Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life by Henri Nouwen edited by Michael Christensen and Rebecca Laird

Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life cover imageSummary: Discernment is an essential part of Christian life. 

I am very mixed about posthumously completed books, especially those that are edited together. On the one hand, there are books like Dorothy Sayers’ Thrones, Dominations that was found years after her death and was edited and completed by Jill Paton Walsh and then continued on with books that were written only by Jill Paton Walsh, and I think that gave a new life to Peter Wimsey in a way I appreciate. But there are works that are not up to the author’s quality during their lifetime.

This is my third posthumous book by/with Nouwen; in this case, the editor/authors may not have waited long enough before publishing it. Nouwen passed away in 1996. There have been several revelations about his sexuality and other issues that were not discussed during his life. I plan on picking up a biography soon because while I have read several of Nouwen’s books, I only know his life from what he wrote in the books I have read, and I need more. (A post about the biography I read after this.)

For this book in particular, Nouwen spends a lot of time discussing the discernment about moving to L’Arche and the discernment of the people in leadership at L’Arche. All of that reads quite differently in light of the abuse that has been revealed over the past several years by Jean Vanier and others connected to him. Father Thomas Philippe was Vanier’s spiritual mentor and the head of a heterodox and spiritually abusive group. The Vatican investigated Philippe in the 1950s, and he was forbidden from exercising any priestly ministry or giving spiritual guidance because the Vatican found the abuse allegations credible. But he continued to lead his group through Vanier and was known as the cofounder of L’Arche. Nouwen specifically mentions Philippe as a holy man and his teaching of how God speaks through those around you as part of the discernment process. Philippe used abusive practices to spiritually manipulate women into sexual relationships with himself and others in the group.

I would not have read this book if I had known the long section on L’Arche and Vanier and Philippe. But it may be good that I did. Discernment is a fallible process. One of the reasons that many Protestants have been wary of discernment is because it is not only possible but probably that we will get discernment wrong.

Nouwen was constantly questioning his discernment. And he was wrong about more than a few things. This line seems good, but read in the light of Philippe’s similar belief that his impulses to use others were spiritually appropriate and even “good” is a warning.

“Discernment, on the other hand, is about listening and responding to that place within us where our deepest desires align with God’s desire. As discerning people, we sift through our impulses, motives, and options to discover which ones lead us closer to divine love and compassion for ourselves and other people and which ones lead us further away.”

I agree with many of Nouwen’s comments like:

“The first task of a faith community is to create sacred time and space, when and where we can allow God to reshape our hearts and lives and communities.”


“To want to know God’s plan and purpose without regular prayer and engagement with scripture and God’s people is like trying to bake a cake without assembling the various ingredients. Discernment grows out of the life of faith rooted in community.”

But this is why it is so important that we hold leaders of faith communities to a high level of accountability because the very nature of the community and the faith of those around them becomes distorted when the leadership distorts their discernment toward their own power or pleasure.

There is value in many of the thoughts in this book. But I also think the value is strongest when we know the extent of the harm from L’Arche’s leaders. As far as I am aware, there are no accusations of abuse of the disabled members of L’Arche. The purpose of the community was to treat the disabled as valuable members of the community who were made in the image of God and, therefore, worthy of love and dignity. But that good work was no justification for the evil work of spiritual and sexual abuse of many others.

I will have to continue to grapple with this partly because I think the church needs to return to teaching discernment. In light of the reading Karen Swallow Prior’s Evangelical Imagination and how our social imaginaries contribute to how we see the world, the inability to see things like Christian nationalism or spiritual abuse or even particular beliefs like the manipulation around the teaching of the rapture as problematic will always limit the ability of discernment to be accurate.

Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life by Henri Nouwen edited by Michael Christensen and Rebecca Laird Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

Leave a Comment