Long Live Sensus Fidelium: Workshop Facilitation and Spiritual Intelligence

In my Early Christian History class, we talked about how creeds came into existence.  The professor ~ the brilliant, funny, and knowledgeable Reverend Mary Luti ~ spoke about the development of Christian creeds not as handed down from above.

Well, not only handed down from above – but also organically vetted by the people, over time, and then eventually codified.  The process is called sensus fidelium:

Sensus fidei (sense of the faith), also called sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) when exercised by the body of the faithful as a whole, is “the supernatural appreciation of faith on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals”.[1]  (thank you, Wikipedia)

This sounds rather democratic, perhaps even populist, though the process was not so much by voting, but by whether prayers/creeds stood the test of time because they were used, or whether they faded away from lack of use or interest.  It is what we moderns might call “voting with our feet” within rather longitudinal parameters.

I have told some people in my social work world that I am in seminary, and though some reactions are positive, many are coolly polite – either they are confused or non-approving.  I think people aren’t quite sure what to say — it’s like they have truly taken to heart that one is not supposed to talk about religion in “mixed company.”  Since it’s not obviously relevant to my social work career (of course, we could debate the truth of that statement for hours), I usually keep the information to myself (though it is on my LinkedIn profile, so it’s not a secret either).

The workshop I facilitated today for the first time joined my two professional identities.  This is the first time I publicly stepped forward in my social work world proudly proclaiming my intentions to become a minister.  This was the first time I explicitly asked others to consider their spiritual identities as sources of strength, not only for the families they serve, but also in building a healthy resiliency for staying on the job.  In the hours before it took place, I was a nervous wreck.

The core of the workshop, “Many Paths: Spiritual Intelligence and Home Visiting,” was a list of qualities of spiritual intelligence as developed by the Unitarian Universalist minister, Reverend Dr. Kendyl Gibbons.  We also utilized a self-assessment of spiritual intelligence developed by David B. King, called SISRI-24.  We explored through didactic instruction, as well as small group activities that involved movement and interpersonal interactions. The workshop, though a bit cramped for space, was grooving.

After a successful writing exercise, I intended to proceed to the next planned exercise which involved deep listening in dyads about reflections on one of the qualities of spiritual intelligence that resonated for each person in their professional realm.  As always, I offered that they could pass on this exercise.  In my experience as a facilitator, it is rare, when people are given the opportunity to pass, that they actually do.  In this case, one brave person spoke up and said she would pass.  I thanked her and made a joke of how this meant we were now even numbers, which worked better.

Then, perhaps through the grace of a god I don’t believe in or because I have learned something in the decades of honing my facilitation skills — I thought to check in and ask if there were any others who wished to pass.

Several others raised their hands.

I don’t think I was able to hide my surprise, but it was not an unpleasant surprise.  I thanked them for taking seriously the offer of passing.  And then more hands raised – a fifth, perhaps even a quarter of the people in the room.

I beheld them all – those opting out and those still ostensibly in.  This was sensus fidelium in action.  No creeds involved.  They were being asked to share something too tender.  I held out an aspirational next step for them, but they didn’t feel the staircase underneath them and wouldn’t lift their foot.  What next?

I stood before them and I stood with them.  There was a longer silence than usual as I was considering.  I opened my mouth and spoke the truth they had already enacted: I thanked them for their clear communication and said we would not go forward with that particular exercise.  A twitter of relief filled the room.  Then we continued with the rest of the workshop.

As I later told a friend* about this turn of events, she reflected upon what transpired and proclaimed in bold simple language that it was, “embodied, grounded, authentic.”

In describing sensus fidelium, the Second Vatican Council uses extravagant language:

“aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (Magisterium),… receives… the faith, once for all delivered to the saints… the People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life.” (thank you, again, Wikipedia)

I think I prefer “embodied, grounded, authentic” over that florid formulation, but either way: long live sensus fidelium!

*Thank you, Dre.

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