Steve Bruce, the facilitator of our St. John's Episcopal Church men's retreat this weekend, began by explaining the difference between decision and discernment. Do we want Chevy or Ford, blue or red, steak or fish? Decision. Move your parents into your house or assisted living? Move your family to another state to be closer to loved ones? Accept a promotion when you really love the job you have? These are choices ripe for discernment -- a process of finding the outcome that moves us closer to God and our neighbor, the choice that matches our estimation of what God wants for us.
The right answer can end up being different from what we thought we wanted, at least at first. As Steve described it to us 15 seekers gathered in a circle at a golf resort in suburban San Diego, discernment is different from making a moral choice because we're usually choosing not between right or wrong but between two goods. It's also different from the classic lone-wolf model of American male decision-making, because by definition we can't do discernment by ourselves. God's part of the conversation, of course, but so's the community. Discernment entails putting as much stock in how others see us and our dilemmas as we do ourselves.
AAs (who often are the most spiritually sophisticated among us, since a mature relationship with God has become a requisite of survival) understand this as a willingness to submit themselves to a higher power as well as to regular accountability in a group setting where questions and observations can be severe (if also, usually, loving). Asking for and accepting others' judgment and insights can be scary. It can also be freeing, once we release ourselves to the belief that God and the Holy Spirit have us and all things (even our anxieties, fears, illnesses, broken relationships, joblessness, bankruptcies) well in hand.
We had teaching and discussion sessions Friday night and Saturday morning and evening, and we'll share Holy Eucharist together Sunday morning before heading home. From this summary you may have discerned that Saturday afternoon was set aside for what used to appear on the schedule of overachieving secret napper Richard Nixon as "staff time." I asked a buddy in his 40s when he'd last had a weekend afternoon off. "You mean, just for me?" he said. "I think it was when I was in graduate school."
Meeting up again before dinner, we enjoyed comparing notes on our sabbath time. Four played golf. Others hiked, worked out, played guitar, read, watched football. Several mentioned naps. I bought a bottle of water and followed the magic blue dot on my phone up Penasquitos, through wafts of afternoon BBQing and past houses already ready for Halloween, to a dead-end street called Avenida Maria (guide me, Holy Mother!), where I found a gate leading into the Black Mountain Open Space Park. The hike up a steep, rocky trail through chaparral and fragrant sage liked to kill me. I hoped for an ocean view, but not quite. But I could smell the sea, as you almost always can in San Diego. On the ridge line, I captured this image of discernment -- a fork in the trail, lying before a man with time to kill. Two good choices, surely.
I took the path that led back down to Albertson's, where I bought a loaf of sourdough bread which, standing for the last time in our sacred circle tomorrow morning, we'll consecrate as Jesus Christ's body. Thinking of ourselves as having that authority, freedom, and unity, and resisting the prevailing worldly illusions of scarcity and constraint, may be the most daring discernment of all.