The Sacred Map
Looking beyond ourselves for God's direction
and knowing where we are and where we are going are pretty important to most of
us. Whether it is when we are walking or driving, or more abstractly, when we
are making plans for our lives, we like to have a sense of direction and
purpose. Walking and driving usually require only some experience of
having been in the area before, and a few maps. Shaping a direction and making
plans for our lives involves a process that we find more challenging. How are we
to know what we are to do and where we should go?
Anyone can rely upon imagination, good reasoning, and memory to help in trying to answer these questions about direction and purpose in life. We can also ask friends and seek to learn from wise persons who can offer guidance through talks, or books and articles. In this general sense, discernment about what we should do and where we should go with our lives will involve looking within, and using the powers of our consciousness in a process of reflection. Discernment in this sense is sometimes spoken of as a matter of "listening to ourselves," or of gaining further knowledge of ourselves. Even if we receive insight and advice from others, at the end of the day we know that we must make a decision for ourselves. And the more important the decision, the more important it is for us to be at peace within about the choices we may be considering.
It is important to notice about this basic kind of discernment that it is primarily shaped in relation to self. Our goal is to look within ourselves, and to come to a resolve about what we should do in relation to an inner sense of leading and direction.
Religious persons, and especially Christians, usually hope for more of the process of discernment than simply an increase in our self-knowledge. As important as this kind of knowledge is, Christian belief in the God who has taught us about himself through the Scriptures leads us to expect and ask for more. Discernment for Christians involves discernment that is shaped in relation to God, in relation to a source of knowledge, wisdom, and direction, that is beyond our selves.
One of the most frequent themes in the Bible is the theme of journey, and of journeys undertaken at the request or inspiration of God. Noah and his family undertake a great journey to a new world in the Ark; Abraham and Sarah and their extended family are called in old age to a new land; the people of Israel are freed from slavery in Egypt and are led to a bountiful promised land. Each of these great journeys becomes an important metaphor for the spiritual journey that Christians make in coming to faith in the presence of God in Jesus of Nazareth, who came to be called the Christ, the Anointed One. In coming to this faith, we leave the old 'land' of attitudes and assumptions that were centered around ourselves, and have journeyed, sometimes with great difficulty, to the new 'land' of hope and faith that God in Christ is the true center of the world.
Discernment for Christians has some real parallels with the kind of discernment that everyone does. When we need to shape purpose and direction for our lives we, like others, can ask friends and seek to learn from wise persons in the Church who have offered guidance through talks, or books and articles. We even turn to those very journey stories in the Bible, and other passages in the Bible which reflect on them, as kinds of spiritual 'maps' for us to use in seeking to know what we should do and where we should go. And like others, we will look within and use the powers of our consciousness in a process of reflection, in our effort to see and know more clearly what our direction and purpose should be. But there is this one important difference. We believe that the kind of discernment we are to do is something more than 'listening to ourselves' and gaining greater knowledge of ourselves.
Discernment for Christians is a matter of listening to God, and gaining greater knowledge of God's will for our lives. This is where our Trinitarian experience and knowledge of God becomes significant. We do not simply think about, pray to, or hope to experience a God who is with us. We pray with and experience a God who is in us, and who has drawn us into himself. Jesus as the Risen Son of the eternal Father has spiritually reached out his hands and invited us to stand with him and in him, and share in his relationship with the Father. As a result, he invites us to pray with him, and through him, to the Father, in the loving power of the Holy Spirit. What this means for discernment is that for us, discernment will always involve listening for, and seeking to know, guidance, wisdom, purpose and direction from beyond ourselves, and not simply from within.
The same God who called so many in the history of the people of Israel to journey to him, and with him, calls us. The same God who in Jesus called so many to be his followers, and to bear his presence in the world after Jesus' death and resurrection, calls us. He calls us through the Son, in the power of the Spirit, to see and know his will for the world. And he calls us to see and know his will for ourselves. Discernment for us, therefore, involves listening for more than a settled interior resolve—listening for more than a clarity within our own conscious powers for what we should do. It involves listening, seeing, hearing, and knowing what we are to do and where we are to go as a result of God's leading and direction in our lives.
So often, we make this kind of discernment our goal, and we think of it as a process of searching and finding. In searching and finding, we are the searchers, and God is the one who is sought; we are the ones who hope to find, and God (and whatever God may choose to give us) is the one who will be found. But another characteristic of so many of the biblical stories about the call to journeys is that so often, the stories are about God searching and finding people like us, and people like us having the experience of being found. As Christians who have been drawn into the life of God through Baptism, who know and worship the Father through the Son in the Spirit, we have already been found. We do not need to search. We need to listen.
One of those persons in the Bible who had the experience of being found and of being called was Samuel. Samuel actually heard his voice being called in the middle of the night. The old priest who Samuel had gone to live with, as a kind of apprentice, gave him some good advice. "Say this," he said: "Speak, Lord, for thy servant is listening." The key to discernment, for Christians, is just this kind of listening. And if our listening is a part of our prayers, then what we come to hear will be something that we know in love. For the prayer into which we are drawn as participants - the prayer of the Son to the Father in the Spirit - is the prayer of love. And what we come to know through this prayer, we come to know through love.
"Speak, Lord, for thy servant is listening. Through prayer, thy servant is open to thy leading." These are the kinds of words that make Christian discernment possible.
Copyright ©2003 The Rev. Canon Stephen Holmgren