Discernment

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So, it’s no secret that I spend a lot of time wandering around the blogs on Patheos. It’s an interesting place, with lots of ideas to consider. There are a few blogs on the atheist channel that I gravitate towards because they have so many good and thoughtful posts. I mostly stay away from the Christian channels – there’s a lot more “well, you’re going to hell because you don’t agree with me!” and other icky kinds of trolling for some reason. I wrote a guest post about parenting as a murky, not-terribly orthodox Christian for a blog there a while back and someone pulled out Revelations (you’re “lukewarm” aka God doesn’t like you anymore because you’re not hardcore enough) on me immediately, without bothering to engage with my legitimate concerns about all the crap in the Bible and how that might affect my child. I could laugh that off but it was still irritating. The pagan channel has a lot of different perspectives on paganism on offer, and some great dialogue going on, and as far as I’ve encountered, a lot less trolling. It was a starting place for me as I became more open to paganism, and I think it will continue to be an excellent resource. I’ve commented a few times as a newbie and gotten some lovely and helpful responses from people who are happy to point me in the direction of interesting resources.

One of the popular articles a couple weeks ago gave me a lot of food for thought. It’s from the blog Through the Grapevine, and it’s a guest post by Lauren Neuman, who is ADF. Her post, “Exploring Pagan Discernment” hits on a topic that came up a lot in some of the Christian circles I used to frequent.

Some context for what follows for those who are unfamiliar with this topic: In the Bible, there’s a number of books set after Jesus returns to heaven which detail some of what happens to his followers. Most of these are letters purportedly written by leaders of the early church to their followers (this is debatable; at least some letters were written by more than on person and many have been dated to later than they were “supposed” to have been written), and one is more of a history book which details the experiences of the first few years of the early church. One of the things that the early church experienced was called the baptism of the Holy Spirit – a spiritual connection with the third person of the Trinity that enabled them to do things like speak in tongues (i.e., languages they didn’t know), prophesy, have visions, perform healings, and cast out malevolent demons. One of the books written to a group of early Christians talks about how everyone receives gifts of the Spirit, but not everyone has the same set of gifts. Included on the list of possible spiritual gifts someone might have is discernment. It’s discernment of spirits, specifically, but the term’s become a bit broader than that. These days, some branches of the Christian church assume that all this interesting stuff was just for the church as it was getting going, while others vehemently argue that no, this still happens today. A church that seeks out and embraces gifts of the Spirit is often known as charismatic. Discernment is believed to be a gift some people have, which is to be used in interpreting visions and words that other people receive. So if you have a vision, you should go talk to someone with the gift of discernment, and they’re supposed to be able to tell you if it’s bullshit or not.

I was raised in a non-charismatic mainline (i.e., not evangelical) church by charismatic parents, which tended make things interesting (I know at least one other person besides my siblings who’s had that experience of being both inside and outside the church you grew up in; it leaves you feeling a little left out but also like you’re somehow special. I still don’t really know how to parse it all out). Overall, that experience left me with a love of and respect for ritual as well as a desire to seek out mystical experiences. I’ve spoken in tongues. I’ve had visions. I’ve fought with demons. My personal spiritual experience has been that these things are very much real, but some of the visions I had told me that the spiritual realm was a lot more nuanced than just good vs. evil. I didn’t really know what to do with that at the time (the Christian view of spiritual matters is binary in the extreme), so I just held onto those thoughts until I was ready to engage with them more thoroughly. Sometimes I talked with people about what their sense of my visions was. Whenever I had a vision that I felt like I needed to share with a specific person, I was always careful to qualify it with the fact that I am human and fallible and maybe this is just something my imagination came up with. But I didn’t always test what I saw myself because I wasn’t sure if I had a gift of discernment. I didn’t know if it was my job or not so I didn’t really try.

And herein lies the problem. In my experience, not everyone qualified what they said with the “hey, I might be wrong.” (The wiser people I met tended to, which is where I learned that practice). I didn’t try to learn discernment because it wasn’t presented as something you could learn. I didn’t educate myself on how to tell spiritual experience from my depression and anxiety disorder, or from my imagination being a little overactive (and let me tell you, the world inside my head is absolutely fascinating – if I appear to be zoning out, it’s probably because I’m on some crazy adventure in there). I spent a lot of time thinking God was telling me to pray for people when it was actually my anxiety making me feel panicky. The reason I calmed down was because prayer includes deep breathing and focusing on something else besides the panic.

So, after reading Lauren’s article, I found myself wishing that the ideas about developing discernment and learning to understand both yourself and your spiritual experiences were ones that I had encountered as a teenager. It would have been very helpful. I often wrote things down so I wouldn’t forget, and I thought about it a lot, but I didn’t try testing things as much as I could have, and I didn’t make any serious efforts to learn to discern things because I assumed that if it felt right, that meant it was right, and if it felt wrong, that meant it was wrong, even if my emotional state was volatile and perhaps something I should also take into account. I couldn’t remember anyone in the church talking about discernment in these kinds of terms. So I asked a couple friends.

They hadn’t run into anyone in the more charismatic church teaching others about developing skills of discernment either. And they agreed with me that this really would have been helpful in the past. (Interestingly, we’re all rather less charismatic than we used to be; I’ve wondered if it’s because we’re outgrowing some of the outright emotional manipulation that often takes place in that world, but that’s another discussion).

There’s a lot for me to take away from this. I don’t discount my spiritual experiences from the past, but I’m more inclined to look at a few of them more critically than I did at the time. Any that I experience in the future…I will write them down and examine them, and while I don’t want to overthink things (something I’m prone to), I do want to be thoughtful about any spiritual experiences I happen to have.

So when I get some odd vibes off of the tarot cards at the bookstore, I think about it. I wonder if those vibes felt strange because they’re new to me, or because there’s something off at the bookstore, or with where the cards came from, or because my personal energy is going to be more compatible with something else. I try not to immediately jump to “that feels weird, must be evil.” That’s a possibility; I do still believe in the existence of evil, just as I believe in the existence of good, but there’s a lot of things in-between those two options. Our intuition exists for a reason, but it may be wrong, so my first guess at what something means isn’t necessarily right.

For now I do try to respond appropriately when something happens. As I mentioned in my last post, I ran across a picture that made my hands tingle. I ended up purchasing a print of it, because it’s the sort of tingle that, in the past, has told me that something is or will be significant to me. It’s possibly indicative of runes needing to be a part of my future practice, or of that particular rune stave meaning that while I don’t entirely know where I’m going, the direction I’m being led in is the right way. It means something…I may not know what yet, but I’m willing to work towards the answer.

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