To truly engage in communal discernment, that is, to discern in the Spirit the direction a community is being invited to take, it must be presupposed that every member of the community is of one heart in desiring God’s direction for them. In other words, there must be a true sense of communion.
There are three steps in doing any discernment, whether individually or as a community: prayer, the gathering, reasoning through and discernment of data, attention to confirmation in the Spirit.
Every member of the community must pray continually for FREEDOM from his or her limited human vision in order to be able to discern the dream of God and the common good. This does not mean to repress the feelings that come from the lack of freedom, but to honestly acknowledge these tendencies and give them to God in prayer for purification: “Lord, that I may see!” (Mark 10:51)
Gathering of Evidence (Reasoning/Intellect)
Every bit of “evidence”/”argument” that is presented to the community for “sifting” must be seen for what it is in itself, and the feelings that it evokes are to be weighed in the presence of Christ (prayer). In other words, discern the spirits: is it a consolation or a desolation as I hold this information in prayer?
Do the feelings come from a place of “un-freedom” within myself?
Do the feelings come from a “movement” toward or away from the God-center in myself?
The ability to engage in discernment of spirits in this way presupposes that each person is oriented toward God and God’s vision as his or her ultimate value. The human heart, when FREE, acts as a compass point being drawn toward the “true north” of Christ or away. Discernment is necessary to know whether one is truly free in this particular question.
Prayerful and responsible reflection is a continual interplay among the following:
- the evidence of the concrete reality
- contemplation of the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ, the Gospel, the living tradition of the Church, and one’s own spiritual experience.
- These are in continual conversation, and even when a decision is discerned, there is need for constant attention to the changing reality, and the confirmation in the Spirit.
Confirmation in the Spirit
When a decision has been discerned it is necessary to seek confirmation through significant consolation, a sense of “rightness” (even if requiring a certain death to self for some members “for now”) on a feeling level, a deep peace and love of God and community. This is the “fruit” of the Spirit. Is there evidence of “good” spiritual fruit?
Sometimes there may be a few individuals or small group who still feel as though the proposal is not a good option. They may have reservations regarding the wisdom of the larger group in this instance. It is important to listen to the “dissident” voice(s) as a part of the data. If the weight of the evidence seems to be inviting the community into a particular direction, however, these people may be asked if, for the sake of communion, they can “step aside” for now for the sake of moving forward, as the community then discerns whether there is sufficient confirmation in the Spirit. In this way, the reservations are acknowledged and kept in advisement for the future. This invitation to step aside helps to assure that no wisdom is lost, nor is are there people left behind. This may lessen the risk of conscious or unconscious sabotage, as these voices are honored. These voices are an important remind to the whole to avoid “group-think” that may miss the wisdom of the margins.
The Example Among the First Jesuits
When Ignatius himself discerned the beginnings of his own congregation with his first companions, they used a method that has continued to be used effectively in each generation.
1) They prayed intensely for light and peace regarding their question.
2) During the time of personal prayer and deep discernment regarding the issue, they did not speak to one another, each seeking freedom and clarity from the Holy Spirit in his own heart.
3) Each one came to a conclusion after his own deliberation as to what course was most in keeping with God’s will, according to his own lights. This required each individual to do his own discernment of spirits regarding the proposal at hand, and to determine what direction seemed to bear the greatest fruit: consolation.
4) When the companions came together for communal discernment, each spoke “with all simplicity and frankness” the reasons AGAINST the issue that had come up in his own prayer and reasoning. Starting with the “negative” allowed for the clearing of the air and the dissipation of the negative feelings that often accompany reflection on the conflicts.
5) The next day, each spoke his reasons FOR the proposal that had come up in his own prayer and reasoning. These reasons did not just emerge from the intellect, but the “felt knowledge” born of reflection and discernment.
6) The weight of the evidence based on these revelations made it clear the direction that God was leading them, without their having clouded the issue with their own egos and debates.
This was the experience of Ignatius and his first companions who were men of profound prayer and a deep desire to surrender themselves ever MORE to the greater honor and glory of God. Futrell states pointedly that “failure in communal discernment most often is the result of the fact that the men engaging in the discernment do not pray.” But he is speaking to his Jesuit brothers, all of whom have learned discernment of spirits through the Spiritual Exercises, and have a made a commitment to discern together the ever-new call of God through the concrete circumstances in which they live. Still, every participant is more or less free in any given instance of discernment. Discernment done in community can shed light on these areas of blindness, as each person speaks his or her own truth born of intense, focused prayer and reflection on the data.
 John Carroll Futrell, “Ignatian Discernment,” Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits 2, no. 2 (April, 1970): 47-88. The contents of this handout are a distillation of this article.
 Ibid., 72.
When was the last time you were gathered in community (two or three or more) to decide a particular direction for the group? How free of personal agenda were you? What feelings came up in you as you deliberated with the group? If you were aware of fear or un-freedom, how did you respond? Have you have the experience of surrendering these un-freedoms for the sake of the whole? As you replay these scenarios, how was God present to you and to the group each case?
Share the fruit of your prayer in the Practice.
Share where you have seen an effective communal discernment lived out in your own experience or in another’s experience.
Identify a simple communal discernment your group could engage in for practice. Or, for what kinds of decisions could you imagine this type of prayer working?
Click here for a PDF version of the handout: Discerning a Community Proposal