Listening with the Heart

“Discernment, in a most general sense, is the capacity to recognize and respond to the presence and the activity of God…”[1]  “Corporate or leadership discernment is the capacity to recognize and respond to the presence and activity of God as a leadership group relative to the issues being faced and the making of decisions in response to His Presence.”[2]

The title of Sr. Mary Margaret Funk’s book, Discernment:  Listening with the Ear of the Heart[3] itself offers a succinct definition of discernment.  “Discernment is the function of the whole person:  body, mind, spirit.  Discernment is an engaging process that takes time, energy and stamina.”[4]

Ben Campbell Johnson expresses that discernment contains the element of mystery.  “In some sense,” writes Johnson, “every meeting with God contains mystery…No revelation is ever full and complete, so mystery is ever present.” Luis Bush offers:  “Discernment is the ability to see the revelatory meaning in the ongoing process of one’s own or another’s life, to see, as the saints say, “with the eyes of faith” the salvific significance of what seem to be ordinary events.”[5]

Discernment is only significant to the work of a team when all are willing to listen carefully.  “All listening begins and ends in God.  The God who listens in infinite compassion is the God who creates in each of us the desire to listen to Him, to His world, to each other, and to ourselves so that, filled with His Spirit, we might continue His work here on earth.”[6] Biblical hospitality, which is foundational to Christian practice, has many dimensions.  Listening as hospitality opens the door for foreign opinions, differences in priorities, and other breach-laden possibilities, to be reconciled.  Listening is inherently a hospitable practice where meaning and understanding are sought and appropriate actions follow. The practice of hospitality as a Christian virtue is deeply embedded in Sacred Scripture. Like all biblical virtue, hospitality has its origin in God, who exercises hospitality as a mode of divine love and compassion for the human being, and particularly as a response to any form of alienation or breach of relationship.[7]

Listen to me!  Listening is prepositional.  We listen to, for, and with.  Discernment is the act of listening.  Listening is a true and fundamental practice of hospitality.  “Listening is always involved in hospitality.”[8] Spirituality, including biblical hospitality, has come to be recognized as a critical component for all organizations—secular and sacred. Bolman and Deal state

“Take on the challenge to search for “new ways to infuse secular organizations with soul and spirit.  Spirit…is “necessary for today’s managers to become tomorrow’s leaders, for today’s sterile bureaucracies to become tomorrow’s communities of meaning, and for our society to rediscover its ethical and spiritual center.[9] All organizations need to understand the role of soul, spirit, and discernment. Communication is God’s idea!  God is personal, present in the world today and still unfolding His purposes.  He listens; He speaks in a myriad of ways.

Donald Coggan wrote:  “Christians believe in a God who speaks.  Ours is not a silent God, a God Who sits, Sphinx-like, looking out unblinking on a world in agony…God speaks because he loves.  Love always seeks to communicate.”[10] He speaks through creation.  He speaks through friendship and mystery.  He speaks through awe and music; through imagination and intuition. He meets us in the vast silence and in the various sounds of community.

God wants to be known, and He thoroughly knows us.  He is both gracious host and intimate guest in conversation.  God’s character and ways define hospitality. Our responsibility is to be discerning.  “Discernment, which is important in any spiritual tradition, takes on a special importance in the Christian tradition because for Christianity the primary locus of divine revelation, both public and personal, is history…[12] Choosing discernment as the intentional way forward for any ministry team is counter the pragmatic, ‘get-‘er-done’ ways of Western Culture.  Discernment for teams reaches back into the ways and reasons for which a team is called into existence and forward into the new expressions from that team that will meet needs in the 21st Century.

Discernment fosters intentional hospitality towards others and allows passions, creativity, and ideas to flow as each listens deeply to their internal sense of what God is doing in them and what He is doing in the team.  “True listening will aim to illumine passion, not eliminate it and to master—even transfigure– passion, not destroy it.”[13]  In other words, both the people and the practices of the team will be shaped as we listen deeply to the Spirit.  Bishop Job Reuben states:

“We will discover that our relationship to one another is strengthened as together we seek God’s will above all else.  [Teams] often discover a new unity, faith, vitality, mission, and sense of God’s nearness as they fervently seek God’s will…we are called to leave the land of self-centered and self-serving decision-making for the promised land of seeking, finding and doing God’s will in all things.”[14]

While mystery is certainly entailed, discernment is anything but impractical!  Embracing the theological notion that God speaks today precludes any surprise that very practical outcomes are the result of listening to God and to each other.  Bush describes several outcomes of listening well as a team:  improved work environment, reduced tensions, with fewer mistakes and misunderstandings.[15]  These outcomes are aided when “[teams seek] to listen to what God is doing and saying by collecting insights, beliefs, and attitudes with regard to the people and the programs God is using.”[16]

Discernment is more than receiving a roadmap.  It is opportunity to listen carefully and with full-orbed intention of growing relationally with God and others by practicing hospitality.  Discernment is not a science, nor an art.  It is fundamentally relationship with all the accompanying messiness that relationships offer. Rightly employing listening as an indispensable aspect of discernment and hospitality will enable effective teams in service and ministry for this present age.



[1] Ruth Haley Barton, Pursuing God’s Will Together:  A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2012), 10.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Mary Margaret Funk, Discernment Matters:  Listening With the Ear of the Heart.  Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013.
[4] Ibid., 133.
[5] Luis Bush. “The Power of Listening.” Missiology: An International Review, January, 2005:  17-27.
[6] Anne Long, Listening (London, England:  Daybreak, 1990), 179.
[7] Scott C. Alexander and Mary C. Boys.  “Christian Hospitality and Pastoral Practices from a Roman Catholic Perspective.” Theological Education, Vol. 47, no. 1 (2012):  47-53
[8] Lonni Collins Pratt, Radical Hospitality:  Benedict’s Way of Love (Brewster, Massachusetts:  Paraclete Press, 2011), 264.
[9] Audrey N. Seidman.  “Listening for the Sacred Within—And at Work.” OD Practioner 43, no. 3, Summer 2011: 36-43.  Business Source Complete. EBSCOhost (accessed March 13, 2014).
[10] Donald Coggan, The Sacrament of the Word (St. Louis, Missouri:  Harper Collins, 1987), pp. 31-32.
[11] (Johnson, 2004), Viii.
[12] Sandra M. Schneiders, “Spiritual Discernment in the Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena.” Horizons9, no. 1(March 1, 1982):  47-59, ATLA Religion Database with ATLA Serial, EBSCOhost (accessed March 13, 2014).
[13] Christine Valters Paintner, the Artist’s Rule (Notre Dame, IN:  Sorin Books, 2011), 97.
[14] Rueben Job, A Guide to Spiritual Discernment (Nashville, TN: 1996), 15.
[15] (Bush, January 2005).
[16] Ibid.