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Discernment and the Experience of God

The articles in this issue have presented a number of wonderful ways of understanding and practicing discernment—and reasons why it is important. In this closing page I would like to explore briefly what I consider to be the most important reason discernment is essential if we want our spiritual eyes to be opened and to live with awareness of God’s presence. That reason is the nature of human experience—or more particularly, the nature of our experience of God.

In Spiritual Direction and the Encounter with God, William Barry argues that the possibility of humans’ experiencing the transcendent Wholly Other is grounded in the fact that this same God is also immanent—forever connected to the material world and our experiences within it. Every experience we have involves this created world in which God resides. Furthermore, since—as we are assured by the Apostle Paul—Christ is in us, not simply in the world, every experience is even more closely connected to God. In fact, Barry argues, it is not possible for a human to have any sort of experience of which God is not a part.

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Beyond Words: An Invitation to Solitude and Silence

If the truth be told, it was desperation that first drew me into solitude and silence. I wish I could say it was for loftier reasons—pure desire for God or some such thing. But in the beginning it was desperation, plain and simple. There were things that needed fixing in my life, longings that were painfully unmet; I had tried everything I knew to fix what was broken and to fill what was lacking, but to no avail.

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Living a Little Rule of Life: Pilgrimage to a Motherhouse

I recently had the privilege of going on pilgrimage to France to visit the places holy to the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Our first stop was in Annecy, where we stayed in the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Originally this convent had belonged to the Sisters of the Visitation, a cloistered order founded in 1612. It was a wonderful old building, complete with a cloistered walk. Was it because this house had begun as a monastery that it had a cloistered walk, or was that the way all religious houses were built at that time? I don’t know. But whatever its origin, this cloistered walk had a profound effect on me. Something stirred within my soul as I walked its sacred space. I felt solitude and silence and a sense of being one with God and my surroundings.

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One Day of Silence and Solitude

I didn’t want to write this article. My inner world is too noisy. I depend on my distractions too much. How could I write about silence and solitude when I know so little about either? Then the Spirit spoke: “Spend a day with us, alone and quiet, and journal what happens. Let that be your article.” So that’s what I’ve done. I’ve written what follows, in journal style, to myself. But you’re welcome to listen in.

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Life with the Brothers

Several months ago, Gary Moon invited me to contribute to Conversations: Gifts From the Monastery. “Several writers will spend a week-long retreat at monasteries from various traditions; perhaps you could represent the evangelical tradition and visit a Protestant retreat house. See if it would work for you to go,” he urged, “and write an article about your experience—about the gifts you’ve received there.”

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In Appreciation of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani
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If you knew my background, you would not expect me to write in appreciation of a Trappist monastery. I was born into a family with very little interest in religion and a definite prejudice against anything Roman Catholic. Both my mother and my father had Baptist backgrounds, but my earliest memories of church are of attending séances. At the time, my mother was trying to cope with a failing marriage in a Spiritualist Church in St. Louis which taught that, through a medium, you could contact the late departed for three years after they died. My father was an alcoholic. When he was sober, he was an atheist; when he was drunk, he was a fundamentalist. After we moved to the Missouri Ozarks in 1937, my father, when barely coherent and mobile, would drag my brother Gene and me to Cave Spring Landmark Missionary Baptist Church about  a mile from the farm we lived on. Landmark Baptists seriously doubted whether any except their kind of Baptists were Christians, and they certainly wouldn’t have included Roman Catholics.

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Graced in Silence: Gifts from a Monastic Community

Is there anything more countercultural or counterintuitive than spending a day—or a few days in a monastery? And yet, when I arrive and get settled in my spartan cell, I come to realize how much I actually yearn to be here. Why? Because my culture and my intuition continually pull me in opposite directions, toward priorities that are in conflict with what a monastery embodies.

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Trusting Myself to the Other

From their beginnings, monasteries have practiced the charism of hospitality. In the first centuries C.E., monasteries provided a safe place for the wayfarer, for the troubled, for the fugitive—and ever for the pilgrim. Pilgrims journey to sacred places as an act of religious devotion. While we may tend to think of Muslims making their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca, or Hindus making the annual pilgrimage to the Ganges, Christians, too, have a long history of pilgrimage. From earliest centuries Christians have journeyed to the Holy Land, to visit the “holy places” where Jesus lived. And everywhere monasteries provided hospitality and refuge. By the year 400, there were already some two hundred monasteries that took in pilgrims visiting Jerusalem.

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The Living Sacrament

I did not see it coming. It had been years since I gladly departed from the church that had raised me. In youthful arrogance I had decided the traditions and rituals of this community were both unnecessary and restrictive, and I shed them like an unwanted and ill-fitting garment. But now, here I was, for the first time, feeling the undeniable attraction of these ancient ways, and I was deeply disturbed.

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Gifts of Freedom: The Sabbath and Fasting

Almost every year for ten years I stayed for a few days at a Benedictine monastery for women. During an early visit, one of the sisters told me how special Sundays are at the monastery, and over the years I observed many signs of festivity on Sundays. The sisters wore dressier clothes, the food was even more abundant and delicious, and they decorated their beautiful chapel with flowers, textiles, and candles in colors that reflected the church year. I learned that the sisters slept later on Sundays, and I noticed a joyful and relaxed air that permeated the community.

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