it needs a particular discipline to learn to listen better and better.

The Advent/discernment disciplines? First, a trust something solid and fulfilling is coming. Not knowing exactly what it is, the discerner and the Magi sense the goodness and promise it contains. Second, attention. The searcher and Joseph learn not to slough off signals they previously tended to ignore. They tune in. Third, a patient willingness to engage that still cloudy intuition. The discerner and Mary ponder. They sit with it in the dark, give the message time to arrive and prepare the space into which it can enter.

And so the Advent and discernment moods. There's something coming over the horizon and I want to be ready for it when it comes. In the Scriptures, Zechariah's song puts lyrics to this very thing: "The dawn from on high shall break upon us." The discerner tries to stand in the kind of space that catches that first pink glimmer as it pushes through the dark.

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