SP 2499 Art of Discernment

Diploma in the Art of Spiritual Direction
San Francisco Theological Seminary
January, 2002
Instructor:  Elizabeth Liebert


            This course treats the theory and practice of spiritual discernment in two of four arenas of human experience, namely, the intrapersonal (where we will concentrate), and, more briefly, the interpersonal. It will raise the implications for both individual and group spiritual direction in these two arenas. It is intended to compliment the course Systems, Structures and Spiritual Guidance, which treats of structural and environmental arenas and processes for discernment, as well as other aspects of the intensive session, especially group supervision. Students will be asked to discern an issue of their own, serve as spiritual directors involved in each other's discernment and function as members of discerning groups.


At the end of this course students will be able to:

1.  Offer a coherent working definition of discernment and locate it within the larger Christian tradition of discernment.

2.  Assist, at (at least) a beginning level, another person and group to discern an issue of importance.

3.  Articulate and justify criteria for assessing the adequacy of one's (and one's directee's) discernment.


1.  Active participation in discussion and practice.

2.  Completion of required reading.

3.  Completion of post-class "integrative essays" (a total of about 14-16 pp.).  Specific directions will be given the final day of class.  These essays must be postmarked by Friday, March 15, 2002.


Unless a letter grade is specifically requested, students will be graded pass/fail.  Letter grades are appropriate in the case of certain degree programs--e.g. if you intend to transfer this course into a degree program where GPA is important.


Farnham, Suzanne, et. al. Listening Hearts:  Discerning Call in Community. Revised Edition.  Harrisburg PA:  Morehouse, 1991.

Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works, ed. George E. Ganss.  Classics of Western Spirituality.  New York:  Paulist Press, 1991.

Johnson, Luke. Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church. Nashville:  Abingdon, 1996.

McDermott, Gerald R. Seeing God: Twelve Reliable Signs of True Spirituality. Downers Grove: InterVaristy Press, 1995. [After the initial assignments was sent out, this book was reported out of print.  A substitution, to be given in class:  Evan B. Howard, Affirming the Touch of God: A Psychological and Philosophical Exploration of Christian Discernment (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000): 85-132.]

McKinney, Mary Benet. Sharing Wisdom:  A Process for Group Decision Making.  Allen, TX: Tabor, 1987. [After the initial assignments went out, this book was reported out of print. Substitution: Olsen,  all, but especially Chapter 5]

Palmer, Parker.  “Clearness Committee: A Way of Discernment.” Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life (July/August, 1988): 37-40.

Smith  Gordon T.  Listening to God in Times of Choice:  The Art of Discerning God’s Will.  Downers Grove: InterVaristy Press, 1997.


Farnham, Suzanne, Stephanie A. Hull and R. Taylor McLean. Grounded in God:  Listening Hearts Discernment for Group Deliberations. Harrisburg: Morehouse,  1996.

Linn, Dennis, Shelia Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn. Sleeping With Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (New York: Paulist  Press, 1995).

Lonsdale, David. Listening to the Music of the Spirit: The Art of Discernment. Notre Dame IN:  Ave Maria Press, 1992.

Olsen, Charles. Transforming Church Boards into Communities of Spiritual Leaders.  Washington DC: Alban Institute, 1995.

Wolff, Pierre. Discernment: The Art of Choosing Well. Ligouri, MO: Triumph Books, 1993.


Day 1:  (Monday, January 7, 2002)

Morning session:  Getting launched.  What is discernment? ( all plenary)

            1.  Course description, and other organizational matters

            2.  Relationship of this course to the "Experience Circle"

            3.  Defining discernment inductively

            4.  A model of discernment for use in decision-making

Afternoon session:

            1.  Review Contemplative Listening (plenary)

            2.  Determining a discernment question (plenary)

            3. Practicing spiritual direction in discernment situations (small group)

Relevant reading: All authors on definitions/descriptions of discernment and personal qualities for discernment; Farnham, Listening Hearts; Johnson, Scripture and Discernment, all, but especially Ch. 6-8.

Day 2: (Tuesday, January 8, 2002)  Discerning personal decisions, Part I.

Morning session: 

            1.  Using rational processes to weigh elements (plenary and personal prayer)

            2.  Using intuition in discernment (plenary and personal prayer)

            3.  Contemplative Listening:  Noticing the movements (small group)

Afternoon session: 

            1.  Practicing direction skills in discernment situations         

            2.  Preparation for Clearness Committee (for day 4, Thursday)

Relevant reading: Smith, Listening to God, Ch 4-7; Wolff, Discernment, Part I, Part II, Ch 1, Appendix 3

Day 3:  (Wednesday, January 9, 2002)  Discerning personal decisions, Part II.

Morning session: 

            1.  Using imagination in discernment (plenary and personal prayer)

            2.  Using religious affections in discernment (plenary and personal prayer)

            3.  Confirming a discerned decision (plenary)

            4.  Contemplative Listening:  Noticing the movements (small group)

Afternoon session:

            1.  Practicing direction skills in discernment situations (small group)

Relevant reading: Smith Listening to God, esp. Ch 8-10; Farhnam Listening Hearts, Ch. 5; Johnson, Scripture and Discernment, esp.Ch. 6-8; Wolff, Discernment, Part II, Ch. 2-4

Day 4:  (Thursday, January 10, 2002)

Morning session: Discernment in the intrapersonal personal arena: Ignatius of Loyola (plenary)

            1.  "Election," personal decision-making in Ignatius of Loyola

            2.  "Rules for Discernment of Spirits"

            3.  Spiritual discipline for daily personal discernment: Awareness Examen

Afternoon session:  Discernment in the interpersonal arena, Part I:  Clearness Committee

            1.  Explanation of the Clearness Committee process (plenary)

            2.  Practice: discernment using clearness committee model (small group)

Relevant reading:  Ignatius of Loyola,  Spiritual Exercises, #169-189, 313-336); Palmer, “Clearness Committee” (handout); Farnham, Listening Hearts, Appendix.

Day 5:  (Friday, January 11, 2002) Criteria for assessing the adequacy of discernment

Morning session:

            1.  Jonathan Edwards:  Reliable and unreliable signs (plenary).

            2.  Exercise: Edwards on Ignatius (work groups, with feedback to whole)

Afternoon session: Discernment in the interpersonal arena, Continued

            1.  Practice: discernment using clearness committee model, cont. (small group)

            2.  Debriefing the clearness committee process (plenary)

Relevant reading:  McDermott, Seeing God;  Howard, Affirming the Touch of God, pp. 85- 132.

Day 6:  (Saturday, January 12, 2002)  Discernment in the interpersonal arena, Part II:  Communal Discernment:  Three stories (plenary)

Morning session:

            1.  Ignatian group discernment, "Deliberation of the First Fathers"

            2.  Case:  Sisters of the Holy Names

            4.  Case:  Long-range planning, Program in Christian Spirituality, SFTS

Afternoon session: Closing matters 

            1.  Awareness examen practiced as a small group over the course itself (closure)

            2.  Course evaluation, description of the post-class integrative essays (plenary)

Relevant reading: “Deliberation of the First Fathers” (handout); Olsen, Transforming Church Boards, all, esp. Ch. 5 (handout); McKinney, Sharing Wisdom, all; Wolff, Discernment, Part III; Farnham, Grounded in God; Johnson, Scripture and Discernment, Ch. 1-6, Linn, Linn and Linn, Sleeping with Bread.

Assignment postmarked:  March 15, 2002