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Entering the process of Communal Discernment

By Fr Peter McIsaac SJ


How, then, as a director, guiding and participating in the directee’s personal discernment, do I cultivate self-awareness without promoting the self-absorption that runs contrary to genuine encounter, and the possibility of authentic love?

Most often, I intentionally avoid placing myself at the centre of the process; I also help the directee to identify the many and diverse forms of self-centredness that characterise spiritual autism; and I try to refocus the person’s prayer on the real and personal encounter with God.

Clearly, the role of the director in individual spiritual direction is deeply grounded in personal discernment. What could we expect, then, from the ‘facilitator’, (in a sense, the spiritual director in the group context) in a process of communal discernment?

I have tried to emphasise the importance of Conversations in the Spirit as a form of contemplation, a kind of prayer. Communal discernment, like personal discernment, is about an encounter with God. There can be, then, a spiritual blindness that is brought on by ‘self’ (or ‘group’) preoccupation: the individual in the group can resist the attentive listening required by the process; the group as a whole can revert to simply talking to one another about activities, priorities, goals, etc; or, it may at times engage a theological discussion (talking about God), which may be useful or even gratifying in itself, but which may also become a distraction from the process that intends the ‘encounter’ with God, who is present and active.

The facilitator of a communal discernment, like a spiritual director, can also get in the way of that encounter. Pope Francis has often said the protagonist of the Synod Process (and the method of Conversation in the Spirit) is the Holy Spirit. The grace is spontaneous (not created mechanically in the process) and it is God’s accomplishment. As a facilitator in a discernment process, I remove myself from the ‘centre’, in the same way that a spiritual director does in the personal discernment of a directee.

But I can provide a space and a method for listening attentively to the Spirit, who is present and active in the process. I can also assist in the identification of an orientation of self-absorption (which manifests itself in many forms of communal desolation); or conversely, the movement to unity and love in the community (consolation).

As in individual direction, my temptation as a facilitator would be to try, by my own skills and efforts alone, to create harmony and healing in the community, without a deep awareness of God’s grace as present and active in the process.

I can slip into that disposition unconsciously, and so I must always be self-aware in my role as a facilitator. And I must have the discipline, trust, and patience to allow the Spirit to move without my interference. Otherwise, I withdraw into the kind of spiritual autism to which both directors and facilitators are vulnerable.

I may do so primarily by focusing attention merely on the group’s own experience, rather than using the movements of consolation or desolation (the spiritual effect on us) as a means of discerning God’s personal and spontaneous presence in the various moments of the Conversation.

My role as a director in individual direction varies according to the maturity and needs of the directee. That is obvious. Even the great mystic, St Teresa of Avila, spoke of her need–and the value–of having a spiritual guide.

An “outside” or detached perspective is vital for exposing the deceptions and “blind spots” that diminish our subjective capacity to discern God’s presence and action.

The same holds true for my role as a facilitator in relation to the group engaged in a communal discernment. That role diminishes as a group becomes more familiar with the goal and method of the discernment process.

But the facilitator retains an important role as providing an “outside” perspective, particularly in the creation and processing of the summaries. For those less experienced in the discernment process, the facilitator plays a more significant role in the movement of the Conversation as a whole.

For a more experienced group, the facilitator may be needed most in the third round as the interpretation of the spiritual movements of the group undergoes review.

The moments of “review” in between the rounds is an important moment of discernment: How did you experience the encounter? What was God’s presence like? Did He speak to you, or “gaze upon you?” What effect did the encounter have on you (emotion, desire, insight, etc)?

A community familiar with “review” probably needs little assistance in this moment between the first and second and third rounds, but even a mature community may benefit from the guidance of the facilitator after the third round as the summaries are generated and processed by the group. The reviews deepen the awareness of the encounter throughout the process. Again, the review is focused on the encounter and not merely my own experience of the process. It is in the encounter with God itself that the discernment becomes possible and genuine.