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Balcony View: A Discernment Practice

Posted on December 1, 2016, by Susan Classen CoL

The “balcony view” refers to a discernment practice that involves stepping back from the details to look at the broad view. Two personal memories highlight the importance of looking from different perspectives.

The word “balcony” brings to my mind one of many humorous mistakes I made in Spanish during the years I lived in Latin America. I was helping some visitors sign into a hotel room and intended to ask the clerk for a room with a balcón (balcony). I mistakenly switched the vowels, however, and asked for a room with a volcán (volcano) instead! A slight shift makes a big difference, whether it involves switching vowels or looking from a different vantage point!

I also remember participating in my high school marching band where I experienced the vastly different perspective between the bleachers and the field. It took hours of practice to precisely count the steps which formed rotating pinwheels or the letters of our school mascot spread across the football field. My perspective was defined only by the band members on each side of me and the lines across the field. From the stadium seats, however, the details of my measured steps combined with the steps of 80 other band members to form moving patterns and shapes. Looking down from above reveals patterns that can’t be seen from below and the experience from below provides details that can’t be distinguished from above.

Discernment involves learning to perceive God’s movement. Isaiah’s “Behold, I am doing a new thing. Can you not perceive it?” (43:19) challenges us today just as it did the early Hebrews. Perception requires synthesizing the details of our own personal experience with the patterns that can be seen only by looking at the whole. Because our personal experience is so naturally available to us, it tends to shape our perspective in narrow ways, just as my band experience was shaped by those on each side of me. That’s why discernment includes the conscious practice of looking from the balcony at what is happening in the whole. In his book, The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis named a simple but profound truth about perspective. “What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing.”

The balcony view as a discernment practice is usually included at the beginning of a meeting because it provides the context for whatever work will be discussed. To begin, the facilitator of the meeting may pose a question such as, “What have you noticed in the Community since the last time we met?” Observations from the balcony are about anything that participants have noticed or are sensing.

Sometimes observations might have to do with a specific event, such as the Assembly and/or its impact. Another time, people might share subjective awarenesses of particular emotions that seem dominant, for example, a collective sense of encouragement or the presence of grief. An observation could be something that one part of the Community is experiencing which others may or may not realize, say the flu making its rounds at the centers this fall. All observations should be brief and easily written on newsprint. This isn’t the time for analyzing or problem-solving, nor is it the time to dispute someone else’s observation.

The balcony view is a contemplative practice of taking a “long, loving look at what is real.” Looking at the whole through caring eyes shapes the work ahead. Members of the former Discernment Steering Committee shared some of what they learned through the regular practice of beginning every meeting by looking from the balcony:

• The context in which a committee works is very important. Just as a comment can be misinterpreted when taken out of context, so, too, the effectiveness of committee work can be diminished when planned out of context.

• A broad view from above allows us to notice openings, patterns, people on the outskirts, potential pit- falls and places of movement that we might otherwise miss when we are focused only on the details.

• Balconies are built at many different heights. One level might look at the whole of Loretto while another tier might consider Loretto within the context of religious life or politics.

• There are no right or wrong observations from the balcony. All views are valid and the variety of views broaden the perspective.

When meeting agendas are full, it can be tempting to skip the 10 minutes or so that it takes to generate a view from the balcony. Yet, we need to cultivate the dynamic relationship between the everyday business of life in community, the broader perspective of Loretto and the world in which the Spirit is moving.


Susan Classen CoL

Susan has been a Loretto Co-member since 1996. She is the director of Cedars of Peace, a retreat center on the grounds of the Loretto Motherhouse. A passion for transformation is the common thread that weaves its way through her varied interests which include gardening, woodworking, retreat leading and involvement in Loretto’s Farm and Land Management Committee. Previously, she lived and worked in Latin America.
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