The Discerning Heart: Discovering a Personal God by Maureen Conroy

Summary: A book for spiritual those training to be spiritual directors focusing on developing discernment and using a number of case studies to guide spiritual direction training.

The Discerning Heart is a book that was hard to track down. It is out of print and when I finally found a copy for my classes, I was sent (and charged) for two. I am ambivalent about the book. I would probably rate it about 3.5 stars if I were rating it. There were sections that were very helpful. But the case studies got very repetitive and they didn’t feel like real conversations.

Where she was helpful was a good discussion on consolation and desolation (Ignatian technical terms) and their relationship to discernment. Conroy on page 13 says that “The experience of consolation and desolation is the foundation of discernment”, but that base level assumption is simply outside the realm of understanding for most Evangelicals that I know. One of the central areas that Evangelicals will need to be convinced to participate in Ignatian Spiritual Direction is that emotions are not contrary to spiritual reality. There are those working in this area like Pete Scazzero’s work in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and Jonathan Walton’s derivative work in Emotionally Healthy Activism and Richard Foster and the late Dallas Willard’s work in discipleship through the organization Renovaré. But those are not mainstream movements at this point.

I started reading this as I was reading Jesus and John Wayne, a history of the past 75 years of how Evangelicals conceived of the implications of leadership, gender roles, authority, and discipleship. The book’s final chapter pulls out many of the players that were discussed earlier in the book. Those leaders had consensual affairs, raped employees or church members, covered up rape or child abuse of others, abused their organizational power or authority, misused funds, destroyed their or other’s families, demeaned the name of other Christians (or non-Christians) falsely, or other sins. Cases where pastors called out a particular sin, but then engaged in it, or allowed it when convenient were common. Not every person mentioned in the book advocating ‘militant masculine Christianity’ engaged in the above list, but a very high percentage did.

What struck me about Jesus and John Wayne is that virtually everyone advocating theology and Christian practice that I would now characterize as problematic was attempting these movements either as a form of Christian renewal or evangelism. But this matters to Conroy’s recounting of Ignatius’s story because no set of Christian renewal or Christian practice is without risk. Lauren Winner’s book The Dangers of Christian Practice concentrates on how Christian practices can be misused. She works out these ideas with distortions in prayer, eucharist, and baptism. Her fundamental insight into the theoretical distorting effects of innovation, renewal, or even tradition has been beneficial for me because I want to use spiritual direction as a form of renewal of evangelical Christian practice.

The leaders detailed in Jesus and John Wayne did not have a framework for discernment that was similar to what Ignatius specifies in his rules. Evangelical discernment centers on utilitarian efficiency. Does it seem to work? Can I/we do it? Does it result in numerical growth? Evangelicals have biased entrepreneurial growth, innovation, use of media, and personalized ‘felt needs’ as a means of evangelism and church growth. They have not focused on deep discipleship, systems and long-term thinking, and corporate discernment.

Conroy has a quote on page 51, “The process is slow, it happens over time, and it is not immediately obvious. The progression is such that the original thoughts are in tune with God’s ways, but they end up leading the person away from God”. That quote felt like it could have been a summary of Jesus and John Wayne. Little movements that feel like they are the right thing, but when added together show a movement that is widely divergent from where it originally started.

No movement is perfect. Winner’s insight is that there will be weaknesses in any system; we should plan for and pay attention to how those develop. But part of the way we can offset those inevitable weaknesses is to keep the conversation between different streams of Christianity open precisely because the blind spots in each will be different.

The Discerning Heart: Discovering a Personal God by Maureen Conroy: out of print

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