In Asia Pacific, we seem to have entered a secondary phase in the Covid-19 crisis, which can perhaps be called a phase of ambivalent tensions. Whilst some countries have gotten over the steep curve of the pandemic, others are seeing ever-increasing numbers of cases, or even a second wave. The threat of imported infections has kept international borders shut for the most part. Even where daily life has resumed, people find themselves faced with many new, unfamiliar restrictions. Therefore, feelings of relief and hope inter-mingle with confusion, frustration, and anxiety. It is as if the head of an intense storm appears to have just passed, but its body lingers, and we can’t yet ascertain its full effects; nor do we know when, if ever, it will fully pass.
In such a time, how do we undertake any kind of planning? Should we throw away our existing apostolic plans and make new ones? How might we think about the relationship between Covid-19, planning, and spiritual discernment?
These questions have been frequently raised in the past months. In addressing them, it helps to remember that we need to avoid knee-jerk reactions, jumping into conclusions, or simply following popular sentiments about the crisis and its consequent “new normal”. This is where spiritual discernment comes in. We could ask ourselves: What is really happening within ourselves and among the people? What has been life-giving even in the midst of a lockdown or an endless list of prohibitions? How has God been present in our experience of this event? What calls do we hear in the eye of the storm?
To this end, the Ignatian tradition highlights the practice of “situational discernment”. This can be done when there is no immediate, specific decision to be made on a certain matter. Rather, the need is to become more deeply aware about a particular situation including its lights and shadows, what the members of the community and others are experiencing both exteriorly and interiorly, how God might be present in the situation, and what the divine communication or invitation might be. This present phase of the Covid crisis is a ripe time for such a discernment.
Perhaps it is only then that the link to apostolic planning might become clear. Afterall, apostolic planning is none other than a community discerning and re-discovering its identity and mission in God’s call, translating that call into concrete and appropriate paths for the current context, and being transformed in the process. Given the present opportunity of rebuilding a post-Covid world based on better values, such a process is all the more urgent. In fact, a number of provinces and institutions in Asia Pacific, including JCAP itself, are in the very midst of apostolic planning through communal discernment, even as the pandemic continues to re-shape the context.
Here is a suggested method which communities and institutions can use to make a situational discernment about the Covid crisis.
First, each member of the group carries out a personal time of prayer with the following points:
The grace we seek: To be able to see the situation honestly, to become more aware of ourselves and others, and of God’s presence.
- First, I acknowledge that this crisis has been a new and unprecedented experience for me, and indeed for the whole of humanity. As I come before God, I tell God how I have felt, what anxieties and challenges I have had, and what joys and consolations I have found. Overall, what am I most grateful for? What confusions or pains still remain? What have I learnt from this experience? What new energy, if any, has emerged?
- Next, I spend some time to recall what happened in my immediate community and among the people in the wider society. What joys and sorrows, lights and shadows do I notice?
- What stands out for me most in this whole event? What further insight do I gain if I view this event within the broader narrative of my vocational story, my community’s history, or the salvation narrative?
- What might God be communicating to us through this experience? How has God been present? What fresh calls might we be receiving for our communal mission and conversion, and what are the implications, if any, on our apostolic plan, our existing works, our community life, our spirituality, our organization, collaboration and partnerships?
After the personal prayer, members of the group come together for spiritual conversation using the method of the three rounds to share the fruits of their prayer, listening to one another attentively, appreciating each other’s perspectives, and discerning how the Spirit is moving the group.
Ever since General Congregation 36 and the Universal Apostolic Preferences, many people have been wondering how to reconcile spiritual discernment on the one hand, which seems more faith-based, and planning on the other hand, which seems more secular and even business-like. It could be said that both are in fact brought into complementary synergy through Ignatian spirituality and its methods for communal discernment.
Let us pray that we will deepen our appreciation and practice of these valuable means, and walk more closely with God and one another, especially during this time of the Covid crisis.
For more information on discernment in common, see https://sites.google.com/view/dpa-essential-ingnatian-resour/home/discernment-in-common. An online resource on apostolic planning in the Ignatian tradition is also available at https://sites.google.com/view/pastoral-planning/home.
This article was originally published in the blog of the Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific (JCAP)