Notes from Nouwen, H. J. M. (2013). Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life


Discernment by Henri Nouwen is at the top if not the best book on spiritual discernment I have read so far. I believe all of us would like to understand better how to discern not just God’s voice in our daily lives but also the various signs and calls we sense. This book adds a much needed element to spiritual formation and following God.

Preface: What This Book Is About

Discernment, is about reading the signs of daily life to “remember God” (memoria Dei), God’s time (kairos).

Foreword: Henri’s Way of Discernment

Instead of seeking a life free from pain and suffering, we should trust that Jesus is present in our pain and suffering. Henri believed that we can discern the depths of our lives and vocation only if we surrender our ego-centered view of reality.

Discernment is a discipline and practice that requires us to cultivate trust, love, faith, hope, and courage.
When we accept our complete belovedness, we stop judging ourselves and other people; as a result, other people begin to feel safe with us.
Chapter One: Embracing the Practice in Solitude and Community
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
I found that my anger and my desire to be special and to be admired all bubbled up in my times of solitude.
Most important is how we read— not to understand or control God, but to be understood and formed by God.
  • Discernment grows out of the life of faith rooted in community.
  • Discernment reveals new priorities, directions, and gifts from God.
  • Our desire to be successful, well liked, and influential becomes increasingly less important as we come closer to God’s heart.
  • We have the freedom to say yes to God’s call and to choose to live it in very specific ways.
  • Thus God has a real chance to form us into lights in the darkness, a source of hope for many in the world. That, after all, is the true goal of spiritual discernment.
  • Make a list of all the activities and desires of your heart that you believe are pleasing to God.
  • Discernment performed alone often can become delusion. We need each other.
Chapter Two: Distinguishing Spirits of Truth and Falsehood
Knowing that all people and situations have multiple motives and choices, it is necessary to learn how to discern spirits. Discernment is not about judging other people’s motives. It’s about distinguishing good guidance from harmful messages, and the Holy Spirit from evil spirits. This essential sorting, known as discernment of spirits, is intended for our protection and not for our judgment.
  • Discernment (Gr. diakriseis, spiritual judgment, understanding, assessment, estimation, or separation) is both a gift and a spiritual discipline. The New Testament concept is found in Romans 12: 2, 1 Corinthians 1: 19; 4: 4; 11: 29; 11: 31; 12: 10, and Hebrews 4: 12.
  • discernment is a spiritual capacity for distinguishing or discriminating between opposing forces. “For the The one who practices discernment is able to distinguish whether a particular action or message is from the Spirit of God and to assess whether someone is speaking truth or falsehood.

Discernment of spirits is a lifelong task. I can see no other path to discernment than to be committed to a life of unceasing prayer and contemplation, a life of deep communion with the Spirit of God. Such a life will slowly develop in us an inner sensitivity, enabling us to distinguish between the law of the flesh and the law of the Spirit.

  • There always remains a choice to be made between the creative power of love and life and the destructive power of hatred and death. I, too, must make that choice myself, again and again. Nobody else, not even God, will make that choice for me.
  • Upon reflection, it became increasingly clear to me that I know quite well the difference between darkness and light but do not always have the courage to name them by their true names. The transparent life is a life in which heart, mind, and gut are united in choosing the light.
  • I wonder if the greatest temptation is self-rejection. Could it be that beneath all the lures to greed, lust, and success rests a great fear of never being enough or not being lovable?
  • When I fall into temptation, I tend to blame myself— not just for what I did but for who I am. My dark side says, “I am no good. I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned.” Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us God’s beloved. Being the beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.
  • Humility has nothing to do with self-rejection.
  • Self-rejection cannot form the basis of a humble life.

Every time I start to experience myself as worthless or useless, a “nobody,” I know I am on the slippery slope to isolation and dark emotions.

Chapter Three: Read the Way Forward
God speaks to us all the time and in many ways, but it requires spiritual discernment to hear God’s voice, see what God sees, and read the signs in daily life. —Henri Nouwen
  • Spiritual reading, however, is different. It means not simply reading about spiritual things but also reading about spiritual things in a spiritual way.
  • That requires a willingness not just to read but to be read, not just to master but to be mastered by words.
  • As long as we read the Bible or a spiritual book simply to acquire knowledge, our reading does not help us in our spiritual life.
  • God is always speaking to us, but it requires spiritual discernment to hear God’s voice, see what God sees, and read the signs in daily life.
  • When we ask, as Merton did , “What of God is being revealed in this book or in this experience?” we are led to new insight and to ways of saying yes to God’s direction in our lives.
  • All who faithfully live the Christian life— whether still living or in memory— can exercise a deep and positive influence on our spiritual lives. Reading short biographies of people
  • God is speaking and revealing his will in every moment of every day, and that we can discern God’s presence and guidance through simple prayers each day:
  • The ancient method of spiritual reading, whether listening to texts read out loud or in reflective reading by yourself , can be found in the instructions of Saint Augustine, Saint Bernard, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, and many others.
Spiritual reading and listening for the movement of the Spirit has helped me learn that God does speak through varied voices. And more importantly, God often reveals the contents of my own heart, as I slow and read not to know more but to be more fully known by God.
Chapter Four: Read the Book of Nature
Nature is not the background to our lives; it is a living gift that teaches us about the ways and will of the Creator.
  • It is remarkable to see how prayer and contemplation open your eyes to nature, and how nature makes you more attentive to divine guidance.
  • Sometimes we need to take a long walk through a forest, whether it be decorated with new growth and bright colors or in simple shades of gray, and ask God to reveal something of his ways, will, and character.
  • “The Hebrew word for ‘good’ and ‘blessing’ at times means rain,”
  • While it is true that God is a hidden presence, we have only to let nature speak to us about the God who is everywhere.”
  • It can be said that God’s first language is nature, even if
  • God is revealed through our ancient and enduring spiritual texts. You can read God’s ways and will in the seasonal patterns and cycles of creation: life and death, planting and harvest, waiting for and basking in new life and resurrection.
When we relate to the trees, the rivers, the mountains, the fields, and the oceans as objects that we can use according to our real or fabricated needs, nature is opaque and does not reveal to us its true being. When a tree is nothing but a potential chair, it ceases to tell us much about growth; when a river is only a dumping place for industrial wastes, it can no longer speak to us about movement; and when a flower is nothing more than a model for a plastic decoration, it has little to say about the simple beauty of life. Our difficult and now urgent task is to realize that nature is not a possession to be conquered but a gift to be received with respect and gratitude. (p.59)
  • Nature desires for us to discern the great story of God’s love to which it points.
  • When we think of the oceans and mountains, forests and deserts, trees, plants and animals, the sun, the moon, the stars, and all the galaxies as God’s creation, waiting eagerly for their renewal (Rom. 8: 20– 21), we can only stand in awe of God’s majesty and all-embracing plan of redemption.
  • It is not just we human beings who wait for our salvation in the midst of our suffering : all creation groans and moans with us, longing to reach its full freedom.
  • Pick one of the parables found in Mark 4. Read it outside and listen to what God might be saying through both the Book of the Bible and the Book of Nature.
  • Alone or with friends, get close to nature. Read Isaiah 55: 12 out loud: For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Chapter Five: Pay Attention to People in Your Path
In the everyday routines and conversations of life, I began to hear the voice of God anew. The Spirit of God seemed to speak directly to them and through them, unmediated by books or intellectual discussion. (p.66)
  • People we meet, some great in the eyes of the world and some almost invisible to the larger society , are often conduits of God’s wisdom.
  • Getting answers to my questions is not the goal of the spiritual life. Living in the presence of God is the greater call.
  • The gift of discernment is the ability to hear and see from God’s perspective and to offer that wisdom from above to others.
  • Our three primary sets of relationships are usually with the parents who raised us, close friends whom we consider peers, and immediate family with whom we live (spouse or community). These primary relationships reflect our relationship (or lack of a felt relationship) with God as Father/ Creator, Son/ Redeemer, and Spirit/ Sustainer.
  • These relationships, for better or worse, can lead us to a more intimate communion with the triune God.
  • The power of friendship is great if it doesn’t find all its meaning in itself.
  • If people expect too much from each other, they can do each other harm; disappointment and bitterness can overpower love and even replace it.
  • In the practice of discernment in daily life, we can learn to appreciate our closest friends, family members, and sometimes complete strangers, as signposts pointing toward God.
  • I also learned afresh that friendship requires a constant willingness to forgive each other for not being Christ, and a willingness to ask Christ himself to be the true center of the relationship.
  • I learned that people can be signs and helpful companions, but only God can guide and fully heal the wounded places in each of us.
God speaks regularly to us through people who talk to us about the things of God. Certain people become living signs that point us to God. Whether in life or in memory, the people God puts in our lives can help guide us and show us the way.
Chapter Six: Discern the Signs of the Times
I do believe that we are living in the end of times, but I take that to mean that we are living under God’s promise that “all things are being made new .” For me, living in the end of times does not mean that creation will soon come to an end, but it does mean that all the signs of the end that Jesus mentions are already with us: wars and revolutions, conflicts between nations, earthquakes, plagues, famines, and persecutions. Thomas Merton identified the “signs of the times” as kairos—a quality of time that is eternal, when time is full of meaning and events point to divine purpose. (p.83)
  • God’s ways are not always our ways. God’s timetable is not always our timetable. Discernment calls us to settle into God’s ways of measuring time. Clock time (chronos) is divided into minutes, hours, days, and weeks, and its compartments dominate our lives. In chronological time, what happens to us is a series of disconnected incidents and accidents that we seek to manage or subdue to feel in control of our lives. Time becomes a burden unless we convert it into God’s time. God’s time (kairos) has to do with opportunity and fullness of meaning.
  • Moments that are ripe for their intended purpose. When we see time in light of our faith in the God of history, we see that the events of this year are not just a series of happy or unhappy events but part of the shaping hands of God, who wants to mold our world and our lives.
  • Whatever happens— good things or bad, pleasant or problematic— we ask, “What might God be doing here?” We see the events of the day as continuing occasions to change the heart. Time points beyond itself and begins to speak to us of God.
  • Kairos contains both past and future events in the present moment.
  • So we pause to discern God’s presence in the events that have made or unmade us. For by not remembering, we allow forgotten memories to intrude into the present and become independent forces with crippling effects on our lives. Forgetting the past is like turning our most intimate teacher against us.
  • Remembering the past in this way allows us to live in the present and gain hope for the future, until chronos is converted to kairos.
  • Life is God’s initiative and can end or change suddenly, unexpectedly, and unpredictably.
In retrospect, many of the good and important things that have happened to me in life were completely unexpected. And many things that I thought would happen to me did not occur.As I reflect on this reality, it is clear that God is present in the events of my life, yet I act and speak as if I am in control. (p.87)
  • Small, seemingly insignificant events, ideas, and life circumstances can become occasions to discern God’s will and calling in your life.
  • Kairos means that the opportunity is right. It is the right time, the real moment, the critical event, the chance of our lives. When our time becomes kairos, it opens up endless new possibilities and offers us a constant opportunity for a change of heart.
I have tried to show how books, nature, people, and critical events can be signs along life’s way. They do not give a full explanation of our calling, but they are expressions of it. They may not reveal with complete clarity God’s will, but they do form the context for discernment.
Chapter Seven: Test the Call: Discerning Vocation
“God has a very special role for you to fulfill. God wants you to stay close to his heart and to let him guide you. You will know what you are called to do when you have to know it.” (p.99)
  •  We seldom fully realize that we are sent to fulfill God-given tasks. We act as if we have to choose how, where, and with whom to live.
  • (John 1: 38– 42). This story offers three important verbs to reflect upon in discerning how God is calling: to look for, to stay, and to share.
  • I know that sometimes a call from God is planted in our imagination, and if it persists we need to bring others into our discernment process to test if it is something to pursue or just a diversion.
  • Sometimes the way to know where you are called to be is to go where you feel you need to go and be present in that place. Soon you will know if that place is where God wants you.
  • You have to accept your own history and limitations.
  • At the same time, you have to deal with the gospel call to downward mobility, accepting that the way of Christ is a self-emptying way. What that means in your own concrete situation will probably remain a lifelong question.
“I don’t want to go somewhere just to have my own project. It must be clear to me that God calls me there. Otherwise it can’t bear fruit.” (p.107)
The question of where to live and what to do is really insignificant compared to the question of how to keep the eyes of my heart focused on the Lord.
There is no such thing as the right place or the right job. I can be miserable or joyful, restless or at peace , in all situations. It is a simple truth that came to me in a time when I had to decide about my future
  • He reminds me that I have no lasting dwelling on this earth, that I am a traveler on the way to a sacred place where God holds me in the palm of his hand.
  • I learned that without prayer and community all my pastoral activities would end up in fruitless burnout.
  • I thought my vocation was simply to serve the poor, but I learned that my deeper vocation is to announce God’s love for all people . I also became aware that my final destination is not a place; it is God’s eternal embrace.
  • Can you name the tensions you feel between the expectations placed on you by others and your desire to fully follow God’s purposes for you?
  • What limitations or previous commitments do you have? How does this factor into the call God has placed on your life? Can you accept them as a part of the discernment process? What might you need to do to affirm who you are—strengths and weaknesses—as God’s called and gifted person?
The various aspects of your call fit together like a puzzle when you discover who you are to serve, what you are to do, and where you will find your true home.
Chapter Eight: Open Your Heart: Discerning Divine Presence
Every morning, alone or in the company of others, I spend at least one hour in quiet prayer and meditation. I say every morning, but there are exceptions. Fatigue, busyness, and preoccupation often serve as arguments for not praying. Yet without this one hour a day for God, my life loses its coherence, and I start experiencing my days as a series of random incidents and accidents rather than divine appointments and encounters.
  • The story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is not just about overcoming sorrow or despair in difficult times. It is a gospel story that reveals a spiritual pattern for discovering the real presence of Christ on our road of life.
  • This pattern of discerning God’s hidden presence involves at least four spiritual practices: 1) interpreting scripture, or theological reflection; 2) staying, sometimes called abiding or remaining in prayer; 3) breaking bread, or recognizing the presence of Christ in the Eucharist; and 4) remembering Jesus, or the “burning heart” experience. These components form a biblically grounded and traditionally understood practice of discerning the divine presence in daily life.
  • Pain and suffering are no longer obstacles to the glory of eternal life, they have become the inevitable way to it.
  • Discerning the divine presence through scripture reading (lectio divina), staying with Christ (abiding in his presence in prayer) in the breaking of bread (Eucharist), and remembering Jesus (anamnesis) results in the burning heart experience (of divine memory, or memoria Christi ).
  • Philosophers and Christian theologians often use the term anamnesis to explore the reality of what happens when we recall and remember Christ, not as a historical person from the past but as someone fully in the present moment.
  • When we “remember” God, we are touching the divine nature within our very souls. For God knows us from eternity to eternity, has loved us with an unconditional love, and has carved us on the palm of his hands. Through the spiritual practice of learning to be aware and expectant, we remember God as love and ourselves as God’s beloved.
  • When my heart is hardened, it is closed, unavailable, and cold. A hardened heart is a heart in which remorse has turned into morbid introspection, shame into low self-esteem, and guilt into defensiveness.
  • The memory of Christ is thus a healing, spiritually therapeutic memory.
So much is going on in our lives: new directions, old fears, apprehensions, and great uncertainties. Always, there is sadness and joy, fear and love, resentment and gratitude; there is nervousness about next week, next month, next year.
Chapter Nine: Remember Who You Are: Discerning Identity
Jesus wants our whole being to be where he is, our deepest identity to be grounded in his, and our spiritual life to be in sync with his, so that we can live our lives as he lived his —fully in God. (p.133)
  • What the Father said to Jesus the Son, God also says to us: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”( Luke 3: 22 NRSV).
  • Most of us constantly fail to claim the truth of who we truly are.
  • Whether we do anything worthwhile, prove anything important, or give anything of value, God still loves us unconditionally
  • Our first and most important spiritual task is to claim God’s unconditional love for ourselves. To remember who we truly are in the memory of God.
  • In Latin, to bless is benedicere, which means “speaking (dictio) well (bene)” or saying good things of someone.
  • To give a blessing is to affirm another’s core identity, to say yes to a person’s belovedness.
  • It is as if we have been wandering in a foreign land looking for peace and purpose in our lives and a true sense of who we are . Jesus stands in our midst and beckons us home so that we can be restored to our true selves.
  • Some of our frantic questions— What must I do? How can I get what I need?— fade away when we come closer to God’s heart.
  • How easy it is to reject part of you as not really yourself and claim only your ideal self as your real self.
Our true identity is found in God, who created us in the divine image. We are bearers of God’s image and spirit. That is the revelation of God within our innermost self.
When we understand the mystery that we are loved not for what we do but because of who God says we are , we are free to love others in a similar way.
Chapter Ten: Know the Time: When to Act, When to Wait, When to Be Led
For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. —Ecclesiastes 3: 1 How do we know when to act, when to wait?
Action, however , is related not only to repentance but even more to gratitude. Action is a grateful response that flows from our awareness of God’s presence in the world. Jesus’s entire ministry was one great act of thanksgiving to his Father.
  • Impatient living is living according to clock time (chronos), which has a merciless objectivity to it. It does not allow for spontaneity or celebration. Patient living is living in the fullness of time (kairos), in the knowledge that real life events happen in this fullness. And the great event of God’s appearing is recognized in the fullness of time (Mark 1: 15).
  • The challenge is to see our passion as much as our action as vocation.
  • I began to think more about my own life and how little is determined by what I think, say, or do. I am inclined to protest this and prefer all to be action, originated by me as master of my fate.
  • Therefore it becomes increasingly important to recognize that our vocation is fulfilled not just in our actions but also in passion.
  • To know God’s will, I have to listen to his voice, become obedient when he calls, and follow wherever he leads. Even when I do not like it, even when it is not a place of comfort or satisfaction and he demands that I go where I might not have chosen to go.
  • But Jesus has a different vision of maturity: it is the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go.
  • One of the greatest gifts we can give to others is ourselves.
  • Wherever the Christ is, time is brought to its fullness.
  • Our spiritual task is to “seize the time”— the right time for God’s purpose here and now.
  • All the great events of the gospels occur in the fullness of time (as
  • It is in the fullness of time that we meet God and know what we are called to be and do.
Epilogue: Discerning the Hidden Wholeness
  • They teach me that being is more important than doing, the heart is more important than the mind, and doing things together is more important than doing things alone.
  • The mystery of discernment is that “deep calls to deep” and heart speaks to heart.
  • The key to success is to see ourselves as servants of God and to each other. “I am your servant, O God, grant me discernment that I may understand your ways” (Ps. 119: 125).
As Henri Nouwen says, “You can’t see the whole path ahead, but there is usually enough light to take the next step.” And then to trust God’s guidance in the moment.
When we approach the Word of God (logos) as a word spoken to me (rhema), God’s presence and will can be made known.”
Nouwen believed that God speaks to us all the time and in many ways: through dreams and imagination, friends and people you meet, good books and great ideas, nature’s beauty, and critical and current events. But it requires spiritual discernment to hear God’s voice, see what God sees, and read the signs of daily life. 8 (p.181)
Appendix C: Spiritual Friendship and Mutual Discernment
“What is most important is who you are. You have to slow down and ask yourself what you really want and what will make you happy and help others to be happy. You need to pray about this. If we follow Jesus and trust Jesus, then we need to adjust our goals in the direction of downward mobility, not upward mobility.”
What you do follows from who you are. And who you are is the beloved of God. You need to listen to the inner voice of love. There is guidance in that voice. Like all of us, you get stuck when you listen to other voices, especially the self-doubting ones.