Learning from Sister Meg at ESR Spirituality Gathering 2015

A centering and meditative time of worship, prepared and led by students from the class on Spiritual Formation and Public Ministry, opened the 2015 ESR Spirituality Gathering. Prayer, scripture readings interspersed with silence, reflective songs, and a closing responsive reading which began "Always present God, we ask for the breath of Your Spirit to fill us" drew attenders into the meaning and focus for the day.

Moving into the keynote presentation from Sister Mary Margaret Funk, reclaiming and re-appropriating ancient teachings from early Christian monastics was the starting point. Sister Meg, for 50+ years a Benedictine sister with our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, Indiana, spoke and answered questions for over two hours with depth of knowledge, ready humor and - due to her many years of study and experience – without needing to refer to a single note. Before beginning her talk, Sister Meg played on the recorder the hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent”, a musical call to spend time in silence in order to discern faithfully.

Noting that the word discernment comes from the Greek “diakrisis”, meaning “to sort”, Sister Meg urged her listeners to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, renouncing both harsh ideas about God and impulses against faithfulness. She emphasized the practice of sorting one’s thoughts in silent listening for the Spirit’s guidance, of seeking to distinguish from one another thoughts which come from God, from ego/self, from others, and from evil. Sister Meg affirmed that the Holy Spirit is the individual’s connection to the very breath of God present at creation, and the collective connection is the body of Christ, the Church.

Sister Meg described how her search for the sources behind the Rule of Benedict had led her to the ancient writings on which it was based, and offered a whirlwind tour through historical traditions of understanding the Holy Spirit in both the Western and Eastern church. The monastics in late antiquity discovered and taught that one needs to go inside to listen to one’s heart, emphasizing that the person is not his/her thoughts. One needs to keep aware of one’s thoughts so as not to be ruled by them. She described “the anatomy of a thought” -- how an unfaithful thought arising and capturing one’s attention can lead to action contrary to God if one does not examine it and let go of it. Differentiating helpful from problematic thoughts is key to discernment.

She outlined five steps for sorting thoughts – 1) asking the Holy Spirit for guidance; 2) trying on in one’s head a “virtual decision” and sorting the thoughts which arise as one considers it to see which are from God, from others, from ego/self, or from evil impulses; 3) asking for a confirming sign as to which direction is the faithful one; 4) making the decision which emerges through this process; 5) guarding against second guessing while continuing to ascertain the fruitfulness of the decision. Those gathered listened with rapt attention, asking questions at several points where Sister Meg paused to invite responses. And afterward much valuable discussion occurred over lunch, at breaks, and as people collected for workshops.

Participants’ experience was enhanced by the five valuable and varied workshops with topics ranging from “Singing the Psalms” to “Declutter with Discernment.” A lasting gift of the gathering is the recording made of the keynote talk, allowing people who were unable to attend to hear Sister Meg’s words for themselves, and those who were present to listen again and let them sink in more deeply for further reflection and use.

- Stephanie Crumley-Effinger, Director of Supervised MInistry