A Quilted Life: Reflections of a Sharecropper’s Daughter by Catherine Meeks

A Quilted Life: Reflections of a Sharecropper’s Daughter by Catherine Meeks cover imageSummary: A memoir from sharecropper’s daughter to academic to retired anti-racist educator. 

I do not know how I ran across Catherine Meeks’ work. She was a professor at Mercer and then Wesleyan College. She worked as an organizer for the city of Macon and was the founder of Lane Center for Community Engagement and Service. Then, she retired in 2008 and started another career as an anti-racist trainer within the Episcopal Church, eventually founding the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing. She again retired from that role this past December. In 2022, she received the President Joseph R. Biden Lifetime Achievement Award and the Presidential Volunteer Service Award medal.

What I enjoy about reading memoirs and biographies is that I see the complications of lives, not just the awards or recognitions they receive. Catherine Meeks was born to a sharecropper and a teacher in rural Mississippi. Her mother worked as a teacher throughout her childhood, but it took her 18 years to finish her college degree. Her father was illiterate and died when she was a child. The background of growing up in poverty during Jim Crow matters to the rest of her story. But this is not simply a Horatio Alger story of growth and success. Esau McCaulley, in a podcast interview that I cannot find right now, talked about the problems of writing a memoir as a successful Black man. He talked about the fact that people want a happy ending. And even when there is a happy ending, the happy ending can be used as proof against those with a less happy ending.

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A Quaker Approach to Research: Collaborative Practice and Communal Discernment

Summary: An exploration of Quaker practices of group discernment in an academic or research setting. 

I picked A Quaker Approach to Research because the two main streams of Christian Discernment are the Ignatian or Quaker streams. I have a decent background in Ignatian discernment but only a little background in Quaker discernment. This book was free in the Kindle Unlimited library, so I was willing to try it even though it was not exactly what I was looking for.

There was a good introduction to the history of Quaker discernment. One of the new pieces of information I found was that early Quakers called themselves the “Religious Society of Friends of the Truth” before being known as The Society of Friends or Quakers. Discernment of the direction of the Holy Spirit or the “inward light” of God within them was central to the movement. Like the Ignatian stream of discernment, reason and emotion are part of the discernment process. Ignatian discernment is often done in partnership with a spiritual director, but Quaker discernment is usually done in a group, maybe with a facilitator, but a significant focus is on group silence or communal meditation. This communal meditation is part of the method of “moving evenly together.”

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Bearing God: Living A Christ-Formed Life in Uncharted Waters by Marlena Graves

Bearing God: Living A Christ-Formed Life in Uncharted Waters cover imageSummary: At the funeral for her mother, Marlena Graves heard the Matthew 4 story about Jesus sleeping in the boat in a new way. And that frames the book’s discussion about what it means to live a Christ-formed life. 

I am currently on a reading project to explore what Discernment means for Christians and how we discuss and teach it. A couple of weeks ago, I asked for suggestions to add to my list of books. An internet acquaintance suggested Bearing God. Bearing God was on my list to read generally, but I had not considered it a book about discernment. So, I picked up the audiobook to listen to during a solo drive.

Too many books are fluffed up to add to the page count, but this novella-length book is exactly right. It has 80 pages of main content, and the audiobook was 2.5 hours. But I think I will put this at the top of my list of short, accessible books on discernment. It is not primarily a book about discernment. It is primarily a book about being a Christ-follower. But the book’s subtext, as well as one of the chapters, is explicitly about discernment. I previously read The Way Up is Down, and I have followed Graves on social media for years. Bearing God fits well with The Way Up is Down. Both are primarily about spiritual formation and how we incorporate spiritual practices into daily life, not adding them as yet one more thing to do.

It also matters that Marlena Graves is a Puerto Rican woman. I have been working on my 2023 reading stats. While I had almost exact gender parity this past year, the vast majority of the books I read were by white authors. Bearing God is a book that explores her life and spiritual walk, and her history, culture, and experience matter to how she perceives the world.

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Ignatian Discernment in Daily Life: Finding God in All Things by Timothy M. Gallagher

Summary: A series of lectures based on The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living by Timothy Gallagher

I previously read Gallagher’s Discernment of Spirits as part of my spiritual direction training. Because I thought it was a helpful book, I wanted to revisit it as I am more intentionally investigating discernment. This format is a series of lectures based on the book, but it is not the book’s complete text. Gallagher is conversationally discussing the content of the book. It has been several years since I read it, but I remember many of the illustrations and points.

Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment are intended as a guide for spiritual directors to help those they are working with to see patterns as they seek to discern the movement of God in their lives. Most of the rules are, in one way or another, about Consolation or Desolation. Ignatius relies heavily on emotion and internal feelings as one of the tools of discernment. He does not simply accept that emotion or feelings are God’s method of speaking to us. Sometimes, feelings are just feelings. Sometimes, they are part of temptation. But sometimes, they are part of how God communicates with us. If God has created us with a personality, experiences, giftings, etc., then getting in touch with all of that will be part of becoming who God wants us to be.

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The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making by Elizabeth Liebert

The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making by Elizabeth Liebert cover imageSummary: An exploration of spiritual practices that can facilitate decision-making. 

Over the next several months I will do a reading projection around the concept, history, and teaching of Christian discernment. I picked up The Way of Discernment in part because one of the people I meet with for spiritual direction is processing through both individual and corporate discernment and it felt like a good time to do a personal deep dive.

I have some biases going into the idea of discernment that may change, but I want to say them out loud because they will likely keep influencing how I read going forward. First, I think discernment is a spiritual practice of seeking after God. Many people frame discernment as primarily about decision-making. And I fear that when the focus is the process and not the goal of seeking after God, we reduce what is a spiritual practice to a self-help checklist. Second, and related, developing discernment is about building character and virtue and orienting ourselves to rightly seeing God, not developing skills to interpret and decide or process information. Third, while I think there may be a “spiritual gift” of discernment, this is a general gift of the church, not limited to only a few. There are likely people who are better at discernment than others, but that doesn’t mean that discernment is only for the gifted. Fourth, the development of discernment is a part of the discipleship process. I started listening to a series of lectures on discernment by Timothy Gallagher, and he suggested that teaching about discernment was a third-level task. In this view, what comes first is to evangelize and introduce people to Jesus; then, once they have met Jesus, they need basic discipleship. Discernment was part of a more advanced discipleship work that requires people to be more intentional, introspective, and focused on their role in sanctification.

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After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory by Alasdair MacIntyre (3rd Ed)

Summary: More than 40 years ago, Alasdair MacIntyre gave us his version of why ethics and virtue are a problem in a post-enlightenment world. 

I am on a new quest in my reading. There are two parts to it. First, I am thinking about how to talk about and understand the idea of Christian discernment for individuals and groups in an age that mostly understands discernment as decision-making. Second, I am trying to understand the advocacy of virtue for Christians as a good in this life (not just the next) without turning it into an instrumental project. In other words, it is “easy” to encourage people to do something if they can see the positive result that will come about. Still, suppose they can only see the good because of how it positively impacts them. In that case, it becomes utilitarian or pragmatic, and virtues or moral stands will quickly melt away if the positive benefit is less clear.

This idea keeps coming up for me in the pragmatic advocacy of building relationships across boundaries. A typical example is that if you are a man, having cross-gender friendships will help you become a better man because you will have access to and learn from women who are not romantic partners and see that women can be fully human, not just a sexual object. While I think this is a real thing, and I would agree that this is a byproduct of cross-gender friendships, the instrumentalization of friendship means that the main focus becomes what you can get from the other person for your own sake, which inherently reduces the other to a benefit. Again, people with relationships across boundaries often gain insight into the role that boundary plays in the world, reducing the power of the boundary. However, the pragmatic argument is a problem because the expectation is for the good of the individual. When a relationship becomes more complex, as often happens at some point, the utilitarian will drop the relationship as not having independent value apart from what it can do to improve them as a person.

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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.

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Contemplatives in Action: The Jesuit Way by William Barry and Robert Doherty

Summary: A brief exploration of Jesuit spirituality 

No regular readers of my reviews will likely miss that I have spent the past couple of years studying to become a spiritual director in the Ignatian tradition. I intentionally chose a Catholic program because I have come to understand that I tend to learn in a dialectical approach. I want to have traditions in dialogue. My undergrad was at an evangelical college, my seminary was predominately a mainline protestant school, and my spiritual direction program was at a Jesuit college. Part of what is helpful about this approach is that I bring resources from outside the tradition for conversation with the tradition. What can be difficult is getting enough of an understanding of the new to understand it on its own terms and not as a caricature from previous experience.

This dialectical approach fits well with the focus on Contemplatives In Action. Barry and Doherty focus on the tensions that they suggest form Jesuit spirituality, the both/and that inherently leads to tensions that some always will want to calm. The title takes on the first tension, the tradition of Catholic orders to be either contemplative or action-oriented. Ignatius and later Jesuits strongly resisted the call to pray through the hours as almost all other orders did. Ignatius thought that long hours of prayer, while helpful, would keep the Jesuits from their work with the people, which was their primary focus. But the tension with that action orientation is that Jesuits are most known for giving the Spiritual Exercises (a highly contemplative approach to spiritual direction) and Christian education.

Other tensions include attention to personal experience and emotion with what Ignatius calls dispassion. In Ignatius’ use, this is not dispassion as in uncaring or negligence, but in getting to the point where you are willing to accept any of the multiple options that God may be calling you toward. Jesuits have a reputation for being overly analytic and dispassionate in the first negative sense, but that is contrary to Ignatius’ intent. “Jesuit spirituality is distinguished from other spiritualities by this personal attention to feelings, desires, dreams, hopes, and thoughts.” Only through that attention can the “defining characteristic of Jesuit spirituality,” Ignatius’ Discernment of the Spirits, be practiced.

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Spiritual Consolation: An Ignatian Guide for Greater Discernment of Spirits by Timothy Gallagher

Summary: A discussion of the second set of “Rules of Discernment” by Ignatius.

In Ignatius’ classic Spiritual Exercises, a guide for spiritual directors to give a 30-day retreat, Ignatius has a number of annotations or suggestions for spiritual directors. Some of the most helpful and discussed are his Rules of Discernment. These rules guide understanding whether something is from God or satan (or at least a distraction from God.) Ignatius’ rules are split into two groups. The first group is discussed in Gallagher’s earlier book The Discernment of Spirits. Spiritual Consolation discusses the second set of rules.

The second set of rules primarily focuses on spiritual consolation and desolation and how the more mature believer may be tempted by satan differently than a less mature believer might. The central insight in my mind is that generally, satan seems to tempt less mature Christians by desolation, making them question God or their path. But in this second set of rules, Ignatius focuses on the idea that satan tempts more mature Christians by placing additional good opportunities or ideas in their path to distract them from the better option.

One example in the book is a deacon who has come to a new parish, helping it clean up its finances, become more focused in ministry, do fundraising, etc. But as he is there for a while, he realizes that the youth programs are inadequate, and no one takes a genuine interest in youth and their discipleship. So, he considers whether to stop his work with administration and finance and refocus his time on youth. It is not that either is wrong. Both may be what God is calling him to. Either adding too much onto your plate so you cannot do well or working on both, but losing time and energy for personal devotion and prayer is a bad long-term result.

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God’s Voice Within: The Ignatian Way to God’s Will by Mark Thibodeaux

Summary: An exploration of Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment primarily focused on exploring decision-making.

As I have said before, I am exploring the concept of discernment, especially around Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment this year. Like What’s Your Decision, God’s Voice Within is an introduction to the Rules of Discernment focused on decision-making. God’s Voice Within is a bit broader in approach than What’s Your Decision, but they are different enough that I think they can be companion books, at least to compare how the two attempt to present Ignatian decision-making.

Two quotes to set the stage:

“Discernment would be simple if we could identify the five, or twelve, or twenty-five fail-proof steps to making good choices. But choices are not the result of mere rational exercise; choices come out of who we are as well as out of what we think. That is why discernment is not a system but a process, and it’s a process we must learn, and apply, and then learn some more.” p1

and

“Ignatian discernment, then, isn’t so much about what to do but about who to be. It’s about becoming a person in tune with the movements that lead toward God. The doing will flow from the being.” p6

Thibodeaux is not talking about a system of decision-making; he is more focused on a lifestyle or process of continually seeking after God, which leads to an orientation of seeking after God’s will in all areas of our life.

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