De-mystifying discernment, part I

Let’s Make a Deal.

I know Christians who are cultivating ingrown eyeballs trying to know themselves so well … so that they can make the decision that is exactly what God wants for them every time. I think it is much healthier to think about God and your neighbor more and yourself less, to forget yourself—follow your instincts without demanding to know everything about them. As long as you love God and act within his law, I think he wants you to play around a bit. God is the universal storyteller. He wants many different stories. And he wants you to thank him for the unique story that comes from your free will and your choices too. Because your free will and his eternal plan are not two competing things, but two sides of one thing. We cannot fully understand this great mystery in this life, because we see only the underside of the tapestry. But in heaven, I think, one of the things we will praise and thank God the most for is how wildly and wonderfully and dangerously he put the driving wheel of our life into our hands—like a parent teaching a young child to drive. — Peter Kreeft

I thought I might share a few scattered thoughts on discernment, after hearing an interview with Fr. Michael Driscoll about the topic in which he shared his very sober approach to discerning God’s will. I love sobriety (1 Pet. 5:8). It will be a 3-parter, because, in the words of Run-D.M.C.: “You talk too much, you never shut up…”

A few years ago a priest, whose doctoral work in Rome was focused on spiritual theology, gave a retreat I went on. He was dynamo. During that retreat he made some comments that made my heart sing. This is how I summarized it later that day in my journal, spoken in his words. [N.B.: the ellipses indicate I had more material in my journal that I am skipping].

… Discernment of God’s will in Catholic pop culture has become far too mystifying during the last 40 or so years. It seems partly under the influence of Pentecostalism that began in the late 1960’s … Aquinas taught us that the vast majority of solid Christian discernment is simply a matter of good judgment and prudence. It’s not principally about divining mystical signs or seeking out locutions or visions or strangely warm feelings. For Aquinas, if you’re striving to live a good life, pray consistently, receive the Sacraments, remain in a state of grace and seek good counsel from wise persons, your own good judgment is a safe path. Weighing the pros and cons of a decision, considering what best respects the limits and possibilities in your present obligations, or what respects your gifts and weaknesses is the safest way to go. While God now and again might bypass these ordinary means of discernment, and knock us off our horse like St. Paul, we shouldn’t expect that or base our lives on such a presumption. And even if God does bypass them, He still wants you to subject the “extraordinary” means to the “ordinary” means of discernment. If you claim, “God told me to…” you should be ready to submit it to the critical ears and eyes of those wiser than you. The Mystical Doctor (St John of the Cross) insists that God never does the extraordinary to circumvent the ordinary, but that He always wishes them to work together. Mystics that use their supernatural claims to bypass the natural are gnostics not Christians. St. John of the Cross said it this way: “God is so content that the rule and direction of man be through other men and that a person be governed by natural reason, that he definitely does not want us to bestow entire credence upon his supernatural communications, nor be confirmed in their strength and security until they pass through this human channel of the mouth of man.”

The Great Teresa [of Avila] tells us: “In such cases, and in other difficulties with which the devil might ensnare us, so that we have no idea where to turn, the safest thing will be for the Sister to try to speak with some learned person. How often people stray through not taking advice, especially when there is a risk of doing someone harm!” … Often times I have found that those who claim to base their discernment on “the extraordinary” — on charismatic claims over reason — use it as a clever disguise to serve their own ego needs, or buffer themselves from criticism, or prop up their refusal to make a  commitment and stick it out. Millennials tend to be all about always “leaving their options open.” For that kind of mindset, there’s nothing better than a God who agrees with their fear of commitments or flight from the tedium of hard work. These want a God who always leaves their options open, so when they get restless or bored they can move on to do what they want, when they want, in a way that agrees with their own immature needs for personal fulfillment. Too many times “let me pray on that” can mean: “I don’t want anyone to pressure me or give me critical feedback on my decision making process because God and I have got this one.” Yes, the Spirit blows where He wills, but the great Doctors of the Church tell us that He mostly blows us into our discomfort zones, makes us sink down roots where the “hard” virtues can grow. The Spirit may be a Dove, but He’s not flighty … Of course Ignatius’ Rules for Discernment are right to say you have to keep tabs on the oscillating of consolation and desolation in your soul to discern the right direction. But it’s still true that the bottom line is to follow your heart when it’s guided by your faith-formed head.

… It’s also very important to emphasize that much of the unfolding of God’s providence leaves ample room for our free will to contribute to the unfolding of God’s “plan for us.” God’s providence is a shared governance. Discernment isn’t like the game show, Let’s Make a Deal, where God says to us: My will is either behind door number one, two or three. You’d better guess right or you fail! People who think like that often walk in circles for years and don’t go anywhere because they’re waiting for the right door to open for them, terrified of choosing the wrong one …


3 comments on “De-mystifying discernment, part I

  1. Mary Tauzin says:

    This is very illuminating information. Is the interview with Fr. Discoll available on line? I would like to hear it. God bless! I love your blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s