In the final blog from our organisational values series, ANDY HAMILTON SJ brings discernment down to earth.


Discerning has an up-market ring to it. We imagine a discerning person as one who has the money to buy and drink expensive wine, or one who goes to only the best reviewed movies. But as a way of life discerning is steak and spuds. It means keeping your eye on the ball when you are playing. To do that, of course, you need to be aware where the other players are and what to do when it arrives.

To understand discernment, it helps to imagine yourself responsible for a horde of children playing all over a football ground as you look down on them from the stand. There is movement everywhere, shouting, laughter and angry words coming from all directions, children sitting, running, jumping, singing and joshing. As you look at this heaving and changing mass, you must notice what matters: in this case the situations that may require your intervention. This involves sifting what you see and hear: to distinguish the happy noise from the cries of anger or of distress, to pick out the child who is alone and those edging to the side of the field, to notice the incident that could develop into a fight.

That kind of noticing requires experience and close attention, knowledge of how children ordinarily behave, and a sense of what is important. It also requires fixing our attention on the children who matter – not letting our eyes wander at the AFL players walking around the oval. In it we draw on a tradition of caring for children embodied in stories, role models and proverbs.

At Jesuit Social Services, discerning means attending to all the crowded events and encounters of our day, noticing the subtle changes in our culture and our relationships, and constantly asking what matters, who matters, why it matters and how we can best be of service.

It involves a discipline of the eye, of the heart, of the mind and of the hands. It is a way of seeing, empathising, reflecting and acting. In it we draw on a tradition in which each human being is precious in God’s sight and makes a claim on us.

In working with vulnerable people, including vulnerable young people in the justice system, we have to remind ourselves constantly that they are the people who matter most. We work in a constant hubbub of background noise – reports of young people acting very badly, proposals to build youth jails, flawed new government programs that are funded but also raise questions about their effects, media demanding instant action, people angry at the unfairness of it all, and all the daily demands made on us in our own lives. In this ordinary flow of life discernment means keeping our eyes on the young people and their welfare, asking how we can best respond to them and accompany them in the detail of constantly changing situations.

To be attentive and focused in this way requires that we are sure of what we value and that we can find words for it. In the case of Jesuit Social Services, words are given in our Ignatian tradition that speaks of a God who loves each human being deeply, and invites us to follow Jesus in his care for the most needy and rejected. We come from many cultural and religious backgrounds and will translate these words into our own language. At their heart lies love, and the attentiveness it engenders.