Pray tell

Prayer is the foundation of true discernment.
Fr John Dardis SJ explained why, at a recent workshop in Sydney.


By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia

The dead giveaway is the microphone. Well, not the microphone itself but the inordinate length of the electrical cord attached to the microphone. It is several metres long and for good reason, as we discover. After all, this is a workshop about discernment and from the opening minutes it’s clear that Fr John Dardis SJ intends everyone to be a part of the process. The room is packed and in this open discussion, the microphone is handed to anyone who wants to voice an opinion.

Now you see what I mean about the length of the cord. Someone at the back of the room wants to express themselves, they get the mic, personally handed to them by John. Someone on the extreme left, ditto. There’s plenty of cord to spare. Someone’s obviously done a lot of discernment before talking about, you guessed it, discernment.

To give him his official title, John is General Counsellor for Discernment and Apostolic Planning and Director of Communications in the General Curia of the Society of Jesus in Rome (try saying that without drawing breath halfway through) and he is a former Irish Provincial.

As always, he brings humour, insights, reflections, personal stories, rich perspectives, but more than anything else, he brings an invitation (in the form of the totally portable mic) to anyone who wants to join the discussion. This simple yet thoughtful approach brings fresh layers of richness to the day’s narrative.

The lights in the room are turned off before he shows us the first video clip, strikingly filmed in the partial ruins of the 150-year-old Basilica del Salvador in Santiago, Chile. One of the prime examples of Chilean neo-Gothic architecture, the cathedral was severely damaged by two earthquakes. The first was in 1985, eight years after it had received the status of a National Monument, and the second struck in 2010. The clip below depicts the Ven Espiritu Divino performed by the Canto Católico Coral and when it ends and the lights are turned back on, John asks if anyone has any thoughts.

A hand goes up immediately. The person says, with a smile, “I am the grandson of a classical singer. While I can honestly say I inherited none of his vocal skills, I can certainly appreciate vocal quality in others. There were a few things that struck me here. One, the amazing cinematography. Two, the voices which sound as though an entire choir is performing, although there are only nine vocalists. In addition, they are performing a capella, without any instrumental accompaniment. Three, that it’s possible for beauty, inspiration and passion to flourish in ruined surroundings, where one would least expect to encounter rebirth of this kind.”

John nods. He tells us another story of inspiration in the most testing of surroundings. In Sarajevo in the mid-1990s, the city was under siege by Serbian forces, whose snipers fired repeatedly on civilians. One of the nuns there, who knew John and the other Jesuits well, was out one day when she heard a whistle and modestly thought, “I’m a bit old to be whistled at by men, and because I’m wearing a habit they should know immediately that I’m clearly a nun.” Later, one of the other nuns pointed out a hole in her veil and it suddenly dawned on her that the whistle she had heard was actually the sound of a sniper’s bullet narrowly missing her head.

“So the next time she saw us,” says John with a big grin, “she said, ‘You Jesuits don’t wear cassocks. You walk around in trousers and shirts. On the other hand, here I am in my habit, which saved my life!”

Discernment comes in many forms, as he explains. “In 1977, when I was a novice, there was a senior Jesuit called Kevin who had a very interesting routine. He was in his seventies at the time and every week a Mercedes would drive up, stop, the chauffeur would get out and hold the door open for Kevin, and then drive off. After dinner, the Mercedes would return, the chauffeur would get out, hold the door open and Kevin would get out. Clearly, his footsteps were now, shall we say, a little less steady than they had been earlier in the evening.

“Then one day, the Mercedes arrived and there was a slight addition to the routine. The chauffeur went around to the boot of the car, opened it and took out this big, heavy carton. Inside was a colour television set, a gift for us. At the time we just had a basic black-and-white set, so this really was a step up. But the question was: was it all right to accept the gift? We talked about it as a group, reminded ourselves about the vow of poverty and eventually decided we could not possibly accept it.

Fr John Dardis SJ workshop

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Photos by David McMahon.

“So the Mercedes returned. The chauffeur collected the carton, put it into the boot of the car, drove off and that was it. We felt pretty good about our decision. But, I mean, a colour television set – who wouldn’t want one of those! And d’you know what happened six months later? We decided to buy one. It was an interesting process and one that didn’t entirely convince us of the value of discerning together.”

Authenticity is a vital part of collective or individual discernment, he reminds us. He mentions a place called Longford and two of the Irishmen in the audience begin laughing. John explains that the Irish town of Longford is “basically in the middle of nowhere” and my own Google search shows that the area has a strong agricultural heritage that is well served by waterway and lakes.

“This was back in 1975 when we novices had to pray together with a group of lay people. So I got creative. I made up a prayer, but of course all the other novices knew what I was doing, so they – very earnestly – made up their own prayers as well. Yes, all very clever, we thought. But then it was the turn of a lay person called Josie, and all she said was, ‘Jesus, I need a cigarette’. But that was pure authenticity. Straight from the heart.”

He reminds us that the actual process of discernment is something akin to pushing a shopping trolley with wonky wheels. “You want to go to the fruit and vegetable aisle, but it veers off and takes you in the direction of beer and cigarettes! We all have different blindnesses, but the very essence of discernment is being in touch with God’s dream. That is the true foundation of the process. Genuine discernment cannot occur without prayer.”

Watch a presentation by Fr John Dardis SJ on everyday discernment below:

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