“The Whispers of the Spirit”: Discerning Meaning in the Work of Justice

As a disenfranchised citizen who yearned for a change, as a child born on the dark side of the American dream, I heard the whispers of the spirit calling to me to wrestle with the soul of a nation. – John Lewis

What is necessary for those persons who seek to create and live a life of commitment that works to develop the common good? A transformed heart and an active response that faces structural injustices and works to affect change is required. Listening to “the whispers of the spirit calling,” to borrow a phrase from John Lewis, grounds the energies of transformation and fuels commitments to work for social change. Discerning a calling dwells in the dynamic integration of inner reflection and critical social analysis.

We have experienced in these last months historic upheavals that have profoundly reshaped the world and our lives. The COVID-19 pandemic, the nation-wide lock-down, the economic crash and its massive unemployment, and the uprising against structural racism and violence against black bodies in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and too many others, have vividly revealed the profound inequalities that shape our unjust society. It delineates starkly the fault lines of those who have privileges and those who do not, and lays bare, once again, the roots of ideologies of white supremacy that have shaped our history and continue to operate in the cultural beliefs, institutional practices and social structures of our society.

The injustices make abundantly clear the ways in which our society believes some persons to be valuable and worthy of protection, and other persons are considered disposable and expendable. We see it in the concrete realities of:

  • who has access to health care, and who does not,
  • who gets respect, protection and payment for being an essential worker, and who receives less, if at all,
  • who is affected most by COVID-19 and bears the brunt of disproportionate illness and death,
  • who has the privilege of working from home and who must expose themselves and their loved ones to possible coronavirus infection,
  • who is treated with respect and fairness from our justice systems and who is treated without respect to their humanity and without justice.

In a previous piece, “Vocational Discernment is Not a Luxury,” I wrote that understanding what is urgent in our lives and social contexts is fundamental to helping people form lives of meaning and purpose with the depth and fortitude capable of sustaining a calling in difficult moments. If there is ever such a moment when the work of assisting persons in their efforts to understand calling, meaning and purpose, it is now. While this has always been true, it is important to remind ourselves once again of an essential focus: the imperative to work for social justice is a necessary component of the work of vocational discernment. We cannot discern a life of meaning and purpose that is disconnected from the work of making the world a more just place for those who are marginalized. This is the moral obligation of vocational discernment.

 

Pintura constructiva 5

Joaquín Torres García (1874-1949) 

Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales de Uruguay.

Public domain.

I would like to suggest two practices that can support the integration of social justice and discernment. The first practice speaks to the often counter-cultural nature of clarifying an important life direction—the process of discerning meaning and purpose involves interrogating normativities in order to understand more clearly, both in ourselves and in others, the cultural beliefs, institutional practices and policies, and personal actions that contribute to social inequality. When we interrogate normativities we seek to expose what is invisible to us and to others—and more importantly, its effects. It helps us understand experiences, perspectives and contexts that are different from our own through a combination of critical social analysis and compassionate understanding. Through this work we are better able to see the dynamics of power, both in the form of privileges and resistances, that undergird our social contexts.

Henri Nouwen offers an example of the ways in which interrogating normativities must be an important aspect of discernment. Profoundly influenced by Latin American liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Nouwen’s critical analysis of traditional Western-based discernment practices helped him to see how they disconnected a person from social contexts and commitments to the work of justice. In “We Drink from Our Own Wells: Discernment and Liberation,” Nouwen states, “What I learned from Gustavo was that liberating spirituality must be rooted in an active and reflective faith, not a passive, private, or privileged contemplative experience. And that spiritual discernment is not just an individual gift but part of the struggle of the people of God” (Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, Henri J. M. Nouwen, with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird, HarperOne, 2013, 172).

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel offers another example that challenges the norms of meditation practice, integrating social justice action and spiritual practice in her reflection on the social uprisings in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. In a recent blog posting she reflects on meditation practices in such a moment:

If you are still holding up trying to meditate, I invite you to fall down. Fall down on the earth. … Come down on all fours and greet the darkness that reeks of death, reaches out its desperate hand and asks to be loved as much as we love the light it gives.

Come down here on this earth and breathe for those gasping for air. Hear each scream as a bell that never stops ringing. Bury your face in the mud of this intimate place, in this shared disease and tragedy.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, “Darkness Is Asking to Be Loved,” Lion’s Roar, June 2, 2020.

A critical awareness must be integrated into the work of a personal discernment of a vocational commitment that includes the work of justice and the benefit of the common good.       

John Lewis offers a second practice to support the integration of social justice and discernment. Deeply influenced by his mentor, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he believes that in order to transform the world, people must first transform themselves. When they create a way to live with integrity in the values that they hope to bring about through social change, they can then demand that change in society and work to implement it. He powerfully states,

The most important lesson I have learned in the fifty years I have spent working toward the building of a better world is that the true work of social transformation starts within. … to truly revolutionize our society, we must first revolutionize ourselves. We must be the change we seek if we are to effectively demand transformation from others.

John Lewis, Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America, 28.

The work of discerning a life of meaning and purpose is the work of transforming both ourselves and our world.

When we listen to the spirit calling, we are listening to the restlessness in both our own hearts and in the communities that are seeking to create a more just society for all. The restlessness vividly reveals the dynamic integration of inner reflection and critical social analysis at work. It is in this fertile moment of disruption that we are presented with a unique opportunity to further the work of helping our students and communities find meaning and purpose. Let’s not miss it!


Kathleen T. Talvacchia is a contextual theologian with interest in practical theology, Christian practices of marginalized communities, and Queer theology. She was previously at Union Theological Seminary and New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science. Most recently she authored Embracing Disruptive Coherence: Coming Out as Erotic Ethical Practice (2019) and co-edited Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (2015). While one part of her would love for vocational journeying to include a predictable map, her better-self rolls with and revels in the messy, unpredictable energy of Divine Wisdom.

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