A Model for Socio-Spiritual Discernment
This process emerges from Ashe Van Steenwyk’s years as an activist, minister, and spiritual director—and further informed by engaged research on the relationship between contemplative spirituality and social action, both at St. Catherine University and United Theological Seminary.1
“Socio-Spiritual Discernment” is a way for participants unearth the toxic myths and ideas that have taken root in their own consciousness, as well as confront the way those same myths and ideas find expression in oppressive societal structures.
More importantly, this process is about more than confrontation; is about finding healing and liberation for ourselves as we find ourselves more able to “show up” for the ongoing work of social transformation.
There are four primary movements: attending, naming, unveiling, and integrating.
This movement from inner to outer is continuous. Recursive. Our inner work continually reflects outward. And the outer work continually shapes our own consciousness.
1. Ashe is currently writing her dissertation wherein she is developing the framework for this model further. In her dissertation, she brings together insights from St. Ignatius, Hannah Arendt, Judith Butler, Walter Wink, Emilie Townes, Leonardo Boff, Simone Weil and others to offer a unique approach to understanding social oppression through a spiritual lens (and spirituality through a political lens).
THE INNER CYCLE
- Rest. Trust that the Spirit is at work in you, opening new possibilities where none would otherwise exist.1
- Give compassionate attention to your inner dissonance, to your struggles, and to the ways you feel out of step with the world around you. Ask “what longing lies underneath?”
- Name a harmful belief or assumption you’ve noticed within you.
- Articulate the social myth(s) that normalize or naturalize that harmful belief. Ask “what truth(s) does this myth obscure?”
- Focus on a way that belief is concretely expressed in your life.
- Plan an action that directly unveils or confronts that expressed belief.
- Engage in action, preferably with the support of others.
- Consider the implications of your action. Ask “might this create space to embody something new?”
THE SOCIAL CYCLE
- Rest. Trust that the Spirit is at work in the world, opening new possibilities where none would otherwise exist.¹
- Give compassionate attention to those suffering or struggling.
- Name an injustice or social problem² you’ve noticed. Ask questions like: “Who ‘benefits’ from this?” and “Who is most harmed by this?” and “How did it become a problem?” etc.
- What stories (myths) or habits (hardened processes/policies/etc.) have served to conceal, obscure, minimize, or normalize the problem? What else is concealed, obscured, etc. by these stories or habits?
- Focus on a core or concrete expression of the problem. What is the crux of the problem? How is that most clearly expressed?
- Plan an action or strategy that addresses the problem without neglecting those most harmed and gives an honest accounting of the stories and habits that caused the problem.
- Engage in collective action or implement your strategy.
- Explore the implications and consequences of your action. Ask questions like: “How did this process go?” and “Might this create space to embody something new?”
1. When this becomes an ongoing process, it is essential that step one shifts. It must become: “Rest. Trust that the Spirit continues to work in you/the world. Celebrate the ways you’ve witnessed this in the past and witness this now.” It is important to note that, as a personal and group spiritual practice, the Infinity Process isn’t enough. It is informed by the via negativa. As such, it can lead to larger ongoing practices, strategies, campaigns, etc.
2. The whole of society needn’t be in view. Any social system, institution, organization, or group can be discerningly engaged with this process.
Engaging Socio-Spiritual Discernment
We are able to adapt this process for various groups and use aspects of this process in workshops, courses, retreats, and materials.
However, the most immersive way to engage in this process is to invite us to guide your group through three separate phases. Here’s an example of how that could look:
Phase One, Inner: We offer a weekend retreat to your church or organization. In the retreat, participants will learn about the ways we are shaped by oppressive social systems, how they are “normalized” or “naturalized” by myths, and how they constrain our own deep humanity. The retreat will bring together contemplative practice, social analysis, and group exercises. By articulating and confronting these myths, we begin to experience inner healing.
Phase Two, Outer: We will schedule a series of eight meetings, either in person or via Zoom or Skype to work through the social cycle. In this process, the contemplative gaze is turned outward. Typically, the emphasis here is on a broader social context or society in general. However, a church or organization might focus their gaze on themselves as a collective social system or the larger institution of which they are a part (their parent organization, denomination, etc.) As we recognize that the same myths that ensnare our own imaginations are also active through unjust social structures, we can begin to confront those structures as part of our own work of liberation. This is, fundamentally, a prophetic task.
Part Three, Ongoing: We will equip participants with resources for ongoing, recursive, work—both as individuals, and as a group. The Infinity Process is, at it’s core, a tool for discernment that opens up increasing opportunities for personal, interpersonal, and social action. The nature of that discernment and the direction of that action varies, and so we will discern with you the resources most suitable to help you as you continue.
If you’d like to invite us to present this process to your group, contact us.