Spiritual Discernment Among Friends
The clearness process is a method that Quakers have developed and refined for the purpose of helping individuals in our communities with spiritual discernment. It involves bringing together a committee of spiritually seasoned Friends and inviting them into a process of communal listening, spiritual companionship, and reflection as we seek to hear God’s guidance regarding a particular focus question. A couple may seek clearness for marriage. An individual may seek clearness for membership. It can be used for a variety of questions, but it is especially valuable as a process for discerning vocation. We may have a variety of gifts, desires, and needs. We may feel pulled in many different directions, yet remain unclear about where and how we can live most creatively and serve most effectively. Maintaining clearness in the midst of a demanding life is a spiritual discipline that can ground us in lives of service and witness that are also rich in meaning and joy.
It is worthwhile to spend some time working on articulating your question, since a really good question is often more valuable than an answer, and may even have multiple answers. As you begin to form your question, live into it, let it steep like good tea, pray about it and listen for inspiration. Let your question seed your dreams and pay attention to them. Write it and re-write it until you can read it and know that you are asking it in just the way that names your desire. A really good question will widen and deepen over time; the answers that come will be provisional, serving well for awhile but always needing further discernment. The best questions do not want answers so much as companionship. Over time they become friends, guides, and mentors, living with us and in us as vocation.
A question I often ask myself to live with over time is as follows: What are my most authentic gifts, and how can I best bring them into service in the world creatively, effectively, and joyfully so as to contribute meaningfully and substantively to the world’s hunger for justice and peace?
It is also important to spend some time articulating core beliefs and assumptions. If you are asking about Spirit-led social action, then Who, What is Spirit to you? How and under what circumstances does Spirit move in the world? What are your understandings of the political process? How has change come about not only historically, but also in your own life? A lived spirituality that informs both the inward and outward life will require good theological work, your own psychological growth, and careful political analysis, all within a context of ongoing, prayerful responsiveness in the world as you find it. The following are some of my assumptions as they have developed and continue to develop over time:
- I believe that we each have a unique gift to bring to the world, that our gifts complement one another in community, and that faithfulness is not finally measured by conformity to normative religious or moral ideologies, nor even necessarily by visibility in the world, but by authenticity, integrity, and fidelity to one’s gift and call as they are discerned in prayer and community.
- My theology has been most meaningfully informed by the Process theologians. I believe that the Divine Presence offers ongoing guidance that is creative within and responsive to an unfolding universe that is being shaped moment by moment by the choices of all beings, held in infinite Love.
- I believe that our struggle toward faithfulness takes place within cultural/historical contexts in which the very structures of consciousness are shaped by forces that distort and obscure not only the reality of God, but also our own beauty and the beauty of others. I accept a “social constructionist” view of “original sin;” it makes sense to me and helps me understand the extent to which we are at the mercy of the unconscious.
- Nevertheless we grow by love, within community, and through carefully discerned critical action. “Praxis,” for me, signifies a dialectic of thoughtful, prayerful responsiveness within the world as it is, calling it to become more than it is, and becoming more than we are through faithful relationship.
What to look for in participants:
Confidentiality: I need assurances that what we talk about will not be shared outside the group. Confidentiality gives me the freedom to be as wide open as I need to be, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually.
Prayerfulness: I need participants who take seriously their faith in Divine leading. My clearness is also theirs in that deep listening to Spirit has the potential for transforming all of us and not just me. I ask participants to pray for our session both before and during the meeting.
Willingness to risk: I need participants who are willing and able to hold open a space for the unknown, the unorthodox, and who can move toward anxiety rather than away from it, resisting the urge to grasp a premature closure. Anxiety arises whenever our personal and political contexts move outside our usual frames of reference. As such, anxiety is an inevitable feature of spiritual growth; it comes in those transitional times when we are called to leave our places of comfort and certainty, to venture into the wilderness, to let go of our false gods so as to fall repeatedly into the arms of the God who is beyond naming. I need participants who know how to approach their own anxiety so that they will not abandon me at the edge of mine.
Seasoning: I want to ask people to reflect with me who are both older and younger than me; people who are both looking back on their lives and those who are looking forward. In addition to age diversity, I also want diversity of gender, class, race, and sexual orientation because I want broad perspectives and multiple points of view. If I only listen to people who are like me, I will probably get answers that are mostly like mine. However, important as diversity is, seasoning is more important. No individual will be seasoned in all things spiritual, but collectively we should be able to speak to experiences of transition, of hope and loss; joy and despair, pride and humility. A well-seasoned group will be able to push the edge of what is already known, offering both encouragement and confrontation all within a context of loving presence.
Once you’ve framed your question, explored your assumptions, selected and invited your participants, arrange a time and place and give whatever written material you’ve prepared to the participants a week or two in advance, so they can pray and reflect ahead of time. Ask someone to take notes so that interesting questions and turns in the conversation don’t get lost (or you could also tape the meeting). Ask someone to serve as facilitator and process observer, someone who can make sure that everyone is heard, and that the group doesn’t wander off track. Open with a time of worship and then ask your question. Some instructions on clearness limit participants to a format in which they only ask questions of the focus person. Thoughtful questions tend to deepen the process and invite new angles of vision. Limiting responses to questions also helps responders to resist the temptation to give advice or render an opinion. However, I prefer a meeting that is not quite so rigidly structured. If I’ve selected my participants well, I don’t worry about the process being unproductive or uncreative. If possible, try not to be constrained by the clock, rather allow the process to move to a felt sense of completion. Meet more than once if necessary, although usually some next steps will emerge into clarity within an hour or two. Close with worship, gratitude, and some time for easing back into everyday life.
A good clearness process will result not only in a clear what but also a how, including immediate next steps and an understanding of resources and supports that will be necessary for carrying through. Perhaps this will be easy. If not, you may want to ask one or two of the participants to follow up with you, offering ongoing support and encouragement. Vocation is best lived in community where our ongoing contribution is mirrored and valued. Our culture of individualism forces us into a mold of the heroic loner, and lifts up icons of social change, separating them from the communities of change that supported them (as if Dr. King single-handedly led the Montgomery bus boycott). Yet spiritually based social transformation is most radically grounded in communities that seek to live the peace and justice they want to bring to the wider world. The clearness group is already a model and witness to this process.
In the days and weeks that follow, it will also be important to pay attention to any resistances that may arise. Clarity of direction implies clarity of vision, openness of heart, and spiritual discernment. If you notice resistances to following through, then become curious about them, inquiring into them without judgment. A voice of resistance can be the voice of a deeper, unnamed truth that has yet to be heard. Listening to the soul is invariably an ongoing dialogue where our discernment and response leads to further communication from the depths. Clearness is similar to dream work where a poorly understood dream yields a corrective dream, whereas a dream that has been heard accurately often yields a dream of confirmation or deepening. Clearness is a process for listening in on the ongoing conversation between Soul and Spirit; it is unrealistic to think that we are going to get it right in one attempt. Learning the disciplines of deep inner listening is key to ongoing clearness; it is key to living into vocation. It is key to our growing into an ever-deepening ability to stand at the intersection of Spirit and world.
For Further Reading
Hoffman, Jan: “Clearness Committees and Their Use in Personal Discernment” Quaker Press of FGC, 1996. Available from Quaker Books.
Loring, Patricia: “Spiritual Discernment: The Context and Goal of Clearness Committees Among Friends” Pendle Hill Pamphlet #305, 1992. Available from the Pendle Hill Bookstore.
Palmer, Parker: “The Clearness Committee: A Communal Approach to Discernment” Available under the “Writings” tab at The Center for Courage and Renewal.