Conversatio Divina

Part 17 of 17

Discernment and the Experience of God

David G. Benner

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 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.

In Ignatian spirituality, this thought is usually expressed in terms of the desirability and possibility of finding God in all things. Rather than searching for God in religious or spiritual experiences, we need to remember that God is present in all of life. In fact, it may be more helpful to think of a religious dimension of experience than to think of religious experience. Human experience always has a number of dimensions: psychological, physiological, sociological, to name but a few. But since God exists and is both immanent in as well as transcendent to creation, it also makes sense to speak of a religious or spiritual dimension. Every human experience can have a religious or spiritual dimension, and every experience has the possibility of being an encounter with God.

If you have not been accustomed to seeking God in all things and all experiences, I suspect this notion that God is present in all of life may seem a little absurd. You may, for example, think of personal experiences of injustice or suffering that make it seem preposterous to try to find God in such places. But when God seems absent, it is we who are failing to see, usually because we think God dwells only in places of light and forget that God is also in the darkness. The Dutch Jew, Etty Hillesum, found God in the midst of the horrors of the Nazi roundup of her people. And even though Jesus felt as if God had abandoned him in the hours of struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane, he knew that his Father was, in fact, present as he opened himself to God in prayer.

Despite the testimony of the mystics who speak of the possibility of occasional direct mystical encounters with God that seem unmediated by other experiences, normally we meet God in mediated ways—in Scriptures, in the Eucharist, in other people, in the midst of life experiences in which God may or may not be part of our consciousness. Any human experience can disclose God. Exactly where God is in most experiences may be far from obvious, but this should not blind us to the truth. It should, rather, encourage us to seek the sort of spiritual discernment that allows us to see what truly is.

Discernment is important because of the multidimensionality of human experience. Learning to find God in all things comes only with practice in spiritual attentiveness, but it also comes only through discernment. This brings us to the crucial role of what the Jesuits call the Examination of Consciousness, or the prayer of the Examen. Practiced daily as a start, more often as one progresses, taking time to ask prayerfully, “Lord, where were you in my recent experience?” is a prayer of faith and a practice of discernment. Any experience can be examined to discover the presence of God. Learning to become aware of God’s presence in the midst of our daily experience is to come closer to the Ignatian ideal of finding God in all things. It is to know that we are not alone. It is to know that God is indeed with us. What could be more blessed than that!