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Advent: A Time for Discernment

Posted by The Rev. Mary Lynn Coulson on

“And the angel came to Mary and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Luke 1:28-29

Patience, waiting, stillness. We often experience Advent as a time to remind ourselves of the slow work of God, as we dim the lights and dress the church in deep blue. During this hectic time in our culture, we try to live differently, placing our hope in the God of Mary, the God who changed everything by becoming human. Advent is a time in our spiritual lives to slow down. Jesus came not in a big exciting event but slowly, he grew in Mary’s womb. Slowly, steadily, the Word of God grew in the world.

Sometimes we forget that waiting and slowing down is an active process. It doesn’t come naturally to us to wait – just look at my baby son George as his bottle sits in the warmer for five minutes! Waiting on God requires intention and practice. It takes time to slow down enough to listen.

Discernment is the Christian practice of listening to God in the daily events of our lives. Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest, writer, and theologian wrote: “Discernment is faithful living and listening to God’s love and direction so that we can fulfill our individual calling and shared mission.” Nouwen reminds us of the truth that God speaks to us not in big, dramatic events but in small, everyday moments. He writes, “Discernment allows us to “see through” the appearance of things to their deeper meaning and come to know the inter-workings of God’s love and our unique place in the world.”

Discernment requires two things – community and solitude. We cannot have one without the other.

Each day, each moment is an opportunity to practice discernment. This Advent commit to spending five minutes in silence each morning – before you check email or Instagram, connect with your breath. Repeat a simple mantra like, “Come, Holy Spirit” or “Show me your ways, O Lord” (from Psalm 25:3). You can light a candle – perhaps on an Advent wreath – to remind you that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2).

As Nouwen writes, “while discernment begins in solitude…a person honestly seeking to know God’s will and way will choose to be in community.” As Christians, we practice listening to God in solitude and listening to God in community. The messy work of living in community enlightens our quiet time in prayer, and our commitment to solitude with God deepens our ability to abide authentically with others.

We embark anew on this journey of discernment together, every day. It requires intention, and it requires continued practice. It’s not easy, but it’s the life of discipleship. And, as Nouwen writes, “when we listen to the Spirit, we hear a deeper sound, a different beat. The great movement of the spiritual life is from a deaf, non-hearing life to a life of listening.”

May you slow down enough this Advent to live a life of listening.