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Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life

Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life
by Henri J. M. Nouwen, with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird
New York, NY: Harper One, 2013
223 pages
Reviewed by Greg Richardson

People often ask me for help with discernment. Some are struggling with discerning their call or significant relationships, others wrestle with vocation or discerning particular guidance they believe they may have received. Some are trying to discern God’s presence in their lives, or the importance of something they have experienced. Some seek to discern between spirits of falsehood and spirits of truth. Many of the people who ask me for help with discernment would like a checklist or a roadmap, a list of steps to make discernment clear, reasonable, and predictable. They are looking for a way to make discernment more comfortable. “The premise of this book is that God is always speaking to us” (ix). Much of what I offer as a spiritual director is help people appreciate the value in the fact that there is no discernment checklist. The experiences and reflections of other people, especially in their own words, are a helpful resource in discernment.

Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life is the third volume in a trilogy that includes previously published volumes on spiritual direction and spiritual formation. It is an insightful, engaging book that, like its earlier companions, opens doors into Henri Nouwen’s reflection and writing, and is rooted in everyday life. The volume begins with a section describing discernment, with chapters on solitude and community as well as truth and falsehood. The second section discusses a variety of places where people often look for guidance, including books, nature, other people, and life events, for, as Nouwen points out, “It can be said that God’s first language is nature” (57). The third section focuses on discerning particular questions, including vocation, God’s divine presence, identity, and timing. An epilogue addresses discernment and hidden wholeness.

I gained insights and inspiration from each chapter. For example, the chapter on discerning divine presence, “Open Your Heart,” begins with a description of Nouwen’s morning hour of quiet prayer and meditation. He describes how he would become aware of God’s presence each morning: “God is greater than my senses, greater than my thoughts, greater than my heart. I do believe that God touches me in places that are hidden even to myself. And I do believe that when I pray I am in touch with the divine presence reflected in my heart. The presence of God is often subtle, small, quiet, and hidden” (113).

Nouwen writes from a Christian, and specifically Roman Catholic, perspective. His openness to other deep spiritualties is reflected in his writings. He writes about the people and ideas that have shaped his own faith, including the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton. One of the gifts of Discernment is a strong set of appendices and notes to spark further exploration.

Discernment is an important tool for spiritual directors. It is a pleasure to read writing from Nouwen that has not been previously available, and each chapter includes a set of exercises for deeper discernment. Like much of Nouwen’s writing, Discernment can be read quickly in a short time, or can be read more contemplatively over a longer period. It is an excellent way to begin exploring discernment or Nouwen’s writings.

Greg Richardson is a spiritual director and leadership coach in Pasadena, California, USA. He is also a lay oblate with New Camaldoli Monastery near Big Sur, California.

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